The programmes made by wildlife TV presenter Hayden Turner have been seen all around the world. Renowned for his energy, passion and commitment to giving viewers an evocative taste of the natural world, Hayden has just embarked on a major new TV project in Africa – ‘Video Postcards South Africa’ – and taken Canon camcorders along for the shoot.
When did you get interested in wildlife?
I was born in Sydney, Australia in 1965 and had a fascination with wildlife from an early age. Even though we lived in an urban Sydney environment, we had a lot of land and my father was a great fan of giving kids a chance to be with animals. I was absolutely fascinated by animals and I blame my obsession on the humble chicken! It was the first real animal I cared for and my father bought me six baby chicks. I was obsessed with animals and wildlife, and had a particular fascination with Africa.
After leaving school, I did a series of jobs including working on a poultry farm, landscape gardening and packing shelves. Then one day I saw an advert for a job at Taronga Zoo in Sydney. I went for the interview and got offered the job. I had a position on the African undulate division (hoofed animals) which is exactly what I wanted. I was there for 10 years and had the opportunity to expand my knowledge, network and skills and to share my passion with people.
How did you get into making TV programmes?
I’d got to a point where I really loved being at the zoo but I didn’t want to be around when I didn’t like it. Every day, I was waking up and wishing I was in Africa. By then, I’d been back and forth to Africa for the zoo, on holidays and for conservation work in Uganda and Zimbabwe. I woke up one morning and decided to resign from the zoo, sell all my things and go to Africa. I knew I was moving onto the next chapter.
Before I left, I was asked if I could look after some VIPs and show them the giraffes. One of the VIPs happened to be the director of National Geographic Australia. At the end of the walk, I told the director I was going to Africa and so he gave me his business card and said: “I’ve got an idea, give me a call.”
I called him and we went for lunch and he said: “I’ve just launched a TV channel in Australia and this is our first commissioned project. I want to call it ‘Video Postcards Africa’. I’ll give you a little DV camera and I’m going to give you a producer who’ll train you how to use it, and every week you send me a story.”
For the next two years I produced 58 episodes that were video postcards of five to seven minutes in length on wildlife conservation, travel and culture. They were really raw and that was because I didn’t know what I was doing! I didn’t even know what a voiceover was. But they were an instant success and I think that was because viewers saw themselves. They saw this passionate Aussie zoo keeper living his dream and they could share it because there was camera shake and wobbles and bad angles and awful exposure. But I had a good editor. The magic that they can pull off in an edit suite is what kept these things on air.
What equipment did you use?
When I’m filming, it’s basically a one-man band – there are no other crew, except perhaps the occasional friend who’ll take a shot of me. I used the Canon DM-XM1 (a 3-CCD MiniDV camcorder). It’s compact and light, which was useful when I was running through bush and being chased by a rhino! When I’m shooting on the run I really need all the buttons and the controls to be in a logical position, and that’s what it gave me. Other brands had them in some really illogical places, even the focus buttons. An optical image stabiliser is very important for me too. It’s very different from a cameraman shooting high-end natural history; my style is more raw and an honest portrayal of my adventure, but I also need to bring back great pictures.
Where did you travel?
I travelled through Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. It was just the most unbelievable two years of my life. I even met my wife in Africa. The video postcards were two years of recording my highs and lows. I spent a lot of time on the road by myself and talking to my camera and that’s a bit weird as the camera becomes your ‘friend’. I got malaria twice and I remember calling my producer and telling him I was in hospital and he said: ”Just film it. Just set the camera up, lie in bed and tell me the story”, and it was one of the best episodes I ever did.
What happened after that?
When my first contract with National Geographic finished, they gave me another one for three years. I started to work with a crew and that was exciting. I’ve worked in Morocco on the Salt Route to Timbuktu. I did a big environmental series for National Geographic called ‘Earth Pulse’. My first series, ‘Hayden Turner’s Wildlife Challenge’, involved shooting 13 wildlife spectacles around the world. I was asked to go to Afghanistan to use my skills as a zoo keeper to help rebuild part of the zoo and I was a reporter on ‘Tomorrow’s World’. I then went freelance in late 2004.
What are you shooting your latest project on?
I’m using the Canon XH A1 high definition (HD) camcorder. This will be my first HD production and to be honest, I was really against HD when it first came out. I wasn’t against HD itself, but the price. I felt the industry was promoting something that was pricing out young filmmakers. I was mortified that there were going to be these cameras out there that were $6,000 to $8,000, and broadcasters were saying they were only going to accept HD at some point in the future. I was feeling sorry for a lot of my friends who couldn’t afford to shoot on big DigiBetas. I have since changed my mind, because the price has dropped dramatically and one of the things I find particularly exciting about the XH A1 is that it’s really affordable. I really need a fast focusing system and that’s why I’m really interested in seeing what the new Canon focusing system is like, particularly with high definition recording. Because HD images are at such a greater resolution, I think focusing stands out more if you have an error.
Another thing I like is that with a single Firewire cable, I can transfer HD footage from the camcorder to a hard drive with no loss in quality.
Are you using any other cameras?
Yes, the Canon HV 30 camcorder. The reason is because part of my style is to have shots of me shooting – people like to know what equipment you’re using or to see what precarious position you’re in. I think it’s difficult to carry around two bigger format cameras so I opted for the HV 30, which doesn’t compromise the picture quality by much. So the HV 30 will be used for this, as well as for interview cutaway shots. It’s also a fantastic camera to have as backup.
What are you going to do on ‘Video Postcards South Africa’?
All kinds of things. Bear in mind that I might start out with a script, but if something unexpected happens when I’m out filming, that could become the story. I’ll be working with my director Roy Degiorgio, who’ll be based in Australia. I have lots of scientist friends in Africa and one of them is a bird nut. We’re going to capture birds of prey to document their location and density in particular areas and then release them. I’m going to travel with a friend along Route 62, which runs through the desert between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. We’re going to give people a video snapshot of the route. Another friend flies hot air balloons and we’re going to journey into a canyon, which he now tells me he’s never done before! Another friend and I are going to shoot short video programmes of high excitement animal tracking on foot. I can feel my legs shaking already!
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