Up Close, It’s Personal

Jeff and Sue Turner take a sharper, deeper, wider look at Wild Canada.

The CBC is re-airing Wild Canada starting September 15th. Don’t miss it!

The CBC is re-airing Wild Canada starting September 15th. Don’t miss it!

In northern Yukon, close to the Arctic Circle, a warm spring within a river transforms the entire ecosystem, allowing salmon to run in winter. They travel thousands of kilometres to spawn in their birthplace. For every thousand eggs laid, only one adult salmon returns.

For the grizzles found there, life is a constant struggle for survival. The massive bears can eat 40 kilograms of fish and gain two kg in body fat per day. An ancient agreement among the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nations has protected this magical place forever – a haven where food can be found in the depths of winter. It is now a territorial park and pointedly remains unnamed in episode two of the recently broadcast CBC series Wild Canada, as does the river.

As you see their faces and understand their dignity, you get a sense of [grizzly bears] as sentient individuals.

The ice-covered grizzlies, never before captured on film for broadcast, are an image of primal nature at its most awe-inspiring – and its most accessible. A high-definition camera captures the ponderous grace of the rime-encrusted giants and their desperate fight for survival in a surrealistically beautiful but unenviably harsh environment. Each hair, each eyelash is apparent, as are the individual ice crystals on the bears.

Filmmaker Jeff Turner explains in a telephone interview how the high-resolution 5K camera he used for the sequence makes the scene work so well. “You can get a much better sense of the animal. You can start to see their expressions.” And as you see their faces and understand their dignity, you get a sense of these animals as sentient individuals. The camera crew agreed – filming that sequence surpassed their wildest dreams.

The intrepid team formed by Jeff and his wife and partner Sue Turner is responsible for many nature-photography firsts, including the first footage of the elusive and mysterious Kermode, or spirit bear, 25 years ago. They camped out for two years in the wilderness of BC’s Pacific coast as their six-month-old daughter grew into a toddler.

The equipment back then was very basic – a tripod and a camera with a medium-range telephoto lens. They built a primitive dolly on an inclined steel cable stretched between two trees. One person would start the camera and push it down the cable and the other would jump out to catch it at the other end, before it crashed into the tree. This is just an early example from the Turners’ 30-year career of bringing astonishing cinematography to iconic wildlife and natural history documentaries, including BBC’s Frozen Planet, Planet Earth and numerous Discovery Channel projects.

The Turners’ four-part documentary series Wild Canada – self-described as a “visual love letter to Canada” – took three years to create, including a full year of finding places to film and crafting the stories about them. A dozen production teams comprising some of the planet’s best camera operators shot 500 hours of film using 20 different cameras. It’s the first series of this scale and scope to focus exclusively on Canada, and showcases some of the industry’s cutting-edge and most rapidly evolving technology.

Wild Canada used the ultra-high-definition 5K camera for some of its most spectacular footage, including the ice bears sequence. This resolution is aimed at the feature film industry, where images are projected onto a very large screen. When seen on a television screen, the level of detail is incredible. The effect is almost hyper-realistic – and exactly what the filmmakers are going for.

In addition to exploring at ultra-high-definition resolution, Wild Canada showcases 10,000-frames-per-second cameras (the industry standard is a mere 24 fps); gyro-stabilized aerial camera systems mounted on both helicopters and remote-controlled drones; and a variety of ultra-tiny cameras and underwater camera housings. Some of this technology, especially remotely controlled drone-mounted cameras, is evolving month by month. As Jeff Turner says, after deciding on a good story to tell, you look for the right tools to tell it.

“Wildlife photographers constantly raise the bar for themselves; each time they have to go out and do things differently or a little bit better,” says Turner. “The audience will get bored if you can’t show them something new. You have to be constantly thinking of how the technology can give you new opportunities.”

The series’ most challenging sequence, which also relied on the widest variety of emerging technologies, opens episode one of Wild Canada. A crew took two weeks to set up to capture footage of the largest concentration of humpback whales in the world feeding on millions of spawning capelin off the coast of Newfoundland. “In that sequence we had the aerial component, where I was operating inside a helicopter using a gyro-stabilized camera,” explains Turner. “We used the 5K camera underwater. And some of the underwater and the topside sequences, and especially the spawning capelin, used the high-speed camera. The sequence of the capelin crashing on the beach was shot at 1,000 frames per second.”

It took weeks of preparation to get to the now-or-never day of spectacular footage. The underwater crew used rocks for protection, as the humpbacks were scooping water and capelin 50,000 litres at a time. It was almost impossible to see the whales through the mass of capelin. One of the best underwater camerapersons in the world, Didier Noirot, had to duck to avoid being hit when three whales swam directly over his head. Afterwards he said the wake was like being in a washing machine. You wait for “one day like this in your whole life.”

As incredible and exhilarating as that shoot was, Turner admits that “sometimes you have a story you want to tell but you can’t. Sometimes the technology just doesn’t exist – there is no way to see the sort of thing that you are thinking about.” He and Sue have kept pace with innovation by simply shelving ideas until the technology catches up.

“There are filmmakers who have been trying to film giant squids,” he explains. “We know they are down there, but it’s an incredibly difficult environment to work in. We are getting to the point, though, where someone’s going to be able to do it pretty soon. That’s the great thing about this field – it’s full of people who care about nature and wildlife and want to find new ways to bring it to their audience.”

The Turners have been perfecting their capabilities with gyro-stabilized aerial camera systems since the technology emerged in the early 2000s, when they used one to capture caribou and wolves in the Arctic for Planet Earth. Remarkably, this hardware can stabilize cameras with lenses that are sometimes longer than 2,000 millimetres attached to helicopters and, increasingly, remote-controlled drones.

Turner points to a sequence filmed in BC’s Stikine River Canyon for episode one. This area is very remote – Wild Canada’s narrator, David Suzuki, notes that more people have walked on the moon than paddled the Stikine – and the only way to really see the canyon is to drop into it in a helicopter. Conveying the enormity of such monumental landscapes is always a challenge, so the Turners produced a gyro-stabilized camera shot that begins by zooming in tightly on a mountain goat, then pulling back very gradually. “We were able to focus on the goat so you got a sense of the animal, and then the pull-back made the goat disappear into the vastness of the cliff face,” he says. “In the big zoom-away you get a sense of scale that would be impossible to get any other way.”

Gyro-stabilized aerial cameras enable filmmakers to observe and capture rock-solid images of wildlife behaviour and photographic effects that are impossible to do any other way. Prior to using these systems for Planet Earth, Turner says he “had been trying for a number of years to get footage of wolves hunting caribou from the ground, and it was very difficult. Those animals are constantly moving and they are covering huge distances. As soon as we were able to get into the air, we were able to film hunts from beginning to end. At that point we all just looked at each other and thought ‘Wow, this is a game-changer.’ It transformed our industry.”

Unlike a helicopter, you can pack up a drone and take it with you to very remote locations.
– Jeff Turner, Wild Canada filmmaker

Flying drones are the newest technology to step up the potential of gyro-stabilization in natural history filmmaking. Controlling them can be a challenge because the pilots have to be very skilled. Drones were only used during the last season of filming for Wild Canada, and many of the attempts failed for various reasons.

Turner notes a scene in episode four where a drone was used to spectacular effect. “One of the things we managed to do was with the polar bears and the spawning chars, the cameraman had a drone with him and he was able to position it over the polar bears and capture the fish leaping right towards the camera. Also, we had no helicopters up there in Northern Québec, so he was able to film the landscape, which we couldn’t have otherwise done. Unlike a helicopter, you can pack up a drone and take it with you to very remote locations.”

The Turners are using drones frequently in their next project – a film about the threat of oil tankers to spirit bears, wolves, killer whales and herring on the BC coast. Only six months after finishing Wild Canada, Turner says the new drones are “light-years” ahead. Viewers can look forward to footage from cameras flying through the old-growth forests, under the canopy and in between massive tree trunks.

Turner says the leaping salmon in the waterfall scene from episode two of Wild Canada also epitomizes what an ultra-high-speed camera can do for visualizing the raw power of nature. Although the camera was capable of shooting 10,000 frames per second, as Turner explains, “not much in nature happens at that speed. You’re talking about bullets entering things, to get that kind of detail.”

The salmon leaping up the waterfall were filmed at 2,000 frames per second; the action was slowed down by 80 times so viewers can clearly see the tremendous effort of the upriver journey. “For me,” says Turner, “what transforms – what is sort of hard to appreciate – is what that animal is really going through. When you see salmon leaping at regular speed, it’s hard to register what’s really going on. But when you slow it down, you realize the difficulty of what these animals are trying to achieve.”

Turner notes the force at which the water is falling, and how the fish have to enter the cataract at exactly the right angle to avoid being bounced back to the bottom. It’s an incredible example of beautiful, educational cinematography.

The story of the Pacific salmon ecosystem is as engaging as the footage. Predators take thousands of tonnes of salmon into the forests surrounding rivers each year. The trees near these rivers are up to three times the size of those on rivers without salmon, and the number of organisms that benefit from this arrangement is immense – more than 200 forest species feed on salmon. The salmon each return to the exact spot where they were spawned after travelling hundreds or thousands of kilometres to the ocean and back again, led by a sense of smell that allows them to detect compounds in the water at the rate of one part per billion.

Miniature cameras are “another area where the technology is really coming together,” says Turner. “It used to be that to use a small camera you’d have to take a real hit on the quality, but these days that’s much less of an issue. For instance, the garter snake footage [in episode one] was only possible because we could use a small camera and get right down to the level of the snakes and not disturb them.”

The camera was about the size of a matchbox and was attached to a six-metre arm that pivoted on a large tripod, controlled by electronic cables and a joystick. The camera operator stood on a high bank and lowered the camera and its arm into the snake pit, panning and moving amongst the snakes.

Another Wild Canada sequence where tiny cameras were essential was the beaver lodge scene in episode three, which took months to produce. The camera was in a customized waterproof housing that was “basically a remotely controlled boat, all camouflaged to look like a little island. We could drive it into position next to the beavers.” Using this and other miniature cameras allowed the crews to film right inside the lodge, where they found a muskrat, long known to share quarters with beavers, actually helping with the upkeep of their shared home by repairing part of the wall.

As the series reveals, humans have played a very significant role in shaping the landscapes and wildlife that we see today in Canada.
– Jeff Turner

“You always try to tell a good story and that’s where it all starts,” says Turner. The CBC series’ principal narrative concerns the humans who occupied the post-glacial landscape alongside the animals and plants that have come to define Canadian “wilderness” for so many of us. Wild Canada tells the story of human modification of the modern landscape from the earliest days of its existence, a very unique perspective for a nature documentary. It seems that putting humans back into the landscape as a part of it, rather than apart from it, is almost revolutionary.

“Most of the time, natural history films want to look at just the wildlife and natural landscapes of a country or continent,” says Turner. “Humans are a part of the natural world and, as the series reveals, we have played a very significant role in shaping the landscapes and wildlife that we see today in Canada.”

This human component plays out in surprising, richly informative ways. For instance, the Algonquin and Iroquoian peoples of the great Eastern forests created a homeland of meadows, vineyards, fruit and nut trees and massive amounts of wildlife with the use of fire. Tens of millions of hectares were burned every year, a practice that stopped after European contact. The modern forests of maple and beech that we are now familiar with are very different from what came before.

Likewise, Neolithic hunters altered the Arctic tundra and thereby created the biggest human-changed landscape in the geographic heart of the country. Fifteen thousand years ago the tundra was grassland maintained by the trampling and grazing of megafauna such as mammoths. When these animals were hunted to extinction, the grasses died out and the ground turned wet and boggy.

With Wild Canada, the legendary filmmakers “hope the audience can realize the effect that humans have on the natural world and the importance of being aware of the choices we make and their impacts on the wildlife and natural landscapes we share this country with.”

This groundbreaking series is truly an astonishing accomplishment and an artistically delightful educational experience. It is also scientifically relevant, exposing behaviours never before seen on film. Even more than this, it is a profoundly moving tribute to the wildlife and landscape of this magnificent country, and to the people who have shaped it, and been shaped by it, since the beginning of time.

The first-ever documentary to tell a comprehensive story about Canada’s natural history contained a range of groundbreaking achievements and moments. 

First Nations 
Wild Canada is the first time that human modification of wildlife and landscape has been told as an integral part of a nature documentary.

Northernmost exposure
The film crew travelled with the scientific crew ArcticNet on board the Amundson research vessel in episode four. Due to sea ice melt, the ship was able to travel further north than any vessel ever has before. The ocean charts for this area are blank for lack of information. The film crew was able to shoot Arctic landscapes never before seen. Jeff Turner calls it the last frontier.

Humpbacks and spawning capelin 
Wild Canada captured the planet’s largest congregation of feeding humpback whales in unprecedented and incredibly thorough detail  – doubtless because of the advanced technology involved. Scientists have requested access to the footage of spawning capelin because they have never been able to see it slowed down to such a degree. Additionally, the crew captured shots of the capelin spawning on the seafloor instead of their customary location on the beach. This practice was hypothesized, but has never before been witnessed.

Yukon ice bears 
Their appearance in episode two is the first time they have ever been filmed for broadcast.

Inuit ice-cliff harvesters 
Ungava Bay in Northern Québec has some of the highest tides in the world, which create ice cliffs that appear and disappear. Hunters can dig into the cliffs at low tide to harvest mussels from the otherwise inaccessible sea floor, an opportunity whose risks include having literally tonnes of ice hanging overhead. Episode four is the first time this has been filmed in such detail.

Muskrats helping beavers 
Long known to “share” lodges when beavers are out foraging, muskrats have never been known to help in any way with structural maintenance. In episode three, a muskrat is shown plastering part of a wall in a den. 

Boreal Polar bears 
Central Canada is the only place in the world where polar bears live in the Boreal forest. Episode one features the first-ever footage of them playing in trees.

Snake hibernaculum 
Red-sided garter snakes travel up to 80 kilometres to hibernate on the southern edge of the Boreal forest in Manitoba, where limestone sinkholes are deep enough that they can survive winters there. It is the largest gathering of snakes in the world and episode one marks the first time it has been filmed for broadcast. 

Episodes one and three of Wild Canada include unprecedented footage of North American wild wolverines. Very little is known about these animals. Their jaws are strong enough to eat frozen meat and they can smell frozen carcasses buried under a metre of snow. 


A humpback whale hunting capelin off the coast of Newfoundland.

An ice-covered grizzly filmed in the northern Yukon Territory. Kieran O’Donovan

Gyro-stabilized cameras enabled stunning helicopter zoom shots like the pull-back on this mountain goat in BC’s remote Stikine River Canyon.

Ultra-high-speed cameras slowed down the action of salmon leaping the rapids in Lowe Inlet, BC. Jeff Turner

For the first time, Wild Canada presents footage of muskrats helping out with the house repairs in beaver lodges.

Miniaturized cameras allowed filmmakers to get up close and personal with red-sided garter snakes in Manitoba without scarificing visual quality. Justin Maguire

A spirit bear in BC’s rainforest.

Frost flowers in water.

Janet Kimantas is associate editor at A\J with degrees in studio art and environmental studies. She is currently pursuing an MES at UWaterloo. She splits her spare time between walking in the forest and painting Renaissance-inspired portraits of birds.