Meet Ed Charles (Zoology, 2002, Biological Photography and Imaging, 2003), a top producer at the BBC’s Natural History Unit and one of the talented team of professionals behind Planet Earth II.
A wildlife documentary filmmaker for over 13 years, Ed has worked on a range of iconic series from the BBC’s Saving Planet Earth to the Discovery Channel’s North America.
We caught up with Ed to find out about life on location, the challenges of wildlife filmmaking, and what it’s like to stand at the heart of a swarm of locusts…
"I've always been fascinated by wildlife"
My Godfather gave me some books for my 10th birthday about the adventures of two teenage boys who travelled the world collecting animals for zoos – and I was captivated. Anything related to wildlife was always my forte – and I followed that path when it came to figuring out what I wanted to do in terms of a career.
“I’m a producer, which means you have to be a bit of a jack of all trades. A large part of my job is creative, working out stories, weaving them together into (hopefully) compelling narratives, designing storyboards and keeping up with the latest innovations of filmmaking. However, a lot of time is also spent on logistics – basically being a glorified travel agent! By far and away though the most important part of my work is making sure I have an incredible team around me, and putting them in the right place at the right time is what guarantees success.”
"Filming for series' like Planet Earth II takes years"
“We spent two years filming various different species and behaviours for Planet Earth II. And when you put that much hard work into getting a shot or a sequence, it can be very hard to let it go! Generally we don’t drop entire sequences, although sometimes it does happen. For this series, we filmed brown hyenas in the Namibian desert, and worked very closely with scientists studying the animals. We were able to document the lives of a clan of hyenas and their pups living among the ruins of an abandoned mining town, which was a huge achievement, but in the end it just didn’t fit in with the rest of the film and we had to drop it. It was such as hard decision to make, not least because of the help we’d received from the scientists, but something had to go. I believe the film is ultimately stronger for it.
“There are always challenging moments working on shows of this calibre, because there is the very real need to continuously raise the bar. Everything has to keep getting better – from the storytelling, to the camera work, to the kit we use to capture these moments on film. New technology – such as drones, camera traps and hand-held gyro-stabilised camera systems – are revolutionising the way we film the natural world and helping us to capture shots of animals that simply wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago. But there is still lots of pressure to find new behaviours that have never been documented before. The world today is surprisingly small, and with so many wildlife films being broadcast, it’s a real challenge to find something new and exciting – the holy grail of a wildlife film!”
"The desert is actually one of the most benign environments I've ever worked in"
“It’s of course hot, but it’s a dry heat and if you avoid working in the heat of the day then you’re generally fine.
“The only issue we had was when we nearly got held up by armed bandits in Madagascar! We’d been filming on the same stretch of road for a week, absolutely miles from anywhere, and hadn’t seen a single person the entire time we’d been there. But then one day some people stopped, asked what we were doing and implied we needed to pay to be there – which we didn’t as we had all the required paperwork. The next day, we decided to move locations and on the way out we drove past the original spot, only to find a group of five armed locals waiting exactly where we’d been filming. Needless to say we kept on driving!”
"Working on Planet Earth II is by far my proudest career achievement"
“The success of the series is unparalleled, and having Sir David read my script was an incredibly proud moment. He’s such a wonderful man – full of passion and knowledge, and still sharp as a razor, even at 90 years old!
“My favourite moment from filming Planet Earth II, and indeed possibly filming anything, is being in the heart of a swarm of several billion locusts. We landed ahead of the swarm and waited for it to fly over us – when it did, it was the most incredible experience. The locusts parted around us like water around rocks in a stream and the sound was unlike anything I’ve ever heard before – a roar of billions of wings all beating together and moving the air around you.”
"Anyone wanting to get into this industry needs perserverance"
"I started out like many people – at the very bottom! I spent the best part of a year as a runner, making tea and toast for people and cleaning kitchens. It’s difficult to get started, but those who work hard are the ones that make it.
“You’d also be surprised how many people get in touch to ask for help getting in the industry who don’t go out and spend time watching, filming and photographing wildlife. If you want to work in the area, especially as a camera operator, have a showreel or photographic portfolio of your work. Often it’s not the quality that’s being judged, but your dedication and commitment.
“I think the best attribute to have in my line of work is a genuine love of the natural world. We spend so much time looking at it, investigating it, and going out into it – often with no conceivable results – that you have to be prepared to keep going back, day after day, rain or shine, to be there when that incredible moment eventually happens. When it does, you’re blessed with an intimate glimpse into the private lives of some of our planet’s most iconic species.”
"What I love most about my work is that it's so varied"
“I’m now embarking on a new landmark production for the BBC due to air in 2020, called Perfect Planet. It’s going to look at how global forces have shaped the diversity of life on Earth.
“What I love most about my work is that it’s so varied. One minute, I’m working on a programme about deserts, the next about weather or oceans. Each time, we have to throw ourselves into our subject and become mini-experts – for a time at least! I find it fascinating to learn about so many different and varied things – and the fact that I get to go out on location and witness the most incredible stories from the natural world is something that takes a lot of beating.”
Planet Earth II Episode 4: Deserts – produced by Ed Charles – airs on BBC One this Sunday at 8pm.