The Great British Year: Our magic ingredient

Thursday 17 October 2013, 11:32

Elizabeth White Elizabeth White Director and Producer

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The changing seasons are something that makes Britain special: the lengthening days, the turning leaves, the first touch of frost.

These little signs are things that we naturally tune into – things that make our landscape unique.

In making The Great British Year, the team and I had to bring these moments to life on camera and, thankfully, today’s technology was a tool that helped like never before!

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Perfect timing: Under a blanket of white a delicate flower makes its move

Much of the series relied on time-lapse filming - a technique that allows us to bring events in nature, that take many minutes, weeks or hours, to life - sometimes revealing things that would never have been obvious when viewed in normal time.

Take the story of the slime mould – one of my favourite characters in Autumn, the episode I produced.

Slime moulds look little more than blobs of yellow goo, yet they are fascinating and unique creatures that munch their way across the forest floor at about 1mm per second, clearing away bacteria from the leaf-litter.

The challenge was to bring their story to life and, for that, I called on expert time-lapse cameraman, Tim Shepherd.

Tim is no stranger to slime moulds, and using a carefully-constructed set where he could get in close with macro lenses and proper lighting, managed – over several weeks – to understand the slime mould’s behaviour and capture its remarkable life story through the lens.

Through time-lapse, a yellow blob comes to life as a moving, feeding character!

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A dramatic time-lapse study of yellow slime mould as it crosses the forest floor searching for food

We also needed to capture events in the natural world that happen rapidly, and unpredictably... in places it would be too hard to reactively scramble a camera team.

For that, we cast the net out wide, to the nation’s fleet of amateur time-lapse photographers.

Technology today, means that almost anyone with a good-quality digital SLR camera can go out and shoot time-lapse – you can even do it on your mobile phone.

OK, the quality we needed had to stand up to broadcast level, but using Twitter and photography forums we began to tap into a network of time-lapse enthusiasts whose work was excellent, and who were ready and waiting in locations all across the UK.

One of these locations was the northernmost tip of Scotland – one of the only parts of Britain that witnesses the aurora.

Though clear to human eyes, the aurora is too faint for most cameras to film, but time-lapse, where each frame may be exposed for several seconds, allows enough light into the camera to capture the effect.

But predicting something so enigmatic is tricky, and it would have been very difficult for a camera crew to guarantee filming when conditions were right.

Enter Barry Stewart, a builder from Wick. Barry got in touch with the team via an online forum for amateur time-lapsers. 

A keen photographer, Barry works as a joiner by day and by night, his hobby is filming with the time-lapse technique.

Barry had been photographing the night sky for a while, but one evening he happened to be out when an aurora was ‘playing’ overhead.

Aurora activity is related to sun activity, which works on a roughly 11-year cycle. It goes through phases with low activity (meaning auroras are relatively uncommon), and then phases when spectacular events occur.

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In John O’Groats the 18-hour nights are the perfect backdrop for the aurora borealis

Over the following months, Barry – along with fellow Wick time-lapser Maciej Winiarczyk – went out many times in order to document the best aurora.

Some shots were made from the sea shore, others from the local golf course – but all involved braving long hours in the cold Scottish night!

By working with people on the ground, suddenly a sequence of the Northern Lights which we didn’t dare hope to achieve, became possible.

Barry, and our other time-lapse contributors added the magic ingredient to The Great British Year – capturing ephemeral, yet magical moments in our seasonal landscape that it would be impossible to plan for or predict.

It’s a wonderful demonstration of how passionate people are about documenting Britain’s landscape – it may be our backyard, but the seasonal events on our doorstep can be an inspiration to us all.

Elizabeth White is the producer of episode four of The Great British Year.

Barry Stewart features in the Making The Great British Year section at the end of episode three.

The Great British Year continues on Wednesday, 23 October at 9pm on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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