Secrets of the Elephants is the latest documentary series from National Graphic (NatGeo), premiering on Earth Day (this Saturday, April 22). Notable names attached include James Cameron who is an executive producer and Natalie Portman lends her voice to narrate. But Bob Poole is the person whose skill and experience with cameras amongst wildlife, will be transporting viewers at home into nature as the director of photography for the four-episode series.
“The thing about elephants is they are incredibly powerful animals, whether you talk about their strength or just how powerful they could be on your emotions,” Bob explains.
And in a way, Secrets of the Elephants has brought Poole’s life full circle as he’s grown up around elephants as a young boy in East Africa. One of his earliest memories of elephants was as a child, no older than five years old, at Amboseli National Park, a national park in Kajiado South Constituency in Kajiado County, Kenya.
“My father was telling us that this huge elephant that we were looking at, if he decided to run after and charge at us that he would squash us down to the size of a peapod. And as he finished saying that this giant elephant charged us,” Bob recalls with a fond laughter. “I think that was my first notable memory with elephants. But it hasn’t always been about elephants charging and chasing us around.”
Bob grew up with a father deeply committed to wildlife as he worked for a conservation foundation. As a result, his family spent a lot of time in the bush of Africa, which he describes during those times as different and truly wild.
“We left the suburbs of Nairobi, which was a small, small place in those days, and it was wild from there on out. We had big animals living all around us. And we’re all exposed,” Bob explains, looking back on his childhood.
When he was seventeen, his father unfortunately passed away in a car accident. Prior to this tragedy, his father had arranged a school holiday job for Bob working with a game capture team in northern Kenya.
“We were catching Cape Buffalo which are these big, formidable, and dangerous animals. And we were darting them from the helicopter,” Boba shares. “I was just a kid; I was just kind of helping out where I could. And I’ve worked closely with the helicopter pilot, refueling and stuff like that.”
One day, that helicopter pilot went off to fly for a NatGeo film crew and invited Bob to come along, a pivotal moment in his early life that likely led him to where he is today.
“They took pity on me from my father’s recent death and offered me a job working with them. So, that’s how my career started,” Bob opens up about. “So, I started at the very, very beginning, not knowing anything about filming or production. I was interested in photography, so I understood that. Eventually, I ended up as a camera assistant.”
Becoming a camera assistant to a NatGeo cameraman, Bob traveled the world doing science and nature programs, ultimately learning the foundational skill sets that would serve him when it became his time behind the camera.
“It was a lot of setups, a lot of lighting. It was a lot of not wildlife, but I learned coverage I guess is the way you would say, because it’s all the same,” Bob explains. “In the end, you are still building sequences to tell stories and that’s what I learned as a camera assistant. And I had no idea about any of that from before. So, I learned on the job. But it set me up, so that when it was my turn and when I got my opportunity, I knew what to do because I’d spent all those years, almost a decade, working as a camera assistant on all kinds of other films. So, I knew coverage, I knew storytelling and I knew photography. So that was my start.”
Bob does not shy away from crediting his older sister, Joyce Poole, as a major contributor of the new developments in understanding elephants.
“There has been a tremendous amount [of new developments] and a lot of it’s come from my older sister. She is probably the world’s, I would say, leading expert on African elephant behavior,” Bob proudly explains. “She has been working for years sort of decoding elephant communication. Not just me, but everybody who looks at elephants has come to understand so much [more] about them in the years since I first started.”
For Bob, his fascination with wildlife can be summed up as what provides him with those important times of living in the moment.
“Well, I think there is something that happens to me. I’m probably all of us [in] that [way], I spend a lot of time kind of imagining what’s about to happen or reflecting on the stuff that just has happened,” Bob reflects. “But it seems to me when I’m with wildlife, especially when I’m filming, I’m living in the moment, and I know that there are certain things that work for all of us in that way. But that’s what works for me.”
And when it comes to living in the moment within his work, knowledge and preparation were important to him as a director of photography capturing those moments with wildlife.
“Well, the thing about it is, when you’re filming wildlife, it’s different than people because you can’t direct them, obviously, and you can’t even set shots up because they’re always going to move and you can’t necessarily tell where they’re gonna go,” Bob clarifies. “With elephants, you can [understand] a little bit if you understand what they’re doing, and you can predict what they’re going to do next and be ready and set up. So, for filming on this series, one thing that was helpful for me was that I was able to know what to expect and be prepared for it.”
Bob highlighted the benefit of working with NatGeo, as they understand the importance of time when it comes to filming wildlife.
“One of the things that’s great about working with National Geographic is, everybody knows that you need time and that’s what you need when you’re filming wildlife,” Bob explains. “You can’t say ‘oh, we’re going to get this done this day and then we’re going to get this done the next day.’ It’s just kind of I need a chunk of time and we’ll see what happens. We’ll go for this, but we might have to pivot [and] go for that if that’s what’s happening.”
For Secrets of the Elephants, Bob had to not only rely on his past experiences of filming elephants in order to effectively track them.
“I definitely drew on my life career experiences on this project, especially let’s say in Namibia where I had filmed many times, but I haven’t filmed elephants there. And the elephants there, there’s very few of them. So, finding them is the first thing,” Bob stated. “You have to be able to find them, and then you have to be able to stick with them because, I said earlier, you have to be there, and they spend a lot of time standing around and eating and that’s not really very interesting to film. So, you spend a lot of time tracking, and so all those things are skills that I’ve learned over the years.”
At the same time, he needed to put together and learn to operate a new piece of filming equipment that ultimately benefited Secrets of the Elephants.
“Over time I’ve been kind of working on a way to work quietly around elephants and get an aerial perspective and so on. I [had] really come to the point where I had with these new gimbals and stuff, that I wanted a crane. I guess in Hollywood, you would call it a Russian arm, but an off-road Russian arm that would fit on a Land Cruiser,” Bob shared. “And so, I built one and learning to operate that thing around elephants was interesting because there was a learning curve there. So, there was new stuff there, but it paid off. It was really great. It was great to see how well it worked in the film.”
The memorable moment from Secrets of the Elephants for Bob would be the birth of a desert elephant.
“You can imagine after eight years of drought and no babies being born. Well, no babies born and living, to film the first baby and to be there to film the birth and to witness what happened afterwards. The baby and its mother and its auntie got separated from the herd, and the herd left,” Bob said. “Well, they had to walk over 45 kilometers to catch up to them in the hot sun and you can imagine a less than 48-hour calf trying to make that journey in the hot sun. I had filmed babies dying before in my career and I thought for sure I was going to witness that again and yeah, pretty powerful stuff.”
And what Bob hopes audiences takeaway from the series is a heightened understanding and compassion towards elephants.
“When they watch Secrets of the Elephants, what they’ll takeaway is that elephants are extraordinary animals. They are so much like us; they have compassion and they have huge brains that they can solve complex problems,” Bob says. “They have intricate, tight connections with not just their own babies, but all their relatives and even acquaintances. They have affection towards one another. They have language and they can’t speak English, but I think if they could, they would probably tell us all to give them a break.”
Catch Bob Poole’s work on Secrets of the Elephants, airing on Disney+ on April 22, 2023.
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