Tribute to Wildlife Filmmaker Alan Root

From the wildebeest migration to chicks inside a hornbill nest, Alan Root brought the magic of Africa to millions of television viewers around the world. Not only do many scripts from the 70’s remain timeless, but his innovative filming techniques foreshadowed technology. In lieu of a Go-Pro on a drone, Root used a hot air balloon as a filming platform. Without a tiny lens to insert into a bird’s nest, he placed a pane of glass on a cutaway of the tree trunk, filming through that window. But perhaps the most important distinction, he crafted narratives about ecosystems, with a full cast of symbiotic natural players, and not a croc-wrestling presenter in sight, helping to establish a genre known as Blue Chip films: compelling music, intelligent writing, and masterful story arcs.

Sir David Attenborough, who made his debut in 1979, said, “Alan, almost singlehandedly in my opinion, made wildlife films grow up.” Ten years earlier, a Serengeti project with Frankfurt Zoological forced a steep learning curve on the 31 year-old, tasked with finishing Serengeti Shall Not Die, after Michael Grzimek was killed when his plane collided with a vulture, leaving his father Bernhard devastated. That film, which won an Oscar in 1969, was pivotal to shaping what many believe is Root’s best documentary, Year of the Wildebeest. Read more 

When young Alan Root was told his family would move to East Africa, he burst into tears. “I had just learned every one of the British birds;” he wrote in Ivory, Apes & Peacocks.“Now I was going to a country where that knowledge would be useless.“ Finding even greater glory, he began to capture birds with his father’s 8mm Bolex camera. By 1956 he was filming lily-trotters at Lake Naivasha, and would film hamerkop, honey guides, and the elusive Congo peacock. But it was the hornbill that gave television viewers their first glimpse of his genius.

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