For the last 25 years, Toby Strong has travelled to every continent and worked on most of the BBC’s landmark wildlife series. Ahead of his upcoming UK tour for the Society’s Regional Theatres Programme, we caught up with Toby to uncover his behind-the-scenes insights and tips for filming wildlife documentaries.
What's the process prior to heading out to film? How do you know you'll get the content you need to support the story you're hoping to tell?
First, I meet up with the director to talk through the story and how best to achieve the sequence and style, and decide what kit, cameras, and equipment to take. We also discuss how long we will need and the makeup of team. It’s always a really exciting part of the process.
There is always a risk in our world that nature will not perform, and we won’t get what we need, but I have to say in 25 years I’d never had a complete failure - right up to last month! I have just returned from Sri Lanka where I was supposed to be filming whales, but not one whale turned up! So, it does happen!
What sort of safety training do you get prior to going on trips that put you in extreme conditions?
Most of us have a decent level of first aid, with special attention to things like snake bites. If we are going to a dangerous location we will do a hostile environment course, where we are taught kidnap techniques, negotiation, and other fairly scary skills. Some photographers also have training in rope access and diving, extreme cold weather and boat operations.
What equipment, camera and lenses do you use?
I use a vast array of equipment and have a huge toolbox of toys to draw upon from macro to cranes and drones and remote vehicles. I am always on the lookout for the next development in technology that will allow for an advancement in my filmmaking.
How has technology changed during your career? Has technology made your work easier or more difficult?
I am staggered by the advancements in technology over the last few decades. I think above all other things, the drone has changed our industry more than anything else. I remember crossing the Sahara with a powered hot air balloon to film a camel crossing - it required its own vehicle, a pilot, perfect weather conditions, limited time … and now that same job can be done better by a tiny drone that can fit in my pocket!
How do you balance illustrating the reality of animals' lives without significantly anthropomorphising them?
I think this has been a juggling act since the dawn of wildlife filmmaking.
Nobody wants to over anthropomorphise, but equally people react more strongly to and engage with animals and characters that they feel an affinity for. For example, a cheetah who is a single mum, a sloth who is a passionate lover, or a young gang of lions.
The skill of the directors and editors is to highlight the emotions and characteristics that resonate with us, yet stay true to the animal behaviour.
Has your photography created any opportunities for you to advocate for environmental issues? How can photography and cinematography help to get these messages across?
Series like Planet Earth and Blue Planet are wonderful at showcasing the beauty of our natural world, and they also foster passion and a desire to protect, which is hugely important. But working on a series like The Earthshot Prize with Sir David Attenborough and Prince William, was very close to my heart. Not only did it highlight what needs our immediate attention in the world, but it was also able to champion those working tirelessly to find solutions.
Do you have any tips for someone starting out in wildlife cinematography?
I have learnt it’s very little to do with what film course you’ve done. It’s more to do with your passion for the natural world and skills - climbing, diving, set building, social skills.
So my advice would be to just start filming. Start by making short films and then keep going! This is what will get your foot in the door.
Want to hear more from Toby? Book a ticket for one of his upcoming tour dates near you:
9 June, Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon Book now.
10 June, Darlington Hullabaloo Book now.
13 June, Exeter Phoenix Book now.
14 June, Huntingdon Hall, Worcester Book now.
15 June, Stamford Arts Centre Book now.
16 June, Turner Sims, University of Southampton Book now.