Interview with Mike Gunton

Mike Gunton is a key producer within the BBC Natural History Unit, which is the world’s largest production unit. It is best known for its highly regarded nature documentaries, often presented by Sir David Attenborough. Here he talks to Sally Thomson about his early fascination for frogs, his delight in seeing young people taking an interest in the environment and the echoes of the natural world in our own day-to-day lives.

 Whilst you may not recognise his face, you will certainly know Mike Gunton’s extraordinary work. Mike has worked on all of the BBC Earth shows and in particular the Planet Earth II TV series and has had a long association with Sir David Attenborough. Mike will be appearing on the Planet Earth II tour along with Liz Bonnin, who is the host, and will offer some amazing insights into the footage the arenas will be watching. He is also involved in the Seven Worlds One Planet show on BBC1, which was launched October 27th. 

Mike Gunton

Where did your career start? When you left university at Cambridge, what was the next step?

I did a doctorate in Zoology at Cambridge. I was quite interested in film making. There were grants that could be applied for, so while I was there I started making films. I actually made a film which I sold which was about Cambridge life.

So while I was there people got to know that I was interested in film making. It’s one of those weird things, I ended up playing cricket with a Don, who said to me “What are you going to do when you leave college?”. I said “Well I’m very interested in film making and I would love to work at the BBC.” He said “Ah I know somebody at the BBC”. And it actually turned out it was somebody at the OU who was actually an academic.

So I went over to see him, and they were starting a biology course, and the BBC side of it were looking for a researcher. So it was all very fortunate timing. They offered me the job of researcher, so I did that for about 6 months, then I went back to write up my PHD, then went back and worked for them for about 3 years, during which the OU at that time were really starting to look at crossing over with several other national television departments, so I actually ended up working on projects the Natural History and the Science department.

So I got to know people and the opportunity came up work with what we were being told was David Attenborough’s last series, The Trials of Life. I grabbed it with both hands and never looked back.

If we look back to when you were 13, your fascination with frogs subsequently lead you to taking photographs of them. That was your understanding then that we did not see things as well through our own eyes, but when you had a camera you were able to see and understand a little bit more about the creatures that you were taking photographs of. Was that the sort of catalyst in your life that sent you down that path?

I would love to say that it was a ‘ta da!’ moment, but no. Most people who are interested in animals were interested in lions and elephants and tigers and things like that. Of course I liked them too, but they didn’t really excite me. What excited me was the slightly weirder creatures, because you would have to take a slightly different perspective.

With a lion you can stand back with a pair of binoculars and see one. But with these little tiny creatures you do have to think about how can I really get to see this. There was something about the combination of a bit of science, a bit of imagery, psychology but also the sense of mysteries that you can reveal by using something to draw back the curtain.

And that really started I think when I came here, to The Natural History Unit. A lot of developments in wildlife film making happen in concert with technological changes. Life on Earth (1979) and Living Planet (1984) had been by David Attenborough and they had been real mould breaking shows, and effectively defined every show that you now see.

Mike Gunton

At that time we were all of a similar age, around our mid-twenties and all getting into the business of natural history film making, and there was a lot of innovative thinking; ‘How can we get cameras and lenses into positions to reveal different things about natural history?’. I had a couple of friends here who were really interested in ‘Macro Photography’, filming small things like little tiny frogs, and there were all sorts of unusual lenses being used. Suddenly, you were effectively creating a different filmic grammar because the way you move and position a camera had to be rethought; how you light it and tell the stories.

One of the things I loved about this is that in some ways you could direct the stories more. When you are filming a lion hunt, you can’t really direct that, you just have to film what happens. But when you are telling the story of a female frog, who’s trick is that she carries her baby tadpole on her back and climbs to the top of a tree and looks for a bromeliad to put it on, that’s an extraordinary piece of evolution and behaviour and it’s so empathetic with people if you tell the story in a way that connects that empathy. Of course you have to be careful to not go too soppily anthropomorphic. But I’ve always defended anthropomorphism. Whenever people criticise, my reaction is ‘Well I think you’re being rather anthropocentric!’. We can be a bit anthropocentric, in our thinking that we are so different. 

Mike Gunton
In January, the island of Zavodovski is covered with penguin chicks. Each couple lays two eggs in nests made of small stones or even bones, to aid drainage. The parents take turns in making feeding runs out to sea to collect food for their growing family. Around 1.5 million chinstrap penguins breed on Zavodovski, one of the South sandwich islands in Antarctica. It is an active volcano, and home to the largest penguin colony in the world.

When watching a programme that you produce, it gets a bit fearful at times because you can see a creature being pursued. It can be difficult to watch at times!

One of the things that’s very important about this is that there can be a danger of tripping into melodrama. Some of my colleagues and I have had arguments about this. The evolution of these new photography approaches that we were talking about is proximity. Trying to get the camera, and therefore you the audience, as close as we can physically but also emotionally to the action. And you cannot help but feel caught up at times. What was lovely about Planet Earth II and the technology that had been involved, was that we were able to bring that to a fine point. The snakes and iguanas sequence is a phenomenal example of that sense of proximity and viscerality, where you have people across the country hiding behind their sofas shouting ‘Run, baby, run!’. They are empathising with a creature that is a reptile and a tiny little thing. But if you get that sense of involvement then people are completely transfixed.

These things feel like they have been big leaps, but in actual fact we’ve been doing it for a while, but the stars aligned with Planet Earth II and I think there was something in the air, some zeitgeist going on there and people wanted it. 2016 was quite a miserable year for a number of reasons, they were feeling at woe with the world, and something about Planet Earth II made them look up and look out and feel joyful. I think one of the things the press kept picking up on was that despite the intimacy and some of the terror, that at the end of it people overall felt joy.

One of the things about this concert is that being on stage, the sense of joy that I felt, and that I felt back from the audience…I’d never experienced anything like it. Initially I thought I was going to be petrified, I was going to be standing on stage in front of 5000 people. But I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous. You could just sense a warmth from the audience. What the concert does is it actually amplifies another key thing that I think was unique about Planet Earth II, and that was that at the time everyone was saying that television as a media was falling away. People weren’t watching television, they were consuming media, as they say. Something about Planet Earth II got people flocking back to their television. They made an appointment to view at 8pm on a Sunday, and not only that but they did it as co-viewers. So families came together, football clubs…there was this incredible sense of we are all going to get together to watch this. And there was something about this group viewing that I think enhanced the experience of joy and that is why when you go to the concert you get that amplified!

Mike Gunton
Sloths are adept swimmers, as this pygmy three-toed sloth demonstrates. Found only on the tiny island of Escudo de Veraguas, Panama, the pygmy sloth is the smallest of all sloth species and is considered endangered.

When people watch these programmes, what do you think it is about them that makes people behave differently?

How long have you got?! There’s a conceptual answer and a practical one. The conceptual one is that we set out to connect people with the natural world and that’s what happened. They realised there was more to the world than their own lives. They had some sense of the extraordinary scale to this existence, but also that they felt empathetic connections; sometimes feeling that some of their troubles and woes can be absolved when watching the dynamics of their lives being played back to them through the dynamics of animals. So I think there’s some catharsis there. But equally, there were a number of examples where after having seen a sequence in Planet Earth, there was a rush to digital media to find out more about some of the things they had seen – particularly in cases where there was some conservation spin on it.

So conservation organisations would see massive increases in traffic to their websites and inevitably, financial support.

One of the things that was a real key moment in this series was the sudden magnetic attraction for young people. As a television producer I am constantly being told ‘where are the 16-24 year olds?’, the group that don’t watch television and certainly don’t watch BBC terrestrial television. Suddenly with Planet Earth II, they all wanted to watch these shows. That’s incredibly important to us, as they are the next generation. But also, their perspective on the planet I so different from my generation. What’s interested with the Planet Earth II concert is that when the lights went up I looked out and 50% of the audience were people in that group. They weren’t just kids being brought along by Grandmas and mums, they were cool hipsters from as far as the eye could see!