Shooting for Frozen Planet: Hugh Miller
With two degrees in science and a former researcher at the BBC’s Natural History Unit, Hugh MIller is no stranger to nature. Now he has combined his love of the natural world with his other passion, photography, and tells Professional Photographer how he came to plunge the depths of the ocean and film for the BBC Frozen Planet series.
Hugh Miller makes a living as a natural environment photographer and videographer, who recently filmed for the BBC’s Frozen Planet series. “I guess it has always been an interest,” he explains. “Wildlife films and documentaries, particularly the underwater ones as a child, fascinated me. Actually doing it for myself seemed pretty unattainable, you can do a lot without much equipment but you still need some.” So Hugh found other ways to pursue his interest. “I devoured books about wildlife and filmmakers instead. I read Marine Ecology at university and studied for a master’s in Marine Biology (I had actually applied to do a post-grad in wildlife film making and got turned down!). This was fortunate in hindsight as I managed to land a job for minimum wage at the local aquarium. I was particularly awful at this job as I was constantly doing things that were not in my job description, such as time-lapsing sea fans in a flow tank for a scientist’s project. In the end, instead of firing me they asked me to make some short films about the work done at the aquarium that were played on various screens throughout the building.”
Then Hugh’s lucky break came. One day the curator, who had been a cameraman for Cousteau, said a colleague of his needed a researcher for a few weeks at the BBC’s Natural History Unit. “That really was the start,” says Hugh. “The programme in question was Planet Earth and, frankly, I worked my backside off! I got extensions to my contract, three weeks became three months and I eventually stayed for a year. I was then offered a three year contract as a researcher on Life. I turned it down. I knew I wanted to be behind the camera and if I stayed that would not have happened. So I left with no job having turned down three years work. I was mildly terrified and questioned my own sanity; I’d left the National History Unit! In my initial naivety I hadn’t realised that all crew, including camera operators, are freelance, even if they work primarily for the NHU. Slowly I picked up assisting jobs and worked beside the very best camera operators on the planet, learning all the time. I worked as an assistant for five years before starting to shoot my own sequences.”
It took a while for Hugh, the scientist, to come around to the idea that he was also an artist. “I was sitting with a scientist in a canteen on an Antarctic base when a science technician joined us. The two of them started talking about a particular project before the technician turned and apologised to me for talking about science that I wouldn’t understand, me being an artist! I spluttered something about having two degrees in science, but then it hit me, maybe I’m supposed to be an artist now! Hugh adds: “Actually a primary goal of mine is to communicate science.
I think that’s a very useful thing to do. Most science just sits on shelves to be possibly read by the occasional fellow scientist. I think to visualise some of that work is important for the future of science, it motivates people to look at it,
and it promotes a wider popular understanding. It’s important for science to be a cultural thing. Also it just plain inspires people. I grew up landlocked, miles from the sea, but through old films and books I fell in love with what lived below the surface of those far-flung mysterious seas.
Taking the plunge
The underwater route was a natural one for Hugh who explored a number of watersports until he discovered a true favourite. “I tried my hand at all sorts of things when I had the opportunity. Sailing and surfing became dominant in
my life at different times. All of that pretty much stopped when I took up diving. There are so many different aspects to scuba diving, each has its own discipline and each takes time to learn and master. From free-diving and blue water
work with very small cylinders to much more involved technical diving with computer controlled re-breathers, overhead environments and so on. It’s quite wonderful as you may be an absolute master in one and a beginner in another. I’m still not sure if scuba is a sport. It’s an activity, a pastime, a hobby, a job, an obsession, but you can’t win anything and you don’t compete, so I’m not sure if it’s a sport. If it is, it’s definitely my favourite!”
For Hugh, imagery doesn’t merely depict a place – it has emotional value too. “It connects me directly as it binds me emotionally to a place, the image is a memory. Not just of the subject but also of the environment, the expedition it surrounds and the people involved. It’s hard to look at an image and be emotionally detached without feeling those things. That’s why you need a good editor!”
Hugh describes the reaction he hopes to achieve with his imagery of these emotionally charged, far flung locations.
“I think a mixture of surprise, even incredulity, and enthusiasm for what might just be a wriggly squidgy thing on the sea floor. If I come close to any of those then that’s good! The reaction depends on what you’re trying to tell in the film so I guess if it’s what you hoped for then you have to be more than happy with that. I think imparting a sense of wonder is something that I really hope to do.”
Hugh’s love of the natural world has also sparked a large concern for the future of the environment. He is already starting to see the effects of climate change. “I don’t often get the chance to go back to the same area, but that is of course something I hope to do as time goes by,” he says. “I do worry that there will be nothing to film soon except jellyfish and I don’t think you can make a career out of that. When I was researching for Planet Earth, I was looking for a seamount we could film around. I suggested a location off Mexico that had been filmed for Blue Planet, only to find that in the intervening years, long-line fishermen had targeted this area and stripped them of the wildlife that had lived there. There was literally no point in going to this spot anymore. This is a tragedy and it’s happening again and again. It’s a terrible loss to a country’s economy too. Those sites had been prime targets for adventurous tourists, year after year bringing in money. I talk to older people in this profession and it’s really something they talk about and have born witness to. Shifting baselines of perception with each new generation is a concern. It’s important to look at old records, whether it’s film or by book and shift your own baseline back a bit. What we have today is not acceptable, though there are success stories, which should be all the encouragement we need as scientists, sport lovers, artists, and fishermen to improve the environment we live and work in.”
Saving the planet
When asked if there is one particular image he would use to encourage people
to care about the environment, Hugh replies: “If I could answer that then I could have saved the world and then gone on to earn a fortune in an advertising bureau! I think it’s very difficult to use one single image globally as people’s tastes and values of a subject change as you move around the globe. I think that’s important to understand when approaching global issues. It’s a cliché but ‘think global and act local’ really does have a lot of truth in it.
“If I really had to pick one picture it would be ‘Earth Rising’ taken by one
of the early Apollo missions. It is of the Earth looking very small and blue in
the enormity of space and the empty lunar surface dominant in the foreground.
I think that is something that really can make people stop and stare and realise
that this seemingly endless planet is very small and finite.”
And finally, Hugh shares a few words of wisdom for any aspiring underwater photographers and film makers.
“Well it’s not an easy industry to make a living in,” he warns. “I don’t mean that to discourage but as a point of fact. There is very little structure to it and it can be very fluid. You need to love the subject and gain a large breadth of experience in different environments, but also it pays to be really good in one. I’m always a bit suspicious of people who claim they are brilliant at rock climbing, diving, flying, hiking, tree-climbing, and caving. I just think, really? Just how many lifetimes did that take? By all means get experience in all of them or whichever takes your fancy, but spend the time you have excelling at just one or two. Don’t worry if you don’t have any photographic equipment when
you’re young. Get familiar with the environment whether it’s through mountain biking or surfing; add the cameras when you can afford it. Some great photographers and cinematographers have come out of film schools and some have not, so if that’s not an option don’t worry about it! Most wildlife camera operators didn’t take formal training in photography and many, if not most, have biology and zoology backgrounds. That’s not to say training doesn’t help. The bar is ever higher so it can certainly speed the process up. If you have a passion, you can learn.”
The Blue Project
As well as being an underwater wildlife cameraman and photographer, Hugh is a photography ambassador for the Blue Project – an initiative which uses sport, adventure and digital media to connect more people to our blue environment. Jacques Cousteau once said: “People protect what they love,” so the Blue Project’s mission is to develop innovative ways to encourage greater care of the blue environment.
The journey started with a small group of people who derive a large part of their inspiration from competing and working in the natural environment. They decided to share their stories, images and content with a wider audience and set up the Blue Project as a communications outreach programme.
In 2009, the project launched the Blue Mile as a mass-participation event designed to connect more people and raise funds to support WWF’s marine and freshwater programme.
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