Interviews TV

Technology, Science & Wildlife – How Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory Filmed It All

The BAFTA-award winning cinematographer has been filming Wildlife for quite some time and in the 5-episode Epic Adventures with Bertie series 2, the 29-year-old National Geographic Explorer represents the next generation of Natural History storytellers.

His youthful curiosity is matched by his magnetism and ceaseless drive to take viewers on a heartwarming journey into the most spectacular and secretive corners of the world. Armed with cutting-edge film technology, Birdie and his team, including executive producers, Vanessa Berlowitz and Anwar Mamon break the mold of traditional natural history programs by telling extraordinary real-life animal stories, sometimes breaking the fourth wall to engage the viewers for every beat of the action. Epic Adventures with Birdie Gregory will premiere on Disney+ on September 8th.

In celebration of this series, The Koalition spoke to Bertie Gregory about filming, his discoveries, climate change and more.

“A lot of it has been learning through trial and error, but I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of incredible mentors over the years, and one mentor is the legendary National Geographic magazine photographer, Steve Winter, and he’s responsible for the National Geographic’s Big Cat photo; he got the photo of the mountain lion in front of the Hollywood sign. That picture took him 15 months to get, and I worked for Steve for two years. I was his assistant and during that time working for him I learned it’s all about persistence. You just need to hang in there and I apply that to everything I film now.

“A great example of needing a lot of persistence was in the Antarctica episode of Epic Adventures when we went to try and film the fin whale gatherings. We had about a month aboard a 75-foot sailboat and during that time the weather was awful, we had about six days during when we could actually film because the rest of the time the weather was crazy. We had an iceberg grinding down the side of the hull. The wind was so strong our anchor was dragging. It was nuts, but I learned from Steve, it’s all about persistence. If you hang in there and you’re passionate and you read the clues about the environment, it will happen and right towards the end of the Expedition we managed to film the biggest gathering of fin whales ever. That was pretty mind-blowing.” 

Armed with leading-edge film technology, the explorer Bertie Gregory takes viewers along on his journeys to capture real-life animal stories in some of the harshest environments on our planet. “A big part of my work now on any project is with drones. Drones have recently become very valuable tools in filming wildlife because their battery life has increased long enough. You can fly them for enough time, and we can put powerful zoom lenses on them, so you don’t need to be close to the animals. Drones are a potentially disturbing tool, but I work with scientists and experts and spend a huge amount of time figuring out how to get these drones close enough to the animals to film them, but without disturbing them, that’s really important for me and they’re a game changer because we’d use them to get pretty landscape [and] aerials. Whereas now I use them to follow animal behavior.”

In November 2016, Bertie began the prestigious BBC Natural History Unit camera bursary with fellow cameraman Howard Bourne, where he spent 2 years shooting on 6 of the 7 episodes for the BBC’s new David Attenborough Series, Seven Worlds, One Planet. After winning a BAFTA for Cinematography on the South America episode of this series, he produced and hosted Season 2 and Season 3 of my Nat Geo online series, ‘Wild_Life: Resurrection Island’ and ‘Wild_Life: The Big Freeze’. The Big Freeze picked up two Webby Awards (coined as the biggest award in internet video) and Resurrection Island won the Best Presenter Award at the Jackson Hole Film Festival (coined as the green Oscars).

“The key difference between what I do now compared to the projects I used to be involved in is I used to make a lot of online series for National Geographic and those had much smaller budgets. They were on a much smaller scale and the strategy tended to be to go somewhere for a very long time with a very small team and film what happened; whereas now, what’s changed with this is we’ve got more resources to do more ambitious things. We can charter sailboats, strengthen sailboats to go to Antarctica with a slightly bigger team.”

Every year, up to 10 million fruit bats descend upon a small, remote forest in Zambia to take full advantage of a fruit boom—but they don’t go unnoticed by the local eagles. After capturing some tender moments between a crowned eagle mom and her chick, National Geographic Explorer Bertie Gregory sets off to film these powerful predators hunting bats.

“In the case of the eagle episode, we went to try and film crowned eagles, which are Africa’s most powerful eagle. They’re a beautiful eagle, very elusive. Seeing a crowned eagle hunting is not really a thing and that was our challenge because we like to be ambitious, and I ended up filming a crowned eagle hunting from the drone. I was getting a crowned eagle’s view of hunting and they were zooming after fruit bats which [ have a] three-foot wingspan. These eagles weaved through the forest to catch them, so that’s one piece of technology that has been a game changer.”

Described as Indiana Jones meets David Attenborough, Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory is a modern take on the wildlife documentary with it not just chronicling the stories of the animals that are being filmed but also tells the behind-the-scenes-stories of the filmmakers’ journey as Gregory and his team enter the as hostile environments to film. In the series, Gregory swims with hammerhead sharks off of Costa Rica, finds himself facing down leopard seals in freezing Arctic water, and crossing crocodile-infested water during a thunderstorm, among many other wildlife stories and challenges.

“I’ve been so lucky on this project. The wildlife encounters have been great [and] the people I’ve got to work with have been epic. We have a slightly bigger team and that involves specialists and one of the great things [I love] has been working with loads of scientists on this project. On almost every one of our shoots we worked with a scientist. We worked with eight different scientists across the series on location. We hosted them and then 16 different scientific institutes because I did my undergraduate in Zoology. I trained as a scientist [but] I wouldn’t claim to be a scientist. [I’m] now very much a filmmaker, but because of that, I have learned the importance of science and, as a result of this series, we’ve contributed to some brand-new discoveries.”

To learn more about Epic Adventures with Bertie check out our full interview in the video above.

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