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25 May 2016

In the Spotlight… cinematographer Sophie Darlington

WORDS: Rebecca Towers

As part of the crew on the BBC Natural History Unit’s The Hunt, wildlife cinematographer Sophie Darlington recently won a BAFTA Television Craft Award and Guild of Television Cameramen Award for Excellence. And, as she tells Rebecca Towers, all without attending film school…


Sophie first decided to become a wildlife camerawoman after a chance meeting with a BBC film crew during a trip to Africa in her late teens – a pivotal moment when she realised there was a job that combined her passion for nature, adventure and photography. Sophie apprenticed in Africa with photographer and filmmaker Hugo van Lawick, famed for documenting then-wife Jane Goodall and her study of chimpanzees for National Geographic, who became a mentor: “He was a bit of a legend – he was really good at nurturing new talent. He really didn’t care who you were, just if you were committed, interested and had an eye.”

© SILVERBACK FILMS/SOPHIE DARLINGTON
© SILVERBACK FILMS / SOPHIE DARLINGTON
© ALEX PAGE / SILVERBACK FILMS
© ALEX PAGE / SILVERBACK FILMS

She joined van Lawick’s team as camp assistant, a role that required her to pitch in and do a bit of everything: “You spotted – which means you go out looking for the animals in the morning – you did sound recording, you put up tents and you ordered supplies.” It was during these many months away from home that she learnt how to use a camera. “In terms of my training, it was amazing,” says Sophie, who worked for van Lawick on-and-off for seven years.

Her career thus began with sound recording, moving to camerawork then principal photography on a range of nature and wildlife documentaries. Sophie has captured cheetahs hunting prey in the Masai Mara and lensed a family of Ethiopian wolves for shows including the BBC’s The Hunt, Enchanted Kingdom and Life Story (for which she won the 2015 Televisual Award), Animal Planet’s Cheetah – Against All Odds and Disneynature’s African Cats (2013 RTS-West Award for Cinematography) and Bears (2014 Environment Media Award).

Being a wildlife camera man or woman is a massive burden on your family

© MASSIMO MEI
© ALASTAIR FOTHERGILL / SILVERBACK FILMS

Many get misty-eyed about the romance of wildlife cinematography but the reality involves considerable sacrifice. “Being a wildlife camera man or woman is a massive burden on your family and friends. I used to go [away] for months on end, which is exhausting – especially for the people who aren’t coming with you.” Sophie and other wildlife filmmakers she knows have worked out that they’ve missed about half of their children’s upbringing.

On the flipside, technology moves on in their absence: when Sophie took time out to have her son, she was shooting on film; when she returned, the industry had switched to video. “I was very nervous until I realised just how much easier it was… I have no fear of deep menus and I enjoy sitting down with a different bit of kit and working out what it can do and bring to the project.” For the six major sequences she shot for Silverback Films’ The Hunt – macaques in Thailand, bears in Alaska, Ethiopian wolves, lions in Namibia, cheetahs in the Masai Mara and orca sin Patagonia – Sophie used a Phantom 4K Flex, Red IR Dragon and Sony F55.

Currently filming a family of lions for a new BBC co-production due in 2019, Sophie will be collaborating again with Silverback Films on a Netflix/WWF series about wilderness regions and their animal inhabitants, also slated for 2019: “It’s the first blue-chip series Netflix has commissioned about nature, so it’s going to be very exciting.”

© ALASTAIR FOTHERGILL / SILVERBACK FILMS
© MASSIMO MEI

Sophie has also worked as a presenter, production manager and director and is keen to explore new opportunities in advertising and feature film projects, but her career highlights remain rooted in nature. Filming coastal brown bears in Alaska on foot for Disneynature was “fabulous”, as was coming within two metres of a wild wolf: “There was something really special about sitting on your hunkers, trying not to catch eyes, but you just want to look because you’ve got a wild wolf, almost a metre at its shoulder, looking at you.” Less dangerous but no less captivating was the filming of two aardvarks fighting was a particular thrill. “That was an absolutely blissful moment,” she explains, “because that had never been recorded – let alone filmed.”

See more of Sophie’s work at sophiedarlington.com and follow her on Twitter.

Rebecca TowersRebecca Towers is a producer, director and journalist specialising in factual content. After 15 years of working on some of the BBC’s flagship current-affairs and documentary programmes, she set herself up as a freelance PD to pursue her passion for filmmaking across a range of projects. Contact info@milltownfilms.com or follow @RTowers_TV

BAFTA image of Sophie © BAFTA/RICHARD KENDAL