High hopes in low light

•May 25, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I don’t know about you but I’m pretty confused these days. Spin seems to dominate and logical, empirical decision-making seems to be out of the window. I think it was the same for the clans of the Ikundi Ku that I spent time with during a recent filming trip to Papua New Guinea. Their world is changing fast and their outlook on the options and possibilities hazy at best. Decisions have to be made, they can no longer live as they had. The outside world had crossed into their physical and psychological territory. The young saw opportunity, the elderly saw a balance of the risks and I think, a fear, born of deep pulse of our collective clan histories. A pulse rarely felt by us.

child at camp fire

Reflecting now on what I saw, it seems more and more that it’s the same predicament we’re all facing. Our predicament in the modernised western world is just far less threatening in its immediacy, yet far more expansive in it’s implications for the planet and our future on it. We’re too familiar with overcoming adversity and too complacent of a century of exponential growth in material consumption.

I could rave on at length about the brilliant filming opportunity and the magic of working with only the flickering light of an open fire and a few head torches brought by the small crew I was working with, but I’ll just let the footage do the explaining.

I’ve never been much for filming people but I guess with age comes a broader perspective. Sharing the sense of discovery with the Ikundi Ku as they tried to peer into the future was something that has stayed with me. I was watching the Anthropocene arrive at one of it’s last and first destinations. Sure, humans have been busily making New Guinea home for tens of thousands of years, but within a set of rules written by nature. Their realisation, whether conscious or not, was that somehow what the outside world offers is a way to bend or break those rules. Our modern hubris. Pure spin.

Madagascar and quiet revelation for a Lighting Cameraman

•June 7, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I was trained as a lighting cameraman back in the days of film. That’s right, the first moving images I every captured were onto emulsion film stock. Video did exist (I’m not that old!) but the best images for documentary broadcast were made on super 16mm film, and that’s what I wanted to shoot on. So I bought myself a H16 Bolex, a clockwork camera, and some film.

Bolex H16

Bolex H16 – as old as it looks but perfectly functional.

In an age where even a low end smart phone can shoot higher resolution footage than this trusty old camera you’d be forgiven for thinking that today it must be much easier to become a cinematographer than ever before. And you’d be sort of correct, it certainly is easier now than ever before to capture moving images and to share them, but I contend that the skills learned with expensive film and a camera with a clockwork mechanism that winds down in 20 seconds flat and requires you to wind it up again before shooting can resume teaches the budding cameraperson a great deal about the process of filming. No internal light meter, much less any kind of auto gain or zebras meant that careful consideration of the available light was essential before shooting (Fluffing up was expensive, and I fluffed up a lot!) and very often, such was the poor light sensitivity of film, additional lighting was needed.  This was one of the key skills I learned from veteran lighting cameramen (there were women filming back then, but not many and I never had the pleasure of working with them) and later from legends such as Sean Morris whilst working as the staff cinematographer at Oxford Scientific Films – the skill of lighting. It’s easy to shine a 2000watt HMI light on a subject, but much harder to make it appear like natural light on screen. Playing with shadows and the way light falls of different surfaces, subtle use of gels, flagging multiple lights to create convincing natural light in a deep set built in a studio in Oxford or Bristol but needing to look like a rainforest in Ecuador or monsoon forest in Australia. It’s a craft and I love it.

However, today we have cameras that have 15 stops of dynamic range and sensors so sensitive that dawn and dusk light hold no fear for even the slowest lens. It’s amazing and a gift for cinematographers. I was recently working in Madagascar, and at about 4.30am the local fishermen accumulated on the beach in front of where i was lodging, to carry out their daily ritual of casting nets with the help of small dug-out canoes. On my second morning it suddenly dawned on me – I can film this with natural light! Only 5 years ago, the situation would have been unfilmable without additional lighting. I settled in with camera and support, one zoom lens and a sense of being oh so lucky. Sometimes past limitations can be very inspiring.

Hallowed Isles – trailer 1

•October 15, 2014 • 1 Comment
Bullers Albatross diving near the Chatham Islands.

Bullers Albatross diving near the Chatham Islands.

We live in interesting times. We can still see our inheritance, the rich natural world that spawned us, but as our use and miss-use of this planet grows so does our need to find new ways to live off and with the natural world. The green movement of the past half a century has owned these issues in the eye of the western media at least. But stronger forces underly our behaviours that drive deeper than the any hue of politics or ideology.

Hallowed Isles is a film that attempts to explore those forces.

Together with my good friend and filmmaking partner Luke Padgett, I spent January and some of February this year out on the Chatham Islands filming a series of short films for the Chathams Islands Heritage Restoration Trust. On the back of that project we were able to put together a feature length film. I’ve made plenty of short format films myself but my work on longer format or feature length films has always been restricted to role of cameraman, DOP and the like. Making a whole film yourself of this size was, as I should have realised, quite an undertaking! But the stresses were equalled by the pleasures of crafting our own score, complete control over the script and cinematic look of the whole film. The film is not due for release but for Conservation Week 2014 in New Zealand this year we are allowing a few sneak previews. This is the first trailer:

Velvet Worm – Onychophoran time travellers

•August 24, 2014 • 2 Comments

There are a few certainties in Nature, but one I’m prepared to bet on is that we don’t last, in evolutionary terms, as long as the velvet worm. But they’re no worm either, nor are they insects, they’re not even an arthropod. These tiny beasts have their own phyla, the Onychophora.

Peripatellus sp. from Osborne, NZ. Photo: James Reardon

Peripatellus sp. from Osborne, NZ. Photo: James Reardon

When palaeontologists first saw their ancestral forms preserved in the Cambrian rock of the Burgess Shales they weren’t even sure if they were looking at a whole organism or in what orientation they should describe it. The story is beautifully told by Stephen Jay Gould in his book Wonderful Life, a book published just before I went to University to study zoology and for me, a mind-expanding text. The truth in nature, as in life, is often stranger than fiction. About 530 million years ago the ancestors of modern-day Onychophora silently evolved into existence in what’s known as the Cambrian Explosion. Life had existed on earth for many millennia but never really more organised than algae and protozoa, but DNA is a relentless driver of invention.

A fossil of the animal Hallucigenia. Credit: Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

A fossil of the animal Hallucigenia. Credit: Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.


These little velvet worms were there when the first animals crawled or wriggled from the water. They lurked underfoot and in the rotten timbers felled by the huge herds of Saurapod dinosaurs, they drifted into isolation as the Gondwanan supercontinent broke apart. But that was then. In light of  the grand depth of Onychophoran history it is easy to overlook their remarkable nature today. These little chaps are hunters. They stalk the mossy forests dampest corners and hunt within the rotting timbers of the forest floor. They have eyes but use highly sensitive antennae to feel their prey in the darkness. But these are no clumsy predator. When prey is found they rear back, like a snake about to strike, and squirt a glue that ensnares their prey. They wait for the glue to congeal before approaching the now immobile spider, springtail or whatever and biting a hole in it’s cuticle with two sharp  mandibles they inject an enzymatic soup to kill and liquify the internal organs of their prey which they then suck out. There is a lot more to know about these small wonders. If ever there was an animal to inspire the budding naturalist or zoologist, this must be it.

I’m currently working on filming a small sequence of this behaviour for the BBC Natural History Unit. It’s slow progress, they’re keen to keep themselves to the dark side of the log (the peripatus that is, not the BBC…) However I have started to get a few shots of a gorgeous little local species, Ooperipatellus viridimaculatus exploring it’s habitat. Just a few test shots really to get a feel for what sort of light they will tolerate and how they behave under low lighting but a great way to share the tiny majesty of the ancient velvet worm.


The Malacostracans gastric mill and other reasons to not dispair.

•July 8, 2014 • 1 Comment
photo: James Reardon

photo: James Reardon


The closer you look at nature, the more marvellous and intriguing it becomes. Our species has doubled in my lifetime; there are now more than 7 billion of us, all clutching to, or aspiring to clutch to a smart phone.  Phytoplankton can reach that sort of population figure in a few square meters of well-lit ocean surface. They’re autotrophs, obliged by their biology to absorb soluble carbon dioxide and excrete organic compounds that underpin ‘the life aquatic’ and a great deal more, all via the engine of photosynthesis.  Being more of a zoologist than a botanist, that’s all well and good but where do the animals come into it? Well, feeding on this phytoplankton and the organic matter synthesised by it are the zooplankton. Excepting marine mammals, reptiles and sharks just about every other order of life represented in the oceans will have a few species or life history stages that constitute zooplankton. Some are single cell protozoa and a few are the tiny larvae of future giants but most are copepods, tiny crustaceans. These tiny beasts might seem incredibly vulnerable in the open ocean but it’s all a matter of scale. Most copepods are only 1-2mm (~0.05″) in length and at that size the world behaves quite differently. If you’re that small water is less of a liquid and more of a thick soup.

Copepod, one of the mirriad tiny ocean organisms that make our planet work.

Copepod, one of the mirriad tiny ocean organisms that make our planet work.

Usually with the second set of cephalic appendages (read: legs growing out of head), copepods swim through the marine soup doing all the same things we do (minus the smart phone thing), enjoying their youth, looking for food, finding a mate etc. Because of the very different world they live in their behaviour can appear strange to our eyes. Watching copepods in a small aquarium makes them look more like little rocket ships than tiny crustacea to the anthropocentric eye. They seem to be able to change the trajectory of their travel without need of a turning curve, acceleration and deceleration appear instant. They are also semi transparent, allowing the observer to look at the internal workings of a set of organs pretty much as complex as our own.

Of course larger crustaceans often provide the same opportunity. The New Zealand shore shrimp is much like hundreds of other shrimp species around the globe and uses transparency to aid its camouflage against detection by predators. If you can’t mimic the environment perfectly you might as well let it shine right through you! Shrimps like Palaemon affinus are detritivores, they eat anything organic, usually the dead or the dying that they can find or capture as it floats past. In a dynamic environment like the ocean, food is washing about everywhere and these shrimps manage to make a modest living from the simple act of keeping themselves clean. If transparency is your cloak against predators you’d better stay clean and smart and so these shrimps are permanently attending to their ablutions. And what they collect becomes a tasty treat.

Palaemon affinis, New Zealand shore shrimp, pulping detritus and the primary producers and consumers of the ocean. Photo James Reardon

Palaemon affinis, New Zealand shore shrimp, pulping detritus and the primary producers and consumers of the ocean. Photo James Reardon

Shrimps and other crustaceans don’t have grinding teeth in a mouth as us vertebrates would understand it. Rather they have a section of foregut that is known as the gastric mill. This muscular tube is filled with ossicles or little hard calcified plates that grind against each other and reduce whatever is ingested into a paste ready for digestion. Literally peristalsis with teeth. I wish I had one, then I could enjoy a movie whilst eating without the annoying interuption of the sounds my jaw and teeth make grinding food in my head.

So why bother putting this in a website post? Because sometimes it’s good to re-engage with the spectacular wonder of the microscopic world. No matter what sort of a mess we can make of things, these tiny organisms are going to find a place to survive. Sure, ocean acidification is decimating zooplankton and shrimps will have problems of their own no doubt, but in  general their world continues on as strange and wonderful, even to a zoologist, as life from another universe.



Chatham Island Snipe

•June 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

These little birds sum up the word ‘charming’ for me. Whilst filming for a documentary we were commissioned to make earlier this year I had the very good fortune to spend a few days and nights on the remote and precious Mangere Island, a small island off the east coast of Pitt Island, which itself is rather small and to the south of the Chatham Archipelago. These islands, free of the introduced predators that have decimated the fauna and flora of the New Zealand mainland are gems to be cherished. Most folk with the good luck to access these islands are most interested in the black robins and it’s easy to understand why. During the 1970s and 80s black robins were recovered from the brink of extinction, indeed, they were down to one female, known to conservation biologists as ‘Old Blue’ thanks to her colour band. I too was delighted to finally see the descendants of the fabled Old Blue but the unexpected joy for me were the snipe.

The Chatham Island snipe Coenocorypha pusilla, at home in the forest of Mangere Island. Photo: James Reardon

The Chatham Island snipe Coenocorypha pusilla, at home in the forest of Mangere Island. Photo: James Reardon

I think it was their shyness and the delicate way that they picked through the leaf litter in search of invertebrates that captured me. There is always something magical about watching shy and reclusive animals go about their business and I had the good fortune (after a fair bit of effort it should be said) to enjoy such viewing.

This was also the first proper test of the Black Magic Cinema Camera as a field unit for wildlife camerawork and as far as I’m concerned, I think it did a damn good job. The snipe is a tiny element in the finished film on the Chatham Islands but I think it deserves it’s own slot so here is a little sequence re-edited just for the snipe. There are a few other rare and endemic species thrown in just for the real bird nerds out there, enjoy:

The Rainbow Warrior – new life at rest

•May 25, 2014 • 3 Comments

I was a spotty 12 year old when the French Government bombed the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour as it was on it’s way to the site of French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Nearly thirty years on we might have left behind the threat of mutually assured destruction agreed between NATO and the Warsaw Pact but the world feels decidedly closer to calamity, even from my relatively safe vantage point in the quietest corner of New Zealand.

Rainbow Warrior at rest. View ofd the stern. Photo: James Reardon

Rainbow Warrior at rest. View of the stern. Photo: James Reardon

As a spotty 12 year old I remember going to visit a publicity caravan of Greenpeace in the town of Pontypool in a school lunch hour. I don’t remember if they were there because of the bombing but either way I remember making a small (tiny) donation and getting a little enamel rainbow peace dove badge for my generosity. The badge is long lost but the sense that I had somehow taken a position on an issue that was larger than the world I lived in has stayed with me.  Lives were lost in the French terror attack on the ship and I’d like to think that I’m not alone in being awoken from a complacent belief that authority and governments ‘know best’. Some small return on the ultimate sacrifice. Governments aren’t evil, indeed I make much of my living from being a minion within the civil service but they do act on their own interests as much as those of the electorate. Its a perversion of the democratic process that can only be tempered by the reaction of the voting public. Today it seems, we go where apathy, the media and marketing takes us. That is, until impassioned people with determination make a stand for the values and ethics they hold dear.

Bigeyes and snapper in the hull of the Rainbow Warrior. Photo: James Reardon

Bigeyes and snapper in the hull of the Rainbow Warrior. Photo: James Reardon

Today the ship is much more than a rusting wreck. It harbours some wonderful marine life and makes a superb wreck dive. The area known as the Bay of Islands in northern New Zealand suffers a fair bit of recreational fishing pressure so any voluntary no take area such as this wreck soon fill with fish.

Today shoals of bigeye (Pempheris adspersa) fill the cavernous hull with snapper (Pagrus auratus) seeking refuge. Shoals of blue maomao (Scorpis violacea) and New Zealand demoiselle (Chromis dispilus) cruise the sheltered waters around the wreck. Smooth leatherjackets (Meuschenia scaber) hang in the kelp and crop the hard corals, polyps and tubeworms that encrust the hull, whilst Eastern red scorpion fish or grandfather hapuku (Scorpaena cardinalis) stalk the seafloor beneath.

Smooth leatherjacket lurks in kelp. Photo: James Reardon

Smooth leatherjacket lurks in kelp growing on the Rainbow Warrior. Photo: James Reardon

I don’t think that as a twelve year old a hemisphere away I could imagine that I’d be enjoying the wonderful life I do, having the privilege to dive the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior decades later, make my living as a conservation biologist and filmmaker, have a wonderful little family and a home on the edge of the most dramatic National Park I know of. A life of possibilities stolen from Fernando Pereira, the Greenpeace photographer killed in the bombing of the protest vessel. Squeezing the most out of life isn’t easy, but to do anything else is an irresponsible waste and an affront to those without the privilege.  It won’t be long, however, before this ship will disintegrate into the ocean floor. Already the sheet metal of the hull is rusted and thin, a good storm would tear most of it off. But as it is, it makes a wonderful diving experience and fantastic photographic opportunity. I hope Fernando would have approved.