Behind the camera with Perfect Planet camerawoman Sophie Darlington

The acclaimed filmmaker and cinematographer’s latest project has seen her capture astonishing footage of gibbons and red crabs for A Perfect Planet. She gives us the view from the other side of the lens…

Lyn Hughes
31 January 2021

So how are you?

I’m considering myself very lucky, because it took nine months being locked down, but then I got out on a few shoots. I’m meant to be going on more shoots, but, you know, every day you wake up and you go I’ve got to make sure I don’t have Covid because I don’t want to take that somewhere else. That would be the worst thing ever. So I’m being incredibly careful, self isolating and not seeing friends or family for a couple of weeks before I leave.

But I have nothing to moan about because I get to sit under massive African skies and hopefully see nature raw in tooth and claw. So how lucky am I really?

People must be envious of your job, but I presume it can’t always be as wonderful if it looks – like any job, there must be difficulties

It’s definitely not for everybody for sure. It’s a job that you have to be really passionate about. I’ve vowed never to moan about my job because I do what I love. So that’s kind of amazing.

Yeah, there are difficulties. I think the main difficulty is that you do have to give up quite a lot of friends and family, leaving them behind. Your personal relationships really take a hit.

But also air travel is the least amount of fun at the best of times, but right now… oh, my word it is so much less fun. Try taking half a tonne of kit through an airport with no porters at the minute. Now, that sounds like a silly grumble, but genuinely, there are only so many trolleys you can push.

I ended up getting some amazing help recently – the first time I think I’ve ever been polite about British Airways – but the captain and his copilot [of the flight] helped me push my trollies because I was on my own with half a tonne of kit..

But really, I have no complaints… I am in the fresh air looking at things that we all know how nature heals and inspires and fills us with endorphins. So I’m really lucky and I’m not going to moan.

We’re all gripped by A Perfect Planet at the moment. What did you work on?

I was involved in Gibbons and Crabs with a team of others… you never do this by yourself.

We were in Vietnam filming the gibbons, and we were in Christmas Island for the red crabs, so those two sequences.

But what amazing sequences they were. Let’s talk about the gibbons – I love gibbons

Oh, my God, aren’t they just superb! Their arms… I’m a tall lady. I really love their long arms, they are quite splendid. And that call. You wake up in the morning, you climb 30 metres up the tree, you’re sitting on that tiny little one metre by one metre platform as the forest awakens around you, which is an extraordinary thing. It’s dark, and then the whole forest just begins to lighten and birds begin to sing, and then you hear the gibbons call, and it’s just fabulous. It’s such a total experience.

It must have been a challenge filming them in the trees

Yeah, it’s really challenging. You’ve got to find a fig tree in fruit, and then you just sit and you wait and you wait. I was working with another cameraman called Tom Walker, and he was doing the movement stuff. He would be on trajectory – when you knew where they were going, he would be below them, moving with them, so that you get that incredible feeling that you were brachiating with the gibbons. It’s an extraordinary thing to witness because they’re effortless. You just sit there going, ah, it took me 10 minutes to get up this tree, and you do it in a nanosecond.

We have featured the Christmas Island crab migration in Wanderlust of course but to see the footage was still mind blowing. What does it take to film that and what crew?

It takes time and planning; they do it at a particular tide at a particular moon at a particular time of year when the rainfall is right. These are land crabs, but they still need moisture in their gills to breathe, so they can only move down from the high damp forest into the coast when the rains are coming. You get this sort of first movement as the males come down, and then two weeks later, the females come down. But it is just like a sea of crabs and the whole island just turns over to the crabs and the roads are closed.

It is such an incredible natural event to see, and the whole island is dictated by it. You don’t know exactly which beach they’re going to go on and you don’t know exactly which time or night they’re going to go on. So, for about five nights, you’ve got to get up every night and go down and check. I have no problem with crabs and think they’re really beautiful but if you had any kind of arachnophobia though, I think you would really struggle.

But they’re magnificent. They’re releasing 100,000 eggs into the sea and they are these tenacious, nothing will stop them creatures. It’s like a mini rave at ankle height, and it’s quite, quite the most amazing thing to see. It really is.

And you asked what kind of crew was involved? Well, there was our local expert, Braydon Moloney, who would come from New Zealand, and he’d filmed it all before. And then Ryan Atkinson, who was doing the time lapses, those beautiful time lapse and slider shots. And then I was on my traditional long lens.

Every 10 years or so, the megalops or the little crablets come back. We didn’t know if it was going to happen or not but Braydon stayed on for an entire month, and look at the reward. And he shot it so beautifully… that carpet of red, but it’s tiny, tiny little crabs coming back to back to the island, which is just an extraordinary thing to capture.

Red Crab makes a perilous journey across a Christmas Island road (Shutterstock)

That must feel like such a privilege

Oh, yes, absolutely. I didn’t work for eight years when I had my son and when I got back to filming again I promised I’d never take it for granted. If anything, this lockdown has reinforced that yet again; just how immensely privileged we are just to be able to see it. But it also really rams home how the climate crisis can impact us and how we’ve got 10 years before this has gone. People, we’ve really got to get our act together.

What’s been the most memorable wildlife filming experience you’ve ever had? I know that must be a hard question

It varies from day to day. There have been many, many, many, and they go from when you go to Antarctica and you spend how long you spend getting there and then you walk to the top of the hill and you see an entire penguin colony of over a million penguins laid out below you. And you know that for the next month you’re just going to be in there working on the edge of the world with these incredible penguins. That was for a Disney Nature feature film called Penguins.

And then for Our Planet, I was filming the sandhill cranes in Nebraska on the Platte River. And again that moment sitting in a hide. You can’t let them see you because they’ve been on this epic journey from Central America up to North America, and they get shot in every state enroute. And, the only state they don’t is Nebraska where they come to rest and feed, build up strength again and dance, and hundreds of thousands of them rest on this river that’s being restored by an amazing set of conservation organisations. You sit in your hide and if you so much as poke yourself out and they see you, they’re all gone.

And you spend all night in the hide because you want to be there last thing at night to get them landing and first thing in the morning when they’re dancing. And so just sitting there by myself, listening to 400,000 sandhill cranes on a river bed around me… it’s sort of like that moment in Blade Runner, where he talks about the rain in the morning or whatever; it’s an out of body experience.

And then for Dynasty, I think with Charm the lioness we had been filming. She’d had cubs and we’d been with her on and off for a year, and she really couldn’t give two hoots about us and she knew that we would never push it. And there was a moment where she was taking one of the tiny cubs past me about a metre, and I was sitting out on the ledge of my car, and she didn’t even look at me. I was part of the furniture, she couldn’t care less about me. You know, you haven’t wound this animal up, it’s doing what it normally does. It’s got its tiny little cub and for her to pass so close by me, that was very precious.

Is there a part of the world that you love more than another?

Yeah, it’s gonna be the Serengeti because that’s where I was trained. The Masai Mara is somewhere I almost can’t go to anymore because it’s got too many people and has been so overly exposed to tourism and to filmmakers. We’re all part of the problem, but I fear the Serengeti might be the same. But there’s a place on the edge of the Serengeti called Gol Mountains and that, for me, it’s like Nirvana.

Baby Red crab Christmas Island (Shutterstock)

You said that the Serengeti is where you trained – how did you get into wildlife filmmaking? Did you always want to get into it?

No. I loved adventure travel and loved taking pictures. I was in Tanzania as one is when you’re 19 because I ran away from Dublin. And I met a BBC film crew and it was a light bulb moment, and I said, “Can I have a job?” They said no. But then I spent three years working for Hugo Van Lawick, the National Geographic photographer who was married to Jane Goodall, and won eight Emmys for his work with her. I apprenticed to him for seven years in the Serengeti… not a bad place to learn.

So what are you working on now?

I’m working currently on a load of different things but the thing I’m most excited about is that I’m part of the core crew and the creative team of a series for National Geographic called Queens (working title). It’ll be released in 2023 and is about female leadership in nature and it is such an incredible project.

It’s exploring how female leadership looks like in the natural world but it also has a very strong mandate of raising up talent and craft, amongst women. There aren’t enough camerawomen out there and so myself and Justine Evans are the directors of photography on it and we are mentoring both women and also in-country indigenous talent. Because we feel it’s really important that we leave a legacy of training and talent in-country as opposed to just going and coming home again. So it’s a really wonderful project to be involved in, So that’s ongoing and will be until 2023.

Well, that does sound really special. You said earlier that we’ve got 10 years to sort things due to climate change. Do you think that we will sort out all the things that we’re doing wrong at the moment?

I would say that it is within our powers if we act now. The fact that Biden has re-signed the Paris Climate Accord is a great thing. We need to have everybody on board and working actively together. We don’t need our government to be opening new coal mines. That’s a disgrace. The Conservatives should be ashamed of themselves, especially when they are heading up the climate conference in Cornwall.

We have to get into long termism. There are so many powerful and brilliant voices and I think there are so many solutions that can be done. And we need to take those brave decisions.

I’m going to retain a position of hope, and I will do everything I can to play my part in that, and I think through wildlife filmmaking, we have to be more honest about what we see out there.

We are all going to have to change the way we live. And if lockdown has taught us anything, it’s given us a chance to recalibrate and to reassess the importance of nature and I think that so many people have. We have a chance. We just have to go for it..

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