PBS Nature

Cinematographer Nimmida Pontecorvo captures a vista for the "Born in the Rockies" episode of Nature.

Courtesy of the WNET Group
PBS Nature

A Maui seabird perches on the hand of cinematographer-coproducer Paul Atkins during a break in filming "Sharks of Hawaii."

Courtesy of the WNET Group
PBS Nature

For "Animals with Cameras," a Caribbean Reef shark does his part. 

Courtesy of the WNET Group
PBS Nature

Cinematographer Howard Hall films a mother humpback and her calf in Moorea, French Polynesia, in "The Whale Detective."

Courtesy of the WNET Group
PBS Nature

Gordon Buchanan, cinematographer-host of "Animals with Cameras, A Nature Miniseries," with a camera-toting cheetah in Namibia.

Courtesy of WNET Group
PBS Nature

A cheetah nestled in the woods.

Courtesy of WNET Group
PBS Nature

A crew from "American Spring LIVE" films a sheep giving birth in Maine.

Courtesy of the WNET Group
PBS Nature

During Covid-19 lockdown, cinematographer Martin Dohrn films a bumble bee at his Bristol, England home in "My Garden of a Thousand Bees."

Courtesy of WNET Group
PBS Nature

Cinematographer-producer Peter Schnall captures beekeeper David Hackenberg in Milbridge, Maine, for "Silence of the Bees."

Courtesy of the WNET Group
PBS Nature

Bear biologist Rae Wynn-Grant holds a bear cub in a Maryland state forest in "American Spring LIVE."

Courtesy of the WNET Group
PBS Nature

In northern Japan, sisters embrace in "Snow Monkeys."

Courtesy of the WNET Group
PBS Nature

The setting sun provides the backdrop for a fight between two bull giraffes in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, in "Okavango: River of Dreams."

Courtesy of the WNET Group
Fill 1
Fill 1
July 21, 2022
Features

Forty Years of Nature

Great heights and depths are familiar locations for the cinematographers of the PBS series, who bring home the wonders of the natural world.

Libby Slate

In Peru's Manú National Park, Ann Johnson Prum was once stopped in her tracks by a puma. And in the Amazon, venomous snakes wrapped themselves around her tent. Her colleague Joe Pontecorvo has camped in grizzly bear territory in Alaska's Katmai National Park and spent three weeks in a forest peat swamp within a Sumatran jungle.

Prum and Pontecorvo aren't doing it for the adrenaline rush — in fact, Prum says, "We're not daredevils in any sense." They're among the seventy or so cinematographers who have ventured around the globe — on land, in the air, underwater — to capture footage and tell stories for Nature, the PBS wildlife series that celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. Prum had been filming Peruvian trumpeter birds when they began sounding their alarm call, sighting the puma behind her; Pontecorvo was in Sumatra to film orangutans who craft and use wooden sticks to pop out the tasty seeds of the neesia fruit.

Since its premiere in October 1982, Nature has aired more than 400 episodes, winning two Primetime Emmy Awards, thirteen News & Documentary Emmys and a Peabody Award. Those episodes include the live broadcast "American Spring LIVE" and the miniseries "Animals with Cameras," two three-part installments in which the wildlife wear custom-built cameras to chronicle their worlds.

The show's success is due in no small part to executive producer Fred Kaufman, who began as a production assistant at Nature's producing station, New York's WNET, three months before the show launched. He has held the top spot since 1993.

A Bronx native, Kaufman didn't know anything about natural history when he was hired, and he has rarely been on location. But he knows which creatures warrant entire episodes, which should be assigned to supporting roles and what appeals visually to viewers.

"From the very beginning, Nature has had a very cinematic look," Kaufman says. "We have beautiful light, and the compositions are always interesting. There's a big, epic look and feel to the story. We look for artists, people who can really paint a beautiful picture."

Those artists are storytellers, too: Pontecorvo and Prum, like many of the show's cinematographers, are also producer-directors. He has written for the show, and she has written non-Nature documentaries. Each has won two News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Prum for episodes on hummingbirds and ducks and Pontecorvo for an episode on snow monkeys.

No matter which creatures they are focusing on, the Nature plotlines must remain real.

"Animals do whatever they want to do," Prum says. "So that's the biggest challenge: putting yourself in a position where you're not influencing the behavior of the animal and you're allowing the animal to do what it normally would be doing."

Shots are planned as much as possible, while allowing for unpredictable animal action and unexpected weather conditions. "There's a lot of what I call creativity in the field — it's super fun," says Prum, who often shoots with fellow cinematographer Mark Carroll. "Shooting on the ground, we'll see things we hadn't thought of. An animal will come by, like a squirrel, and we'll say, 'Oh, let's get that. That'll enhance.'"

But a different sort of vagary is challenging the profession. "In natural history, everything is seasonally based," Pontecorvo observes. "Climate change has really messed with the seasons. So you never know what to expect; it's influenced a lot of what used to be fairly predictable."

The pandemic has presented its own obstacles, shortening shooting schedules and restricting travel to locales closer to home or otherwise more accessible.

Pontecorvo and his wife Nimmida, herself a two-time Emmy winner for cinematography and sound, are spending one year, rather than the usual two or three per project, filming in the Niagara Falls area. Prum and her husband Richard, a Yale ornithology professor, spent several months in Costa Rica for episodes on woodpeckers and hummingbirds after their first choice, Brazil, didn't work out.

Prum tackled her first Nature assignment in 2008. That shoot — also focused on hummingbirds — would not have been possible without then-new technology that enabled her to capture footage of the tiny creatures, whose wings beat up to 200 times per second.

"Vision Research, a scientific camera company, was making digital cameras for the military," Prum explains. "They created a sensor that we could use for television and feature films, and that really changed the game. You could start shooting birds in slow motion and really see what they were doing, because you can't see that with your naked eye."

That equipment is the Phantom Flex high-speed camera system, which Prum also uses for butterflies. Nature has benefited from other advances as well: cinematographers now shoot 8K resolution video, for sharper, more realistic images. In the field, both Prum and Pontecorvo use RED digital cinema cameras, which have a wide range of bright to dark color tones; the smallest model can fit in trees and other less accessible places and be operated remotely.

FPV (first-person view) drones provide unique vantage points and more immersive experiences.

And another tool — camera traps, boxes containing a camera attached to a sensor, which are strategically placed around a habitat — are now also triggered remotely.

"You can get these very intimate glimpses into animals' lives because you're not even present — they're just filming themselves," Pontecorvo says. "When things work out right, you can capture behavior that we wouldn't have been able to capture any other way. I think the biggest advancement in wildlife cinematography is being able to control cameras remotely."

Still, he enthuses about the relationships that can develop when animals become comfortable enough in his presence to grant him close-up access. "You can watch their lives unfold," he says. "That is the draw."

Pontecorvo and Prum both laud Nature and Kaufman for their approach to wildlife and to storytelling. "Nature is the standard bearer," Prum says. "They really care about presenting the accurate and in-depth story, and letting you craft your story. It's not about sensationalism of the animals. They really care about wildlife.


"This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #7, 2022, under the title, "Oh Say, Can You See."

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