Hostile Planet Series LA Screening & Panel shots from National Geographic
Sophie Morgan is a natural history TV producer, field director and closed circuit rebreather diver that specialises in telling underwater stories. From Arctic fjords to remote coral atolls, she has filmed new marine behaviours and managed complex dive shoots in demanding oceanic environments around the globe. She is passionate about using cutting edge filming tools and new perspectives to reveal a world that is inaccessible to many. She is a keen conservationist who uses original storytelling techniques to inspire people to care about the ocean and its inhabitants. Recent credits include BAFTA and EMMY award winning series Blue Planet II and now National Geographic's new landmark series Hostile Planet. She has worked on various exciting projects alongside Plimsoll Productions.
When did you become interested in conservation?
I honestly don’t remember ever not being passionate about wildlife and conservation. From about the age of 4 I was dictator-like about making my family recycle and routinely embarrassed my Dad at the zoo for being an insufferable know it all about dolphins. At around that age I even walked up to a woman wearing a fur coat and loudly recited the anti-fur campaign of the time ‘It takes up to 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat. But only one to wear it.’ I probably have my mother to thank for it, as instead of children’s TV we watched a lot of nature documentaries together and she let me have a ton of pets. The barking tree frogs and their diet of escaping crickets nearly pushed her to breaking point though!
Richard Herrmann/National Geographic stills from the Blue Whale Shoot. I directed this remotely.
I think working in with wildlife was always on the cards, although I went the veterinary route for a long time, as I wasn’t initially aware that there were other options. Leaning towards an interest in animal behaviour I instead did a Zoology degree and was involved in various media projects at uni in Bristol. But it wasn’t until I saw an ad for a Researcher at the BBC NHU that I realised what I wanted to do. I didn’t get that role, but I quit my job (in music PR) in London for 2 weeks work experience at an indie in Bristol and have never looked back.
What documentaries have you been involved in?
I’ve worked on a real variety of shows – presenter led (Ch4’s Operation Maneater; BBC1s Talk to the Animals; BBC Natural Worlds); fast turnaround wildlife VTs (BBC’s The One Show); Live (Ch4’s Easter Eggs Live); landmark (BBC’s Blue Planet II, National Geographic’s Hostile Planet). They’ve all had their own challenges and contributed to my skills as a Producer today. I’m definitely more blue-chip focused now, but the faster turnaround items really helped me learn how to think on my feet and cope under pressure.
Landing the role on Blue Planet II was a really pivotal moment for me – it was my first landmark and (after investing a lot in dive training) my first major underwater role. Developing and filming longer behavioural sequences was quite a steep learning curve. I was incredibly lucky to be put to work under and learn from legendary BBC producer Miles Barton, who I still regard as a real mentor figure today. Known for series like ‘Life in Cold Blood’ he’s more comfortable on land than water, so we made a good team, although I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m a crazy fish lady. Together with cameramen Ted Giffords and Dan Beecham, we filmed the Giant Trevallies leaping out of the water to catch birds, which has to be one of the most dramatic things I have ever witnessed. It was such a high-risk sequence, without even a photo of the behaviour in existence, but we found a good number of eyewitnesses, and its testament to Miles that he had the guts to go for it based on that.
Diving with bottlenose dolphins in the Red Sea, Photographer: Olly Scholey
In my first job in TV in development at Aqua Vita Films I stumbled across a conservation story in the unlikely location of Iraq. A wetland area called the Mesopotamian Marshes, vaster than the Florida Everglades, had been drained down to a tiny fraction of its size as part of the conflict under Saddam’s regime. However, that tiny fraction still provided a critical habitat for endemic species and migratory birds. On paper the story had me hooked, but translating that into TV viewing, with tricky access and lack of a super charismatic beast, was going to be hard. And it transpired that we weren’t the first ones to pitch it.
However, as our research continued we found the most incredible human, who became the cornerstone of the pitch – a water engineer called Azzam Alwash. Azzam grew up on the marshes, had witnessed the devastation first hand and was passionate about reflooding them. When Azzam spoke about the marshes people cared and when it aired as a ‘BBC Natural World Special: Miracle in the Marshes of Iraq’ his expressions of joy made a lot of unlikely people weep over a flock of ducks. It’s so important that you find an emotional hook for your audience to connect with and avoid relying too heavily on stats or numbers. As a happy and not necessarily related side note, the Marshlands were declared Iraq’s first National Park in 2013, a couple of years after the film aired.
Scouting for squid eggs in California for Hostile Planet, Photographer Richard Herrmann
Hostile Planet Documentary (National Geographic)
This documentary looks at animal survival in some of the earth’s extreme environments and at how, in this age of humans, those environments are becoming even more unpredictable. The ocean is a dynamic shape shifter, which changes radically as you travel through it - this episode takes you on a journey from violent coastlines to endless watery wildernesses and crushing depths.
Although the DNA of the Bristol filmmakers involved was of similar high calibre to BBC landmarks, with Hostile Planet, National Geographic wanted to reshape your quintessential natural history series to resonate with a younger global audience. Working alongside Academy Award-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, and featuring host Bear Grylls, they were pushing us for character, high drama and dynamism, so that shaped the stories we chose and they way we cut them. What is exciting is that we did manage to feature charismatic animals such as turtles, orca, penguins and great white sharks, but still find new elements to their behaviour and utilise filming techniques that mean the sequences feel really fresh and exciting.
The best thing for me about working with National Geographic was that from the beginning they pushed for a strong conservation arc. The ocean is under severe threat from carbon emissions and overfishing and it’s something people need to hear about. Part of the whole concept of Hostile Planet is that the planet is becoming more hostile, and weather more extreme, due to human induced change. As someone who often has to go in all guns blazing to argue for even an environmental mention, it was incredibly refreshing to be 100% backed up on stories featuring things like overfishing, jellyfish blooms and coral bleaching. Of course we made it dramatic and visually beautiful.
It was also important that the episode left people with a sense of hope regarding the future of the natural world. From 100s of orca returning to Norwegian fjordlands to the recovery of Blue Whales in California, the programme also highlights the remarkable ability of animals to bounce back from the brink when they, their habitat or their prey are better protected. By focusing on the animals out there beating the odds, there is a message of resilience across the series, which drives home the idea that there is something worth fighting for. But there is also an acknowledgement of the current state of our planet and the need to protect it.
Find out more about Hostile Planet Here
Diving amongst hard corals in the Red Sea, Photographer: Olly Scholey
What have you learnt from working in the field?
I’ve definitely learnt how to be patient! I’ve also learnt that you can never be too prepared. People always comment that our jobs must be difficult because you never know what an animal is going to do. But I would say that we work really hard in advance of shoots to predict that. You want to make sure that, for the behaviour you are targeting, you have the right season, conditions, equipment and talent and enough evidence that it does happen and it looks good visually. Pre-production research and phone calls in the office at home are vital. Having said that, sometimes the animals and the conditions surprise you – I’ve had a couple of shoots fail, which is hard, but I’ve also had really interesting story arcs develop in the field. You don’t want to be flippant with your editorial, but having the ability to suss a good story on location and the initiative to change tack is also something I’ve learnt.
What is the role of photo/film in educating and inspiring people about the natural world?
When wildlife filmmakers go to the pub together, this is the subject that causes the most animated debates. We all got into this career because we care passionately about the natural world and we all want to make a difference. However, historically worthy conservation films haven’t always made an impact on a wide audience. People are looking for that sense of beauty and escapism, and we need to give them it to inspire them to care about nature. The first Blue Planet contained very little conservation, however, it saw a surge in university applications to study marine biology. Having said that, I believe we have reached a time where it is our moral obligation as filmmakers to tell the truth about the state of the natural world. We see the impact humans are having on the environment first hand and I don’t think we should keep shooting around it. I also think the audience is ready for it and we shouldn’t underestimate them.
When I started in this industry I wanted to make more straight conservation films, but I’ve come to realise that using my creative skills to tell even a small environmental story in a more commercial film reaches more people. I’m known as a bit of an eco warrior amongst my colleagues and I have got extremely good at weaving green messages into the narrative under the pretext of drama. But they must actually add to the story, and there must be some element of hope – if people switch off you’ve missed an opportunity.