Plunging into ice holes at minus 40C, getting up close and personal with humpback whales and lying in wait, often for weeks, for the chance to snatch a shot of a reclusive snow leopard are all “part and parcel of the game” of being a wildlife cameraman, says Doug Allan.
“People would pay a lot of money to get to do what we do,” laughs the award-winning cameraman who has worked with David Attenborough on the likes of Life, Human Planet and Frozen Planet.
And they actually do.
With tourism companies becoming ever more adventurous, travellers are eagerly signing up – for a price – to explore remote corners of the world.
“These days there’s more wildlife tourism than ever across the world to places that 20 years ago had never seen a tourist before,” says Doug.
“But they don’t get the time we do.”
And that time is essential when you’re making the kind of quality BBC documentaries which Britain’s viewing public has come to expect.
Doug will be explaining all about his fascinating job and the tricks of the trade when he comes to the North East next week for the first of two talks called In the Company of Giants.
With stop-offs at Middlesbrough and Berwick, this is a follow-up to an earlier tour when he drove across the country, with a boot-load of his books that he sells at the events, and which proved a huge success.
People want to know everything about his work, and timing, points out Doug, is “the most crucial thing for a wildlife cameraman”.
He explains: “A rule of thumb is that a minute on the screen will take something like nine days in the field, so for a normal 50-minute wildlife film that’s 450 filming days. It’s a massive logistical exercise getting the right people to the right place at the right time, and these are difficult subjects so failure is written into it.
“People might not realise when they sign up for a great wildlife experience that these animals are entirely unpredictable.”
A case in point was a trip he made to India to film for Planet Earth. Doug says: “I was there for two months, over a five-week period then another five weeks, and in that time I saw a snow leopard for an hour – and he was asleep for 50 minutes of that!
“Another time I was looking for polar bears and didn’t find a single bear in that six-week trip. It was a total failure.”
He adds: “Human Planet has given me my highest profile,” and of David Attenborough he says: “He’s still doing things at 87. He’s one of these remarkable people; he just makes time for everything.
“I’ve worked with him on several occasions and we hit it off right when we met. He was responsible for pointing me in this direction.”
Doug was working at a research station when Attenborough and his crew came to film and, watching what they did, he knew it was the job for him. In particular, he wanted to be filming under ice – and he’s now the go-to man for this.
He recalls: “Then, I’d just spent two Arctic winters underneath the ice – that’s where the magic is.
“It still gives me a buzz. It’s so satisfying when you’re in a challenging environment and so familiar with it that you can give it 100% with the image and not be worrying about equipment, buoyancy or cold.”
The job is about mental toughness as well as physical toughness (and the right clothes).
And, as TV viewers will know, the results of what the filmmakers do are extraordinary.
The documentaries are, of course, hugely expensive to produce, not least because of all that wasted time, but, says Doug: “The BBC makes these programmes because they are commercially very, very successful. They may be expensive but they make the money back and more.”
And their appeal never dates.
“There’s nothing about a wildlife film that changes,” he says – other than the highly topical climate change section which was added to a recent series.
And there’s a reason this only features at the series’ end.
It gives it a sell-by date, explains Doug, who is from Dunfermline but lives in Bristol where the BBC natural history unit is based.
“So, in a couple of years’ time it probably won’t be as topical as when we made it as things will have moved on.” He speaks from experience, having seen first-hand the results of climate change on some of the most beautiful and remote areas of the world.
“I trained as a scientist. I was a biologist before I was a filmmaker and I know the facts.
“Climate sceptics are doing a pretty good job of convincing people but there’s absolutely no doubt that climate change is happening and there’s no doubt we are responsible for some of it.
“I’ve been travelling to the Arctic since 1987. A good period for filming was April to June, when it’s bitterly cold and days are quite short, but things are happening biologically.
“I’ve been going to the same place and the weather used to be predictable. You’d never have rain before June. Now, if I’m going there, the weather can be all over the place: wet and warmer, with rain in April.
“Extreme weather is happening all over the world.”
Unfortunately, there’s no solution on the horizon as it would require a global economic and political switch in focus.
And with human beings being what they are, and seeing themselves as separate from the rest of nature, that’s not going to happen any time soon.
“You only have to look at the wider shambles of the banking industry to realise that big business does not give a toss.”
He says: “There’s something about the economic system that suits human beings as a species.
“If you offer people a short-term gain over a long-term benefit, most will take the short-term gain. It’s human nature.” And pollution does not hit our pockets.
The world is using more energy than ever and, while there is plenty of oil and gas, says Doug, unexplored reserves are still being pursued in the Arctic.
“The Arctic is not going to be the same place in 20 years. The best we can do is to preserve what’s left.
“The sad thing is, when really bad things happen, and they will happen – we have the technology to measure these things with an incredible level of accuracy – there will be plenty of people who are able to say we did warn you.”
In his talks he might touch on climate change but he does not labour the point as they are really an opportunity for people to ask questions on whatever interests them about his work, and they may be questions about his most challenging assignment, use of new technology and, no doubt, his most weird or wonderful experience.
“The talks change all the time depending on the audience,” says Doug and, for a man whose working life can take him away from the UK for 230 days of the year, he’s looking forward to this time on home turf.
Doug Allan’s In the Company of Giants will be at the Middlesbrough Town Hall Crypt on April 10 (call 01642 729 729 or visit www.middlesbroughtownhallonline.co.uk then The Maltings in Berwick on April 22 (01289 330 999 or www.maltingsberwick.co.uk)