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Filming The Blue Planet II - An Interview with Cameraman Roger Munns


02 November 2017, by Matthew Oldfield

In 2001 the BBC released a groundbreaking documentary series - The Blue Planet - described as the “first ever comprehensive series on the natural history of the world’s oceans”. The 8-part series included incredible sequences revealing behaviour that had never been filmed before and went on to win numerous awards, including a number of Emmy and BAFTA TV awards for its cinematography and music. For many, the Blue Planet was the pinnacle of underwater natural history programming - until October of this year, when it’s sequel, The Blue Planet II was released around the world.

Roger Munns and crew preparing for a dive at Pulau Mabul, Sabah, Malaysia. Image © Jason Isley / Scubazoo

The BBC’s Blue Planet II premiered on October 29th 2017 to much critical acclaim. Reviews have described it as “the ocean as you have never seen it before”, and “action, wonder, and wave after wave of exquisite photography”. Sir David Attenborough, who once again narrates the series, promises in the first episode that the Blue Planet II will bring us “creatures beyond imagination”, and “a new understanding of life beneath the waves”.

The Blue Planet II was filmed over the course of 4 years and a total of 125 expeditions across 39 countries. The huge team involved produced a total of 6,000 hours of underwater footage from around 4,000 dives - which was then condensed into 7, 50 minute programmes. The extraordinary effort required to produce such a series is reflected in the quality of filming, editing and sheer awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping story-telling that anyone passionate about the marine environment will enjoy.

ZuBlu are lucky enough to know one of the main cameramen involved in the filming of this landmark series - Roger Munns. We recently interviewed Roger about his work as a cameraman, his involvement with The Blue Planet II production and the marine environment.

Roger Munns filming a displaying broadclub cuttlefish. Roger is using his Gates Red housing. Image © Jason Isley / Scubazoo

How long have you been working as a cameraman? Where are you based? 

I’ve been working as an underwater cameraman for over fifteen years now. I’m based in my adopted home of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, but work all over the world.

Firstly, how did you get involved in underwater filming? Did you train or are you self taught? How did you get the experience you need to work as a professional underwater cameraman?

I became a PADI Dive Master in 2000 in Australia and quickly realised that I wanted to forge a career underwater. Teaching wasn’t for me and I loved taking photos so I got a job working in a dive resort in Borneo filming tourists. I honed my skills during tourist dives and solo diving in the afternoons. That led to getting work on some smaller TV shows like travel shows, children’s shows (BBC’s Really Wild Show), and my career slowly took shape after that. It’s quite hard to break out of the ‘resort cameraman’ situation. I was fortunate in that the company I worked for, Scubazoo, were ambitious and broke into corporate and broadcast work and I had the opportunity to get involved. I ended up becoming a partner in the company and worked with them for 15 years before going freelance in 2015.

Who or what inspires you as a cameraman?

I think the underwater world is inspiring. There is so much amazing behaviour going on under the waves every day that and I’m always thinking about how I can capture it on camera. I’m always looking to bring topside cinematic film techniques underwater so I guess you could say that I’m inspired by that kind of work.

What sort of camera equipment do you use typically? Dive gear? Do you do things differently when you are diving as a professional underwater cameraman?

I own and operate a Gates Deep Weapon underwater housing with a Red Epic-W 8K cinema camera. The bulk of my work is for high-end blue-chip natural history productions and this camera fits my needs for high resolution with flexible frame rates and the all-important cache (pre-roll) function. It is a reliable setup, which is important in remote locations, and produces stunning images. The Deep Weapon housing has the advantage that it fits almost any Red camera, past or present, if the Epic-W is not the right camera for the job.
Every job is different and dive gear is tailored accordingly. I use harness-style scuba gear with different sizes of wings for different work. A lot of my work is done on my rEvo closed circuit rebreather now which gives me long bottom times and the ability to work a lot of hours over the course of a day. It’s become almost essential for natural history work.

Roger Munns testing an underwater slider during a shoot at Pulau Mabul, Sabah, Malaysia. Image © Jason Isley / Scubazoo

Roger Munns testing an underwater slider during a shoot at Pulau Mabul, Sabah, Malaysia. Image © Jason Isley / Scubazoo

With regards to subjects or particular styles of filming, do you specialise in anything in particular or are you more of a generalist?

Having grown up by the Atlantic ocean in Cornwall I’m a strong waterman and an experienced freediver which has pushed me towards open ocean work with cetaceans. I’m also pretty patient which helps with those types of shoots! My time in Malaysia has meant that I have a good level of coral reef knowledge so, as well as open ocean, I often work on intricate, character-led sequences featuring reef dwelling fish and critters. My work on Blue Planet II was mostly a combination of those two types of filming. 

How did you get involved with the BBC? What does it take to get considered for such a production? Do you have any advice for aspiring cameraman looking to start a career as a professional cameraman?

The Really Wild Show was my first job for the BBC (assisted by ZuBlu’s Adam Broadbent!) and since then I’ve worked on a succession of bigger and better programmes including Life, Life Story and now of course Blue Planet II. The most important thing you need on your showreel to be considered for work on these productions is a sequence that shows you can capture the shots necessary to tell a story. Then you just need the patience and perseverance to get your opportunity.

Natural history programming has often evolved hand-in-hand with advances in technology - for instance the development of high-speed filming has allowed cameraman to capture previously unseen behaviour. Did you or any of the other underwater cameramen utilise any new technologies for the underwater sequences?

The Megadome has got a lot of attention. That was a huge glass dome used to get split shots which were in focus both above and below the water. I never played with that but I did a lot of work with the scope which was custom made to give a bug-eye view of the reef. The idea was to take the viewer inside the reef and see it from the perspective of an inhabitant. I think it worked very well. We also had underwater sliders and used critter cams to allow the viewer to ride with the animals.

Roger Munns using the 'scope' during a shoot at Pulau Mabul, Sabah, Malaysia. In Roger's words, the scope was used 'to take the viewer inside the reef and see it from a perspective of the inhabitant', giving an intimate view of the lives of the anemonefish as they tend their eggs. Image © Jason Isley / Scubazoo

If you could only dive one place, where would that be?

Coral reefs are where it’s at for me. If it was one spot I would say Mabul /Sipadan for the combination of macro and wide angle fish life. If it was a whole country then I might go for Indonesia as it has so much diversity across all those islands.

What is you favourite species or type of animal to film?

Tough question! Cephalopods are up there due to their intelligence and stunning colour and texture changes but I would say manta rays are top of my list. They have size, grace and character in abundance. I could sit at a cleaning station for the rest of my life and film them.

Is there anywhere that you are particularly excited about at the moment? Do you have any shoots planned for the future?

Right now I’m having some time at home with the family after spending a lot of time in the field over the past two years for Blue Planet II. It’s nice to take a break and get some perspective!

What episodes of the BP II were you involved in? What was your favourite location from the series?

I shot nine sequences for four different programmes. Those were One Ocean, Coral Reefs, Big Blue and Our Blue Planet. My favourite location would probably be Lizard island. We worked out of the research station there and shot two really nice character-led stories on the nearby reef. It was great to be filming alongside marine biologists and researchers doing their work. Such a great place and equally awesome people.

How much work actually goes into producing a programme such as BP II? For instance, how long would you spend on location? How long would you spend underwater typically to get all the footage required for a sequence?

That’s tricky as it varies from shoot to shoot. I’d say the average shoot for a 4-5min story is about 2-3 weeks in length and we’d probably do about 100hrs in the water. Overall the crew did over 6000hrs in the water over 125 expeditions!

What work are you most proud of from the series? And your most memorable moment from the filming?

I think the Kobudai sequence from Japan is my favourite from all my work. It was a very moody setting on the wreck and the fish itself was very charismatic. The transformation sequence was very challenging but I thought we pulled it off well. My most memorable moment was for the wrong reasons! I got stung by a stonefish in Mabul while filming. I have never felt such pain. The end of my finger was completely black and it took me about an hour before I could speak properly. I was back in the water and filming again the next day though.

Roger Munns setting up a 360-degree video system at Pulau Sipadan, Sabah, Malasyia. Image © Jason Isley / Scubazoo

What sort of role does a series such as BP II play in conservation? Without giving anything away, does the series touch on conservation issues?

I think it plays a very important role. It will reach a massive audience who are generally not exposed to marine issues in their day-to-day life. Just showing the general public what beauty and complexity lies beneath the waves will hopefully encourage more care and attention to the issues affecting our seas.

It is sometimes said that natural history programming can ignore or gloss over environmental problems, painting a very different picture from reality - the rose-tinted lens of natural history programming. How do you feel about this? Does the BP II paint a picture that is closer to reality?

I think these big blue-chip series are still mostly about telling compelling and dramatic stories in a cinematic way. They are escapism to a large extent. Saying that, I think the situation is changing and Sir David Attenborough’s opening piece talks about how the health of our oceans is under threat - so thats a big step. There are some great conservation films out there that are hard-hitting and hold nothing back but because of that they will never get the audience that natural history programmes can command. I think Blue Planet and programmes like it strike a good balance.

Roger Munns filming a group of green turtles on the 'Turtle Rock' at Barracuda Point, Pulau Sipadan, Sabah, Malaysia. Image © Jason Isley / Scubazoo

What sort of changes in the marine environment have you seen since starting up as a cameraman?

Anecdotally I would say I’ve seen a gradual degradation of reefs across SE Asia. I also think water clarity has become poorer due to pollution and run-off from agriculture. Jellyfish blooms seem to have become more common, perhaps due to the increase in acidity of the seas, and the level of plastic pollution on the surface has increased dramatically. There are very few areas that I can say have improved over the past 15 years.

Our platform hopes to highlight sustainable business practices and conservation projects, and encourage our guests to look at how they travel and what they can do to conserve the marine environment. As a long-time diver who has probably seen the good, the bad and the ugly within the dive industry, do you think dive tourism has a role in conservation? Can it be sustainable?

I think dive tourism, and wildlife tourism in general, has a duty and an inherent interest in helping conserve the environment. On top of global issues like unsustainable fishing, destructive fishing, run-off, pollution and climate change, we as divers have a responsibility to adhere to best practices and dive in a way that limits our impact on the environment. At the moment that probably means self-regulation from dive centres and better training for new divers. I’ve seen some great initiatives from dive centres such as hydroponic waste systems, solar power etc but at the moment those centres are in the minority.

Many thanks Roger for the interview. You can view The Blue Planet II every Sunday evening at 8pm GMT over the coming 6 weeks.

Learn more about the BBC's Blue Planet II and Roger Munn's work as a cameraman on his website, or follow him on his Instagram account @rogerborneo.

All images courtesy of Jason Isley / Scubazoo.

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Matthew Oldfield
Co-founder of ZuBlu