Interview: Doug Allan

Published: 16th May 2016

Doug Allan, the wildlife film-maker best known for his work filming life in inhospitable places for series such as the BBC’s Blue Planet

How did you become a wildlife cameraman?

A fascination with diving led me to a degree in marine biology. On graduating, ‘underwater anywhere’ was my mantra – I dived for freshwater pearls in Scotland, did three Red Sea expeditions, ran a Jersey dive school, and fixed German canals. The big turning point was the chance to work in Antarctica as a research diver, where the photography bug took hold. While there, a chance meeting with David Attenborough in 1981 introduced me to the world of wildlife filming. I helped the crew for a couple of days, and decided there and then that I wanted to make a film about life under the ice. So, not so much a career path, as a careering path.

What’s been your most memorable moment behind the camera?

If pushed for one place and animal, I’d say the hour I spent with a pod of belugas off the ice edge in Lancaster Sound in the Canadian Arctic. Flat calm, clear, black water, curious, all-white whales, and the sea full of their chirping calls. They were surely trying to talk to me.

Is there a place that you feel a particular connection with?

I spent five winters and eight summers in Antarctica between 1976 and 1987 working as a diver, biologist, boat driver, sledge builder, Sno-Cat driver, photographer, base commander and finally a film-maker. All while (mostly!) relishing the all-encompassing experiences of small-group, isolated living for up to two years at a stretch. Antarctica is a very special place to me.

How do you prepare for spending long periods of time in remote, wild places?

The more you do that kind of shoot, the easier it becomes. It helps hugely to have a supportive, experienced team back in the office – the kind who realise you can’t control the weather, or for that matter the animals. They know you’re just doing your best.

You’ve worked with David Attenborough many times. What do you admire most about him?

David is as enthusiastic now about the natural world as he was 62 years ago when he started. He’s a natural raconteur, with a great memory for stories, but also a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humour. But most of all I admire him for his utterly genuine generosity of spirit towards other people.

You’ve spoken about making a documentary with the Inuit people. What fascinates you about them?

You learn from an Inuit by listening rather than asking. Don’t ask: ‘When will we see the narwhal?’ He doesn’t know. He will tell you later when they’re in front of you that it was to do with when the whales would let themselves be seen. Being patient in the company of an Inuit is enlightening.

At a recent talk in Perthshire, you highlighted the dramatic rate at which the Arctic ice caps are melting. How do you feel conservation bodies should try to tackle climate change?

The key lies in helping people reconnect with nature. Encourage them outside. Show them the big picture. Introduce them to the relationships and balances between the forces of nature and how we choose to live. And conservation bodies must always take the voices of their members to whoever is in government.

You were on Desert Island Discs a couple of years back. What kind of music do you listen to?

Ideally something I can sing along with – meaningful lyrics for all shades of mood. Six years ago when my son Liam was 15, I offered him my 20 best songs of all time in return for his choices. Bruce Springsteen met Eminem.

Further info

Signed copies of Doug’s debut book, Freeze Frame, are available now, £25 (plus £6 p&p for UK addresses). Contact Doug direct at dougallancamera@mac.com

This interview first appeared in the John Muir Trust Journal 60, Spring 2016.