Conversations with Kim Jeffries, Paul Satchell, and Connor Gallagher: On capturing sublime underwater scenes in NatGeo’s “Incredible Animal Journeys.”

In National Geographic’s latest wildlife series, Incredible Animal Journeys, viewers are transported into the midst of a fascinating natural spectacle where millions of animals migrate across the planet, following routes inherited through generations. This series, narrated by Jeremy Renner, showcases the awe-inspiring journeys of various species as they traverse from the Antarctic to the African savanna, and from the Pacific Ocean to Alaska. The audience will join a protective humpback whale mother and her calf, witness the perseverance of a tiny dung beetle, follow the flutter of a monarch butterfly, and admire the unwavering spirit of a barn swallow, among other incredible creatures. These animals utilize the earth’s magnetic field, stars, moon, and ocean currents, along with their inborn land senses, to navigate vast distances in search of food, mates, and survival. Jeremy Renner’s narration enhances the experience of this wild adventure, highlighting the life-long journeys of these remarkable animals. (Incredible Animal Journeys premiers November 19.)

We spoke with some of the cinematographers responsible for the stunning visuals that make Incredible Animal Journeys as eye-catching as it is compelling.

Can you share with us your journey into cinematography and specifically, what inspired you to specialize in underwater shooting?

Kim Jeffries: I came into cinematography a little backwards. As a professional diver and captain, I was first brought on to assist with the Emmy award winning documentary ‘Chasing Coral’. This gave me my first taste of using film as a means of science communication and that it has the power to change not just hearts but policy. It’s a beautiful, dynamic environment that spans most of our planet and arguably has the most undiscovered secrets. Ever since then I’ve been trying to show people the truth about our oceans, to capture not just the beauty but the hidden moments. I’m incredibly privileged to have access to this environment that so few will ever experience. 

What are the key factors you consider when selecting cameras and equipment for underwater filming such as in “Incredible Animal Journeys”, and how do these differ from traditional land-based cinematography?

Paul Satchell: For the most part we use the same cameras when filming topside as underwater – RED raptor, helium or Gemini. However we don’t have the same flexibility that those filming above water do- so lens choice is critical. You have to really plan and stick with the shots you want to get for the day, as lens changes with large cameras in complex housings with lens gears are difficult or impossible depending on sea conditions and the size of the boat. So, sometimes you’re stuck with the longer lens or macro wishing you had the wide! Shooting through lots of water at a distance from animals is also not very effective, so we don’t tend to use lenses longer than 70mm except for macro. 

Kim Jeffries: Frequently cinematographers will also have two underwater builds. In the right situations and teams we can shoot multiple angles with different setups – a technique we were able to use quite effectively in this shoot for tights and wides. 

Underwater lighting can be quite challenging. How did you approach lighting in the depths of the ocean for “Incredible Animal Journeys”, and what techniques do you use to ensure optimal illumination?

Kim Jeffries: There’s a joke somewhere about underwater cinematographers and not wanting to film on cloudy days but it’s a thing. As far as lighting goes, what we really look for is consistency to make the story match day after day. We relied heavily on natural light and opted to not use lights and because a lot of the scenes were shot near the surface or in clear waters we didn’t need them. I also find that lights tend to bother animals and prefer to just avoid them. There are definitely applicable situations for them. 

Could you describe some of the unique shooting techniques or approaches you used while shooting “Incredible Animal Journeys” that might differ from on-land shooting?

Paul Satchell: Filming the green sea turtles at raine island was a unique challenge, as we wanted to capture the moment the females started to reach the reef in the late afternoon, preparing to head ashore to lay their eggs. The timing shifts everyday so we went and sat on the reef sometimes for a few hours on rebreather, waiting for the perfect moment. The tides and swell were very strong there so you had to cling on! And there were plenty of tiger sharks waiting around too. Filming the hatchlings escaping the jaws of the reef sharks made use of the new RED raptor & its high frame rate at 4k. We shot using the CN20 at 240fps, and the raptor did an incredible job picking up the tiny hatchlings getting tossed around in the surf and by the sharks. We only ever had about 30 mins in the evening to get those shots, and that was also tide and wind dependent! So the pressure was really on there to deliver, and the raptor did every time. 

Kim Jeffries: We also employed the use of a custom designed Polecam (basically a giant moveable fin hanging off the boat with a camera) that allowed us to film animals underwater whilst on the boat. This came in really handy for the faster action such as in the heat runs or when animals simply just don’t want to have divers in the water. 

There’s that Photography 101 cliche about not using long lenses as a way of cheating and creating the illusion of proximity. Getting close is ideal. It’s said that punching in from afar loses something in the process. How does this translate to shooting wildlife which isn’t exactly the same as shooting people on the street?

Kim Jeffries: Especially underwater, getting close is ideal and necessary. We’re limited by the water column’s density and visibility so long lenses are not a popular choice underwater. But I don’t think using a long lens is cheating at all. Sometimes you just want that undisturbed behavior that’s not possible with a wide angle lens. Anyone who’s ever shot with a long lens also  knows how hard it is to keep something in frame, in focus and not wobbly. In the Alaska episode there are some stunning examples of long lens mastery for beautiful intimate moments by cinematographer Erin Ranney. I like to look at lenses as tools – they’re simply a different brush to paint the story with. You plan and bring it all but use what you need at the moment. 

How do depth and water pressure impact your filming equipment and the way you shoot? Are there any specific adaptations or preparations you have to make?

Kim Jeffries: Everything about shooting underwater is a little bit more complicated. The housings our cameras go into are made to withstand incredible pressures of 11 bar or higher. When you’re at the surface you’re under an atmospheric pressure of 1 bar, at 100 meters below the surface you’re subject to 11 times that pressure (1 bar of atmosphere and 10 bar of water pressure). Not only are you dealing with pressure but also a hostile salty, wet environment for delicate lenses and sensors. Our cameras go into housings that are just as costly as the cameras themselves. Once your average underwater cinematographer is geared up in a rebreather with their camera- they’re frequently carrying close to over 100lbs. You’ve got to be able to comfortably lift and swim and maneuver in this. It’s always better to be an experienced diver for the incredible amount of task loading we’re subject to. 

There’s also an incredible physiological aspect to it as you simply can’t keep divers underwater perpetually – even with unlimited air supply. You need to factor in decompression times for them and even central nervous system and oxygen toxicity limits. There are a lot of moving parts. 

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Prior to going out and shooting, how much research do you generally do in terms of your animal-subjects? Do you research their behavior in order to have an idea what they may potentially do and how they may react in certain situations?

Paul Satchell: We do lots of research- for instance I’d been speaking to the scientist in Hawaii (Rachel Cartwright) and local cinematographer and diver (Kim Jeffries) about filming a humpback birth since 2019. There are teams of dedicated people working hard talking to scientists and other field experts, narrowing down the possibilities and timings to make sure we can really nail it. It doesn’t always work! Along with hard work and long hours some luck is involved too.

Kim Jeffries: We do loads of research and employ local experts as well. I encourage you to stop the credits to appreciate the research and production team as well. Without them, the story would never get off the ground. Half the cinematography team have advanced degrees in marine science – I believe Paul has even published about whales. I myself am an AAUS scientific diver and rebreather instructor and have had thousands of hours underwater with wildlife. Paul had first contacted me about the possibility of filming all life cycles of humpbacks all the way back in 2019 after he had seen a humpback video of mine. I remember discussing with him that capturing the birth was absolutely possible – given enough time, luck and hard work. 

Working so closely with marine life, how do you ensure your presence is minimally invasive while still capturing the shots you need?

Paul Satchell: Filming and not disturbing marine life can be tough. Particularly filming humpback whales, as the mums and calves can be really sensitive to people in the water with them, or boats up close. We’d normally take our time with them, creeping up in the boat and perhaps trying an in water approach on the surface. Didier and Kim shot an absolutely exceptional 3 minute sequence moving under a sleeping mother and her calf settling down underneath her. The calf opens his eye, looks right at them and goes to sleep! That’s testament to their diving ability as any noise at all and the mum and baby would have been off. We always work within permitted guidelines or under advice from scientists and other experts. We generally don’t stay too long with any individuals and always keep board and drones at a certain minimum distance, although sometimes the whales want to come check us out! 

Kim Jeffries: Rebreathers! We use closed circuit rebreathers for work at depth. It’s a dive technology that recaptures your exhalation and recycles the unused O2, scrubs the CO2 out and then well you, or your computer, adjust your breathing mix again and repeat. It has physiological advantages but obviously in this situation we’re using them for their bubble free silence. Although animals still know we’re there (sometimes) we’re much less intrusive and this lets us capture undisturbed behavior. 

What has been your most memorable underwater shoot for “Incredible Animal Journeys” and why?

Paul Satchell: For sure filming the birth and entangled whale. Two never before seen behaviors on the same shoot! The birth was something I had always wanted to get – a long term goal of mine –  but it was astonishing to see it- one of about 10 observations ever made of humpback births. And ours was unique in that it was underwater and involved so many animals. The entangled humpback and the savior whale was an extraordinary example of animal sentience- this healthy whale had clearly heard distress calls and came to help, chasing away the sharks and lifting the other whale. It shows that these animals are highly intelligent and probably feel a huge range of emotions.

Kim Jeffries: I was so lucky to work on several underwater shoots for ‘Incredible Animal Journeys’ but I think it’s really hard to beat the experience of witnessing and filming new life, the baby humpback,  being brought into our ocean, especially given how difficult it is for these animals, facing not just natural hazards but man made ones as well. Which leads us to the entangled whale, we spent a lot of time with this animal in her final days. The acceptance by the whales of the divers, vs their active hostility towards tiger sharks, the altruistic behavior of the healthy whale coming to comfort and assist was astonishing. It really felt like a loved one coming to say goodbye. Filming behaviors like these, showing people that these animals are more than beasts, capable of intelligence and emotion. We really need to reevaluate how we view and treat wildlife. 

Connor Gallagher: The entanglement was the most powerful and emotional story I’ve ever filmed. We’ve always been taught to not anthropomorphize animals, and I never really agreed with that because as I see it, many have just as complex emotional and social structures as us. This interaction between the whales showed us there is something deeply intelligent there. 

IMAGE CREDITS: National Geographic.

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