Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation
Top

Elizabeth White: Director, Frozen Planet

Elizabeth final.jpg

Elizabeth White, 33, is a director of hit BBC nature series Frozen Planet. She lives in Cliftonwood, Bristol, with two housemates

Throwing open the curtains of my Bristol bedroom to a view of the docks and rows of brightly coloured terrace houses is very different to filming Frozen Planet where I was surrounded by ice and sea for six weeks.

As is my morning routine – at home I’ll wake up at 7am and head to the local outdoor lido. It’s beautiful, especially in the winter when the pool is warmer than the air so it steams. I have to be brave to face the freezing cold air but it’s not as bad as diving under the ice in Russia, where it was so cold that I worried that if my oxygen regulator was knocked out, I wouldn’t be able to find my mouth again as I had no sense of touch. After swimming I have a hot shower – a luxury that I only had once every two weeks while on location – and get dressed for work in skinny jeans and boots. Breakfast is granola and fruit before I walk five minutes to my office at the BBC.

Frozen Planet has consumed the last four years of my life. Most of the locations we filmed in are incredibly remote and there are no ambulances, so we had medical and avalanche training and learnt to use rifles and set trip wires to deal with polar bears.

The next two years were an intense period of filming – organising the logistics of getting to the Arctic, Antarctica or other remote locations, staying out in the field for weeks, coming back to plan the next trip and then heading out to another location.

As director it was my job to make sure we got the right footage – pans of the scenery or shots of ice formations or killer whales hunting seals – so I drew storyboards to communicate with the cameramen. I was often working with people with years of experience and as the youngest and only female member of the team it was challenging to remain in control.

We had beluga whales scratching themselves against the wires of the filming tower

During my two trips to Antarctica the team and I stayed on a boat, which was horrific – I was seasick for the first 24 hours. Luckily our skipper made us delicious meals like reindeer stroganoff. Three cameramen and I slept like sardines in bunk beds with only thin plasterboard separating us. We wore the same clothes for days – thermals, thin fleecy layer, thicker fleecy layer, body warmer and a big jacket over the top – and one of the tricks of the trade is to wear merino wool as it’s a natural fibre and doesn’t smell so it’s nicer to wear. Being in such close quarters you learn to respect people’s space – if someone climbs into their bunk to read you know not to disturb them.

Being on location in the Artic really messed with my body clock as it was daylight for 24 hours. The best light for filming was from 10pm to 2am so we aimed to go out at 6pm and work through the night, sleep from 5am to midday then watch the footage and go back out again in the evening.

We wanted to capture penguin chicks taking their first swim, so the underwater cameraman and I would dive down and place the camera on the seabed facing up to where we hoped the chicks would jump in. It was fascinating watching them build the courage to eventually take the plunge. When we were underwater we had fur seals playing with us and beluga whales scratching themselves against the wires of the filming tower.

During the last year I’ve been able to return to a more normal routine as I’ve been based back at the BBC selecting footage, working with the editors to shape the sequences into stories and writing scripts. I did a commentary recording with Sir David Attenborough and at the end he gave me a big hug and kiss on each cheek – a real highlight.

When I’m away, I only get to make one five-minute phone call a week so it’s not good for the love life – in my experience guys don’t really like you going away for six weeks at a time. Now, I try to catch up with friends for a meal or go for a run around the docks before going to bed at 11pm. I try to keep fit – it makes it easier when I go back into the field as scuba diving under the ice is physically demanding and I have to carry heavy equipment, I can’t always expect the guys to carry it for me!

PLAN B: COSTUME DESIGNER

If I wasn’t involved in wildlife directing I would have loved to have done something arty. I was really interested in fashion in my teens and I thought I would end up being a costume designer. I like working in three dimensions so I think I would have really enjoyed designing costumes for films – whether that’s period pieces or modern tailoring. I made a really cool Seventies maxi dress that was intended to be for a fancy dress party but I liked it so much that I wore it to a friend’s wedding. In Bristol we have the Invisible Circus – a collective of multi-skilled artists – who do amazing Victorian theatre performances and I’ve made costumes for them.

Frozen Planet is now available on BBC DVD

Comments

More

The best A-list Instagrams from the week so far

From Lupita Nyong'o's dreamy holiday to Lena Dunham's defiant message

by Nicola Colyer
20 Jul 2017

Lana Del Rey is changing her aesthetic because of Donald Trump

"I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing Born to Die."

by Moya Crockett
20 Jul 2017

BBC ever so politely shuts down backlash over first female Doctor Who

Some “unhappy” viewers contacted the broadcaster about Jodie Whittaker’s casting

by Kayleigh Dray
20 Jul 2017

“I have my demons”: Neelam Gill on racism, modelling and mental health

Stylist’s cover star is outspoken, honest and on the up

by Anita Bhagwandas
19 Jul 2017

Actresses who have braved playing iconic women from history

As Felicity Jones signs up to play Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we take a look at other movie stars who have played real-life legends

by Moya Crockett
19 Jul 2017

Madonna launches legal battle to get her Tupac breakup letter back

The emotional letter was set to go up for auction – but Madonna says it was taken without her consent

by Moya Crockett
19 Jul 2017

Kate Middleton’s honest response to being called “perfect”

The Duchess of Cambridge isn’t here for the myth of perfection

by Kayleigh Dray
18 Jul 2017

Christine Bleakley is over people asking when she’s going to have kids

“Everyone seems to be fascinated by my body clock…”

by Kayleigh Dray
17 Jul 2017

Woman cancels her wedding and invites homeless people to the party

“It’s a great opportunity to spread love.”

by Moya Crockett
17 Jul 2017

“How pathetic sexists tried to tear down the first female Doctor Who”

Misogynists are terrified of Jodie Whittaker and everything she represents

by Kayleigh Dray
17 Jul 2017