Wild Work

25 Aug 2015

Having been on the production crew for some of the most recognised and popular documentaries of the past decade, including Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, Chadden Hunter (Bachelor of Science, First Class Honours, ’95) has seen his share of the extraordinary wonders our world has to offer.

“Scuba diving under the Antarctic sea ice is probably the most surreal experience I’ve had while making wildlife films,” said Hunter.

“The initial pain caused by the temperature of the water is excruciating, but once you drop down through the white ceiling the world that opens up is like something from another planet.”

Hunter spent time in both the Arctic and the Antarctic filming Frozen Planet, which aired around the world in 2011.

“The visibility is astounding - what you think are specs of debris in the water at arm’s length are actually metre-long Emperor penguins rocketing up from depths of 300 metres,” said Hunter.

“They’ve never seen divers before and start orbiting you in the water; hundreds of huge, graceful black and white torpedoes looking you up and down as you get dizzy with the spectacle.

“Once we emerged from the ice hole I tried to re-tell the experience to the ‘Making Of’ camera, but before I could get the words out a stream of penguins starting exploding out of the water and landing in my lap.”

Whilst Hunter’s education at UQ, majoring in Zoology, might only seem to have half prepared him for a career as a nature documentarian, he suggests communicating research to the masses in a digestible way is simply the next step for any scientist.

“If you ask wildlife filmmakers how they got their jobs, every one of us has a different story,” said Hunter.

“I’d never thought about a career in media until Sir David Attenborough and his film crews started turning up at my PhD field site in Ethiopia.

“As a scientist I was interested in how we communicate our research to the wider world and how to turn the complexity and subtlety of nature into something that could reach a wider audience.”

Attenborough visited Hunter’s field site for his Life of Mammals series, a visit Hunter counts as a career highlight.

“For so many of us who’ve ended up with careers involving wildlife, he is an inspiration and hero but I never expected to meet him let alone end up producing films that he’d narrate,” said Hunter.

“It was humbling to introduce him to my baboon troop and have him ask endless questions.

“It was a key turning point in my career drift from academia to media.”

Hunter has since worked with Attenborough on Planet Earth and Frozen Planet and is currently in Botswana filming another Attenborough series, the sequel to Planet Earth.

“Right now I’m in the Okavango Delta where we’re filming lions hunting in the swamps - or trying to, the reality is that we spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for wildlife to do something!” Hunter said.

The significant ratio of ‘waiting and watching’ versus ‘real wildlife activity’ means documentary projects are often years in the making.

Hunter worked for three years on Frozen Planet, and a further three years on his most recently aired documentary, Wild Arabia.

“After three years freezing my bits off making Frozen Planet, this Queenslander’s blood needed warming,” joked Hunter.

“I decided to work on a three-part series called Wild Arabia, which was a rare chance to visit and film a part of the world that, despite it’s iconic and evocative name, very few people knew much about.”

As producer of the series, Hunter was permitted by the BBC to extend on the abundant wildlife sequences and weaved in human and cultural stories, opening both him and his team up to deeper exploration of the soul of Arabia.

“We expected deserts, camels and scorpions, but were surprised to find mist-shrouded forests filled with rare Arabian leopards, wolves and chameleons.”

While Hunter’s career brings him into almost daily contact with genuinely marvelous aspects of our world, he is also privy to first hand observations of human impact around the globe.

“When I was a Zoology student in the ‘90s, it felt like there was a real global conservation awakening: saving whales, harp seal pups and rainforests seemed so urgent at the time and we have made progress on some of those fronts,” said Hunter.

“But habitat destruction is still one of the most depressing things we encounter when trying to find the last wild animals and places to film.

“One of the key problems driving habitat loss is global poverty.

“It’s difficult to tell an impoverished farmer in Borneo that he shouldn’t cut down more rainforest when his only income is palm oil, or an African local to stop hunting bush meat while his kids are starving.”

Hunter believes developed countries have no such excuse however, and is keen to see individuals, corporations and governments taking action.

“I think the best way to make a difference is to get political: bug politicians, embarrass corporations, vote responsibly,” said Hunter.

“The internet and social media are powerful new tools and I hope the next generation of conservationists use them to drive environmental issues into mainstream politics and not just around university campuses.”

“A frightening amount of corporate profits rely on over-consumption when the simplest ethical logic screams for us to live more sustainably.”

In his own role, Hunter and fellow wildlife documentarians are hoping to inspire a culture of conservation around the world, and believe they’re making a genuine impact.

“What David, as a front-man, has shown us is that nature on television can hold its own as mainstream entertainment,” said Hunter.

“Through wildlife films we can reach the masses and inspire them to care about the natural world.”

“Not many branches of science have been able to do that.”