Behind the lens: A career capturing wildlife

If you were one of the millions of viewers of Planet Earth 2, you may have wondered what it was like to be behind the camera. Award-winning wildlife cinematographer and photographer Martyn Colbeck can explain…

Imagine following a single family of elephants for 20 years, creating a bond so special that when the mother gave birth, the baby thinks you are part of its family.

For Martyn Colbeck (BSc Biological Science, 1979) a career highlight was capturing this moment, something never filmed before, as the majority of elephant births happen at night.

'It was an extraordinary moment to share with a family of elephants at night in the wild and for Echo, the matriarch of the family, to let us be there,' he says.

'We weren’t filming continuously for the whole time and when we went back out to see them, they would recognise the sound of the vehicle and our voices.' 

Echo’s story is just one of the amazing encounters Martyn has experienced in his 30-year career. But his lifetime of adventure started while he was studying Biological Sciences at Birmingham.

In his final year Martyn saw an advert about a photography course at the University of California in Yosemite National Park. Not knowing exactly what he wanted to do, but with an interest in photography, he saved up the money to attend and spent three months creating a portfolio of landscape photographs. On returning to the UK, he had an epiphany about his future career while watching a wildlife film about ospreys.

'I sat there watching this film and I thought, I love wildlife, I have a degree in Biological Sciences and I like photography, maybe I could do that?' he remembers.

His portfolio of landscape stills impressed a production company in London who took him on as a runner, kickstarting his career.

Since then, Martyn’s career has taken him all over the world filming different species for both film and television. His Emmy award winning work on the original Planet Earth involved everything from filming wild dogs in Botswana to desert lions in Namibia. He was also involved in the more recent Planet Earth 2 and credits new technology, which allowed for filming from a great distance using a telephoto lens, for the series’ phenomenal success.

Exploring all parts of the world and working with all sorts of animals doesn’t come without its risks. Martyn has had some near misses, surviving a close encounter with an orangutan and forest elephants.

However, not all filming is quite so adventurous and he has waited for days to get a shot. When he was working on the BBC series The Life of Mammals he went to the rainforests of Indonesia to film a highly endangered pig, the babirusa.

Despite his best efforts to conceal himself, he waited for weeks seeing nothing. To fill the time he started to write a story about the pig, just for fun, and added published author to his list of accomplishments. After showing it to the researcher on the project, it was illustrated by an Indonesian artist, published in three languages and sold for a conservation project for the babirusa.

One of Martyn’s favourite parts of the job is working with social animals, exploring their dynamics and being able to anticipate what will happen.

'There have been several times in my career that I’ve been very grateful for having a degree in Biological Sciences. It really helps to be able to talk the same language as the qualified scientists who study animal behaviour and are crucial to any wildlife film’s success.'

To anyone looking to follow a similar path, Martyn’s advice is to be realistic about what is involved.

'I can be overseas eight months a year, so it can be hard to balance a personal life, but it is an incredible career to have,' he says. 'My top tips for succeeding in the industry are to understand animals and natural history, to love the outdoors and to build a portfolio to show film makers.'

Martyn’s future plans include working on feature films, including a forthcoming project for Disney, and he hopes to one day capture another moment as incredible as the elephant birth.

'When a completely free ranging animal comes and greets you and puts their trust in you, that is remarkable and I feel very lucky to have been a part of that,' he says

Competition time!

What is the name of the matriarch in the family of elephants Martyn followed for 20 years?

Enter here for your chance to win Planet Earth and Planet Earth 2 on Blu-ray.

Competition closes: 31 May 2017

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