Animals With Cameras: which would make the best cameraman?
New show on BBC One gives you an incredible animal’s-eye view of the world – we speak to presenter Gordon Buchanan about the technology and why cheetahs make great cameramen.
Deep underground, at the bottom of the ocean, high up in the jungle… animals spend a lot of time in places that are difficult for us to visit. But what if the animals could take us there themselves? What if we gave them cameras to film from their own perspective?
That’s the premise of new three-part series Animals With Cameras, which uses the latest camera technology to take us deep into the world of animals, capturing previously unseen behaviour. In it they observe chimpanzees washing their hands and building treetop nests in Cameroon, ride with cheetahs as they hunt for prey in the tangled woodlands of Namibia, and find out who looks after baby meerkats in their underground burrows when their mum is out foraging.
Throughout the series, presenter and wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan worked closely with the scientists for whom this unique footage will answer vital questions about the animals’ lives. We spoke to him about how the series was made.
Animals with Cameras: Trailer - BBC One (YouTube/BBC)
What benefits do you get from filming from the animals’ perspective?
We have all this information about animals’ lives, but the one thing we’re usually missing is actually seeing what the animal sees. Chimpanzees spend a lot of their lives hidden in thick foliage up tall trees, brown bears in the mountains of Turkey are so secretive that the majority of people in that part of the world haven’t even seen one, and meerkats spend half of their time underground. With the latest technology, we can now follow these animals into their worlds, and that’s mindblowing.
The cameras aren’t a gimmick – we worked closely with biologists and zoologists to try to answer the questions they have about the animals they’re studying. With the fur seals in Australia, the scientists knew how long the seals were spending at the bottom of the ocean and how frequently they dived, but with the cameras we could reveal exactly how – and what – they were hunting. We want to find out as much as possible about these animals so that we can preserve them for the future.
Filming from the animal’s point of view is a great idea – why hasn’t it been done much before?
Up until now, the technology just wasn’t up to it – the cameras were too big and heavy, the picture quality was too poor, and the batteries didn’t last for long enough. Now we can make tiny, high-quality cameras, and batteries are much lighter thanks to lithium polymer technology.
All of the cameras we used in this series were either built from scratch or greatly adapted from existing action cameras such as the GoPro. Battery life was still the main limiting factor, so we programmed the cameras to come on at key times when we knew the animals would be active – at night, for instance, or when they dived down to the depths. The cameras needed to be rugged, especially if we wanted to work with chimpanzees or brown bears, and the harnesses were designed so that the animals could easily pull them off if they wanted to – we didn’t want them to interfere with the animals’ behaviour.
What was the most surprising story that you uncovered?
Every year, hundreds and hundreds of devil rays congregate at a huge underwater mountain – or ‘seamount’ – in the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean. With our cameras, we saw that the female fish are heavily pregnant – we could actually see the unborn pups kicking in their stomachs. We think that they go to the seamount to give birth, as there’s an abundance of food there, and then mate with the males nearby soon after. It saves males and females having to locate one another in the expanse of the ocean.
Which animal made the best ‘cameraman’?
The cheetahs were breathtaking. Most creatures move around so much that it’s a big struggle to get a stable image, but although cheetahs are the fastest living land mammal, their heads stay perfectly steady so that they can focus on their prey. The footage we got from the cheetahs’ head-mounted cameras was spectacularly smooth – you wouldn’t be able to do any better with CGI. I worry that these animals are slowly putting me out of a job!
James is staff writer at BBC Science Focus magazine. He especially enjoys writing about wellbeing and psychology.