Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hello Birdy-guy!: Interview with cinematographer and nature documentary maker Leighton de Barros

William McInnes up close and personal with a bird on Hello Birdy. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes of nature documentaries.

I don’t know about you, but a career as an executive producer/director/writer/cinematographer of nature documentaries is one of my fantasies (although being a vet comes close). Leighton De Barros, however, IS an executive producer/director/writer/cinematographer. This man is living the dream.

He has worked in the television industry for over 25 years. In 2004, he produced, directed and shot his first wildlife/adventure doco called “Shark Bay”, and was bitten - not by a shark, but by the documentary-making bug.

In 2007 he established Sea Dog Films with partner Jodie De Barros based in Western Australia and has gone on to produce, direct and shoot several documentaries. These include “Whale Patrol” - about the fight to protect the migrating whale population off the coast of Western Australia, and “The Search for the Ocean’s SuperPredator”.

I suspect the man never sleeps. He has collected a swag of awards and been nominated for 4 Emmy Awards for Cinemataography. His latest project, “Hello Birdy – A Boofhead’s Guide to BirdWatching”,  is exactly that.

He took some time out from scouting exotic locations and travelling thousands of kilometres for one elusive photo of a rare and endangered species to talk to SAT.

Leighton de Barros: executive producer/director/writer/award-winning cinematographer and guy whosejob we are, frankly, super-duper jealous of.
It seems like it’s everyone's fantasy to produce wildlife documentaries. Was it something you always wanted to do and how did you make it in this field?

I have always spent a lot of the time on the ocean, at the beach, surfing. I love the marine environment and in my spare time whilst working at a regional tv station in WA I made a film on the local population of dolphins. Eventually this led to re-making the film for the ABC and then open doors as I went on to working for the BBC, Discovery, Nat Geo and many other productions primarily making wildlife films. 

Birdwatching is a field usually reserved for very serious people who can differentiate species on the basis of features that many of us would fail to notice (I'd love to say people who can differentiate their tits from their boobies but I suspect that puts me at the boofhead end of the spectrum!). Why did you decide to introduce birdies to boofheads?

Great point. Our brief from the ABC was not to make the series too serious. They wanted to attract a broader audience and even people who had no general interest in birds. Hence they wanted us to use William McInnes [star of Blue Heelers and SeaChange] as a host because he has a great sense of humour and make the series appealing to a wider audience. William is able to ask questions and make observations about the birds from a layman’s point of view, some questions that maybe the audience is a bit embarrassed to ask, but he gets away with it.

William McInnes asks the experts those burning bird questions we were all a bit embarassed to ask...

Filming animals can be challenging as they can be camera shy, and in your case the subjects can fly away. How did you capture the footage of birds for Hello Birdy and which particular species were most challenging?

Definitely agree with this. Birds are a real challenge to film and in my opinion the hardest wildlife subject to film and I really enjoyed the challenge. A couple of years ago we produced a film called On A Wing And A Prayer, on the entire life cycle of the Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo for the ABC. This gave me the experience and the confidence to produce Hello Birdy. The most challenging birds to film where the Lyrebird, Great Bowerbird, the Eastern Whipbird and Jesus the Malleefowl.

What sort of lengths did you go to to get footage of your subjects?

Jesus the malleefowl was the greatest challenge. As you know they are extremely shy birds. To get the behaviour of him digging on the mound we filmed him over five months with a motion activated camera. I drove in excess of five thousand kilometres back and forward to his mound in the South of WA to check, download and reset the footage from the camera and also shoot him walking around the bush. Incredibly, on the day William arrived to do the story Jesus popped up on his mound and started scratching away right in front of us – you beauty!

How long did it take to research this series and how involved was this process?

It took about 6 months to research the series and that involved a team of 3 people with wildlife experience. It’s lucky I had some experience working with particular species of birds, whilst others I had never seen in the wild before. Researching is always difficult as you have to go through a mine of information and then whittle it all back to work out what birds are suitable, who’s working with them, how practical it is to film the stories and of course it is all driven by the budget!

William McInnes in another stunning scene from Hello Birdy.
Hello Birdy introduces us to Australia's rich birdlife. What are the biggest threats to our birds and what do you think we can do about it?

The biggest threat to our birdlife is habitat destruction and this was most evident when we filmed On A Wing And A Prayer about the life cycle of the Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo. I think education is important. Supporting land rehabilitation and replanting of native tree and plant species projects is all something we can do. Also supporting conservation projects and help lobbying for the protection of our native forests and bush lands.

Do you have any companion animals of your own, or experiences with companion animals, and have these shaped your views about documentaries?

Yes, our family has a wonderful little sausage dog and we all love him to bits. I love animals and nature, the best thing I ever did was work as a wildlife cinematographer because I have been lucky to get close to some incredible animals from a wide variety of species from the most venomous of snakes, through to Great White sharks, Killer whales, Blue whales, bilbies, dolphins, elephants, sloths, jaguars etc and this keeps fuelling my passion for wildlife. More so working with the wild animals has strongly shaped my views on wildlife documentaries. As you know there is a lot of rubbish on tv, even some wildlife programs are beat ups, which is sad, but it really makes you appreciate the good documentaries.
What's your favourite moment in this series?

I actually have a lot of favourite moments. I love Jesus the Malleefowl, Joov the Cassowary (incredible to get so close to such an iconic bird – and they are huge!), the lyrebird singing in Sherbrooke Forest was incredible to listen to in the wild. But my absolute favourite was William’s romantic encounters with the emus in Western Australia. It is an incredible program, Dr Irek Malecki is doing some amazing work and it was extremely brave of William to take the sperm sample from Blue the emu, he was pretty big and pretty amorous and William did and fantastic job!

Thank you Leighton for taking the time out of your schedule. And for readers who are keen to check out those scenes and more, the DVD is out now and available at all ABC shops. We don't usually advertise on SAT but as Leighton waited so long for Jesus to arrive, we felt it was only fair to plug the DVD. So here it is.