Mark MacEwen is one of the greatest wildlife cinematographers of our
time. Multi-award winner (Emmy, Bafta, Golden Panda) working for the BBC, National Geographic and Animal Planet.
What came before in your life, your passion for wildlife or filmmaking?
My Father is a well-known wildlife DOP (specialising in macro filming), and some of my first memories are following him around wanting to spend time in nature with him, sitting watching him film, just being absorbed in nature and cameras. I’d say my first passion was wildlife but filmmaking also came very close to that and has since become my real passion. I love filming, pretty much anything, thinking about how to stylise sequences programs, getting absorbed in how to push style in wildlife further developing my own style. But growing up had some magical moments, my father used to film lots of things in our house, and coming home from school each day you never knew which animals you’d see, there were snakes, spider, geckos, fish, you name it, I grew up in London but the crickets to feed the geckos lived behind every radiator, geckos would occasionally escape and turn up happy several weeks later having been eating all the crickets, it often sounds like a rainforest, cricket calling all night, I think about it often now and was pretty magical.
Which wildlife documentaries were more influential on you to decide to work as a professional? Do you remember one in particular?
The first one I really remember totally catching me was a survival film about the Crocodiles in Grumeti river and the wildebeest crossing, I never seen anything like it, and knew I had to be in the field and that the world had so much amazing things to see. Later in Life working as a professional I remember the Original Planet Earth coming out and knew that’s what I wanted to do, it set such a bench mark in our industry, it was a truly amazing series for me.
You have been working for 20 years for the BBC Natural History Unit, National Geographic, and Discovery Channel in many different locations. How has this industry changed through this time?
When I started in the industry we used Film cameras Arri’s mainly, it was really hard to get a break as it required a lot of time to really hone your craft, largely because of the cost of working like that and that you had to wait weeks for the rushes to be viewable after the shoot. So, you really had to be a camera assistant for a long time (to be honest I loved those day, learning from so many amazing DOPs who really knew their craft). The biggest change for me is the digital camera revolution, its completely transformed what we are all able to do, give us the ability to take more chances, review in the field, and alongside the advancement in gimbals is an amazing combination. Suddenly we are able to
combine the skills of traditional long lens work with feature film style movement, which is what really excites me, and push our industry further.
In those shootings, how much freedom do you have as a director of photography to choose cameras, lenses or other technical aspects like the deep of field, aspect ratio, or frames per second?
It often depends on the Job, some series are committed to a particular camera, Red have been the primary camera due to their frame rates and versatility for the last 8-10 years, but I am able to choose and advise what equipment Lenses I want, I usually chooses lens sets for particular sequences or shots I’m after. With thing like depth of field, that’s up to me I feel I have my own style of shooting and get employed because of that, if there are reasons for it to change for a production point of view I’m happy to accommodate but I choose the depth of field I feel is to be most cinematic for the shot or program or sequence. Aspect ratio is something production decide as the product is sold for television it tends always to be 16:9, id really love to shoot on anamorphic and that aspect ratio as its excites me and that frame size I feel suits so much of the natural world, it also let you sub consciously know your about to watch something special. And again, frames per second usually I’m deciding that shot by shot, when I’m DOPing whole films then we will discuss what we’d like our standard speed to be for most of the program, but in the field ill choose exactly what frame rate I believe the shot or scene requires.
Which is your favourite equipment in terms of camera, lens, and stabilizers?
Camera of late has been the Red Helium, I love the Arri but there is a big need for wildlife and deliverables to be very high resolution and the red currently meets that well, also its form factor means I can put it on gimbals so easily it a pretty perfect combination.
Lenses id always take the Canon CN20 50-1000, it’s the perfect sequence lens for me, and optically fantastic. I love to use primes for any work wider than the CN20 or for MoVI gimbal work, I really like Cooke lenses, they just render the world in a very pleasing way, build quality is amazing and some of the flares are stunning, but I also use vintage lenses regularly, I’m more interested in the characteristics and flares in many of the vintage lenses, I find lots of the modern primes a bit to clinical and perfect for my tastes.
For Stabilizers, I own freefly MoVI gimbals which are amazing, they really have transformed much of wildlife work, I love them. But I also do a lot of work probably more work these days with much larger gimbals, GSS and Shotover. I love using them, I do a lot of vehicle work with them as well as Helicopter Aerial work. That ability to be at 1000mm while tracking alongside an animal or character is incredible.
It’s an interesting thing to do, and not every animal allows you to achieve that, for me I take a lot of inspiration from dramas and feature films and how they build tension and character. Subtle movement, bold framing always thinking about how to build the character while filming. Its what I’m really interested in, character led stories.
Who are your favourite fiction cinematographer?
Everybody asks wildlife filmmakers about dangerous situations with big predators, venomous snakes or elephants but, there are more threatening situations with humans like your encounter with poachers while filming "Seven Worlds, OnePlanet". Could you explain to us how you lived such a difficult circumstance?
That situation was pretty scary, I’d been feeling that something wasn’t right for several days around the Bai in the Congo, the animals had been scarce and very wary, their behaviour was unusual and id said to my colleges that I thought there were people around, there had been no instances of poaching at that Bai before so we couldn’t be sure, then that day about 200m away while I was sat in a hide waiting to film id seen branches moving and was convinced it
was people. About 30 minutes later the first large calibre gun shot went off, it was in our direction so suddenly we thought we were being shot at, it was pretty scary. We had to make a decision fast about what to do as it was towards the end of the day and you don’t want to be moving through the jungle there at night it’s just too dangerous. Forest elephants are everywhere and they don’t ask questions about what happening the charge and I know of several people who have been killed by them and had many close calls myself. But we had to
leave, there was a second gunshot again in our direction but this time I was pretty sure it was poachers taking an Elephant. It’s just not worth the risk to stay and see if there are going to come at us as they knew we were there already and clearly not frightened of our presence so we packed up fast and went for it. It was a 2-hr trek as dusk and night fell from the nearest camp where we knew we’d be safe and could alert the anti-poaching patrol. I’ve been in a few situations like that over the years and they are scary but you just have to stay calm and make the safest and most logical decision, and safety was paramount. We left most of the big equipment stayed together as a group, moved fast but carefully through the jungle listening in case of elephants and managed to get back to camp, it’s when you get somewhere and the adrenaline wears off that it sets in what happened and the risk and also the knowledge that the bull elephant id been watching relaxed and beautiful in the bai over the last week had just lost its life. We were lucky, sadly the poachers escape from the bai with the ivory. It a very tough situation for elephants and lots of wildlife around the world at the moment, we made sure we documented the event in the hope that it raises awareness that these amazing places and animals are all in a v delicate situation and hopefully raise awareness.
The wildlife filmmaking industry requires a lot of travelling. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the industry?
It’s been pretty devastating tbh, myself personally from having probably the busiest several years of booking lined up, everything was immediately cancelled. For the first uk lockdown I didn’t do a day’s work in 7 straight months. And jobs keep falling away depending on the countries they are in, travelling has become harder I spend my time either working or inquarantine, it’s the only way to be honest. None of us want to risk infecting anybody else or catching it. Even when home I stay fairly isolated as need to be able to work so I just can’t risk not being able to travel. Financially for many of us in the industry and other industries it’s been incredibly tough. I’ve been lucky to be working on and off since September, and we test regularly, wear masks and socially distance. I’m writing this while in quarantine in Zambia, waiting to be able to carry on filming my Dynasties Season 2 Cheetah film.
You have filmed numerous species in different habitats and won multiple awards. What new species would you like to film in your future projects? And what is your next location?
I’m really interested in character led Stories, I particularly like the Dynasties strand as it’s the only avenue of filming I know of, that is big budget and invested in following individual animals’ stories, real wildlife dramas.
There are other series and companies trying to replicate it that I know of but none of them are following that one character they are filming animals in multiple countries and editing it together to appear like that, which misses for me what makes dynasties so special to me. To film like that you invest so much of yourself and you get to know that individual so well that you feel like you have a bond, its so honest, the hardest part is when the film is over and
you have to say good bye to the animals you’ve spent several years following, when I think about the cheetah I’ve been following for this season of Dynasties I feel emotional, she’s such a special animal, it’s like saying goodbye to a friend. I think it’s what makes it so personal and special for me. And I have a future project already lined up to DOP along those lines as well as series like Planet Earth 3.
My next location is Zambia and then Morocco.
Mark MacEwen on the Left with Rob Whitworth and John Aitchison BAFTA awards 2017.
Interview by, Jaume Martín