Gordon Buchanan: Camera’s, wildlife & me
Gordon Buchanan has worked his way up from camera assistant to one of the nations favourite wildlife presenters and most recognisable voices on the BBC. Over the years his travels have taken him to some truly awe-inspiring environments from living with Brown Bears in the vast American wilderness to filming leopards in Sri Lanka. His current series ‘Tribes, Predators & Me’ follows his experiences hunting with Tribes in the remotest of locations, alongside some of the most dangerous predators on the planet. With a national tour on the horizon, taking an in depth look at his adventures, we caught up with Gordon to chat about all things wildlife.
The MALESTROM: Gordon, did you always want to be a wildlife cameraman?
Gordon Buchanan: It really happened by accident. I was working in a restaurant when I was seventeen on weekends from school, and the husband of the woman who ran the restaurant was a wildlife cameraman and I found out about his work through him and thought it was incredible. So, he offered me a job as his assistant and it was kind of being in the right place at the right time.
TM: It’s a specialist skill being a wildlife cameraman as opposed to someone who films people. Did you find you had a knack for it? Or did it come with a lot of hard work?
GB: I wouldn’t have said I was a natural at it, but maybe I was predisposed to working hard. I certainly wasn’t a natural wildlife photographer or filmmaker. I wasn’t trained formally, so it was just a case of muddling through and getting paid as you go and picking up tips along the way. But its logical stuff and that’s why its great for people to make films these days, and also there are so many examples out there to learn from. You’re only trying to inform and entertain. You’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.
TM: What was the first series you worked on that made a really big impression on you?
GB: I worked on The Natural World strand and I made a film for Natural World about Leopards in Sri Lanka, that was the first big thing I’d done for the BBC. Everything has really come since then, and that was the seed that was planted on that series. That was in about 2000 and up until then it had been a real struggle to get ahead in the industry and trying to make a name for myself, you know trying to get enough work to pay all the bills and put food on the table.
TM: Is that because the competition to be wildlife cameraman, especially at the BBC, is so fierce?
GB: Yeah, it’s a tough industry to get into but its always going to need people in it, so I wouldn’t want anyone to be discouraged about trying to get ahead in wildlife filming because every year, or every couple of years there are new people marching through and it’s an amazingly rewarding way to spend your life.
TM: Do you have a standard camera kit that you take at all times? And what lenses do you pack?
GB: Big long ones (laughs)! I’m not a very techy cameraman. I use a whole range of different cameras and once they’re out of hand I drag that information and knowledge to the trash, because guaranteed the next shoot I won’t be using the same camera and lenses, there’s a big 1000 mm lens that we’re using at the moment which is beautiful and it’s a really crisp image that you get from them on HD, and when everything moved towards HD, 2K and 4K you really started to realise that the lenses started to suffer. An amazing lens 15 years ago is no longer an amazing lens today. Its always forever evolving and to me its just a tool, I don’t pay too much attention to it, I don’t get too much into it because gone are the days when one camera would last you 15 years. It’s ever evolving.
TM: What kind of distance can you film with a 1000 mm lens?
GB: Well, its depends. If you’ve got a wolf right up close to you, you can film right up its nostrils (laughs), if you want. With a 1000 mm lens if you zoom into the moon, the moon is filling the frame and you can see all the craters on the surface, but it would be better if you could double the length and half the size, its still quite a big lumpy piece of equipment.
TM: Everyone’s been impressed by the BBC2 series, ‘Tribes, Predators and Me.’ When you were swimming with the sharks in the Solomon Islands, just how scared were you?
GB: Well, they didn’t tell me we’d be getting into the water in the dead of night. They told me they did a lot of spear fishing after dark and I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s kind of interesting as it’s the best time and the most productive.” But when I went out for the dive into the inky black water I was very, very uneasy and you can’t be in a situation like that and wonder what is out of range of the little torch that I had. What’s lurking in the deep? I mean with the human mind we create monsters where they don’t exist and we turn things that do exist into monsters so yeah, that was just outside my comfort zone (laughs).
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TM: There’s always an underlying sadness to see the tribe’s way of life slowly diminishing. Do you often leave those tribes with a sense of profound sadness yourself?
GB: Yeah, that seems to arise in many cases as soon as you arrive, because you realise it’s a way of life that certainly can’t last in the modern world. But not always! I think in the case of Mongolia where they use eagles hunting, I mean that’s a good, healthy, strong tradition and culture which is important to them, and a way of life and I don’t think that’s going to disappear anytime soon. And in the Solomon Islands, those islands might not exist in 20 years from now and that’s really sad because the people are happy and healthy and have everything they need. They’ve got no desire to leave. It’s just that they may well have to leave because of rising sea levels. That is terribly sad. You have to think that these people have got it sorted. They are living in a paradise and in harmony with one another.
TM: When you were with the Eagle Hunters in Mongolia you looked the most comfortable and at home?
GB: I think the climate had a lot to do with it. The Mongolian climate at that time of year is really quite Scottish. But the colder climates I do enjoy and they are such lovely, lovely welcoming people that I felt very at home, and when the door is opened and you’re welcomed into someone else’s family, there’s nothing not to love about it and in a part of the world that is stunningly beautiful.
TM: They did seem like lovely people and they certainly liked your haggis?
GB: (Laughs) That had been kicking about in my bag for quite some time and it was the most well travelled haggis in the world!
TM: And just how heavy was that eagle sitting on your arm?
GB: You know, as you start off you think, ‘It’s not too bad!’ But as time goes on it gets heavier and heavier and fortunately when you’re on a horse there’s an arm support. There’s no way you could ever hold it and ride. With an arm support you rest your arm on it and the most incredible force that you feel is when the wind get under the eagle’s wings and its almost yanking your arm out of its socket. They’re amazingly powerful birds and you feel their talons squeezing your hand and you’re very impressed with the strength and power they have.
TM: The conversations we see you have onscreen with the tribes when they only speak another language are fluid. Do you have a translator sitting next to you at all times?
GB: Yes, the translators are just off camera with the crew and generally they go off and leave me with the families in the evening. Most of the time the translators are there, but in the evenings we mostly get to be in each other’s company and chill.
TM: You’ve experienced so much in your life. Are you aware whether it’s changed you as a person at all?
GB: I don’t know what I would have been like had I not started doing this. I’ve been doing this since I was a teen, so it obviously shapes your world view and I think the one difference is understanding the fragility of the planet and importance in protecting it, and everyone’s lives and the amount of damage that we do to the planet.
TM: When you get back home to your wife and children and you’ve just left somewhere basic and primitive, and suddenly you’re using kettles and washing machines. Do you ever think to yourself – ‘What the hell are we doing?’
GB: Well, when I used to do the long trips maybe yes. I think the longest I ever did was nine months without any running water and when you get back and start switching on lights and opening a fridge full of food you, although there is a pleasure in that. I have thought that I do hate the way we waste so much food and live our lives without thinking about the affect that it has on the planet. So, I don’t like leaving lights on and using things needlessly and consumerism. I mean it’s not all of our fault, its just that the whole system is set up to encourage us to buy stuff and its mostly stuff that we don’t even want.
TM: It was particularly scary when you were with the crocodile tribe in Papua New Guinea, and especially when you reached through the reeds to try and feel a crocodile beneath your feet. Do you remember what was running through your head when you did that?
GB: You know that was not something that I was jumping through hoops to do. It’s a very peculiar thing and part of it at the back of my mind was thinking, ‘Maybe this is all a big joke. There isn’t really a crocodile there and this is not how they catch them!’ But it was just thrilling and really exciting to be in a swamp and to reach down and… I mean it goes against everything you know, all logic and self preservation to be reaching blind into a swamp to try and find a crocodile.
TM: It was mind blowing! And that was really dangerous when you swam across the swamp knowing that it was the territory of a huge crocodile.
GB: You know I didn’t have any intention of actually doing that. I think it was me who suggested it as a joke, thinking we’d never ever do it. And then the lady I was with said, ‘Come on. We’ll do it!’ And you know their level of trust and their knowledge of this big crocodile that lives in that lake is such that there was never even a notion that they might be in danger. They say, ‘This crocodile will not harm us.’ And, you know, you have to put your trust in other people at times and that itself is quite liberating and I thought, ‘You know best. I’ll do it!’
TM: It was quite shocking. I mean did you know that crocodile wasn’t really there?
GB: Oh no, no. It could have very easily have been there, it’s not a massive lake but there were plenty of places for it to hide.
TM: What about big cats? You’ve ended up spending a lot of time now with leopards, tigers and obviously lions. Have any of them really resonated with you?
GB: Yeah, I love leopards and I’ve spent more time with Leopards than any other animal, so I’ve got a soft spot for them. They’re really beautiful and they’re very dynamic and powerful and they’ve really got a tough life. Sometimes you just marvel at what they’re capable of doing.
TM: So, tell us about the national tour you’re doing and what people can hope to come and see and hear if they buy a ticket?
GB: Well, my job is quite often a solitary job and the tour is an opportunity to see real human beings face-to-face and have a conversation with them. The talk will more like a conversation. It’s not formal and it’s not stuffy and its supposed to be a good, fun, informal talk. Also, There’s been a lot of interest in the programme I’ve being doing since 2010, the Family & Me about the black bears.
TM: And the saying, ‘Hey bear. It’s me bear!’ slipped into the public consciousness when that aired?
GB: Yeah. But it also involves wolves, gorillas and elephants and for all of those series I had to build up some kind of relationship with those animals. With television there’s so much that you can’t put in, and there’s so many questions that people have about it and its an opportunity to meet people face-to-face and share it with whoever has the same interests.
TM: What did you think when the bear that you had become particularly close with was shot by a hunter?
GB: Hmmm yeah, in many ways I wasn’t surprised. I think you can’t get too sentimentally attached to a wild animal because bad things happen in the wild. But I was particularly sad that it was a human being that had put an end to that animal’s life. I wasn’t angry but it just seemed pointless… I mean if it had been natural well… but for that animal to be targeted by someone with a rifle was just such a waste.
TM: But do you not think that about western society and hunting wild animals as a whole?
GB: Well no. I’m not opposed to hunting at all. I mean I’m from Scotland and the deer population is way out of control and if we want to have forest, we need to cull the deer and sustainable hunting is fine in my book. It can also support revenue and can support economies and we can’t say all hunting is bad but, there is some hunting we can live without and is very bad. But if it can be done humanely and sustainably, then it’s a natural recourse that we’re harvesting. It’s a funny way of looking at it but its part of where we came from as human beings. We’ve got that hunter instinct and its part of our make-up.
TM: And finally, if they do ask you to fill David Attenborough’s shoes what will you say?
GB: (Laughs) His shoes are too big for ME! I’ve got smaller feet than him (Laughs).