Interview With Ted Oakes, BBC Producer of Snow Wolf Family and Me
27th January 2015
Ted Oakes, producer of the BBC two part nature documentary, Snow Wolf Family and Me featuring wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan, answers some questions about his work and making the film on Ellesmere Island, Canada.
Firstly can you tell readers a bit about yourself, your career and role creating The Snow Wolf Family and Me?
I’m a Canadian Series Producer working at the BBC Natural History Unit. I helped to get the series commissioned and oversaw its production with a super team.
Where do you start when you are creating a new wildlife documentary? How does it go from the initial 'that sounds like a good idea' to actually landing in the field and beginning work, for example with Snow Wolf Family and Me?
The film lives or dies by the strength of the idea. That’s the most important phase. For me it has to be something no one has done before and to have moral value, i.e. be able to show the audience important truths about an animal to as many people as possible.
Once there how do you plan the filming trip to ensure you get the maximum filming opportunities? What was a typical day when you were on Ellesemere Island?
Film-making is like mountain climbing. It’s what you do in preparation that matters. That means talking the the experts, people who have been where you are trying to go. The big expert for us was Prof Dave Mech, the world authority on wolves and on Ellesmere Island. A typical day means no night as there is 24 hour daylight. The clock becomes meaningless. Every day there is only one task. Find the wolves and get the camera on them.
What piece of kit do you find most useful on filming trips to such remote locations and do you have any tips for people going on trips to isolated places in harsh environments?
Let the experts tell you what you need to bring and take them along too. Going to a place like Ellesmere without experts is like driving without lessons. No fun and not a good idea.
What is the conservation status of the Arctic wolf. how common are they in the Arctic region and what pressures does it face?
Arctic wolves are a subspecies of Canus lupus. No one knows how many arctic wolves there are on the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Too large an area in which to survey white animals. But the numbers might be surprisingly low. Caribou numbers are greatly reduced through the arctic, mostly due to poorly controlled hunting and perhaps more common icing events due to climate change. These could have a big effect on wolves.
Sometimes in the film Gordon Buchanan literally seemed at the mercy of the wolves and did not seem to be in control of the situation. For example when Scruffy was sniffing his boot. The wolf did not know it was a shoe, and could have easily tried to bite it, like it did the hidden cameras. Then what would have happened, was their any planned response? Is there not a danger that in presenters wanting to be close to the wildlife they are endangering themselves and making the animals too familiar with humans?
Biologists worked with wolves on Ellesmere over 25 field seasons and describe 'wolves as wimps’. Part of the purpose of the film is to show the audience they need not have unreasonable fear of wolves. Wolves are portrayed as mindless human killers in feature films such as The Grey resulting in their widespread persecution. Our wolf pack lived so far from human habitation that they are no threat to people and didn’t know what we were.
In another part of the film Gordon Buchanan stated that "they'll let you look after their young while they go of hunting. If that's not being welcomed into the pack I don't know what is." Was that not a bit far fetched?
I don’t understand this question. The wolves were comfortable enough to leave us with the pups while they went hunting. That was very trusting of a wild animal.
What is your most special memory of the Arctic wolves?
How gentle and caring they are for each other, unlike scenes filmed captivity where animals have captive psychosis.
The other 'stars of the show' were the huge Musk Ox. What were your impressions of them and how often where they close to where you camped? What sort of population of the Musk Ox is there on Ellesmere Island?
I studied muskox for my Masters degree in Canada. They are amazing but sometimes dangerous animals. Best avoided while on foot in the rut. No one knows how many there are on Ellesmere.
What is the next project you are working on and is there any plans to return to the Snow Wolf Family in the future?
I would love to go back to the wolves, but that is up to the BBC. The series was a big success with the audience and special for me as well. My next project is TRIBES
Watch The Snow Wolf Family and Me on Amazon Video streaming HERE
Follow Ted Oakes on Twitter HERE
Biographies of the Wolves featured in the documentary HERE
Eight Surprising Things About Wolves With Dr Dave Mech HERE
Dr Dave Mech, personal website HERE
Wolves in the Garage, Ted Oakes HERE