Close wild encounters

Wildlife photographer and filmmaker Jonny Keeling talks about filming animals, his wild adventures and finding joy in watching an animal's movement.

Having grown up in the company of animals, it is no surprise that Jonny Keeling drifted towards wildlife photography. “We didn’t have a television, so that inspired me to move out and be around animals,” reminisces the global storyteller. From shooting wildlife on his cine camera to filming fauna around the globe for Sony BBC Earth, Jonny has come a long way.

Armed with a degree in Zoology from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from Bristol, he proceeded to combine his love for filmmaking with that for wildlife photography. From Venezuela to Japan, Jonny has travelled across the length and breadth of the world capturing the life of wild animals on tape.

For Planet Earth II, his latest award-winning production, he was in India capturing the langurs of Jodhpur and wild donkeys of Ladhak. “We filmed the river dolphins in Bihar, sloth bears in Madhya Pradesh, wild donkeys in Ladhak and monkeys (langur) in Jodhpur. It is a series of six episodes and we tried to get as close as possible to the animals. India has a great range of animals, it is a wonderful country,” says the Natural History Executive Producer who also worked with Sir David Attenborough on Life of Mammals’.

For someone who enjoys being in the company of animals, Jonny finds no greater pleasure than sitting in one spot for the entire day and watching an animal’s movement. “It is a highly focused job. You are not on your phone or talking to anyone but just concentrating on the animal, anticipating its next move. It's pure joy. It is a real pleasure when you second-guess the animal’s movement,” he shares.

Ask him if he is scared to be around wild animals and he dismisses the question with a firm “No”. Jonny sees animals as the most delicate and gentle beings, apart from a few exceptions. “You just learn to respect them. Be humble in front of them and you learn not to push or harass them in any way. You want them to be behaving normally because you have to film them,” he says.

Snow Leopards in Hemis National ParkSnow Leopards in Hemis National Park

Though it is the uncertainty of animals that excites him the most, he loves the challenges involved in making such films. “Being in Antarctica filming penguins is easy as they are not afraid of people and will be few meters away. But the logistics of getting to Antarctica, living and surviving there is a challenge. Every shoot is a challenge, it might be the logistics, the permission or at times the animal will be scared,” he smiles adding, “I like those challenges because the results are always interesting.”

His two most challenging and enjoyable adventures have been around gorillas and wolfs. “The mountain gorillas living up in the African jungles were exciting. Being next to big powerful animals who are actually very gentle and misunderstood was fun. People think they can be dangerous, which they can be on occasions, but if you give them the respect, they will be gentle,” he explains adding that shooting a pack of white wolfs in the Arctic not far from the North Pole was special. "They are completely wild and come very close. They are big, charismatic gorgeous animals. Like a very intelligent dog.”

Up next, Jonny is busy filming and editing a seven-part series on the seven continents. “Each episode is a continent with a fascinating story reasoning why we have different continents and its impact on animals living there. We managed to film a lot of new and unexpected animal behaviour,” he concludes.

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