The Current Issue
Nikon Owner Issue 17
A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF NEIL LUCAS by Gillian Greenwood
Neil Lucas, a dedicated Nikon user, is a producer for the BBC's Natural History Unit. He has worked with David Attenborough on three of his major series: The Trials of Life, The Private Life of Plants and The Life of Mammals, as well as individual films for Wildlife on One and The Natural World. He spent the early part of this year in the depths of the rain forests of Kenya filming driver ants for a future edition of The Natural World. He has just returned from working on a six-week shoot on Corfu, directing the filming of all the wildlife and second-unit shoots for a BBC drama based on the story of Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals, to be aired on Boxing Day this year. An extraordinary sense of adventure, his infectious enthusiasm for the subject and his astonishing body of work as a producer for wildlife programmes are apparent in both the images he takes and the story he tells.
Neil grew up with a wonderful plethora of wildlife all around him, an idyllic childhood full of nesting kestrels, barn owls and other creatures. One of his most vivid early memories was of his father bringing into his bedroom a family of hedgehogs that normally lived under the garden shed. As a child he drew everything he could find, from insects to horses and imaginary country scenes with ducks and other farm animals. The prize toy of his early years was a model Commer van with a detachable cameraman that could be put on the front, from which he would pretend to film spiders and woodlice around the house. He created his own 'flick books' and, fascinated by how images moved, he progressed to a toy Zoetrope, with a spinning drum and viewing slit, making his own cardboard inserts - some of his earliest attempts at animation and film-making.
When did you first become interested in photography?
I first started to play with cameras while still at school. We had cameras and black & white film but no dark room, so I sneaked into the University's photographic department, which I adopted as my second playground. I wasn't supposed to be there but knew where the key was kept. I always went on a Wednesday, dressed up in what I thought was University clothes, even though I was only thirteen or fourteen at the time. In this way, I had unrestricted access for several months. There was nobody there and I had great fun. I found some old negative film with images of Charlie Chaplin and started to print them, but sadly I was caught and couldn't go there any more.
What did you study at Art College?
I completed a foundation course in graphic design, which also included ceramics, pottery, sculpture and photography, which meant that I could finally use the darkroom legally! But the course was too structured, as I actually preferred taking cameras apart and seeing what I could do with them!
What was your first experience working with television?
At weekends and during the holidays, I would help out at a local wildlife park, gradually spending more time at the park than at college, which is how I first became involved in television. We supplied animals for the children's series Animal Magic, which Johnny Morris presented live from the studios in Bristol. We also went on location with Man and Boy presented by Simon King and Mike Kendall. We used to turn up with hedgehogs, moles, badgers, foxes and all sorts of British wildlife.
I have some very funny memories of that time. Birds we were filming often flew up into the studio roof and would not come down, but the funniest occasion was on Badgerwatch, another live show with Johnny Morris. We took some baby badgers along to a special set at the BBC, where they were using infrared cameras to demonstrate how the wild badgers outside were being televised. They had built an entire piece of countryside in the studio, complete with a grassy bank with a hole where the badgers from the wildlife park were supposed to emerge. We had to put the badgers down the hole just before the programme went on the air. So the seconds ticked by, the music started, the lights dimmed, my heart was racing, and I quickly put the badgers in their place and stepped back to watch the monitors. Just as Johnny Morris started to explain what was happening, the vision mixer switched to the camera onto the badger's hole and all we could see was a snowstorm. We discovered later that the hole had been made out of polystyrene, so naturally, when the badgers went in the first thing they did was to try to dig it out.
What was your first camera?
My first SLR was a Praktica, but soon afterwards I bought a Nikon FE2, a great camera; and as soon as I had one I wanted another, because it was aggravating to change lenses so often. I used to go into the garden and practice framing and focus, following birds in flight, often with no film in the camera.
I believe you worked for a conservation group in the U.S.A. for a while?
I went to the U.S.A. to work for a conservation group - the Peregrine Fund, based at Cornell University in Ithaca, upstate New York. I worked in Arizona on their Harris hawk, peregrine and bald eagle reintroduction programmes, watching birds all day, keeping an eye on the new releases, and simultaneously shooting a lot of images. It was an extraordinary place peppered with old gold mines and coyotes and rattlesnakes all around. After I received my first photographic commission from the Peregrine Fund, I went immediately to the local camera store where I picked up a battered old Nikon F3 to add to my collection of two FE2s.
I spent about four years in the States, working there in the winter and returning to the U.K. in the summer. In the U.K., I continued to train animals for film and television, including the children's drama Seal Morning and the TV vet series All Creatures Great and Small. I supplied kestrels, foxes and badgers and all sorts of other wildlife. Another film was Lionheart, the story of some children in their search across France for Richard the Lionheart, led by the king's falconer. I trained the birds, and we went everywhere - France, Hungary and Portugal. One day we were flying birds from the back of an articulated truck hurtling down the streets of Budapest, which was used as a stand-in for twelfth-century Paris. Usually I was in front of the cameras, dressed up as an old falconer, or in similar guise. About this time, I also went to Corfu to work on My Family and Other Animals, based on Gerald Durrell's classic book. I trained owls to fly around rooms and down olive groves. Oddly enough, I have just returned from working on a six-week shoot on Corfu, directing the filming of all the wildlife and second-unit shoots for a remake of the story, to be aired on Boxing Day this year.
How did you join the BBC's Natural History Unit (NHU)?
I was originally asked first to work on a film about owls in the Wildlife on One series, but I was in the U.S.A. at the time; subsequently I was asked if I would like to work for four days on a new project, Supersense, overseen by wildlife film producer John Downer. They wanted to film a blue tit flying alongside a car, which we achieved. Four days became four weeks and so on….I have been with the Unit now for 17 years.
What is your role within BBC's Natural History Unit?