From being a student in Manchester, to travelling around the world making documentaries with the likes of the BBC, Zoology graduate Peter Fison has seen it all. Here, he talks us through how he got his big break in natural history television, the less glamorous side of film-making and how Manchester’s football teams helped him to build strong relationships around the world!
I’m writing this from Heathrow terminal 5, I’m on my way to a US naval base on the small island of San Clemente, off the coast of California. I’ll be filming a rare island fox when I get there. You might spot the scene in a BBC wildlife series later this year!
I work as a producer and director of TV documentaries; mostly focusing on natural history but also science, to get here I’ve worked on cooking, engineering, commercials and even children’s TV but before that I was at the University of Manchester. I studied zoology, I always knew I wanted to make TV, but I always loved animals and wanted to get a degree. It was a good fit.
It has turned out to be a really useful decision – a science degree is a very useful tool for making factual documentaries. Nearly every documentary I have made starts with information from field scientists. We find out what they have discovered and how they do it, and then work out a way to represent their research or the behaviours they have uncovered in a documentary. The zoology dictionary my degree gave me is invaluable to communicate with these scientists.
TV translates complicated science into factual stories for a layperson, having a grasp of scientific language gives me a chance to decipher complicated science into simple beats. I still find I’m usually out of my depth pretty fast, but at least I have a foundation to work it all out with, I certainly feel an advantage over my colleagues without a science background in these situations. Additionally scientists do respond better I find once they know I have a legitimate degree.
It also turns out that living in Manchester has provided me with an international commonality everywhere I go. An exchange I regularly expect to encounter in some form or other when filming abroad:
‘Mr Peter… where did you study?’
‘Man-United or Man City…?’
The reach of the cities two-football teams to every community on earth is incredible. It’s been a useful tool on so many occasions to make friends with locals in remote lands, and talk about something they care about. Filming abroad relies on strong relationships and we lean heavily on the locals we work alongside. Without their information, more often that not we wouldn’t be able to find the species we’re filming let alone film them. The Manchester football teams have more than once broken the ice for me. And I must admit to being a bit of a fraud – I support neither team.
Manchester’s researchers really help. I’d guess a couple of times a year I find myself ringing a Manchester researcher, for filming, or for advice. I have always had helpful and fruitful responses… Being alumni opens these doors. I sometime wonder if my Manchester Professors wish they’d never taught me the amount I bug them for assistance.
So since leaving the University of Manchester what have I been up to. Well apart from 9 Manchester University alumni weddings and 4 alumni stag dos, I’ve been making films. In caves, at night, from boats, from the air, abroad, in studios… every film is totally different. There are good days: Filming a lion hunt in Kenya at sunset. Finding an orangutan male calling from a riverside clearing in Borneo at dawn.
And there are the many, many tough ones: I was filming a bear den on a freezing mountain, only to find out on the second day that the bear had already left. The worst conditions I ever filmed were in a bat cave 1ft deep in urine soaked bat faeces. Caught in a storm on a small boat in New Zealand trying to film through seasickness and vomiting crew members was a pretty low point. Or all the occasions that it has been impossible to capture the story I’ve wanted to tell – making documentaries can be extremely frustrating.
It can be horrible, long hours in uncomfortable conditions. It’s rarely glamorous, but when it goes right it is incredibly rewarding. I have had opportunities to go to places and meet people I could never had met otherwise, I am very aware of the privileges this career has allowed me and I do love it.
My final anecdote is about how I got my first big break in natural history television. There was a new series being made for Channel 4. It was called ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’. Basically a series about big animal anatomy, based around the dissection a big animal: Whale, Giraffe, Crocodile, Hippo, the list goes on. I managed to get an interview for a runner job (the entry level role in TV), I think by luck. I’d spammed every company that had made a documentary I liked with CVs and calls for months. This one company called me in, they told me the premise, I told them I was the man for the job – they looked unconvinced. The turning point of the interview was when one of my interviewers asked about my time at Manchester… It transpired she was an ex-University of Manchester alumni too. The rest of the interview we spoke about snakebites, Owen’s Park, student union nights, the famous Gaffs corner shop… I got the job – 18 months later I was directing episodes of that same series.
Some of my films
- Puerto Rico: Island of Enchantment (BBC)
- Nature’s Wildest Weapons (BBC)
- The Bat Man of Mexico (BBC)
- Hedgehog Hotel (ITV)
- Earth Live (NatGeo)
- Your Inner Fish (PBS)
- Easter Eggs Live (C4)
- Inside Nature’s Giants (C4): 1, 2, 3, 4…
- Sex in the Wild (PBS):
- Wild Britain with Ray Mears (ITV)
- The F-Word (C4):
- The Wild Places of Essex (BBC)