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