S4E44 - Bonus! The landmark nature documentary series Wild Isles, presented by Sir David Attenborough is currently transmitting on Sunday's at 7pm on BBC One. The fourth episode "Freshwater" features a fabulous bat sequence, recorded in Yorkshire of the phenomenon of autumn swarming. Back in November as the series had entered picture lock, Steve went along to the offices of Silverback films to interview assistant producer Lily Moffatt who worked on the sequence. Lily explains how they captured the shots and what sort of effort goes into capturing such a sequence for a blue chip production.
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Hello, and welcome to BatChat; we're the Bat Conservation Trust, the leading charity in the United Kingdom solely devoted to the conservation of bats and the landscapes on which they rely. This podcast is for anyone who loves bats. We bring you stories straight to your headphones from the world of bat conservation, and from the people out there doing work that furthers our understanding of these magical creatures. I'm Steve Roe; professionally, I'm an ecologist and in my spare time, I'm a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust. You can join the conversation online using the hashtag #BatChat that's all one word. Now we're currently between-series but I'm delighted to bring you this special bonus episode. Back in November last year, I was lucky enough to be invited to the offices of Silverback films in Bristol to chat with the system producer Lily Moffatt about the TV series that everyone's talking about; Wild Isles. We've made this bonus instalment available immediately after transmission of the freshwater episode. So you've probably just watched the amazing bat sequence that Lily talks about so let's get straight into it. Lily for the benefit of listeners who perhaps don't realise who Silverback are, do you just want to introduce a yourself and list some of the other films and documentaries that you've done over the years?Lily Moffatt:
Yep. So I am one of the assistant producers at Silverback films. We are kind of landmark filmmakers. Based out of Bristol, we are technically an independent, but I'd say we're the largest independent filmmakers in Bristol, and we specialise in making high end blue chip Natural History Series, usually featuring the incredibly wonderful Sir David Attenborough. The more kind of notable series recently that's come out of Silverback films in the last sort of five to six years was The Hunt, Our Planet - Life on our planet. And The Mating Game, there's about four or five different productions that are currently being made at the moment. So in the next couple of years, you're gonna see many, many more series that have been created, developed and filmed by Silverback films.Steve Roe:
So we'll come on to the one that we're here to talk about today. But you mentioned the word blue chip, What does blue chip mean?Lily Moffatt:
So blue chip is a bit of a jargon term in the natural filmmaking industry. Basically, it means it's your crème de la crème of filmmaking. It's your programmes that have been in production for four years in the making from when you initially think of an idea. When you pitch it to commissioners to where it gets through commission, you start developing all the story ideas, and then you go out and film it for years, come back, pop it in the edit, you sit in an edit for about a year. And then it goes through various different elements of post production, and then it's lands on your screen. So that's kind of blue chip it's basically Natural History filmmaking that takes ages to make.Steve Roe:
And you mentioned commission, though, how does something like this get commissioned?Lily Moffatt:
It depends on what sort of series you're pitching. And we're incredibly lucky really isn't industry at the moment, we find that natural history series are becoming evermore popular, especially with Netflix, Apple TV, Prime, so there's there's more of a platform out there for for people to watch series. And it means that various different independent organisations and the BBC can be a little bit more experimental with how they create series for how they build a narrative, and how they set up a storyline whether it's featuring a location or habitat or a family of different animals. But for this series, in particular, Wild Isles our kind of our chief exec, the founder of Silverback films, Alastair Fothergill, is an avid birder, especially in the British Isles. And he has wanted to do this series for years and years, nobody's ever really done it to real high spec, like David Attenborough series is, is usually on your screen. So he pitched it, and we, we had to pitch it in a way that showed that it would definitely be different. It would be big, it would be new, and it would be something that would certainly stand out from other documentaries that have previously been shown to show British wildlife. So that's what he did. And we're incredibly pleased when we got the commission through and just over four years later, we're nearly finished editing it. And by the time you're listening to this podcast at home, it will be out on your screens so it's been many years in the making and a roller coaster but of the most wonderful, brilliant kind.Steve Roe:
Yeah, I mean, I'm definitely looking forward to it. It's going to be, you know, I'm sort of imagining it's the same level of quality as those other programmes you mentioned. Can you just describe a bit more about what the series is about? You've said it's called Wild Isles, what should listeners at home expect to see?Lily Moffatt:
Wild Isles is a five part Natural History documentary all about the wildlife of the UK when I say wildlife actually, I'm not being too exclusive because we do feature plants and funghi too, because of course they're all part and parcel the natural world and and some of the sequences you'll see in the series. Hopefully you'll kind of be surprised at bemused by and that's what we really wanted to try and get across to our viewers that it's it's not just a wildlife, it's every everything else in between. So it is a yes, a five part series, we feature an opening episode, which is kind of some kind of large sequences featuring some amazing megafauna of the Isles.Steve Roe:
And what sort of species were we will you be covering in in the series across all of those episodes? Obviously, we're talking today because we know that there's a bat sequence in there, but what other species is there?Lily Moffatt:
We cover everything from our most enigmatic megafauna, Orca, golden eagles, all the way down to the tiny, tiny macro world of osmia by colour bees, which are these amazing little bees that basically carry little sticks meat, thatched little houses lay their eggs in snail shells, and you see their whole story play out is absolutely out of this world. As well as that. Some of the sequences I covered was sort of the more weird, wacky and wonderful, so we have some gargantuan slugs having a very lovable time in the forest, some Toad eating giant leeches, and we also have some of our most beautiful birds of prey. We feature honey buzzards, hen Harriers, golden eagles, see eagles, osprey, all sorts, we've kind of got as much as we possibly could in that, I mean, we could always do more. And we we filmed we went on about, I think it was around 300 shoots over the last couple of years. And those shoots include like little mini pickup shoots. And the beauty of being able to film in the UK is that you can just jump in your car, you can head off to location, take a camera with you, obviously, it's not that easy. That's lots of hair, pulling wrinkles that come out of it. But you don't have to get on a plane and travel halfway around the world, if you need a few extra shots, which is kind of it can happen. And especially if a sequence doesn't work out, if it's rained off, or it's just a bad year for something, we have the beauty of going back the year after or several years down the line. So we've been really lucky in that respect. And if you contrast that to other series, they don't have that luxury. So. So yeah, we've seen a lot of the country and a lot of wildlife. And we've been incredibly, incredibly lucky. And hopefully, when you watch it, there'll be a nice library of a bank of different species in there to really make you realise how varied and the UK is for its for and for now. We're incredibly lucky.Steve Roe:
I mean, I should say that's how me and Lily know each other. It's Lily got in touch because you wanted one of those pickup sequences. For bats. It didn't happen for various reasons, you actually got the shots that you needed, because a bit more about the bat sequence you have got, you know which species does it focus on? And what's the storyline?Lily Moffatt:
Yeah. Poor Steve! I was emailing him to say, do you know about this bat? Have you seen this bat so in terms of our bat sequence, I personally I love that I absolutely adore them and I'm lucky enough to to live in an area with quite a few rare species of bats, greater horseshoes, lesser horseshoes Alcathoe's, Nathusius', so there's, I just love them. And before my time in TV, I used to work and do a little bit of ecological surveying for bat surveying, which I loved. Anyway, TV took me away from that. One day I'll go back. I miss it. But yeah, we really wanted to feature a bat sequence in this series and you know, bats in the UK they account for a quarter of of mammal species here so it would seem mad that we didn't go for a sequence, featuring bats, but it's never that easy. And we looked at so many different stories. Originally, our bat sequence was actually going to be in a woodland sequence, we wanted to film a woodland roost. And we got a few leads there. And we wanted to do something on Bechstein's bats, but unfortunately, just given the nature of of their kind of, you know, this, they're so sensitive to disturbance. And we didn't want to be in a position where we would ever be disturbing a bat species, because that's just obviously not what we're about. And we tried our best to try and make something work. And occasionally in wildlife filmmaking, you can make different sets and you can film in studios and use that, unfortunately, are being rehabilitated. So we looked at so many different options. But in the end, our one of our producers, Chris Howard, he contacted the brilliant professor John Altringham, who has done so much incredible work over the years, I think. He's published like 150/200 papers. He's just a beacon of knowledge. So John, poor John, we went to John about a million times as well. And we said, Oh, John, we're looking for a story. And actually, we've kind of found that we were quite limited with what we could do. We didn't really want to film in a building because we wanted it to feel really wild. Although that's, you know, bats roosting in buildings is incredibly common, and most people won't realise they've got bats roosting in their, their outbuildings or their houses. And again, yes, we wanted to do something about woodlands and things. But John had previously published some works about swarming behaviour in Yorkshire. And we were looking at the story, we always assess how reliable a story is to film. And it would mean hiring a really expensive high resolution, infrared camera, infrared lights, getting special batteries built and then going into getting permission sorted, which is never easy in the UK, because everything is protected, which is amazing, I must say, and all the land is is owned by various stakeholders, land managers, estates and whatnot. But we thought we'd go for it. So we were really lucky. We had the help of Giles Manners, up in Yorkshire who, who was recording the activity on site. But of course, with bats, nothing is guaranteed and anything with wildlife isn't guaranteed, but especially bats. It's like you might get it Oh, but you might not get it. And you're like, Oh, we decided that we're going to go for this sequence behaviorally and visually, but what we really wanted to do is add an extra element to the story. And we realised that perhaps most people haven't heard what about sounds like and uh, me personally, when I used to do my bat surveys, I used to love hearing them. And you could really tell the difference between your Myotis and your your horseshoes, which always sounded like like a glittering diamonds to me I'm like ah diamonds here! And I was like, how can we bring that to people at home watching and I've worked with wonderful chap, Paul Howden-Leach and I dropped Paul a call and I said, Paul, we're going up to Yorkshire to film some bats. Do you fancy it you fancy a little holiday, shouldn't call it a holiday. But you know, it was good, fun. And Paul being Paul, bought all his bat detectors up. And we were so lucky because we got to record so many different species at the actual swarming site. And when we filmed the the feeding behaviour by the Daubenton's on the river, we could actually match the feed pulses with our with our footage and slow it down to the same rate as at which our footage was slowed down to so we could match it perfectly with Paul's recordings, because it's a he has this amazing way of setting the time, date and everything else. So when you guys watch the footage, you will you will hear the actual recordings. And we felt really strongly that we had to include these in the sequence. So Paul was a massive help and an integral part of the back team that we had up in Yorkshire can't really talk too much about it because it's a SSSI site fiercely protected as it should be and lo and behold, the day we got there, it was about one o'clock in the Morning, we'd set all these infrared lights up, we were basically trying to film in the dark because we couldn't see a thing. And our camera was purely infrared. So we had a tiny little monitoring camera where we could actually see the activity of the bats again, or infrared, and a bat detector as well. And we were sat there for hours. And then slowly but surely the number of calls and clicks by bats, it was increasing. And it was by 1am. In the morning. I mean, we may have been going to totally mad because it was at 1am. But it was amazing. It was so active, so busy, we couldn't believe it. There were there were bats everywhere, they were swarming. And we just had this almighty sigh of relief, because we were there, we could film it. And actually, John came along on several nights with us. And it was great to have John with us because he'd of course, recorded it with bat detectors. And you know, you can get pretty good infrared cameras now on the market. But he'd never seen it as we could see it with our cameras. So just to see John's face, looking at the monitors and reacting to the brown long-eared bats, you could clearly recognise in the camera and the Natterer's. And you know, that's kind of, that's a huge part of when you when you are in this industry, and you do this job when you're working with scientists, specialists, who who've dedicated their life to something, whether it's a species, whether it's behavioural or whatever, and you see them there, and they're part of it. I mean, that's, you really feel good when you're on location. And you're all together, and you're all you're all witnessing it. So that's what we went to film the swarming behaviour. And actually, John's research thinks that it's a lek. So it's where males of different species come along. And they basically compete for different females. They also think that this this swarming site is somewhere where bats come and check out hive and hibernation sites. So this is a huge series of underground cave systems. And there's, there's still so much that's not understood, especially in this area, and with this warmth, that a lot of what we were doing, what we were recording was was new to what John had previously seen and recorded. And yeah, we were so relieved and pleased to get it. And we had good fun filming it as well, we all turned into vampires and went a bit mad.Steve Roe:
I mean, with regards to the technology that you've used for the scenes, and I've been driving here today to do this interview thinking, Oh, this is gonna be quite hard, because you know, I haven't seen the sequences. So you know, I have no idea what it's going to look like other than it will have a Silverback films production value to it. You've described the camera is out of this world, can you just describe how much better this camera is and why it's different.Lily Moffatt:
So the camera we used is a super slow motion cameras we call high speed camera. And in the industry, these are fairly common cameras, but usually you never filming anything high speed at nights, usually almost always, in the day time. So to film it at night is particularly difficult because you don't know what to focus on. Because you're using infrared lights. So we had to get lots and lots of infrared lights, I see lots and lots are about eight and position them around the swarming site. Again, we couldn't see anything. So it's all in infrared. And we had to position this camera so that it was roughly pointing in on where the swarming behaviour would happen. And our cameraman Mark Pengilly, the wonderful Mark Pengilly. If you're listening Mark, Mark would just hit record and move the camera really, really quickly in complete darkness, and because of the type of camera we had, we had to watch it back after we'd record five different clips, we had to watch them back and see if we'd filmed anything, which is fairly common for phantom cameras. So during that process, we'd either have absolutely nothing or we'd have an amazing shot of a bat. And the great thing about it that was that it's all completely in the wild that nothing has been fabricated and there's no level of disturbance either because we're literally put It's black. It's just as we just sat there, and marks just pressing the buttons. So these cameras slow down about flying by like, I think it's like 120 times probably more than that. So you can see their faces, you can see their wingbeats, you can see kind of where they're flying, whether there's interspecies interactions, which we saw. Some of the shots unfortunately weren't usable, because they were just out of focus. But when we review every single clip, which we do, I think there are about 1800 different clips, there are so many different snippets of behaviour we hadn't noticed on the night. And we we watch them back and we could see the the bats echolocating see their mouth or teeth moving, it is moving, and then they'd fly. We think they're males, we assume they're males, because it's a leg, they'd fly really, really close to each other, and then kind of size each other off and then fly away. Again, really unusual behaviour, I don't think anyone would see just because it happens so quickly. So we're incredibly lucky that we could actually have time to slow up everything we we recorded and actually watch the behaviour in detail and try and pick out those key bits that supported our story. And we couldn't have done that. If we didn't have this camera.Steve Roe:
I've heard of The Phantom cameras, because it's the same camera that there's a YouTube channel called the Slow Mo Guys use it. And I've always looked and thought oht that's be great if someone adapted one to be infrared. And clearly that's what that's what's happened. You said you went up seven nights. Now how long did it take to get the sequence? And you've I mean, you've said it's, you know, you've had to look at lots of different clips, what are the specific challenges and needs came about as a result of filming the bats? Presumably, you had a bit of a trek to get to the site as well.Lily Moffatt:
Yeah, so we started living like bats, basically, we would go to bed, kind of sunrise, and then wake up sort of mid day because we're out filming all evening. So we we all did go a bit mad. It's quite it was it was good fun. But yeah, the location where we were filming was on an estate in Yorkshire, we were very thankful that we were lucky enough to film there, we would pack up a car four by four vehicle, which was our camera man's. And we'd have a tag team. So the lucky person who wasn't you didn't have to walk up a hill would go out with Mark, and the other crew would park at the bottom of the track and walk up. And we'd be up and down under moonlight. And, and it was it was great, we're in the middle of the forest, we would have to sit there for hours actually, because the setup time took quite a while to get the lighting, right. And until we were done that in complete darkness, we couldn't see exactly where our light was hitting. And this regularly needed adjusting all the time. And we soon got used to that. But then actually, after not a very long time, we decided to move our filming location down to a river site to film feeding Daubenton's bats, which again was just fascinating to see. And that was interesting how we how we would have to light that because again, it's like putting a spotlight in an area but we can't see is not until we were filming an animal and we play the footage back where we think actually, we need to get into a light at the front because we can't see the face. So it's incredibly time consuming. And it can be frustrating because you're doing it blind and it's only when the cameraman says Okay, move it to the left to the right. And it's pitch black in the middle of nowhere. I'm sure it'd be a comedy sketch for anyone who's listening but yeah, it's difficult but really fascinating and and a really unusual way of of filming wildlife as well. It's certainly takes a lot of patience and there's there's definitely an act to it now. Maybe I'm maybe I'm a specialist in it now I'm not knowSteve Roe:
And how long does it take to plan a production like this? And then you know, filming and editing and how many people are involved.Lily Moffatt:
We've got a well we had a crew of about 15 people. It's quite a long drawn out process. You go from an idea and you get people on board people who get excited you then take it to Commissioner they decide If it's a really good idea or not, and then once you have some permission, that's where you can start building your crew, or your researchers or assistant producers, producers, series producers, and then also the integral people in the team, the production coordinators, production managers who make sure that everything is actually feasible, that we want to do, because we come up with some pretty bonkers ideas. So overall, this, this entire series took around for just over four years to make maybe a little bit longer. So it's, yeah, takes takes a long time. But we've been really lucky to have that time to, to do the, you know, wildlife, the UK, justice, because it hasn't been done before, really. And what's the importance of documentaries like this for the public, you know, in terms of education, but also getting them to appreciate the natural world and have an impact on the conservation world that groups like the Bat Conservation interesting to do. Wild Isles was was Co-produced by the World Wildlife Fund WWF and the RSPB and also the Open University. So we've been incredibly lucky to have these incredible NGO charities on board to help guide us, and also to help get the word out there. And I think that's kind of the main point there is, is that so many of us at home, we watch so much on TV, whether it's on on the Netflix or BBC, Apple when you watch sequences, animals all around the world. And you think, wow, that's, you know, mind blowing. But what we really wanted to show people is that actually, some of the most incredible behaviour and species are in your back garden. And we know we may be tempted to go across seas, yes, we will like holiday, we will like to see lions in the wild, you know, that's the obvious one, but go into your local woods, and peel back some leaves and you just see hundreds of organisms on the woodland floor, or, you know, sit, sit at the coast and just have a look over the horizon. And sometimes you'll be lucky enough to see dolphins and seals. And if of course, if you go up to Scotland, you might even see Orca. And that's what we wanted to do. We wanted to bring that, that epic that that big blue chip wildlife series feeling to, to the front doors of everybody here in the UK. And we were we do have a diverse ecosystems and wildlife. And I do think we need to take better care of them and look after them. And of course, if you if you know about something, if you're knowledgeable about something, you tend to care more about it. And if you care about it, you want to protect it. And that's what we're really trying to do. We want to get people excited. We want people to go into their back gardens, look at the skies. See bats in the gardens, you know. And if you know you've got groups together or events, I always go back watching and it's just mesmerising for me still, I love it. So, you know, whether you're into bats or birds, slugs, beetles, anything Marini, you know, just go outside, enjoy it, get excited about it, tell people about it. Because we do need to look after it. And we hope that this series will really highlight some of our our weirdest, most wonderful, bizarre, peculiar species. And we help people enjoy it.Steve Roe:
And just before we hit the record button, we were chatting to a colleague of yours in one of the Edit rooms and we were talking about Halo and I just want to talk about more about the episode that's gonna go alongside this series in terms of engaging other people like business leaders as well.Lily Moffatt:
Again, we've been we've been very lucky, we've been backed by by the charities and by our commissioner, to have various other films, and a big conservation film all about people behind the scenes who are putting in the work, who are helping save our species. And those people who who are responsible and you have the power to show and and educate policy, policymakers about what we should do about our wildlife, and there's plenty we can do. And there's plenty of wrongdoing that we need to correct her name anything from you just to but yeah, we've been so lucky to have the option At to do this, we've got a big financial film coming out about. And then, of course, the Wild Isles Halo, which is a film all about the conservationists in the UK, and how to kind of reverse the effects of habitat loss, and climate change and what we can do to help our wildlife. So that's also going to be coming out alongside our series, something to really look forward to. What's next on the list to facilitate that, you've said you've moved away from models now that it's in the edit mode, you know, what, what are the other productions you're working on, or potentially have in the pipeline? Well, if everyone at home likes Wild Isles, then who knows they'll be a Wild Isles 2Unknown:
seem to be in into those like planet earth, two, Blue Planet two.Lily Moffatt:
We are we're making some really exciting new series. I can't say too much. But a lot of it involves life. A long, long, long, long, long, long time ago, and what the earth used to look like and species it used to live on our planet. And then we are following some wonderful characters up in Scotland for a new series. And we have our traditional, I say traditional, they're not traditional Silverback doesn't do traditional, it's new, exciting, behaviour, behaviour lead series that focus on all different types of species across the world to bring you footage, it's never been recorded before, in a way that that tells you something new and exciting. So we have about six new series coming out in the next couple of years. We're all frantically keeping busy. And keeping across the stories that seem to be unfolding as well. climate changes, is very real. And we're noticing it as filmmakers. We were working with people across the world, and it's quite frightening what we hear, and it's, we need to wake up to it. We really do need to do something about it. And we hope that as filmmakers, we can show people, the actual problems that are happening, and how this is affecting affecting wildlife on a mass scale. And people for that matter. So yeah, stay tuned. And I hope you enjoy Wild Isles.Steve Roe:
Thank you so much for coming on BatChat Lily Moffatt it's been great having you on. Thanks.Lily Moffatt:
So Lily's just grabbed Claire Sharrock from the editing room for me who we were chatting to just before the podcast. So Claire, do you just want to talk about the halo elements and how the standalone episode will help encourage business leaders who we're talking about to try and make a difference?Claire Sharrock:
Yeah, I'll give it a go. So yeah, the halo is all the sort of surrounding supporting content around the world, our series. And that's to do with the fact that WWF and RSPB, the two charities are part of the world our story. And they really want to roll out a whole raft of impactful and supporting content that sort of builds on the messaging of the series, the beauty of the series, but also the conservation messaging. And it's important to them to tackle this from several angles. There's people, the viewer watching this series me you, anybody on the street, who can go do certain things to help protect and restore our wildlife. There's also the government, of course, and those charities spend time lobbying and talking to the government about policy change. And there's also businesses, and part of the Halo is aimed at producing business advocacy films. So talking to a business audience about what they can do to help the transition that we need, which is to a nature positive net zero economy, essentially. And if you think about it, if a business, especially big business makes a change, it can change things for so many people. So me and you can do what we want, and we can all and that's really important that everyone does their plays their part. But if a business gets on board with this and changes its behaviour brings nature to the heart of any transition it's making to net zero, then the impact can be 10 20 million falls, you know, yeah. And we'll just go to the standard episode, or is it being fed in there's an hour long film that talks to consumers that talks to menu that talks to a sort of a normal television audience, then the business films are shorter films that will be rolled out at special screenings within businesses and at business events. And that's much more of a order It niche audience, a very impactful one. So they're standalone pieces of work that sort of aimed or targeted at specific audiences to support the main series.Steve Roe:
So it's very different to what we've seen in other productions. And in that you're trying to target businesses to have an impact and trying to change the way that we all change where the businesses lead conservation, I guess, and you were talking about the charities that have been involved in the series WWF and the RSPB. I mean, are they onboard as well in terms of the stuff that they're generating from their side of things as well.Claire Sharrock:
Yeah, so in addition to the films that Silverback film's producers for the charities, they have got a whole team, and a whole marketing and communication plan around world owls. And teams dedicated to a wild ours campaign, which is based around talking to all elements of society about what they can do to value nature and our wildlife here in this country, and also go a step further and help restore it.Steve Roe:
Great stuff, Claire, thank you very much. Thank you to Lily and Claire for sitting down with me. It was a real joy to see a small part of behind the scenes where this incredible series has been produced. As you heard there, this landmark documentary is hoping to inspire everyone to act to save our precious wildlife. Find out more about how you can get involved at bbc.co.uk/wildisles, and we've put that link in the show knows. Episode Five of Wild Isles is out next Sunday on BBC One at 7pm. And the halo programme that Claire talked about there will be available on BBC iPlayer afterwards. And that brings us to the end of this bonus episode. But before series five starts later this year. We've got another bonus episode coming your way in the next few weeks about a special exhibition that's due to open that you can visit. So tap that follow button in your podcast app. And that way you'll get a notification of when that's available. Recording for series five of BatChat is underway and will be coming later in the year. We're looking for participants to share stories from across the UK with the podcast. So if you're working on a great bat project or have a story about the bats in your area to share, please drop us an email to the address in the show notes. We hope you all have a fantastic summer getting out there and enjoy seeing bats in the night sky