With her unquenching thirst for travel and natural history, award-winning filmmaker Karen Bass has the very definition of a dream job.
Whether she's climbing erupting volcanoes or getting up close and personal with the most fascinating or terrifying creatures on the planet, Karen and her crew go to any lengths to capture the most stunning scenes nature has to offer. And, as we found out, Untamed Americas was no different.
So, you’re the Brit who’s now working for the Americans!
Yes! Well I came to America two and half years ago to get started on Untamed Americas having made wildlife programmes for the BBC for 25 years. It’s such a brand in the UK, so the real challenge for me was getting landmark natural history working for an American audience.
So we wanted to tell the individual stories of these animals in the most exciting way to get the audience emotionally engaged, and we had Josh Brolin doing the voice over, for example.
Tell us about some of your favourite moments we’ll be seeing in the show.
Oh, we’ve got so much – lizards that squirt blood from their eyes, bats that have never been filmed before with the longest tongue to body ratio in the world, tens of thousands of seven-foot-long flying mobula rays in the biggest gathering of a generation…
But we’ve got some especially wonderful moments in the mountain episode. There's a lovely grizzly bear mum who has a three-week window to hunt newborn elks for her cubs - it’s one of the holy grails that lots of natural history filmmakers have wanted to film because it’s not usual behaviour for bears.
Then elsewhere a puma mum has got just a few weeks to teach her cubs how to hunt, and if they don’t manage it they just won’t make it through the winter.
How do you manage to get so close?
We use lots of very sophisticated filming techniques, like with the long-tongued bat we had cameras that slow the action down a thousand times, and tiny lenses that go in the bottom of a flower so you can get close-ups and slo-mo of what that tongue is doing.
Some of it is really low-tech though. When we went to film the sea lions [see image above] we had to get past thousands of birds on the cliff that we couldn’t disturb for conservation reasons, so we had to build a walking ‘hide’.
It was basically a box with little eyeholes that we could get under and walk with – it looked like a weird shaped beetle weaving its way drunkenly across the desert, and it was jolly heavy! It took 45 minutes to get over there just going a few steps at a time with all the filming equipment. That had to be the funniest for old-fashioned techniques.
What does that feel like when you capture something that has never been caught on camera before?
If it hasn’t been done its usually because its quite hard, so there’s a lot of preparation involved. But once you’re there unfortunately it’s just luck, you never know whether there’s going be a freak pattern of bad weather or nothing turns up.
The mobular rays we filmed were only gathered for one day, and we only got the amazing footage because we had someone in the right place at the right time.
So when you do get it there’s a lot of high fives, especially in America! It’s so satisfying when you see the really brilliant work the camera crew have done, especially when it’s even better than you imagined it could be.
You went through some pretty grueling stuff too, what was the hardest point?
One particular place was 15 thousand feet up in Chile where there were really cold temperatures, and it was incredibly dry and volcanic with toxic water and salts that are evaporating all the time. It’s really easy to dehydrate and because you’re so close to the heavens you get very short of breath. One of my crew ended up with altitude sickness and there’s nothing you can do but go back.
On a different production once I was filming in a flooded Amazon forest. We'd been there for days and I got to the point where I just couldn’t go on without a wash. So I jumped out of the canoe we were living in when out of nowhere I heard this splashing and there was this giant, six-foot-long river otter bearing its teeth and hurtling towards me. That could have been close – those teeth were huge! I think I lost the soap too...
Is there ever a point you regret it during those tough moments?
No. I think the only time you’d regret it is if anyone got hurt. Safety is paramount and, touch wood, everyone has always come back in one piece. I was on a shoot once in the Congo where someone went into anaphylactic shock, and that was very scary because we were in the middle of the rainforest. That really brought it home to me how isolated we were and how long it’d take to get help. Ever since I always carry an EpiPen into the jungle.
I just think of it all as being really privileged to go to so many places.
Where did your passion first start?
I got the travelling bug when I was seven years old when I went to Morocco with my parents. When you’re a kid you don’t realise that not everywhere is cold, damp, and green like England. All the sights and sounds and the desert and camels felt so exotic and incredible that I was absolutely floored.
And with animals I’ve always been curious, like when you see elephants in the wild and you think: who’s related to who? How do they behave different to elephants elsewhere? What makes not just the animals tick but that group or that individual? And when filming you get to know different personalities, then you can really understand what’s going on in their lives, why they make the choices that they do, and what they’re up against.
Do you have a favourite animal?
(Long pause) No, I couldn’t possibly choose. But I think camels are incredibly cool. I think they’re our unsung heroes.
Finally, we're curious, you travel to every corner of the world for work, so where do you go on holiday?
People sometimes say to me, ‘Goodness, what’s the difference between work and a holiday?’ And I say, ‘About 200kg of gear!’
I’m pretty adventurous and always looking for challenges. For holidays I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, explored mountains in Borneo, hiked to find aboriginal art in remote places, and I go trekking in the Himalayas, sailing, diving, exploring caves, wildlife watching... I also like exploring cultures, like the Kasbahs in Morocco and temples of Asia. I love it all.
I went to Antarctica for a holiday once, and this year I had a holiday in a place where there were erupting volcanoes and you can see the red lava and your eardrums nearly split when it goes off...
Wow! Not the beach holiday kind then?
I do like a bit of that too! I can’t say that a whole two weeks would do it, but it’s quite nice to have that little bit of flop and drop. But it’s really nice if you’ve hiked or sailed to the beach so you’ve got it all to yourself and it’s secluded. I like to do the beach thing as part of the bigger adventure.
Karen Bass - Series Producer
It was a giant, six-foot-long river otter bearing its teeth and hurtling towards me.