Emmy award winning cinematographer Gavin Thurston has worked alongside legendary natural historian David Attenborough for over 30 years. Their latest collaboration, Netflix’s David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, is Thurston’s most important project to date.
“It was daunting from the start,” confesses Thurston. “But this film is really timely because it’s coming from a man who’s seen all the changes in the natural world. It is a massively important message.”
In David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, Thurston captures the conservationist at his most personal in a film that Attenborough calls his personal witness statement. The documentary explores Attenborough’s life, and the evolutionary history of life on Earth, offering viewers a vision for the future as he grieves the loss of wild places.
Thurston’s previous collaborations with the broadcaster has earned him an Emmy win in 1996 for the Private Life of Planets for his stunning cinematography, as well as nominations for his photography in Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, and Our Planet.
In their latest film, the cinematographer constructed a dynamic box mount to track Attenborough’s movements as director Jonathan Hughes conducted intimate interviews with the documentarian. The result is a blend of archival footage with vast landscapes that offer a view of how the natural world has changed through Attenborough’s lifetime, and his urgent call to his audience in saving what we have left.
Thurston spoke with Awards Focus about first meeting with Attenborough 30 years ago, his process of capturing landscapes, the responsibility he felt with framing Attenborough’s personal witness statement, and how we can save the planet by flying naked.
Awards Focus: How does it feel to be recognized by the Emmy’s again?
Gavin Thurston: I’m delighted and flattered, but it’s a team effort. It might be my name on there but its not without all the support of a massive crew behind the scenes, and I’m well aware of that.
AF: You’ve worked with David Attenborough for over 30 years. What was your first interaction with him like?
Thurston: The first time we met was in Panama, and I was stupidly nervous. But he’s very down to Earth. He’s got no airs or graces. He walked into the room and started telling a story about first life, starting with algae and bacteria, and so on. He’s just got such an infectious enthusiasm that you can’t help but want to listen. So I was drawn in from the first moment, and I could understand why he was so universally popular.
AF: What are the conversations that happen before you go out and try to capture these events in the wild?
Thurston: Somebody comes up with a storyline, the idea for the film and then it’s roughly scripted. Then we’re asking if we want to show an abundance of birds, where should we go? We decide on, say, Chile, to the coast where you have huge flocks of cormorants on the coastline. The researchers get to work and find the best time and place based on their findings.
I don’t want to make little of it, but a lot of the hard work is done before I’m even on location because that’s just the process. It’s why you need a big team behind you.
AF: How do you manage to get through these long shoots that often require waiting for hours on end for one particular shot?
Thurston: The crews in natural history filmmaking are generally pretty small. There’s a handful of people because you’re less likely to disturb the wildlife, and it means you can stay in a location for much longer because the costs are reduced. There’s a lot of research that goes into capturing these shots, but you still need to put the time into your chances of getting it.
People say I must have a lot of patience, but I’m put into the most extraordinary places around the planet. You find the best scientist to work with, the right place and time of year, so spending fifteen hours a day for four weeks at a time is not a chore at all. I’d say sitting in the same office day after day, week after week, takes patience.
AF: When you arrive on a location to film a beautiful landscape, what considerations go into capturing the perfect shot?
Thurston: There are times when I get on location and I’m in the most beautiful place, and it’s like writer’s block when I’m looking at it. The producer is saying get the shots, and I sometimes cannot see the frame. But that’s the fun part too. The creative of trying to capture three dimensional landscapes so the audience can share it.
I use camera movements a lot because it helps the whole image feel more three-dimensional. The natural world lends itself to that sense of depth perception. If you see a flower or a leaf, you can almost put your finger on it, but if you close one eye, which is effectively what the camera is, you haven’t got that depth perception. Every shot should be part of the story so it’s clear to the audience what they’re supposed to see in each shot, which then enhances the storytelling.
AF: The film has so many incredible shots. Is there one you’re most proud of?
Thurston: Actually, the stuff I’m most proud of is with David. Much of the film is David being interviewed by Jonathan Hughes, the director, so there are a lot of these teleprompters. The problem is that David moves around a lot, so when he’s telling a story and he leans, you lean with him. It looks like you’re dancing with each other. So I built a specific box that we could take to places like Chernobyl and Kenya so David could get the exact script lines. We could also swap out the iPad for the autocue instead, and Johnny could sit in the moment teasing these more personal pieces out of David.
David doesn’t normally lower his guard or show emotion. He’s a very factual guy. I think there were times he actually forgot the camera was there as he was talking to Johnny. So just having a relaxed set-up for David, even though he’s a professional, to get that extra element of that personal touch, I’m very proud of that.
AF: How much did it weigh on you coming into the project that this was David’s witness statement and vision for the future?
Thurston: It’s probably the most important project I’ll work on in my career. It was daunting from the start and I felt a huge responsibility. But this film is really timely because it’s coming from a man who’s seen all the changes in the natural world. It is a massively important message. I say good on Netflix for sticking it on the platform to reach a global audience.
It’s also a film I’ve had the most feedback from when it first was released. I might get the odd email from a granny, but with this I was getting hundreds of messages, personal messages, people tracking me down by email and instagram. It was really heartening to hear people say their family had gone vegan, or the kids were walking to school instead, and just making lifestyle changes based on having seen this film.
AF: I read that one of your solutions to saving the planet is that everyone should fly naked. Can you explain what you meant by that?
Thurston: laughs. I was trying to come up with radical things and this was an honest suggestion. Imagine if universally, across the planet, we just say that if you want to fly anywhere you fly naked. The advantages would be immediate. Half the world population would say, ‘Christ! I’m not getting on a plane naked.’ So you would reduce air traffic by fifty percent overnight. Then you turn off air conditioning in airports, the x-ray machines and reduce our carbon footprint.
It could be effective but I’m not sure it’ll ever catch on.