An interview with wildlife director, Mateo Willis
Mateo Willis is one of Britain’s most highly acclaimed wildlife camera operators and directors. His CV includes Blue Planet 2, Frozen Planet, Human Planet, Dynasties, earning him two Baftas and two Emmy's.
His latest series, Night on Earth, recently launched on Netflix... you need to see it. Mateo is the consulting producer across the series and directed one of the six episodes, 'Frozen Nights', filmed almost entirely in the dark, in the depths of -40c Arctic winter, wearing his Elliot Brown Bloxworth throughout.
Could you tell us a little more about your episode on Night on Earth?
“We now have low-light camera technology to see what animals are doing in near complete darkness. The film I made for the series is about polar, or near-polar, nights - hence the title ‘Frozen Nights’.
“For the episode I filmed polar bears in the Arctic and it was one of the hardest shoots I’ve ever done. We had snow storms, high winds and temperatures as low as minus 40C. In those conditions it took effort to keep every piece of equipment working. For example, the cold rapidly saps energy out of batteries. A mobile phone would go flat in minutes if exposed. Camera batteries had to be kept warm in a purpose-built heated box.”
“It took 45 minutes to put on every item of clothing I needed before heading out; multiple under layers, two balaclavas, a survival suit and huge snow boots. Sometimes I was outside for eight to twelve hours a day. Once I had to sit without moving for five hours while we watched a polar bear hunt seals – barely able to make a sound.”
How does your Elliot Brown watch help in these circumstances?
“The key part of the story we were there to film was the concept of time. Within the Arctic circle it is night for months during winter. When we arrived everything was shrouded in darkness. The first sunrise of the year peeked over the horizon whilst we were there and then the days rapidly grew longer.”
“I have never been on a shoot where time was so critical. We needed to know what time the sun would rise and when it would set. We needed to estimate how long our batteries would last for and how many hours of daylight we had to find the bears. Time can be cruciall to survival under those conditions.”
“It was fascinating to compare our human daily rhythms – divided into seconds, minutes and hours – to a polar bear who perhaps feels time differently. They can go for days without eating, they can sleep for days at a stretch. Their time is nature’s time – days, seasons, years.”
What are you working on next?
“I was due to film marsupials in Victoria in Australia but many of their forests have been devastated by the bushfires. This has been postponed and may be cancelled. We need to be very sensitive about the situation and not get in the way of park staff who have more important things to deal with.”
You’re spending more and more of your time directing, rather than filming. Do you miss actually being behind the camera?
“As a director I like to stand back so I can see the overall picture, to shape the narrative whether it’s on a wildlife shoot or commercials and dramas which I increasingly work on. I get the chance to work with some very skilled people so I don’t feel like I am missing out. But there is something very satisfying about the act of crafting images. There is a very specific thrill of looking through a viewfinder to judge colour, composition and seeing the drama unfold before your eyes. It’s very immediate.”
What turned your head towards wildlife filming?
“I had a very unusual childhood. For six years I lived in a Land Rover with my brother and parents. We travelled around the world, spending time in Africa, India and the Middle East. My parents were always passionate about animals and the remote corners of the planet. Consequently, I have an intrinsic love of the natural world and my childhood experience has given me the skill set to operate under difficult conditions. Perhaps it’s not surprising that so much of my work is on wildlife films.”
Where would you most like to spend more time filming?
“I would love to spend more time in South America – a vast continent with incredible animals and stories. I’ve been a few times but I feel I have barely scratched the surface.”
Where is your favourite place to film?
“Greenland. I’ve worked there almost more than anywhere else for various productions including Frozen Planet, Human Planet, Hostile Planet, Life Story and Our Planet. It’s an amazing place, a huge country with a tiny population. I have never been anywhere else where for weeks I won’t see a plane, a piece of rubbish or a set of footprints.”
Programmes like Blue Planet 2 are stunning to watch – have we achieved all that we can achieve when it comes to wildlife filming?
“Technology is constantly evolving which in turn opens up new opportunities. We wouldn’t have been able to film Night on Earth a few years ago. The technology didn’t exist to tell those stories. More importantly I think we’re getting better at telling those stories; more creative, inventive and bold.”
Which is the most difficult animal to film?
“For many years the snow leopard was considered the holy grail of wildlife filming. I was asked to film them for Planet Earth 2 and spent three winters watching amazing snow leopard behaviour in the Indian Himalayas. When I was directing the Mountains episode of Hostile Planet I sent my brother to film in the same location and he captured even more incredible footage. Over time these animals have become increasingly habituated to humans because they aren’t being hunted – a rare conservation success story.”
Are there any animals you are scared of?
“I am fascinated and terrified in equal measures by snakes. I don’t know enough about them to understand them. My instinctive reaction overrides all logic. I have been charged by polar bears, felt a lion’s breath on my leg and had an elephant almost trample over my tent. Yet in those situations I can rationally judge what to do. But a few years ago I almost sat on a rattlesnake in New Mexico. I leapt up and ran – about the worst thing I could have done!”
If someone wants to try wildlife filming, what’s your top tip?
“It is incredibly important to understand the behaviour of the subject animal. This helps predict where they might be found, what the animal might do and how not to disturb it. This last point is crucial. A camera operator do should never disturb the subject if they can. Be very careful not to frighten animals or force them to modify their behaviour. If you can do that then you’re off to a good start.”
Can you tell us about one of your most memorable shoots?
“One of the most incredible shoots I’ve ever directed was to capture the epic force of an avalanche as it travels down a mountain. This takes the right weather, the right snow and the right film crew, including multiple helicopters and pilots, camera operators and avalanche specialists.
“There are few places in the world where the right conditions exist. The first year we missed it – the planets didn’t align. The next winter they did. I made the call and crossed my fingers. And it came paid off. I remember sitting in a helicopter as thousands of tonnes of snow and ice came roaring straight towards me and thinking “I like this job”.
Have you ever made any mistakes?
“Constantly! If I’m not making mistakes I’m not pushing myself hard enough. Perhaps I make fewer now than I used to. They’re just better mistakes!”
You must be an incredibly patient person?
“I hear this comment quite a bit. But to be honest when I’m filming there’s usually something to watch, something going on. Or I catch up on all that reading I keep meaning to do.”
It’s an incredibly physical job, how do you keep fit?
“I always exercise when I at home. I have to because if I’m somewhere remote with a lot of equipment there’s a physical strain on my body; lugging cameras up hills or driving a snow machine for hours. I can’t risk injury so I exercise at least three times a week at home.”