Silverback’s Jonnie Hughes

Saving our planet is hardly idle talk to Jonnie Hughes, a director at Studio Silverback. For years, he has been harnessing the power of filmmaking and storytelling to create documentaries that awe and inspire while clearly illustrating the perils impacting our environment. Among the numerous films and TV series Hughes has produced and directed is David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet. At MIPTV, Hughes was awarded a MIP SDG Award, presented by Caroline Petit of the United Nations, in recognition of Silverback Films and Studio Silverback’s work supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Hughes talks to TV Real about working with Attenborough, the challenges of capturing footage of animals in the wild, the responsibility of informing the public about climate change and the hope that with much work, there is still time to make improvements.

***Image***TV REAL: How do you balance making a show that will draw an audience while at the same time imparting somewhat depressing news about climate change?
HUGHES: It’s getting easier. Because there was no good news a few years ago, and because we were heading into a car crash and didn’t know how to steer away from it, environmental films were a very niche activity. But that’s not so much the case anymore. We can point to real change already happening in markets [involving] cars, for example, which everyone can see are changing rapidly, solar panels on people’s roofs or plant-based foods. There is a huge market change going on, which means that it’s mainstream. That allows commissioners to take a risk on those stories, although I think they should do that more often. And more people in the general public—the average person is more engaged, more interested in it. It’s getting easier because there is now good news to add to the mix.

TV REAL: What’s it like to work with David Attenborough? He is so engaging to watch. Despite his age, he’s still a boy in terms of his enthusiasm.
HUGHES: That’s really good insight; that’s what he is. He’s genuine, absolutely genuine. I watched him when I was a boy and wanted to be him, and that’s why I’m doing this job now. He’s still busy. In the U.K., he’s a national treasure but globally, the reason he’s so well-regarded is because he means what he says. His judgment is so sharp. A lot of talent gets over-exposed or says the wrong thing at some moment, or whatever, but his core position, I believe, is so true that it’s effortless for him. Regardless of what question you ask him, he comes out with great answers and great wisdom, and it all just chimes.

TV REAL: What other projects are you working on?
HUGHES: We are trying to [cover] all things at once because it’s all so urgent. We try to prioritize the issues. The ocean is incredibly important. [It] has an extraordinary capacity to recover and, in so doing, help us with climate change.
We really want to talk about Brazil. Everyone needs to talk about Brazil because we saw what happened with the last administration, and we’ve now got four years with Lula [da Silva], the new president, who has said he would stop deforestation. We can’t just stop it; we have to start reversing it because it’s right on the edge. And literally, if we lose the Amazon, in five or ten years, we’re done. We need to talk about Brazil. We’ve got a whole campaign; it’s all about focusing attention on that story because it’s largely unknown.

We’re also trying to make it a little bit easier for everyone to tell stories about the planet, so we’re looking at how to do that.

TV REAL: How do you get all that amazing footage of animals? What cameras do you use? It must take weeks to get that one thing you are looking for.
HUGHES: It’s so exciting! You set yourself a challenge with a team to capture a behavior out in the wild often that hasn’t been caught before. Each challenge has its own particular solution. I’ll give you one example.

I needed to film a tiger hunting in the forest. That’s a crazy thing to try to do because it’s hard to see things in forests, let alone film things. People have captured tigers hunting in the open, but they’re actually forest predators. So
we [had] eight weeks for a five-minute sequence. We thought it was enough, and it was in the end, but we had to increase our chances. So we went for a female with four big cubs. Why? Because she has to hunt more often. That ticks one box.
We decided to go in the winter. Why? Because in the summer it’s so hot she hunts only at night. In the winter, she hunts 24 hours. Tick that box as well.

The reason you go for a female is not only because she is feeding cubs but also because her territory is much smaller than a male’s. Tick another box. So you are increasing your odds all the time, but you still have to be lucky. You have to work with the best guides who know the [location] inside out. And then you must put time and effort into it so each morning you get up at 4 a.m. You must be in position before the sun comes up. We would know by 8 a.m. whether we had a chance of seeing her that day because you have to find them first thing and then follow them. If you don’t find them before 8 o’clock, you have no chance because they will be sleeping in the forest. Three out of four days, we couldn’t find her. So you only get a quarter of your time as well. You just keep going and filming and filming and filming.

Another big way we cracked it is that we had a special camera. A very expensive camera. It’s the camera that they usually place on helicopters for stable shots. It’s like a special gimbal, but we had it on the back of a jeep in a forest. That meant that we could point it 360 degrees around the jeep. We wouldn’t have to set up a tripod and then start filming. It was available immediately. So whenever we caught a glimpse, we were able to film.

TV REAL: How many were on your team?
HUGHES: Myself, the cameraman, and then there were three guides and two jeeps. One could go off and try to find her and then call us over, so it doubled our chances. It’s a huge effort. If you are trying to get polar bears or whales of army ants, there are completely different challenges. But that’s the excitement about it. Honestly, the truth is that we read all the science before we go. We talk to the field scientists. But in many cases, we spend more time with these animals than even the scientists do because they have to mitigate risks as well, and they don’t have big budgets. I filmed Arctic wolves with them. The only data we had on Arctic wolves were from the dens. So when all the wolf packs went out hunting, the scientists had to stay in the den because it was the only place they could be sure they would see the wolves. So we went on quarter bikes, followed them and filmed things no scientists had ever seen or realized about the wolves. That’s so exciting!

TV REAL: What are some of the takeaways from your work?
HUGHES: Nature is remarkable, and evolution is remarkable. My love originally was for science and ecology. There absolutely is a world in which human beings and wild animals can be in harmony. If you look at the tiger parks in India, for example, the tiger numbers are escalating now. In the ’90s, you’d go there, and most of the people visiting the parks would be tourists from international places. When I went five years ago, 90 percent were Indian domestic tourists. That means that India, the Indians and its tigers are now coming into harmony. Again, in the ’90s, most tigers dying early were dying of poaching. These days, if tigers die, it’s mostly from car accidents. Poaching is virtually gone in many parts of India. We’re moving into a new stage where the local communities are benefiting from the tigers and are proud of the tigers. It’s just like in more Westernized countries; national parks are sacred to us. That harmony is possible. I have this dream of the whole world being like that in a hundred years’ time if we do the right things.

TV REAL: So, God willing, if I have grandchildren, they will have a world to enjoy?
HUGHES: There’s a lot of work to do. Absolutely tons of work to do. And this whole idea that we as communicators have a massive job to do, which is to allow people to see that vision. But yes, the vision of the future is fantastic. We’ve just got to get there in time.