Spend five minutes with Bafta-winning director of photography Toby Strong

First published: Friday 13 May 2022

Toby Strong is a multi-Emmy and Bafta winning wildlife cameraman, who has worked on many of the BBC's landmark series throughout his career.

Over the last 25 years Toby has travelled across every continent, from crossing the Sahara with camels to sailing to the Galapagos, from the Himalayas to the ice caves on the peak of mount Erebus in Antarctica.

We caught up with Toby prior to him coming to Darlington Hippodrome.

What's the process prior to heading out to film? How do you know you'll get the content you need to support the story you're hoping to tell?

I meet up with the director and we talk through the story and how best to achieve the sequence, style, what kit and cameras and equipment. Also, how long we will need and make up of team. It’s always a really exciting part of the process.

There is always a risk in our world that nature will not perform, and we won’t get what we need, but I have to say in 25 years I’ve never had a complete failure…right up to last week when I returned from Sri lanka where I was supposed to be filming whales, which worryingly didn’t turn up - not one whale! So, it does happen.

How do you balance illustrating the reality of animals' lives without significantly anthropomorphizing them?

I think this has been a juggling act since the dawn of wildlife film making.

Nobody wants to over anthropomorphize, but equally people react more strongly and engage to animals and characters that they feel an affinity for, say a cheetah who is a single mum, a sloth who is a passionate lover, and a young gang of lions.

The skill of the directors and editors is to highlight the emotions and characteristics we resonate with yet stay true to the animal’s behaviour.

Has your understanding of people’s behaviour changed after spending long periods of time with wildlife?

I most certainly based my parenting on animals, from watching gorillas and elephants. My poor son may have things to say on this! I also operate around people as I do around animals, staying aware of energy and space, there is much one can learn from sitting and watching a group of meerkats!

Has your photography created any opportunities for you to advocate for environmental issues? How can photography and cinematography help to get these messages across?

Working on series like planet earth and blue planet are wonderful at showcasing the beauty of our natural world, and also fostering passion and thus a desire to protect, which is hugely important, and I love doing.

But working on a series like The Earthshot prize with Sir David Attenborough and His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge, was very close to my heart. Not only did it highlight what needs our immediate attention in the world, but it was also able to champion those working tirelessly to find solutions.

Do you have any tips for someone starting out in wildlife cinematography?

I have learnt it’s very little to do with what film course you’ve done, if any. It’s more to do with your passion for the natural world and skills…. climbing, diving, set building, social skills, all those things your passionate about.

Then start… Start filming and making short films, this is what will get your foot in the door. And persevere, keep going!

What sort of safety training do you get prior to going on trips that put you in extreme conditions?

Most of us have a decent level of first aid, with special attention to things like snake bites. If we are going to a dangerous location, we will do a hostile environment course where we are taught kidnap techniques, negotiation, and other fairly scary skills. Some of us train in rope access and diving, extreme cold weather and boat operations.

What equipment, camera and lenses do you use?

I use a vast array of equipment and have a huge toolbox of toys to draw upon from macro to cranes and drones and remote vehicles. I am always on the lookout for the next development in technology that will allow for an advancement in my film making.

How has technology changed during your career? Has technology made your work easier or more difficult?

I am staggered by the advancements in technology over the last few decades. I think above all other things the drone has changed our industry more than anything else.

I remember crossing the Sahara with a powered hot air balloon to film a camel crossing, it required its own vehicle, a pilot, perfect weather conditions, limited time. Now that same job can be done better by a tiny drone that can fit in my pocket!

Toby Strong is giving an illustrated talk at The Hullabaloo on Friday 10 June. To book call the Darlington Hippodrome box office on 01325 405405 or visit www.darlingtonhippodrome.co.uk

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