J.Allan Longshadow spoke to North Wales film-maker, photographer, poet, writer and performer Pete Rogers to discover the story behind his latest project “Backyard Beasts”, a nature documentary shot in Bangor-on-Dee during lockdown.
J.A.L: Pete, you’ve recently produced this amazing nature documentary, the first instalment, ‘Backyard Beasts’. You started dabbling in film making fairly early on in your life. What attracted you to film making?
P.R: Good question, what attracted me to film making? I guess I’m going back to school again momentarily. I was never athletic or anything like that. I was much more into reading and consuming stories. As a kid, I was massively into TV and cartoons and that evolved into filmmaking. I was always really interested in the behind the scenes stuff of it, I suppose. I’d always – and I still do – if I buy DVDs, I have to watch the director’s commentary and all the behind the scenes stuff. And it just fascinates me. I think that being a storyteller for a living seems like some sort of magical fairytale thing that can’t be real in this capitalist rat race society that we live in, I guess. And when I was younger, I always had a fascination with animals, as I think most kids just do. I thought, when I was like five or six, oh, I could be a vet or a zookeeper. Because you just think you just wander around and your feed some elephants. Oh, it looks really fun.
It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I realized that there was a connection between the worlds of filmmaking and wildlife. I didn’t know, wildlife documentary maker was a job. No one tells you that when you get the breakdown on careers day. I guess it stems from that, you know, it was just not being particularly sporty and it was my alternative, which was watching a lot of film and TV. And I also think there’s a stigma around ‘don’t put your kids in front of the TV’, they’re just going to waste all their hours.
I credit film and TV for a lot of who I am, because I’ve learned a lot from the documentaries that I’ve watched. I’ve learned a lot about empathy from all the different fictional characters that I’ve read or watched. And I also, without even realizing it, was kind of raised as a feminist with very liberal views because I happened to be watching shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where it’s just a bunch of women kicking ass and being equal with men all the time.
J.A.L: We have this sort of view of TV as being a bad thing, but a TV as an object is neutral. It is not the TV that’s the issue, is it? But when you see TV and the role it plays in society, we tend to look at the negative side, not the huge value it also offers us. If we look at Backyard Beasts, at what moment did you decide ‘right, this is it. I’m actually going to combine this love of nature and my ability in filmmaking and actually do something with it.?’ What was the thing that made that happen?
P.R: So it was like the second or third week of lockdown. My full-time job had calmed down a little bit, because we had to do the whole scramble of like, ‘Oh my God, we haven’t got any buildings! We need to take everything online!’ And you know, I just sort of chilled out and I was like, right. It looks like this is going to go on for like two or three months. And I thought, what’s my place in lockdown going to be? I was already contributing to the wider societal stuff through work. So I felt okay with that because I couldn’t volunteer for the NHS and stuff like that. I’m on one of those risk lists because of my asthma, but I was still contributing to help society. So I was like, that’s okay. That side of me feels good. So I was like, I can’t go out. I can’t go and see anyone. What am I going to fulfil for the selfish side of me?
And our work is really good. Our boss insisted that we have to make sure we go on at least an hour walk every day in the middle of our shift to make sure that we’re looking after our health and wellbeing because of how difficult lockdown might be for some of us. And it was just on those walks. I took my camera out because it was nice. I was just recording a couple of things here and there and bringing them back. And I thought it might cheer some people up to see this little ten-second video I got of a Robin in my garden or some swans on the lake and things like that.
I’d upload them to Facebook and they were getting really good interaction – more than they would with my regular Facebook posts. People were liking and commenting and sharing, even people that I hadn’t spoken to or seen for ages. So I thought, oh there’s something really nice here. Then I found some Facebook groups in Wales, wildlife groups and stuff like that. I started sharing it into those and the Wrexham Town Matters stuff and people were saying it’s so nice to be able to see what’s going on outside because I’m shielding. I saw a lot of comments like that and I just sat back and figured I could do something quite cool here. I was thinking about what I could do for these people. Could I use this? And that seed was planted in my head. So I started. I took a few extra cameras out. I also bought a few extra cameras, and I started wandering around the woods, talking to myself into a camera and looking a little bit unhinged – it’s the nature of it, I guess. No pun intended.
J.A.L: Do you think that this whole lockdown situation has made people rediscover the value and the importance of nature?
P.R: I think so. There are people in the north Wales wildlife groups and other groups that I joined on Facebook, who definitely were doing it for the first time. And I think people are appreciating nature more because they’re actually at home and seeing it. I think so often a lot of us get in our cars and we drive out to a town or a city away from a lot of the nature. Whereas now, everyone’s working at home for the most part and they’re hearing birds singing in the garden and they’re going on walks and being a bit more aware of what’s happening in the daytime when a lot of these animals are actually active.
And a lot of flowers are in full bloom and all of that sort of stuff. I think people, because they’ve slowed down, have been able to see the wider effects. A few news stories have come out and said that because of less pollution, less noise, stuff like that, there’s sheep in town centres and whatever it was – goats and stuff – it’s kind of hard to ignore I guess. But I do think people are just getting a bit more in touch with the basics aren’t they?
And especially because during lockdown we’re spending so much time on laptop screens. So I think where a lot of people’s entertainment might have been. Normally, they might have worked on the laptop a little bit. They had all the regular social breaks that you get in work, like a coffee break. You can go off for lunch, chat to people in the office, whatever it might be. And you come home and you’re watching something on your phone or on your TV or whatever it is depending on your age. Whereas now I think because people are so glued to the screen, 24/7 for work, especially people that aren’t used to it, any excuse to get away from the screen is just perfection for them. So I think way more families are going out on woodland walks, discovering fields – And also let’s face it, lockdown was boring. So everyone had to go out of their way, and like at the start of lockdown, really find out like, is there anything else to do in this village? They were basically looking for all the different wildlife walks and stuff.
J.A.L: Have you found that being close to nature generally helps you with your sense of wellbeing?
P.R: Yes. I guess with nature what’s interesting, actually – someone messaged me the other night and she said, it’s really cool to see you creating for yourself. It seems a lot less stressful. And I realized that was a huge part of the appeal to me was that one of the awesome things about filming wildlife is you don’t get the stress of creating stuff for people. For example, a pigeon’s not going to turn around and be like, “Hey, that angle you shot me at was really unflattering.” And badgers don’t want to see the final cuts and things like that. It’s just you and them and the end product isn’t really a big deal. The actual moment of, ah, cool, bliss or clarity or excitement whenever you want to call it is just like this, I went out, I looked for the animal. I didn’t find the animal but I did find a different animal, then I found the animal I was looking for. Because that is the process. And also, because you spend so long with wildlife filming, it’s not like, “Hey Allan, we’re going to do a photo shoot today. I’ll see you at two o’clock by the river. Oh, there’s Allan at two o’clock by the river.” It goes, “Hey, I’m going to shoot an otter today by the river. I’ll go at two o’clock. Okay… Okay, it’s six o’clock and the otter is still not here. So you have a lot of time to sit and be with yourself, I guess, not be surrounded by screens and noise and artificial lights.
It’s also, I suppose, a great way to escape the ego isn’t it? Let’s face it, a lot of film work is very ego driven now by, by its very nature. So it’s a great way to step aside from that. And even as a filmmaker, you’re nobody in the context of nature filming. In an ideal world, you’re not even there. It’s a great way to step away from the usual thing where we go through life having to be very present as ourself, and we’re very present with the other people we’re with. It’s just a step back, Isn’t it?
There’s a degree of comfort with, or maybe it’s a removal of fear, I don’t know. When you’re creating a forms of media there’s always like a bit of an underlying fear because if you’re doing poetry or comedy or writing a book or making a narrative, there’s always that sense that, even if you’re not putting your own narrative and your own agenda forward, people will look for it in your work. You know yourself, as someone who makes a living in words, how many different interpretations there are of a Shakespeare text now.
And then, especially with stuff that I was doing, like comedy and poetry, one of the weird rules is if you’ve got a notebook and you’re trying to fill it with jokes and you, say, write 50 jokes. You’ll have five jokes that are absolutely amazing, but you read them and you go, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I should say those out loud because they might be offensive’ or they might give away a truth you’re not comfortable giving away. Or they might talk about someone else’s truth for whatever it may be. Whereas with nature filming, there wasn’t an agenda; the agenda was just, I want to show you guys what’s outside in your backyards, on your doorstep, during lockdown. That’s it. There’s nothing else to it. It’s not a film about pollution, it’s not a film about litter, conservation or anything like that. It’s just, we’re all stuck in lockdown, it’s not great. We can’t go anywhere. But actually for a lot of us, there’s probably more around us than we realize to engage with.
The beauty of it is, if you get some great footage you’ve got some brilliant footage to treasure and enjoy, and if you didn’t get anything you wanted, you still got a good few hours out in nature. It’s a win, win situation!
Oh yeah, especially because my job at the moment is eight to nine hours on a laptop a day, I think even just having three hours not looking at a screen was just heaven
J.A.L: What for you was the single best moment of filming the first installment of Backyard Beasts?
P.R: Ah, good question. So Backyard Beasts was really just to show people and myself, I guess, what’s on your doorstep, what animals you can find. And the idea was actually to start off really, really small. My thinking was, we get loads of birds in my garden. So what I’m going to do is like a bird profile thing, a little bit of a BBC – a bite size style where it’s like, ‘Hey, the Robbin here’s it’s wingspan. Here’s his life expectancy. Here’s his diet’, that kind of thing. And we’d go through the families of birds. And I was thinking, I have insects to use too. I know I can go out. I can film some butterflies. I could film some bees, wasps, etcetera. It’s cool. So then I put up like a little camera in the woods and it got a wood mouse on it and I was like, Oh, that’s quite cool.
People probably don’t see wood mice often, cause they’re quite nocturnal. So I’m going to go see what I can film with that. And the plan became, I can do this thing where it’s birds, bugs and I’m going to do a sort of narrative of the wood mouse. And while I was trying to film the wood mouse I accidentally got a shot of a badger I didn’t know was there. So that sent me off on a sort of tracking journey. Trying to find the badger’s set. And I was doing the detective work of finding out what ground would be good for badgers, trying to find like it’s tracks, looking at the broken branches, all of that stuff. I eventually figured where I thought it was going to be, based on the really glamorous world of finding some badger poop.
J.A.L: I was just going to ask you, did you do the whole full-on tracking thing, you know, picking up the poop and giving it a sniff sort of thing…
P.R: I didn’t sniff any poop but I did poke poop with sticks! So then I put up some cameras and I was like, ah, I got you now, badger! And then two and a half weeks went by and I didn’t have the badger. I was like, Oh, they’re really elusive. They’ve outsmarted me. I was stupid. I just happened to get lucky and caught a glance of a badger. Then on a one off, ‘you know what, I’m going to stick it in this ridiculous place under here’. And I came back the next night, and after two and a half weeks of not having anything of the badgers, I had three badgers in one night, all distinctive badgers – about two and a half minutes worth of footage on each one as well.
After that, it seemed that sort of unlocked some sort of weird badger door and they just sort of kept coming. I found another, and it was like six in total I’ve identified so far. So. That was pretty exciting.
J.A.L: They’re big animals, aren’t they, badgers? To know there’s six of them out there, that’s quite an impressive colony of animals, isn’t it?
P.R: It is, and it’s interesting. You know, I was out last night and I ran into a friend who was walking his dog around the river. And he’d seen some of the footage. And he actually said to me, you know, I’ve lived here for twenty-three years of my life and I didn’t know, we had all these animals here in Bangor on Dee, and he said what I think a lot of people would say, and that is, I’ve never even seen a badger here before. They’re the largest UK land predator, yet we probably wouldn’t know that we have a family of six of them living less than three miles from most people’s houses in this area. And then the same is probably true for each sort of village. Yeah. It’s pretty crazy, but exciting. I think that’s really cool. Because we don’t really think of exotic animals, as it were, being here in the UK
J.A.L: I think with animals and nature, just like holidays, we forget what amazing stuff we have right on our doorsteps, don’t we? we tend to have a ‘grass is greener’ mentality. We want to go to the safari and see these amazing animals, but actually we can stop at home first and appreciate what we have got right here.
I once did a conservation survey documentary for a college project. And I worked with the North Wales Wildlife Conservation Society. We were on a newt count with them for crested newts and it was just me and a small documentary team. We were filming and I remember the leader. He was really excited by great crested newts. And he actually said “I don’t know why people go on safari to see lions when there’s newts on our doorstep. And I was like, well, I can still sort of see the appeal of lions. As cool as newts are, it’s a bit easier to see the lion.
J.A.L: But seriously, I think it’s an appreciation of all of all nature, isn’t it? An appreciation for all creatures, great. And small.
P.R: You’re right. I think it’s exactly the same thing with holidays and sightseeing and that stuff. It’s amazing to travel and see other cultures and open your mind. Of course there’s so much richness in diversity for you as an individual and a society. But at the same time, we’re in now with lockdown and we have Corona virus and many different restrictions and worries. You can have an amazing holiday in the UK and whether you want to see plants, landscapes or animals, you can. That’s really cool.
J.A.L: There’s so much on offer isn’t there, especially here in North Wales, where we’re very lucky with what we’ve got available on the doorstep. Tell me, Pete, Backyard Beasts – is it a one off or can we expect more in the future?
P.R: So I didn’t come into lockdown with the intention of… ‘I’m going to be that person. I have lots of projects and this is going to be, this is going to be me’. That wasn’t my intention. And then I started Backyard Beasts and it was just fun to do something that was for me and was no stress. As a result, it kickstarted some other stuff that I had on the back burner for a while, across a variety of mediums. For example, a podcast idea, a novel. I’ve been writing a screenplay – lots of different stuff. And the intention was that Backyard Beasts would be what it was. It was ‘we’re stuck in lockdown. This sucks. Here’s a nice thing. Here’s Backyard Beasts’. Beause it takes forever to make a wildlife documentary. And my intention was not to do anything for the rest of this year, in that medium. But then on the day I released it, it got really nice comments and everything, and it got lots of views, lots of shares. It was somewhere in the three thousands. But almost instantly, people we’re like ‘Oh, when’s the sequel? When will there be more? I want more, I want more’. And I’d say ‘I gave you half an hour, Okay. What’s wrong with you?’
So I sat down at the drawing board and I’ve got a plan. The one I definitely know that I’m going to do, because I’m currently doing it, is backyard beasts, the nocturnal edition. looking purely at the nightlife activity of animals, and then my idea going forward, because it seems to work for people and it’s fun for me – and I’m hoping that our pace of life, even when we’re back to whatever normal is, we’ll still be more relaxed than before – so my plan is to do at least three to four of these a year, but looking at different locations up and down the UK. I might go spend a week in Snowdonia and do Backyard Beasts Snowdonia, then maybe come closer to home and do Backyard Beasts Acton Park.
J.A.L: It would be interesting to see how the seasons play out as well, wouldn’t it?
P.R: Definitely. So I’ve actually got a cool diary. This is a five year diary which is super fun. You just open it, for example on March, and you have March and it just says 20…, 20…, 20…, 20…, 20…, and you can just fill it in with the year of your choosing. So I’ve been making a map in the second half of this diary of what areas will be best seasonally for different kinds of wildlife. And having like a bit of a theme that I want to sort of find,
J.A.L: What would your best piece of advice be to somebody who wanted to just have a go and dabble with nature filming? Apart from be patient, perhaps?
P.R: Ooh, what piece of advice… that’s very interesting. I don’t know if it’s patience. I think it’s optimism. Just as an aside, I think it’s optimism, because I’m nobody in the nature filmmaking world, I’m not one of the David Attenboroughs or Gordon Buchanans of the world. I just went in optimistic that if I point a camera here for long enough, something of interest is going to come. But what I would suggest to someone who wants to get into nature filming would be learn how animals react with a camera in a setting that you can control.
So take for example the bird feeder in your garden, or if you’ve got a pet dog or a cat or something like that. Because it goes back to that sort of analogy of, if I went to a river to do a photo shoot with you, I can say, ‘Allan, can you put your hands above your head now, can you crouch down, can you turn around, could you do a side profile…’, whereas with an animal – and rightly so – they are generally pretty scared and skeptical about humans. So if you point a camera at a bird, the chances are that you have a fairly small window of time to get that bird to do anything even remotely useful on camera. So the amount of animals that I probably had, like incredible shots of them, that I messed up because they’re just like, ‘Nope’, they’re wild animals and they run away and it’s like, ‘ah, man’.
So yeah, it’s good to learn how quickly you can refocus and you can zoom and you can pan and stuff like that.
J.A.L: Or run… I’ve got visions of the late Steve Irwin coming into my mind now. Don’t start with crocodiles…
P.R: It is actually a twofold thing. First of all, learn what your reflexes are like, how animals move. If you’re not versed in filmmaking. If you’re versed in filmmaking, you just want to go out and do wildlife, my piece of advice would be do a little bit of research on animals and find out how comfortable a distance they’re probably going to be with you being to them, because obviously with animals you don’t want to go in and upset that ecosystem too much. And that goes across the entire board. In the documentary, there’s about two nights out of about thirty where I actually left food out because I don’t really like leaving a lot of food out for wild animals, beause you want them to forage and be independent. You don’t want to be training them to become dependent on you, without even intending to. So when it comes to the food stuff, my approach was more that once I got to a spot where I was like, ‘right, I’m definitively, a hundred percent sure this is a Badger trail. I just want to double check’. If I put food out, they can’t resist it. They will come through. So I would definitely learn a little bit about ecosystems and the animals you are studying, if it’s that kind of creature that you’re sort of going towards.
J.A.L: Fundamentally it comes down to respect. Doesn’t it? You must respect nature. You must respect these ecosystems and be careful that you don’t disturb them. Don’t interfere with them. Don’t disrupt them.
P.R: Yes, you are right. Actually, there’s a degree of danger too, because even animals you wouldn’t expect could hurt you, especially if you’re just horrible to them. I’m sure we’ve all seen in a field locally, a cow or a sheep or something like that charging at someone or trampling a dog or a cat or whatever it is because they weren’t respecting the animals. And that can be anything. Birds can peck you, a badger could want to take a snap at your ankles. They are all wild animals. We have to remember that. I wasn’t filming crocodiles or anything, so it was pretty cool. It’s pretty safe here in the UK, although up in Scotland, you’ve still got wild cats out and about. And it’s surprising what we have got in the UK, it really is. We’ve got red deer or reindeer. They are the largest mammal in the UK, and if you interrupted them – this is a really good point, actually, if you go to film wild deer, for instance, and they have their meeting season. Obviously, if you’re interrupting animals in their mating season, they are much more irate and likely to go for you than they are to run away from you.
J.A.L: Pete, I’m going to have to bring this up to a wrap for today. Thank you ever so much for talking to me. It’s been really fantastic. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the future brings with your nature filmmaking.