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Industry Interview with John Downer of Discovery’s SERENGETI

Tanner Shinnick

PremiumBeat spoke with John Downer about his new nature documentary SERENGETI, following different species of animals throughout Africa.

PremiumBeat: What’s your background, and how did you find yourself in nature documentary filmmaking?

John Downer: I’ve been interested in animals all my life. And that made me study Zoology in University. After University, I went into the BBC. So that gave me the chance to see my dream, and also work in the naturalist unit of BBC. That’s where I started to cut my taste making films. But I always have thought there must be another way to make a naturalistic film, you know, rather than the conventional way. I felt that if we are making films about animals, we should be in that world. 

I think the viewer should see a flying bird and they should be an inch away from it. If you are looking at a lion, you should be in the grass. So, that’s what has driven me across my career. 

It’s been a long career now, it’s a matter of about thirty years. And I think of the one moment that everything came together because I had all the experience and the techniques that I needed.

And, so you know, it’s been a process.

Industry Interview with John Downer of Discovery's SERENGETI — SERENGETI

©2019 JDP/BBC/Discovery Channel // Photo Courtesy of Discovery

PB: I’m sure you had a lot of unique camera systems for SERENGETI. What did those look like? 

JD: Well, first on the camera system, I was to inherit a lot of stuff I used in my Spy series. That’s why we were using camera disguises to capture unique viewpoints. At the end of the day, you pick those cameras up, you don’t know what’s going to be on them, but there’s usually a treasure, and so those really helped. 

The biggest breakthrough is the stabilized camera system technology, which would enable us to go way beyond. We used that in various, various forms. From really sophisticated and expensive camera systems that could support a 1500mm lens and film, while on the move.

On the other side, you can have all this equipment … the animals got to be happy with and tolerate it. We spent nearly two years with the animals and we became invisible to them, effectively. They just didn’t care about our presence and were almost oblivious to us. That’s when you know you’re capturing the most incredible behavior by being inside their world. That was the dream of this production, and suddenly, it was all possible. Drone technology, as well, has helped immensely. The drone captured something incredible — that we’ve never seen before — involving a snake and one of our main characters. No one would have ever written that into a storyline, and that’s what’s so exciting for me. So, it all came together, just at the right point for this series.

PB: The storyline is beautiful, tragic, heroic, and emotional. What’s your process like for “casting” the animals for a series like this?

JD: It’s based on what we know and also we got a huge experience. We could sort of block out what is being expected to happen. The series is told by the seasons that impact the animals in different ways. So, we were so ready to change when we started to film. 

And, you know, the end of the storyline became very different from the one we started with. The incredible events we filmed, you could never script. In the beginning, if we had written them, we wouldn’t imagine they’d be possible. That’s what was so exciting for me about this project. The storyline itself changed and changed through what the animals did.

Industry Interview with John Downer of Discovery's SERENGETI — Watering Hole in SERENGETI

©2019 JDP/BBC/Discovery Channel // Photo Courtesy of Discovery

PB: How important is that adaptability for a documentary filmmaker?

JD: I think the big challenge is you got to understand your animal and the complexities of their lives and their decision making. If it is going to be a successful filming, you got to understand them and we have an incredible team.

We have a really experienced team who have spent a lot of their lives in Africa. Between them, there was over one hundred years of experience filming Africa. They understood them very well. The animals’ lives are complex and not predictable. Maybe they have been to the water several times and that’s where they are going to be tomorrow. They’re going to be heading for that water. It’s the kind of thing that only experience could give you and I was lucky,.

The other thing is you got to know that if the animals move into a certain area, this is going to bring them into conflict with someone else. And so, you’re looking out for that conflict because a lot of it is for anticipation — in terms of what’s going to happen. If you are just simply following the animals and expecting their behavior, you’re going to miss it because you got to see what’s coming before they do. And so, there’s a lot of that knowledge supplied to it … it’s always, always a surprise. 

Industry Interview with John Downer of Discovery's SERENGETI — Hyena in SERENGETI

©2019 JDP/BBC/Discovery Channel // Photo Courtesy of Discovery

PB: If you’re a new filmmaker just getting into the field or starting your career, and you want to get into nature documentaries, what advice would you have for them? 

JD: Know your subject. That means spending a lot of time with them. We’re storytellers. We are telling a story of nature and you’ve got to know that subject and know what story it’s telling you. 

We’re trying to make sure that people understand the connection we have with other animals. We live in cities, we live a distance from nature. Once those same animals, this was their world. And so, what we try to do is to make people passionate about it, so that we can reconnect them with nature. You reconnect with nature by understanding and that will make us care. If we care, we will protect.

Check out this exclusive clip of the next episode of SERENGETI from our friends at Discovery!

Cover image via SERENGETI.

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