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A natural progression

4 April 2017

Dr Emma Brennand (PhD 2008) was part of the team that created Planet Earth II with Sir David Attenborough. The nature enthusiast talks about her Bristol years, the highs and lows of filming, and why nature documentaries should feature more ants.

If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be in an Attenborough series, I’d never have believed you. I never had a career plan as such, but I liked environmental chemistry because it helped me to understand what was going on in the world; my PhD focused on fertilisers in the soil system, and knock-on effects on greenhouse gases.

While at Bristol, I was lucky enough to work with two world-renowned professors, who are still there now – Richard Evershed and Richard Pancost. I lived in a house in Southville with other PhD students and in my spare time I joined the University of Bristol Underwater Club where I did a lot of scuba diving. I went from having no experience of it at all to becoming an instructor. Back then, we had two boats and we’d go off on adventures around the Isle of Mull. I still offer to help out when I can. It’s nice to be able to give something back.

For me, going from science to journalism felt like a natural progression. I wanted to share these fascinating things I’d been learning about with everyone around me, scientists or not. Starting with my family, and later doing outreach in schools, I made it my mission to make science accessible and interesting. I was already used to critically analysing facts as a scientist, making sure that whatever I say is well-referenced and checking multiple sources, and that’s really similar to journalism.

You need all of that in order to present a balanced argument and a story worth telling. I think some of the most interesting stories are about insects – especially ants. Their world is absolutely fascinating and terrifying in equal measure, filled with back-to-back episodes of merciless violence, brutal rivalry and globe-spanning armies that wouldn’t sound out of place in Game of Thrones. And that’s why we love watching them so much.

Leaving only footprints

I started off at the BBC working on web resources for teachers writing about building hedgehog homes. I moved from project to project until I eventually got offered a role on TV for a show called Animals Behaving Badly and have never looked back. Planet Earth II took about three and a half years to produce. I worked on two of the episodes: ‘Mountains’, and ‘Islands’. The most challenging shoot for me was probably the Buller’s albatross because of the logistics of getting a crew to a sub-Antarctic island. There are zones of the Southern Hemisphere where there are hardly any landmasses to act as windbreaks, so the air currents are exceptionally strong.

Add to that New Zealand’s environmental regulations protecting the Snares Islands: we were the first film crew to ever be granted permission to land, after a lot of negotiation, so it was a huge privilege. Before we could set sail, our kit had to be unloaded, vacuumed and disinfected, and our boat had to be scrubbed down and put into strict quarantine. A single seed or insect could lead to the establishment of a new pest species that can alter the islands forever. More people have stood on the top of Everest than have stepped foot on Snare’s Island. Two days from the end of our visit, we were relieved to finally witness and film the courtship dance of a pair of albatrosses. It was a very special moment.