Some of you may know him as Discovery Channel’s Director of Photography on Born Survivor/Man Vs Wild. Simon Reay’s work is broader though – including documentary, commercials and drama – and in all this work he endeavors to offer the audience a first person perspective as they view. This year he received an Emmy nomination for Cinematography on Man Vs Wild and for this Landscape edition he agreed to be interviewed by Camera Obscura. Although he is a motion picture cameraman he loves “stills” (as he puts it) photography as well. We believe that his experience and thoughts are extremely valuable for any photographer or cameraman be it professional or amateur.
CO – For our readers, could you define your position as a director of photography?… What does a director of photography do, in general lines?
SR – A director of photography is a cameraman. My role on Man V’s Wild is to blend the photography with the content and not make it appear too dominant. On a show like this it’s important that the camera doesn’t lead. Bear is the driving force in the programme and dictates the story, so visually the camera should never jump ahead of him and preempt what he is about to do or see. This way of shooting often means sacrificing some potentially great shots for the integrity of the show – but I like that.
CO – How did it all start for you? When did you start in this area?
SR – I started doing this genre of filming about 6-7 years ago. As for my entire career I started operating in 1994 so there was a good 10 years before I started getting into this kind of work. It certainly wasn’t something I have deliberately pursued, I like being active, I like getting dirty and muddy so I suppose the transition into this kind of filming felt very natural. But it’s something I like doing because I have a camera with me. I would never (or at least at this moment in time) go out and do anything I do in my work as a social activity, whether it’s climbing, caving, diving or anything like that – I love it because there is a camera with me and a story to tell.
CO – So you always see things “through the lens”?…
SR – Yes, I do. I guess there is a slight comfort in that I can forget what is happening around me and concentrate on the scene. What I bring to the projects I shoot is the ability to work in a variety of environments however hard and concentrate on listening and watching what is happening around me and delivering the pictures.
CO – Have you had this ability from the beginning? Or you developed it?
SR – Oh, no. I developed it and I’m still developing it. The environment, regardless of whether you’ve been there before or not, is always changing. The temperatures vary and the conditions vary, so you’re always developing your skills. You also have to develop the camera skills as well, making sure the kit is correctly specified for the situation. This is something you slowly develop over time but you can never fully know it all. I have never completed a job thinking “yes, I am completely happy with that”, because there are always bits that I’d change for next time.
CO – In terms of equipment, do you happen to break a lot of cameras during shootings?
SR – No not at all. Actually, I’ve broken very little considering that we’ve been making this show for 5 years. The thing that gets punished most is the filters – I’ve gone through plenty of them. One time our underwater housing leaked and saltwater soaked the camera. We had no choice but to try and fix it so stayed up all night on a boat with my camera assistant Dan Etheridge painstakingly removing and cleaning every circuit board and then trying to remember how it all went back together. To our amazement it worked!
CO – Is it difficult to refrain yourself from giving directions while shooting? Do you tend to guide the person you’re shooting?
SR – Bear and I have worked together for so long that he knows where I’m going to be and vice versa. We have wonderful shorthand now where communication requires no words. He can turn to deliver a line of dialogue and he’ll instinctively know where I’m likely to be. Maybe in the early years I might have said to him something like “move to the left a bit” but not now, the great thing about this show is the ability to be spontaneous and not too perfect.
CO – What is great about the show with Bear is that it feels very natural. You actually feel you’re there and you don’t see the directing part. Surely there is a script, but as a viewer, I don’t see it.
SR – That’s very kind of you, the photography is designed so that the viewers feel they are next to Bear. I think audiences are very aware that there is a cameraman with Bear but not so much that it feels like the camera is a character in the show. He’ll never refer to me by name. You may see a hand or a foot occasionally but you’ll never see me – that is very deliberate and important. It’s about the audience’s relationship with Bear not mine. So I generally shoot with a very subjective feel, there are objective views as well when we back off and observe him from a distance to provide a sense of scale but 90% of the show is spent by his side. This really sums up what my job is all about, attempting to transfer that emotion, that feeling to the audience. I don’t always manage to do it every time but it’s partly what brings me back time and again.
CO – Any moments when you thought that you can’t do a certain thing, or that you won’t do it?
SR – There was a moment in Guatemala when I had to jump from a cliff into the bottom of a waterfall. Bear went first to test it and as soon as he landed I suddenly realized how far it was. In that moment I had a mental block, I didn’t want to jump. It was a very human moment. Even though I’ve done jumps like this numerous times before I just couldn’t shake the doubt. I did it in the end.
CO – What about the equipment you’re shooting with? Is it very important, or it’s just something to get the job done?
SR – When I first started out I loved the tactile nature of the equipment, now it’s much more about staying up to date with technology and using the right piece of kit for a specific job. I guess I’ve just grown up.
I don’t own any of the equipment I use for Man V’s Wild; Instead I’ve opted to build a good relationship with Axis Films/On Sight a hire company based near London. They are truly dedicated to making sure we have the correct items for each environment and have come to expect a well used kit when it returns. The kit we’re now using has been continuously perfected and adapted to exactly what we need. The Varicam 2700 and HVX171 make up the predominant camera package which are both part of the extremely robust Panasonic P2 family.
CO – What would you say it’s your biggest reward in this job? Any pro’s or con’s?
SR – Easy, for the viewer to watch the show and be unaware of what I’ve done. I like the idea of the photography just happening in the background and not trying too hard to be noticed.
CO – Did you have any special training for the kind of shooting you do?
SR – Just as a boy climbing trees and getting muddy.
CO – You received an Emmy nomination this year. What was it for?
SR – It was an Emmy nomination for cinematography in a reality show.
CO – How did you feel about it?
SR – It felt amazing. I am always ultra critical of what I do, so it was a huge compliment that someone thought it was worthy of an award. After all, it’s an Emmy! And the magnitude of that really hit me when I went to the ceremony and saw the scale of the event itself.
CO – Do you also like photography?
SR – Yes I love it, but I still mainly shoot on film with an Olympus OM4. My father is a very keen photographer and he’s using a Nikon D3. He gave me his old D100 recently which I really like but I still find digital to be disappointing as far as latitude goes, compared to negatives or transparencies. I adore 35mm transparencies but it’s getting harder and more expensive to do nowadays. The world seems to be drifting away from them and that’s so sad. However, in the end it doesn’t matter what kind of camera you’re holding. A great photo is a great photo!
CO – I believe this nostalgia is easier to be understood by those who worked on analog cameras and on film. Digital has its advantages (immediate results), but with the old cameras, there was also that thrill of waiting for the film to be developed, so you could see the photos.
SR – Exactly! That’s exactly right. Nowadays, everyone takes a photo and they immediately look at the screen to check it. Gone are the days of waiting to see your gems or disasters! But don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to progress; in fact, it has made photography even more accessible.
CO – Any future projects?
SR – We’re just about to start shooting for season 6 of Man V’s Wild. As for the rest, we’ll see.
CO – What would you advice someone who would like to start working in this area?
SR – In the end, I think it all comes down to having true belief and passion in what you do. And if you have that true belief you’ll find your way naturally. Keenness and enthusiasm is a good starting place but we all need a bit of luck at some point. If you know this is the career for you, forge ahead and find your way. Don’t procrastinate! I’ve seen this on several occasions from people with such great potential. Bear once said to me “don’t regret things you’ve done, regret the things you haven’t done”.
Nice quote to end this interview. Thank you Simon, for your time and involvement.
Keep up the great work and we’ll keep watching your work.
Keep in touch,
Camera Obscura Magazine
for the Romanian interview, click here / pentru interviul in limba romana, dati click aici