We were very lucky to have had multi-award winning Planet Earth II time-lapse photographer (and Norwicher!) Rob Whitworth, at Epic Studios a few weeks back, shortly after the new Planet Earth series was launched. He was at the studios to record some voice-over for a recent One Show appearance, where he talked about his contribution to ‘Cities’ – the final episode of what has been hailed the best natural history series ever made!
Planet Earth II has been an enormous hit with viewers since the first episode aired on Sunday 6th November and Rob Whitworth’s unique time-lapse photography provided some awe-inspiring sequences for episode 6 from the outset.
The series smashed viewing figures, reportedly attracting more from the 16 to 34 age bracket than The X Factor. Despite its success, Rob Whitworth remains modest. Of course, we couldn’t resist grabbing him for a chat while he was with us – and have been waiting patiently to share our interview with this talented guy with you! Please read on to find out a bit more about the man behind the camera.
Hi Rob, how did your One Show recording go?
Very well thank you!
Good! Thanks for taking time to talk to us. I hear the recording will feature on a December episode of The One Show, when you appear to talk about your work on Planet Earth II?
Yes, I’ve contributed to an episode of Planet Earth II – the ‘Cities’ episode, to be aired last in the series.
Everyone is aware of this spectacular series, featuring astounding camera work and narrated by Sir David Attenborough…
Yes, Sir David Attenborough did the narration, I didn’t get to meet the man sadly! But there are sequences I’ve done with him talking over the top which is amazing.
And a soundtrack from Hans Zimmer!?
So I’m told! I haven’t actually heard the final episode yet, I’ve just sort of done my bit and I’ll see it when it comes on TV but I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going into the edit.
So, where do you go from doing something like this? Confirmed the most-watched natural history documentary ever, after just one episode! What’s next?
Well, this project has been going on for 3 years. I do a bunch of work. So, I’ve got 5 projects on at the moment. I’ve been producing one for Turkish Airlines; I’ve got a video coming out that’s in Cappadocia; one in Sydney, lots of work going on! [smiles].
Where did it all begin? When did you first pick up a camera and think “This is what I want to do”?
As far as the actual time-lapse and where this has kind of started from, well, I lived in Vietnam for a year in 2011 – my wife was out there as the manager of a charity and I moved out. I was a photographer, and I didn’t want to work for other people anymore, I wanted to do my own thing. So, I just shot a lot of time-lapses and in particular in Vietnam, they’ve got this really cool traffic! It’s crazy, it’s just like motor bikes weaving everywhere. So, I made a video of the traffic in Hoa Chi Min and Siagon and it had 700,000 plays in 3 days when I put it on Vimeo. So basically it went viral, which was cool. Then – it wasn’t like overnight success – but one thing led to another and I’ve been making videos for various people since. It went from doing it speculatively to doing it on commission. Then the producer of Planet Earth saw a video I did in Shanghai and liked it, and then we started talking..
So, you lived in Shanghai and also Vietnam? And you gained your degree in Norwich?
All over the place, in Vietnam, in Singapore, Ola Lompa, in Shanghai….and Norwich! Yeah Norwich School of Arts.
Now you’re back…what are you enjoying while you’re here?
For a little while yes. Fat Cat is nice!
I understand that you and your wife recently had a child? How does that impact on your work?
Little guy yeah [beams]. Well, we do big projects, so we travel as a family. We all fly out and yeah, [laughs] he’s only 13 months, he’s been to 12 countries I think. So he’s pretty well travelled.! We’ll have to adapt as he gets older you know, but we’ll work it out and it’s all going okay at the moment.
Your wife works quite closely with you?
Yes, she deals with the logistics, the organisation, negotiation, and all the stuff that I forget about, so we’re a team.
So great to have her on board!
Everyone is familiar with your architectural and cityscape photography, which are clearly passions. Has this always been your focus?
Oh yeah! Prior to doing the whole time-lapse thing I was aspiring to be an architectural photographer really. My background is that I graduated in photography, specialising in advertising editorial photography – which doesn’t really mean a lot. Then I assisted photographers around here [Norwich]. This guy Richard Osbourne and another, Tom Mackie, for a few years. I didn’t really want to move to London, so that’s why I went to Vietnam. But architectural photography is sort of a passion and I love cities, cities are amazing, Asian cities are incredible and getting the correct shot of the city – the perfect time from the perfect vantage point, is really my passion and then obviously there’s other elements that the videos bring into it. But getting up on a really tall building and catching a sunset is pretty cool.
Do you have a favourite place to photograph, or a favourite shot?
Shanghai’s awesome. I mean Shanghai’s just the future, it’s absolutely incredible. But I think the favourite shot was in Dubai, I caught the fog. A lot of people have photographed the fog there but you don’t know whether you’ll get it and it’s very much hit and miss and you’ve got to have everything set up and early in the morning and you’ve got to have access to shoot …and I got the shot, which was amazing. You know it was a 500 metre building and the ground with fog rolling in so that was cool.
You’ve won around 9 awards so far that I’ve read about?
Yeah, I don’t know.
If you had to name one that you’re proud of?
I think Vimeo travel video of the year 2015. That was something I wanted. First I wanted a video that got a million plays and I got that, that was my first video. But the travel video was cool because Vimeo’s great and to get that, was something I wanted.
Okay, so we’ve already talked a little bit about Planet Earth II. Could you tell us any more about your contribution there?
Yeah. So, Planet Earth is amazing and any photographer who’s watched their time–lapse, well, it’s kind of the bench mark standard of time–lapse, so to be contributing to it in your own way is pretty cool. The producer Fredi Devas contacted me about 3 years ago and flew out to see me in Shanghai at the time and we spent a few weeks, kind of getting to know each–other essentially, did some shooting in Shanghai together, then I did another shoot for a couple of weeks in Singapore. Then there was another, 2 week shoot I think, in Hong Kong. Oh and then we did one in Milan as well.
I have this style of film-making that’s sort of this weird…it’s this nauseating journey through a scene [laughs]. Fredi really liked that and he wanted to incorporate that and more, maybe dynamic time–lapse into their style. So the idea was that me and Fredi work together to storyboard and come up with sequences that tell and illustrate narrative points. So, for instance, in Milan, there’s this building called Bosco verticale, which is basically luxury condos – but with a bunch of trees, well there’s a whole kind of bio-diversity going on there, of nature living up in the skies. It was being constructed so he wanted sequences of a crane picking up a tree and moving it up the building and it was just a certain way to tell a whole story, you know, in that single-take style. To maybe re-engage the audience at different points during the episode.
We’re all really looking forward to seeing it!
When I’m not working here, I work in the other side of the Epic Studios building, which is a music and media college called Access to Music and we have some very keen photography students over there. What would be your best piece of advice be for a photographer hoping to get into time–lapse photography?
Make a viral video!
Any tips on how you make it go viral?
Well, no…but you can! It’s there. It’s possible! When I launched my video I was in the jungle in Vietnam, you know? With barely any internet. I uploaded this video, wacked it on Vimeo, I had barely any [laughs] well I had a couple of friends but I didn’t have a huge following or anything and certainly not professionally – nobody had any contact or engagement particularly at the time – and yeah, within 3 days, 700,000 plays. Within a month a million plays…film awards and people contacting you. I mean I’ve never had to do any advertising or marketing just because there’s this portfolio piece that people want to watch. So, it sounds sort of flippant but…YOU CAN. You know, for not very much money, without getting into debt, you can buy a laptop and some cameras and realise your vision, in a way that years ago just wasn’t possible! So, do it! If people don’t watch it, they’re not wrong, you know? You’re wrong! And you’ve got to go at it until you find something that’s interesting.
So it’s not about how you market it? How much of it is luck?
It’s not luck! It’s about doing something remarkable! The internet is an incredible platform of curation, it’s phenomenal. So, if you do something that’s not very good, people will tell you and I’ve been through that, I published a bunch of videos before the one that went viral. I filmed around the UK and no–one really watched them. I was sort of like, “Why is nobody watching it!? This is amazing, you know?” [laughs]. But I needed to work on what it was that I was doing right and innovate, and when you have something good, it spreads, people share it. In a way that, you don’t have to rely upon anyone spotting you, or anyone else sponsoring you or anything. You can just go and do what you want to do! IF.you have the idea.
That is the key word ‘remarkable’ isn’t it? Remarkable, as in that people will be motivated to remark about what you’re doing and spread the word?
Yeah, yeah! And for me, I travel about with a couple of laptops and, you know, produce stuff for Planet Earth! It’s very doable now, in a way that I don’t think it was ten years ago.
What about kit? Do you need fancy kit, or can you get away with just taking a basic camera and doing your stuff?
Well, with time lapse yeah, because you’ve got so much extra resolution etc. I don’t have any big expensive cameras. I shoot with DSLRs and some Sonys to do 4K. I mean with me, I need to be able to move it around as much as anything but you get a lot of portable jibs. I do some steady-cam stuff with a little jib but yeah, the kit is getting smaller and more affordable and compact. I have a couple of suitcases and that’s a complete professional film set-up. I think the most expensive bit of kit I have would be my laptop or the Movi M5. It’s about working within the constraints of your kit as well, because you always want more kit – but I’ve never gone nuts and bought a really expensive camera. It’s always been something I can afford, or the business can afford.
So far so good!
Yeah, I’ll retire soon, get the little guy working [laughs]
I have a teenage son who’s off to New York soon. I know you’ve had work featured in festivals there. Have you been recently? Any sights that should not be missed?
I have had stuff shown in New York – featured in festivals – but I haven’t actually been to New York since I was a kid I’m afraid. I could recommend sights in Shanghai or Singapore, or about Dubai though! Asia is amazing, I mean Dubai is cool, but if you go to an Asian city, any Chinese ones, they’re just phenomenal! Chongqing, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai – absolutely awe-inspiring. That view of the Dubai Pearl and there’s a walkway and a river and basically it looks like an island of skyscrapers. It really is the corporate centre, the commercial centre, so much energy and excitement! Norwich is very similar in that regard [smiles].
How would you react if your son were to follow in your footsteps?
Oh! Get a proper job! [laughs]. No, it’s up to him, I don’t mind! But what I do will be so antique by the time he grows up that any advice I could give would be completely useless by then. I don’t know, we’ll see. Hopefully he’ll do something sensible.
Do you think that sometimes taking the creative route isn’t necessarily the sensible decision?
Um. I don’t know. I get to do it and it’s really cool, it’s just not a certain career. Everything is going pretty well right now but it could disappear at any moment. We literally don’t know what’s coming up beyond the beginning of next year, which is always the case. But you don’t know, and, very seriously, I plan my career as in, maybe this will dry up, maybe people won’t like what I’m doing anymore because you have no certainty. Then where are you? Nowhere. So, that’s fine, that’s cool but it’s not necessarily the most stable career. It is sort of lauded as the greatest thing possible to be a creative but there are obviously some down sides.
But right now, you’re loving what you do…
Yeah! I mean, it seriously couldn’t get any better. I get paid to travel. I’m flying out to Miami tomorrow and Thursday, you know, we get paid to travel the world and photograph the most beautiful things and I get to take my family with me. So, yeah it’s pretty cool!
It sounds very cool! Thanks so much for your time.
Thanks! Hope your son gets on okay!
What a nice guy.
As expected, the ‘Cities’ episode of Planet Earth II was incredible. If you haven’t already seen it, watch it now on the BBC iPlayer!
You can view more of Rob’s work on his website: www.robwhitworth.co.uk.Tags: Cities Episode Planet Earth, Photographer Rob Whitworth, Planet Earth 2, Planet Earth II, Rob Whitworth, Time Lapse Photography