David Attenborough wearing a virtual reality headset. Credit: BBC One

Make room Attenborough, nature documentaries are becoming even more awesome

Very occasionally, you stumble across something amazing and unexpected. Today, for me, it was a talk by someone I had never heard of and may never have met, had I not thought ‘that looks interesting’, and raced out of work just in time to slip in the door before he started speaking.

The before unheard-of (by me) Anthony Geffen has just moved to the very top of my list of most incredible people out there. A born storyteller, phenomenal high achiever, and arguably one of the best nature documentary filmmakers in the world, Anthony’s presentation at the Oxford Union blew me away.

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Anthony Geffen shared his journey from a geography degree at Oxford to making nature documentaries come to life with virtual reality technologies.

 

I had no idea what to expect of his talk. The event notice had loosely been translated in my head as ‘some guy who has been to amazing places filming with Attenborough… that sounds cool’! But the 11 nature documentaries with Attenborough (the kind that got me into this career in biodiversity conservation in the first place) are only a fraction of the enormous suite of productions Anthony has turned his hand to.

At 27, he had completed his Geography degree at the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford (where I am now), had already been recognised by the greats of Hollywood, and specially selected by the BBC and given free reign filming a ground-breaking and highly controversial piece on Emperor Hirohito’s diaries Hirohito Behind The Myth (BBC/PBS). Soon after he was mingling with Yasir Arafat, Mossad, and led the team who were the first to get footage of the Tiananmen square massacre out of China.

That was only the start of his career and the list of projects he has been involved with seems endless. Moving out of the BBC, Anthony set up Atlantis Productions and went on to break ground in the use of CGI and 3D in Natural History Museum Alive 3D and now virtual reality deep diving in never-before accessed parts of the Great Barrier Reef.

The moment I really sat up and realised just how lucky I was to be there to hear his talk (there were only about 50 people in the room) was when he showed clips of the interview he set up between President Obama and Sir David Attenborough prior to the Paris climate conference (COP21) in 2015.

I had never expected such a well engineered, enormously influential and beautifully composed piece, the ultimate in science meets policy, to have been made by a guy who I had previously assumed spent his life in waterproof gear in uncomfortable positions hidden behind bulky pieces of camera equipment! (He actually did start out this way, leaning out of a helicopter filming the development of the enormous Itaipu Dam between Brazil and Paraguay as a side project during his final year thesis research).

Before hearing Anthony’s story, I was already in awe of his work, much of which I was aware of and loved (the tiny dinosaur skeleton that comes ‘alive’ in Attenborough’s hand for example ), but to suddenly realise it was all made by the same group of companies, the same man – incredible!image

 

It’s possible Anthony has just exceeded Attenborough in my book, as having the most enviable career ever. Attenborough still tops my ‘If I could meet anyone in the world’ list, but he had to wear the same clothes for years, whereas Anthony has been a veritable chameleon, succeeding in feature films, journalism, mountaineering, politics, science, history and technological innovation!

How does he do it all? Luck and timing were mentioned, but what it really comes down to is ‘going for it’ when opportunities arise, and seizing inspiration, curiosity or enthusiasm (or most likely for Anthony, all three at once) when it strikes him. I don’t actually aspire to be a documentary filmmaker, but he demonstrated that this kind of attitude and energy can make truly incredible things happen.

Look out for Anthony’s talk – it should be up on the Oxford Union’s YouTube channel soon.

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Thanks to Emma Farrant from the School of Geography and the Environment’s Alumni Office for making John Mittermeier and I promise to take a SoGE alumni photo with Anthony Geffen!

 

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