In order to film The Clowns of the Sea, the National Trust and Natural England kindly allowed us to film these comical little birds on the Farne Islands in Northumberland in May 2015. In many places – including along the Northumberland coast near the Farne Islands – puffins have become an icon of the seaside.
This was my first real opportunity to use the new camera, the Sony FS7, since purchasing it. This camera is capable of shooting in Ultra HD, which is 4 times the resolution of HD, and also in HD slow motion. The slow motion our camera is capable of recording is 6 times slower than regular speed filming, which proved very useful both in capturing the sheer speed at which puffins flap their wings, as well as reducing the rocking sensation while filming on the boat out to the islands. There were plenty of opportunities to capture these beautiful little birds on the islands, as there are around 72,000 nesting there. The noise was incredible, but almost none of it was from puffins – there are many other sea bird species nesting on the islands, the noisiest of which were the Terns and Guillemots! The puffins, however, were almost silent.
Initially in the morning people had looked at us strangely – it was a bright spring day and we were dressed in warm winter clothes. I was extremely glad that we were wearing winter clothes though – while it was a beautiful day, out on the Farne Islands it was very windy which made it feel rather cold. This actually made it a little difficult to film, as the wind was blowing the camera around! But I managed to weight the tripod down while filming and after a while the wind subsided a little.
We spent around 4 hours on Inner Farne Island, during which time I was able to capture some footage that really excited me. Like other sea birds, puffins spend months at sea and may not see each other for some time. As they mate for life, when returning to each other they tap their beaks together in order to reaffirm their bond with one another. I was incredibly excited to capture this footage in real time in Ultra HD as I only saw one pair doing this the entire time we were there.
I also managed to capture some super slow motion footage of them flying – which was quite difficult as they flap their wings very quickly, as well as being rather small to see. I had borrowed a 300mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter to use for the day, which has produced some excellent imagery. I have also had the advantage of getting closer to the birds in post production as I have been able to crop into the Ultra HD footage to produce a film in HD. This means that even though I’ve cropped in, I’ve not lost any of the original quality of the footage.
I wanted this film to be different from other documentaries; after all puffins aren’t considered endangered (recently the RSPB has become concerned for their welfare due to climate change, see a report here), which is the focus of a lot of my wildlife work. Puffins are one of my favourite birds, they are comical yet beautiful little birds, and I wanted a voice over that would reflect this. I came up with the idea of using a poem and I found one that matched what I had filmed and what I wanted to portray in the film. Nuffin’ Like a Puffin by John Rice can only be found in print in the RSPB’s Anthology of Wildlife Poetry, but I managed to get in touch with him and gain his permission to use the poem for the voice over.
I decided to call the film The Clowns of the Sea after a common nickname for puffins – if you’d like, you can watch the film here.