Perched in a man-made canopy 120 feet above the Congo Basin, 30-year-old explorer Bertie Gregory films a parade of forest elephants. The mammals are notoriously wary of humans, so Gregory took to the skies to capture their story. Filming while suspended in the air is a challenge, but it comes with the rugged territory — the territory of wildlife filmmaking, that is.
In his latest documentary series, “Animals Up Close with Bertie Gregory,” the National Geographic filmmaker takes a personal look at some of the planet’s most elusive creatures while allowing viewers to peek behind the scenes of wildlife filmmaking. Viewers follow species from the depths of the Congo to the peaks of Patagonia, with Gregory serving as an eccentric tour guide.
Individual animal storytelling is a technique that Gregory discovered through years of filmmaking experience. In his previous National Geographic series “Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory,” large-scale wildlife events shaped each storyline. But in an interview with High School Insider, Gregory describes that animal stories were often best told through the lens of individual animals and their families.
“I don’t want people to think ‘oh, these are pumas,’ for example. I want them to go, ‘No, these are individuals.’ That’s because wild animals have different personalities and different traits. They’re good at different things — just like us humans,” Gregory said.
Gregory’s animal subjects are further personified with names, although not for theatrical purposes. Rather than using numbers or tags to differentiate between groups of animals, Gregory opts for human names instead.
“We don’t name the animals because it’s a Disney movie. We often name the animals because it helps us do our job,” Gregory said.
Gregory referenced the African wild dogs they filmed as a perfect example of this. The wild dogs often didn’t work together when hunting, so knowing the names of more skilled hunters (Ronnie, Mally and Ali, respectively) allowed Gregory and his team to follow the action.
Action-packed wildlife moments still leave Gregory speechless, even as a wildlife host with over a decade of nature photography under his belt.
“All of the people filming me know when the action is really good, because they’ll ask me a question and I’ll just ignore them. I’m in the zone. It’s all about capturing the animal behavior,” Gregory explains.
Gregory found one of these moments off the coast of Antarctica, where his team ventured to film wave-washing killer whales. These are groups of killer whales who use the power of their fins to push unsuspecting prey off of their ice floe. This complex hunting behavior requires teamwork, problem solving and creativity, but also a unique attention to their offspring.
“They’re like professional athletes,” said Gregory. “And the whole time they’re teaching their young how to do this. That to me is the most incredible display of animal intelligence. I get goosebumps thinking about it. With all the things going on in their brain, they still prioritize teaching their young during the hunt over making the kill successfully. It’s unreal.”
But capturing unique animal stories is only one part of Gregory’s mission in “Animals Up Close.” Gregory also aimed to situate wildlife in a wider environmental context, investing more time on conservation-minded stories.
This dedication is found in the episode on Devil Rays, where Gregory and his team found themselves swimming into a wall of bowling-ball-sized jellyfish in the waters off the coast of Indonesia. Although this wildlife interaction was unplanned, Gregory and his team still decided to film it.
“Because of the ripping current, they were whizzing past us like something in a terrifying computer game,” Gregory recalled. “But dodging these bright orange stinging jellyfish balls, it’s representative of our changing oceans.”
Gregory noted that although jellyfish blooms occur naturally, scientists infer that warming climate temperatures have prompted their greater frequency. Jellyfish also do well in imbalanced water, which may result from overfishing, Gregory said.
But Gregory never fails to celebrate the good. Amidst once-in-a-lifetime animal encounters, “Animals Up Close” also features portraits of those helping to preserve the environment, not to mention a slew of behind-the-scenes filmmaking stories. The documentary series features moments of filming struggle — the puma disappears, the jungle weather refuses to cooperate — but these challenges make a good shot all the sweeter.
“We want the viewer to feel like they’re part of the team, so they’ve got to go through the highs and lows. It makes the moments where everything comes together even more special.”
“Animals Up Close with Bertie Gregory” is now streaming on Disney+.