Working as a Blue Planet 2 Underwater Cameraman

Roger Munns Blog

Blue Planet II is finally about to hit screens in the UK with the first episode One Ocean airing on BBC One at 8pm on Sunday 29th October. For the next seven weeks Sundays are going to be (hopefully) eagerly anticipated by households across Britain as Sir David Attenborough, Hans Zimmer and the Blue Planet team take viewers on a journey around the planet’s ocean ecosystems.

I want to say straight up that the purpose of this blog is, of course, to talk about my involvement in the series. However, even though I filmed several stories, I was still just a small cog in a big machine. The amount of time and effort that goes into researching, producing, managing, writing and editing a series of this magnitude is massive. The final episodes you see on your screens are a result of a colossal amount of work by the entire production team in Bristol… plus the cameramen, scientists, boat crew, helicopter pilots, and even submarine pilots that work in the field! There are often months, if not years, of research that go into each sequence and it’s that attention to detail and preparation that mean the camera team are well equipped to go out and get the footage we need. I am very proud and honoured to have been a part of that huge, fantastically talented, and dedicated team and to have played a part in making this series. I watched the original Blue Planet fifteen years ago in Sipadan Water Village, while working as a resort-based cameraman. I still can’t quite believe that I have filmed several sequences on the follow-up to the show which was such an inspiration to me at the start of my career.

A male Kobudai (Asian Sheephead Wrasse), Japan. One of the ugliest nad most charismatic animals I've worked with - (C) BBC NHU - Photographer: Screen Grab

A male Kobudai (Asian Sheephead Wrasse), Japan. One of the ugliest and most charismatic animals I’ve filmed – (C) BBC NHU – Photographer: Roger Munns – Screen Grab

My involvement in Blue Planet 2 began almost exactly three years ago when I pitched some story ideas to Jonathan Smith, the producer of the One Ocean and Coral Reefs episodes. I threw a few ideas at him but the one that grabbed his attention was some amazing behaviour by a tiny anemone fish that I knew about from those days working on SWV. Anemone fish normally lay eggs on the reef but by choosing a home on an anemone that lived on the sand this particular family of anemone fish had nowhere safe to lay their eggs. To solve that problem the anemone fish had to leave the safety of their stinging anemone and push back a hard object to lay eggs on. These objects were often several times the size and weight of the fish! A few months after pitching the story I was back on Mabul with Jonathan, 350kg of equipment, a closed circuit rebreather and a plan! Fast forward two years to June 2017 and I was in Japan finishing up filming Kobudai (Sheeps-head wrasse) on the final Blue Planet II shoot with Rachel Butler and Dan Beecham, two colleagues from production who have become great friends over the past two years.

Over the course of production I filmed ten different stories across four episodes. Below are a few personal stats from my work over the series.

  • Countries visited: Malaysia, Australia, Costa Rica, Bahamas, Maldives, Indonesia, Japan
  • Days in the field: 150
  • Episodes I shot sequences for:
    Ep.I One Ocean (Tuskfish and Kobudai)
    Ep.3 Coral Reefs
    (Cuttlefish, Octopus/Grouper, Turtle spa, anemone fish, whirlpool)
    Ep.4 Big Blue
    (Boiling sea)
    Ep.7 Our Blue Planet
    (Steve Simpson, Alex Vail) 
  • Rebreather hours logged: 400hrs 
  • Total dive time logged (approx): 560hrs
  • Longest Continuous Dive : 253mins
  • Approx number of plunges made on a cafetiere: 240

During the course of filming I also turned 40, got married (to a beautiful and patient woman), had a son and moved house!

Scientist Steve SImpson pushes a hydrophone at Sipadan

Scientist Steve Simpson pushes an underwater hydrophone rig over the coral at Sipadan © BBC NHU Photographer: Roger Munns – Screengrab

While I did a substantial amount of work on the series it really is a drop in the ocean (yes got a pun in finally!) when taken in context of the work done by the entire production team. These landmark series are big in every way, from the size of the team to the length of production. Here are some series stats to put it all in perspective:

  • Years in production: 4
  • Expeditions mounted: 125
  • Countries visited: 39
  • Hours filming underwater: 6,000
  • Depths explored at: 1,000m

I’ve shot stories on big landmark series for the BBC Natural History Unit before, such as LifeLife in Cold Blood, and Life Story but this is the first time that I’ve been this heavily involved and filmed multiple stories. I really enjoyed the increase in collaboration that came with that, and it was great to contribute to the style of shooting and look that we went for on the Coral Reef film particularly. There were some fantastic new innovations in equipment such as underwater sliders, motorised macro positioners, and scope lenses – all of which have helped us increase production value and to get inside the coral reef to try to show it from the perspective of the critters that inhabit it. That said, the majority of the filming was still done on a traditional underwater camera setup, using a housing from Gates Underwater Housings and a Red Dragon 6K camera. These large sensor cameras are a big step up from the small-chip, standard definition, broadcast sensors that the original Blue Planet was shot on all those years ago. Red Cameras have high dynamic range and are capable of shooting HDR and slow motion. Along with using bubble-free rebreathers, to be less intrusive and spend more time underwater, these technical advances mean that we are now able to shoot underwater in a very cinematic style, similar to topside wildlife film makers. I intend to write more about the equipment and shooting style in a more nerdy article later!

Alex Vail takes photos of an orange dotted tuskfish (Choerodon anchorago) on the Great Barrier Reef. Nicknamed 'Percy' by us, this tenacious fish uses a coral outcrop to smash open shells to eat. But the coral reef on which it depends is under threat. Rising sea temperatures are causing many corals to bleach and die. orange dotted tuskfish - (C) BBC NHU - Photographer: Roger Munns screengrab

Alex Vail takes photos of an orange dotted tuskfish (Choerodon anchorago) on the Great Barrier Reef. Nicknamed ‘Percy’ by us, this tenacious fish uses a coral outcrop to smash open shells to eat. But the coral reef on which it depends is under threat. Rising sea temperatures are causing many corals to bleach and die.
orange dotted tuskfish – (C) BBC NHU – Photographer: Roger Munns screengrab

One of the things I am proudest of is that a large chunk of the filming for the Coral Reefs episode took place at Pulau Sipadan, my favourite dive site in my adopted home of Sabah, Malaysia. Sipadan is truly a unique and stunning island with some of the best coral reef diving in the world. It’s a place that Malaysians and particularly Sabahans are rightly proud of and I hope they’ll be even more proud to have it featured on a global stage and that that will translate to its continued protection and care. This series does not shy away from talking about the threats that are faced by our oceans and its inhabitants. While protection and management for coral reefs on a local scale is important to ward off threats like destructive fishing there needs to be changes made to our way of lives on a global scale. Some of the reefs that I filmed on in Australia during the course of production suffered massively during the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017. These large bleaching events appear to be increasing in frequency and I hope that the images that we got help to encourage a respect and love for the ocean (and its inhabitants) that leads to better protection of this precious environment.

Working in small teams tends to foster a great spirit and I was very lucky to have worked with some fantastic producers, researchers and assistants in the field. I’ve already mentioned Jonathan, Rachel and Dan and there was also the wonderful Yoland Bosinger (Yolly), Sarah Conner and last, but not least, longtime friend and ‘dive wife’ Jason Isley who was an integral part of several shoots. Jason has several photos in the excellent Blue Planet II book. Logistics and tricky nitty gritty stuff was usually handled in the office by the wonderful Karmen Summers and Jodie Alt. Conditions were often tough, working hours were long, equipment broke down, and plans had to be changed at short notice but everything was done with an incredible spirit, good humour, and the knowledge that we succeeded or failed as a team. I’d also like to say thanks to some of the passionate and talented people I met and worked with on location over the course of my shoots. There were a lot of people but here’s a good attempt. Please let me know on FB or instagram if I have missed you out!

Alex Vail, John Rumney, Steve Simpson, John Marsden, Scubajunkie Mabul, Sipadan Water Village, Seaventures, Papua Divers, David Mcann, Catherine Cassidy, Allan Ornido, Jimmy Casuno, Gil Woolley, Ramesh, Mitch, Suzette Harris, Rick Owen, Max Ammer, Brian Kakuk, Masahiko Sakata, Japan Underwater films, Scubazoo, Wavelength, Hans Otto, Marteyn Van Well, Guy Stevens, Manta Trust, Stuart Cove, Andrea Vitali, Alexia Landry, Mohan Sandhu.

After three years of work it’s finally time to sit back and watch the show. I hope everyone enjoys it!