SETS APPEAL My big break came while I was working in a bicycle shop. I'd won a place on the BBC's sound engineering training scheme, and had a temporary job while I waited for the scheme to start. One day a sound recordist came in to buy a bike and we got chatting. He invited me to spend a day on the set of a TV programme he was working on. I made a complete nuisance of myself, asking every question I could think of, and tried to be helpful clearing up cables and boxes at the end of the day. The production company took me on as an extra assistant and, after a month, offered me a full-time job. A week later, I found myself in the south of France, recording an interview with Steve Martin and Michael Caine on the set of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
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DIVING OFF THE DEEP END I moved to Hong Kong in 1993 and, soon afterwards, was offered a job working on a BBC documentary about seahorse conservation in the Philippines. The producer explained that they needed a sound recordist who could work underwater. I said, "No problem, I can do that", put the phone down and contacted a friend who ran a dive shop. I said, "You've got three weeks to teach me how to dive." The job was exhausting, as we spent long hours in the water but by the end, I'd fallen in love with natural history filmmaking and it has been my main focus ever since.
ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE Recording sound is a two-part process. First there is sync sound - capturing the voices of presenters and interviewees. The other task is to record atmospheres - the natural sounds that complement the sync recordings and fill the blank spaces around the action. Atmospheres might include wind blowing through fir trees, cicadas chirping or rivers trickling. Recently I spent a week recording the sounds of Sami people herding reindeer across the frozen landscape of Lapland. I love this aspect because it's very creative and no one tells me what to do. Sometimes I'll spend a whole day in a single spot, recording at different times as the energy of the place changes. It's magical. Many of the locations are remote. Typically, crews camp in the wild for up to six weeks, rising before dawn and working until late at night. The natural world throws a lot at you - it's usually hot, often raining, and it's a constant battle with biting insects. Somehow you have to make yourself comfortable and maintain the equipment. We can only take what we can carry so if something breaks, I have to fix it, and if I don't have the right piece of kit, I have to improvise.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT I've worked in China for over 20 years. I realised from the start that it would be a challenge because just when you think it can't get any weirder, it does. It's essentially no different to anywhere else, but everything is magnified to a much bigger scale. If you want to come out with your sanity, you have to keep an open mind and be flexible. You must also make sure to never miss a meal. For a television production to run smoothly, you need to prioritise what the Chinese call guanxi (connections). This is the time for colleagues to eat and drink together, socialise and build rapport. If you don't make the effort, you'll be climbing one brick wall after another. British film crews will often just grab a sandwich but, in China, meal times are sacred.
SOME LIKE IT RARE In 2013, I recorded sound for the BBC's Wild Burma, one of a series of documentaries in which scientists and conservationists conduct a rapid assessment of a region, draw up a report and present it to the government, in the hope that area will be protected. We focused on wild elephants, tigers and other big cats. Because Burma (Myanmar) has been closed for years, it's very rich in pristine rainforest and has amazing wildlife. I fear for it, though. With my producer I visited a town in the far east of the country, on the border with China, and filmed undercover using a buttonhole camera. I saw slow lorises, civet cats, rare owls and other birds, tiger and leopard skins, bear claws and elephant hides sold openly on the streets and in markets. In restaurants I saw big fish tanks with velvet cloths draped over them - lift up the cloth and there's an entire tiger skeleton soaked in rice wine. Whilst in the forest I also saw logging concessions being established. This is very bad news because where loggers go, poachers follow. The clock's ticking for wild Burma.
GOING APE My work can be dangerous. One time in Borneo, I was tracking a huge male orangutan called Kusasi. He was a real king of the swingers type, with a harem of females. One day I was taking photos of him and because I was looking through the viewfinder, I didn't realise how close we were to each other. He reached out, took me by the wrist and pulled me into an enormous hug. His hands were like huge, leathery bunches of bananas. He could have crushed me to death with ease. He held me firmly, but not painfully, while the rest of the crew ran around trying to figure out how to rescue me. Then Kusasi took my hand and tried to put it in his mouth. I jerked back a little, his grip increased tenfold and I started to feel really terrified. Eventually one of the rangers threw down some watermelon, Kusasi reached out for it and I was dragged to safety. I later learned that when an orangutan puts another's hand to its mouth, it's a sign of trust. I wish I'd known that at the time.
BLOWING HOT On another occasion I filmed a bird that lays its eggs in the hot sands at the base of Mount Tavurvur, an active volcano on the island of New Britain, off the coast of Papua New Guinea. When it erupted it sounded like a jet engine, and I could feel this incredible force as it threw tons of rocks into the air. About 20 seconds after each boom there was a series of earth-shaking thuds as huge, glowing red lava bombs, the size of refrigerators, rained down on the ground. We were camping in a spot we'd been told was perfectly safe but one night, we came back from filming to find the toilet had been obliterated.
The risks are real but for me, it's worth it. I had a huge love of the outdoors as a child, and every time I go on an expedition, it renews that schoolboy zest and I feel like I'm seven years old again.