Cork wildlife film-maker Anne Sommerfield had a large part in the BBC’s latest natural history series, writes
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see the world through the eyes of an animal, swinging through the trees or nestling in burrow?
A new BBC One wildlife series offers exactly that opportunity by using advanced camera technology to let the animals become their own documentarians. From Argentinian penguins 300km out at sea to meerkats in the Kalahari, the camera-carriers of the animal kingdom share the secrets of their lives in Animals With Cameras.
But there have been a few humans involved along the way. And one of them is Cork-born producer, writer and director Anne Sommerfield.
“It sounds simple putting a camera on a meerkat, but it’s not,” Sommerfield says. “We used 66 cameras to shoot this series, and we lost 34 in the process.”
The series is presented by Scottish filmmaker Gordon Buchanan, and another human who played a very important role in the series is BAFTA-nominated cameraman Chris Watts, who designed ingenious high-tech cameras for the animals to wear.
Sommerfield is still in awe of the advanced gadgetry Watts designed: “They weigh less than a fifth of the weight of an iPhone, and shoot infrared too. What Chris achieved was absolutely astounding.”
The cameras also had to be very durable, especially in the case of Kimbang, the 4-year-old orphaned chimpanzee who gave rise to the idea behind the series. A scientist, working with Kimbang to help her to reintegrate into the wild, approached the BBC to find a technological solution to tracking her progress when she was out of reach swinging through the tree-tops.
But Kimbang’s curiosity and huge strength were a challenge. “The first time we gave her a camera, she just pounded it to pieces on the ground. It was just fun for her.”
A new “bomb-proof” design yielded amazing footage: “It was the first time she’d ever seen something reflective, so what we ended up with was hysterical: loads of footage of her looking into the camera. We got a tonne of selfies and it’s just so funny because she’s totally obsessed with herself.”
Of course, the results were often far from perfect, with countless hours of “shaky footage of green branches, which to be honest makes you feel a bit seasick to watch” for every gem-like moment that made it through the edit and into the series.
Kimbang’s camera was designed to be removable, in essence meaning that she consented to carry it. Ensuring no impact on the animals was of vital importance in every shoot, Sommerfield says: “No animals were harmed in the making of this film, quite literally.”
The meerkat sequences were a case in point; Sommerfield launches into a detailed description of the lengths the team went to, to ensure that the desert-dwelling mammals were not put under stress for their starring role in episode one of Animals With Cameras.
The wild meerkat colony where the team filmed, in the Kalahari, has long become accustomed to wearing radio collars for scientific purposes.
“We have long-term studies that tell us that the collars don’t affect them, that they’re not bothered and their behaviour doesn’t change,” Sommerfield says.
Added to that, cameras were kept under 5% of the animals’ bodyweight, individuals who were particularly
inclined to accept the cameras were selected, and there was careful preliminary research with a female meerkat in a petting zoo in the UK, who was completely at ease with handling.
The results, Sommerfield says, are great entertainment and of real scientific value. Footage captured by “babysitter” meerkats, who care for young in underground burrows, allows scientists to finally understand what they get up to underground. The cameras reveal a world-first, showing wild meerkat newborns and revealing how mobile and vocal they are at just a day old.
“Before we would have done things like held go-pros and stretched our arm down the burrow, or used poles,” Sommerfield says. “The best-kept secret is the earliest stages of meerkat life, the first three weeks, where they are at their most precious and their most vulnerable and they’re completely hidden from the human eye. It’s a huge privilege to capture that.”
Sommerfield’s film-making career began with meerkats; the UCC zoology graduate, who grew up on the Model Farm Road in Cork, was studying the little animals in the Kalahari as part of a team from Cambridge university when they hosted a film crew from Meerkat Manor.
Sommerfield’s unofficial role as on-set animal behaviour consultant rapidly evolved; she picked up film-making skills on the job.
Their view. Their world.— BBC One (@BBCOne) January 24, 2018
Wildlife film-maker @gordonjbuchanan explores the secret lives of animals through their eyes. #AnimalswithCameras. Starts 1st February, 8pm. @BBCOne. pic.twitter.com/0iKts4Jmxk
Now a freelance director, producer and editor, she’s rapidly scaling the heights of a career in wildlife filmmaking, having even directed her life-long hero, David Attenborough, in two episodes of BBC’s 2016 series, The Great Barrier Reef, a “pinch-yourself” experience, she says.
Next, her ambitious gaze turns to humans for another BBC series, Rituals, an exploration of human rituals around the world, which will be distributed globally. And the work keeps rolling in.
“I’m getting amazing job offers all the time now,” the 38-year-old says. “I keep waiting for the bubble to burst, but it hasn’t…yet.”
Widening her scope beyond purely wildlife documentary is something she’s keen to do more of.
“But the moment a meerkat gets a mention I still get a call, which is hilarious,” she says. Sommerfield has writing and producing credits on all three episodes of Animals With Cameras, but she directed the meerkat episode herself. She’s proud of the results.
“It’s not Planet Earth, where you have incredible cameras and years of filming. But it’s got so much scientific value and incredible individual characters. The animals that wear the cameras are sharing their experience with us, and it feels like an incredible privilege to get to see that. It was a long slog, and I’m really proud that we pulled it off.”
Sommerfield’s job takes her to every exotic and far-flung corner of the earth, but all her early inspiration and love of wildlife came from Ireland.
“My parents have all these photos of me as a kid in Fota Wildlife Park,” she says. “I was always outdoors. We used to go to Killarney on Christmas day, and I remember being eight and a herd of deer coming past us; there were about 30 of them. It had a huge impact and really stayed with me.”
“I’d love to bring the skills back and do something for Irish television,” she says.
“There are some great Irish film-makers to work with too.”
She mentions BBC’s Wild Ireland: The Edge Of The World, by Colin Stafford Johnson, which beat Blue Planet II to a Grierson documentary award last year.
“Ireland has extraordinary, world-class landscapes and we need to look after them,” she says.
As with so many wildlife film-makers, including her hero Attenborough, Sommerfield feels a strong conservational urge towards the rapidly disappearing habitats she loves and works in, starting with Ireland.
“I’d love to bring the skills back, but I also want to affect some sort of change,” she says. “In terms of
ecology, I think Ireland has a long way to go, and I think there needs to be a wake-up call.”