ALAN ROOT: THE FILMMAKER'S FILM-MAKER - by Vicky Stone and Mark Deeble

ALAN ROOT: THE FILMMAKER'S FILM-MAKER - by Vicky Stone and Mark Deeble

28th August 2017

Alan will be greatly missed by many of us that knew him personally. We asked his old friends and colleagues Vicky Stone and Mark Deeble to write a fitting tribute to him.

This will fill you with admiration, and also bring tears to your eyes.......

Alan Root was a filmmakerʼs filmmaker - he combined a sharp intellect and a need for adrenaline-fuelled adventure, with a knowledge of African natural history that was unparalleled. He was passionate and humorous - a quick-witted story-teller who revelled in his art. He loved to be the centre of attention and he didnʼt suffer fools, but there was a sensitivity behind the public face, that expressed itself in his filmmaking.

In a world where natural history films have become increasingly formulaic, made by big teams with big budgets, backed by an army of researchers, scientific advisers, and camera-people, Alan was the original auteur. He filmed and wrote and ‘livedʼ the films that he made together with Joan, his first wife. Their films were individual and visually arresting, but above all, they were stories. They combined natural history integrity with irreverence, and humour. They conveyed a knowledge of natural history and wildlife behaviour that few could equal.

Alan invited us out to East Africa to film a series with him for ‘Survivalʼ in 1986. For a year we tried to turn him down - we already had a career filming underwater. But he was as persistent as he was charismatic, “Come on guys - youʼve got to evolve; crawl out onto land. Come up into the sun. Itʼs happened before…”

In the end, we couldnʼt refuse. For us, Alan and Joanʼs films were peerless - he told stories like nobody else, and he had complete creativecontrol of his films. We had a lot to learn.

Our three years in East Africa turned to thirty. Alan started as the director who flew down to Serengeti every few months to deliver and critique our rushes - but soon became friend, mentor, soulmate… He presided at our wedding in the bush; he cut the roof off his rangerover and covered it in bougainvillea to ‘give awayʼ Vicky; he was executive producer on our films; ‘Babuʼ to our boys.

In the 80ʼs Alan was at the peak of his career. His films were always ‘eventsʼ - to be looked forward to for years, and then cherished and enjoyed for decades afterwards. He was always ahead of his time - the technical achievements of a film like ‘Mysterious Castles of Clayʼ were matched only by the likes of Oxford Scientific Films - but Alan didnʼt want to film extreme macro in a studio. He wanted to achieve it in the field, even if it meant months of excavating termite mound after termite mound, to find the royal chamber, and then introduce lights, slider, and turntable.

If he wanted his audience to experience the termitesʼ point of view of what it was like for the colony to be raided by an aardvark - that meant Joan putting years into raising an orphaned aardvark to accomplish it.

Alan never did ‘averageʼ - he approached everything as if it was his last day on earth. Then he pushed the boundaries so that, in many cases, italmost became that. He lost so many body parts to encounters with wildlife that the New Yorker sent George Plimpton to write an article about it. Alan gave the interview, lying on his back beside the fire at our camp in Mzima. Heʼd just flown for five hours after injuring himself in a motorbike accident in the forest in Zaire, and his lip was in tatters after a ‘tameʼ marsh mongoose had fastened on and decided it was edible.

Alan was a fine bush pilot, with an eagleʼs instinct for stalls, side-slips and gliding. He never finished flying school - but bought an aircraft and when he thought he knew enough, simply flew off one day and didnʼt return. He liked nothing better than to fly from Nairobi down to Serengeti, 10m off the ground, reeling off the names of the birds he spotted on the way.

Not content to simply ‘buzzʼ a lodge to declare his arrival, he would fly straight at it, and at the last moment, as the guests dived for cover, pull up and bounce the wheels of his 1954 Cessna 180 off the thatch roof.

A helicopter followed, but Alan was more eagle than hummingbird. He thought nothing of learning to fly rotary aircraft in his 60ʼs, but it meant trying to drop the habits of a lifetime. He crashed the first, then the second, and then, when he could no longer get insurance, bought another - only more powerful and much more expensive. His explanation: “It was the only way to make me concentrate…”

As a teenager, he made his first film about lily-trotters on Lake Naivasha. He was the first to film the adults gathering their young beneath theirwings to carry them as they strode across the lilies. But he wasnʼt content with that - he wanted to know what would happen if the lily pads were spaced further apart, and the birds felt the need to add a flap to their jump - would they drop their babies in the water? It was the birth of an approach that would recur in later films - first-class natural history detective work and then, ‘what if…?ʼ

When Alan was 21, his best friend, Michael Grzimek, a cameraman, was killed, when the Dornier he was piloting, hit a vulture in the Sanjan gorge in Serengetiʼs Gol mountains. The collision trapped the control cables in the leading edge of the wing and caused the plane to crash. Alan went on to finish the film Michael was shooting. “Serengeti Shall Not Die” won an Oscar and, as Alan declared, “It was all downhill after that”.

His break into television came with one of two films he made for the BBC, ‘Mzima - Portrait of a Springʼ. Alan convinced the BBC that heʼd be able to get underwater to film hippos and crocodiles. The BBC agreed to fund half the filmʼs budget and wanted to Alan to shoot in black and white. Alan and Joan wanted to film in colour and agreed to cover the field costs, in return for the rights for the rest of the world. Despite Alan getting severely mauled when they got caught up in a fight between two male hippos, the film got finished and became an instant success. They subsequently sold it in the US to CBS and they never looked back.

Fifty years ago, the BBC never shared Alanʼs vision for selling wildlife films worldwide. They didnʼt think there would be a market; but anindependent ‘start-upʼ did. Aubrey Buxton had just established ‘Survivalʼ at Anglia TV. It was a natural fit and the start of a relationship that wouldlast almost forty years.The films that followed: ‘Year of the Wildebeestʼ, ‘Mysterious Castles of Clayʼ and ‘Two in the Bushʼ, became wildlife classics.Always resourceful, Alan used every trick he knew to film new and exciting behaviour and tell exquisite wildlife stories. He pioneered the use of remote cameras and hot-air balloons for wildlife filmmaking.

He was an excellent mimic - heʼd attract birds in to film, by imitating their calls. If he needed additional wildlife sounds in track-laying, then his repertoire of baboon alarm calls, elephant farts and wildebeest contact calls was extraordinary.

He loved to catch snakes - cobras, mambas, boomslangs … the more venomous, the better. He couldnʼt walk past a puff-adder without picking it up, but he was vocal about presenters that he felt molested or exploited wildlife.

Alan planned to celebrate his 80th year in a way that was typically audacious and would take him back to his spiritual home, the Serengeti. It would be a film about following the wildebeest migration - in company with lions and hyenas. He planned to follow the migration alone and on foot. It would be the antidote to the over-hyped jeopardy of wildlife ‘reality tvʼ, of which he was so dismissive. It would be forty years after heʼd made ‘Year of the Wildebeestʼ; sixty years since ‘Serengeti Shall not Dieʼ - he had plenty to celebrate.

Unarmed, except for his wits and a bottle of sunscreen, he planned to walk with the wildebeest from the short-grass plains in the south of Serengeti, up into Kenyaʼs Maasai Mara.

He knew it might take weeks, but he was prepared. Heʼd designed body mounts for cameras, and had a drone that would follow him. He knew that National Parks would never give him permission, so he planned, as so often before, to go in ‘under the radarʼ. A Serengeti safari with his wife Fran and teenage sons, Myles and Rory would give him the cover he needed to bury caches of food, water and batteries along the route. Heʼd have no contact with anyone on his ‘amble through the Pleistoceneʼ, but heʼd carry a gps tracker, so once Myles and Rory knew heʼd visited a ‘dropʼ, theyʼd go in after him to remove any trace, and pick up expired batteries and memory cards.

It was pure Alan Root - the maverick filmmaker, making a statement, as only he knew how. Sadly he didnʼt live to make happen.

To spend time with Alanʼs films, is to enter a world where the wild animals are the stars, and the story is the way to engage with them and bring them to an audience. Alan and Joanʼs films had a global audience of hundreds of millions. He had boxes of awards - an Oscar, Emmys, Peabodys… He was honoured with international lifetime achievement awards and, more recently, an OBE - he declared it an acronym for “Other Buggersʼ Efforts”. Nothing can have been further from the truth.

R.I.P Alan - we miss you.

By Vicky Stone and Mark Deeble

As a community, we were so very sorry to hear of the loss of a dear friend and hugely respected fellow filmmaker Alan Root, and our thoughts are with his wife and teenage sons at this very difficult time. He was truly inspirational. NHN 

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