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Dolphins: Spy In The Pod – A Discussion With Producer Rob Pilley

By: Marjorie Galas

Imagine racing through the water with a team of dolphins, then suddenly thrusting yourself high into the air, twirling and circling before crashing back into the waves. In “Dophins: Spy in the Pod”, a The Discovery Channel and BBC co-production premiering Saturday, March 7th, viewers will have the chance to experience these and many other dolphin behaviours in footage that has never been captured before.

The series employs a series of cutting edge animatronic cameras: cameras disguised as sea creatures including sea turtles, sting rays, nautilus, and tunas, Often suspicious of humans and equipment, the spy creatures pose no threat to the dolphins and capture the dolphins rearing young, learning to leap, and protecting their pod throughout the course of the documentary special. Joining producer/director John Downer and his production company John Downer Productions on “Dolphins: Spy in the Pod” is frequent collaborator and producer Rob Pilley. Variety 411 was recently able to connect with Pilley and discuss his efforts on the special program.

Variety 411: What has attracted you to producing educational content that focuses on animals and their diverse habitats?

Rob Pilley. I’ve always loved animals since a very early age, diving into the mud to play with snakes, snorkelling amongst fish shoals, turning rocks and logs to find what creepy crawlies lay beneath. The only place for me to be is up close and personal with animals; to feel what it’s like to be them and to see life through their eyes. This inspirational viewpoint translates into the films we now make.

411: I noticed you have been working with the episode’s director, John Downer in various capacities for over ten years. How did your working relationship begin with Mr. Downer?

RP: John and I both had a background at the BBC’s Natural History Unit, albeit John was there many years before I was. As a youngster I was very aware of his previous films and series that featured incredible viewpoints and unique stories about wildlife that were very close to my heart and mindset. When I was asked to join John Downer Productions I was thrilled to be able to continue and expand a style and desire that I had experienced since I was a young boy.

411: The footage captured in “Dolphins: Spy in the Pod” is shot in a variety of locations including Costa Rica, Florida and Australia. Are there special permits and arrangements that must be made prior to the crew setting out in these locals? Do you have a team of scientist who assist you while you’re shooting?

RP: Yes. Every shoot that we undertake has to be researched intensively. Finding the scientists and researchers and then seeking permission to be present with the dolphins in their habitat and film takes many months in advance to obtain. Dolphins especially are incredibly protected around the world by both international and nationwide laws so we have to work very closely with governments, film commissions and other agencies to ensure that everything is 100% completed by the book. As a result some permissions can take 6-9 months in advance to obtain before filming can commence. Intensive research and shoot planning is needed from the early stages. At the end of the project we had worked alongside the most well- known and established dolphin scientists and authorities in the world.

411: Do you share footage, such as the never before seen shot of the dolphins, Cobia fish and sting rays swimming in a pack to particular institutions or scientist for further research and investigation?

RP: As is often the case with many of our previous films, once we have fulfilled all contractual obligations we can allow scientists to use our material to substantiate their own work and theories and so forward scientific research.

411: How do you go about securing the crew you’d like to hire for the duration of the shoot?

RP: John Downer Productions is a relatively small team of core staff and cameramen that we use time and time again for all of our series. We are like a family, and so the style of the films has been honed through many loyal years of working together.

411: How long does it generally take to gather footage needed for a one hour show, such as “Dolphins: Spy in the Pod?” Are you directly involved with the editing process or do you provide comments on a rough cut before the final episode is aired?

RP. The Discovery version of “Dolphins: Spy in the Pod” is a shortened, adapted version of a 2 part series that we made for the BBC. I was heavily involved with this right from the very beginning- from concept to Spycreature design, directing of filming and finally editing to the finished article. The original 2 hour BBC version took 2 years to film- consisting of over 1500 dives, nearly 3000 hours at sea and a total of 900 hours of dolphins behaviour recorded. All of this was then condensed down into 2 hours of BBC series!

411: How did the idea of the “spy cameras” come about? How did you know dolphins would engage (or not be distracted) by the appearance of the turtle, sting ray, tuna, clam and nautilus?

RP: Dolphins marked the 8th in the series of the “Spy in the” strand of programs made by John Downer Productions. (The programs) started with cameras disguised as dung, rocks and logs and has evolved into the Spycreatures that we see today. This is a completely natural evolution of techniques learnt directly from the field; we’ve gradually learnt how to make animals feel at ease with our devices and how to become part of their lives. The Spycreatures are the next generation of this: we the viewer have literally become the animal now. We aren’t just observing it anymore, we are part of it. The operation and design of the Spycreatures has come from our zoological and biological backgrounds as producers, and only goes to take our knowledge of animal behaviour forward.

411: The animatronic movements seem quite natural to the critters they represent. Was a great deal of testing needed to perfect their movements and appearances?

RP: We work very closely with model makers and engineers who have honed our designs for years. “Dolphins: Spy in the Pod was the most challenging Spy film to date, as the filming was all under water. Everything had to be waterproof and pressure tested to 30 metres deep. This took us back to the drawing board many times. The Spyturtle for example, took six months to get just right. The actual sculpting and details that went into each Spycreature involved many meetings and exchanges of reference pictures and photos between myself and the artists before we finally achieved the look and charisma that each creature brought to the film.

411: Did you learn anything about dolphins that completely surprised you in the course of shooting “Dolphins: Spy in the Pod”

RP: We certainly did! In fact 40% of the content of the original BBC series had never been seen before, let alone filmed, so we were privileged by the dolphins’ acceptance of us and the Spycreatures into their secret lives. Sequences such as the dolphins following hunting stingrays, playing with and apparently getting high from the lethal pufferfish are but a few examples of behaviours that even dolphin scientists had never seen before.

411: What keeps you engaged in this topic and format?

RP: The ever changing variety and expansion of our knowledge through working closely with wild animals. Even familiar species reveal incredible, never before seen behaviours if you only look close enough or spend enough time with them. We are currently working on a four-part series that uses spy cameras to look at the behaviour of many different animals all around the world

411. Are there any unexpected stories or circumstances you have encountered in shooting Dolphins: Spy in the Pod that you would care to share with readers?

RP. During filming in Central America with bottlenose dolphins, you can’t help but become close with the animals you watch at such close range for such long periods of time. It seemed the feeling was mutual: on two occasions a random dolphin would swim up to me and present me with a shell, a gift! Was it courting me? Or just trying to show that it was friendly? Either way I’ve kept those shells as very special mementos from our incredible time with the dolphins.

Another unexpected twist was when the SpyTurtle became romantically involved with a real life pair of mating sea turtles. On SpyTurtle taking a closer look, the female turtle actually seemed to prefer him to her very own mating, stroking his face to show her affection. Time and time again the Spycreatures take us into animal encounters and show behaviour that we just can’t ever expect, and that is why they are such exciting films to make.

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