Alan Root was a filmmaker’s filmmaker – he combined a sharp intellect and a need for adrenaline-fuelled adventure, with a knowledge of African natural history that was unparalleled. He was passionate and humorous – a quick-witted story-teller who revelled in his art. He loved to be the centre of attention and he didn’t suffer fools, but there was a sensitivity behind the public face, that expressed itself in his filmmaking.
In a world where natural history films have become increasingly formulaic, made by big teams with big budgets, backed by an army of researchers, scientific advisers, and camera-people, Alan was the original auteur. He filmed and wrote and ‘lived’ the films that he made together with Joan, his first wife. Their films were individual and visually arresting, but above all, they were stories. They combined natural history integrity with irreverence, and humour. They conveyed a knowledge of natural history and wildlife behaviour that few could equal.
Alan invited us out to East Africa to film a series with him for ‘Survival’ in 1986. For a year we tried to turn him down – we already had a career filming underwater. But he was as persistent as he was charismatic, “Come on guys – you’ve got to evolve; crawl out onto land. Come up into the sun. It’s happened before…”
In the end, we couldn’t refuse. For us, Alan and Joan’s films were peerless – he told stories like nobody else, and he had complete creative control of his films. We had a lot to learn.
Our three years in East Africa turned to thirty. Alan started as the director who flew down to Serengeti every few months to deliver and critique our rushes – but soon became friend, mentor, soulmate…
He presided at our wedding in the bush; he cut the roof off his range-rover and covered it in bougainvillea to ‘give away’ Vicky; he was executive producer on our films; he was ‘Babu’ to our boys.
In the 80’s Alan was at the peak of his career. His films were always ‘events’ – to be looked forward to for years, and then cherished and enjoyed for decades afterwards.
He was always ahead of his time – the technical achievements of a film like ‘Mysterious Castles of Clay’ were matched only by the likes of Oxford Scientific Films – but Alan didn’t want to film extreme macro in a studio. He wanted to achieve it in the field, even if it meant months of excavating termite mound after termite mound, to find the royal chamber, and then introduce lights, slider, and turntable.
If he wanted his audience to experience the termites’ point of view of what it was like for the colony to be raided by an aardvark – that meant Joan putting years into raising an orphaned aardvark to accomplish it.
Alan never did ‘average’ – he approached everything as if it was his last day on earth. Then he pushed the boundaries so that, in many cases, it almost became that. He lost so many body parts to encounters with wildlife that the New Yorker sent George Plimpton to write an article about it. Alan gave the interview, lying on his back beside the fire at our camp in Mzima. He’d just flown for five hours after injuring himself in a motorbike accident in the forest in Zaire, and his lip was in tatters after a ‘tame’ marsh mongoose had fastened on and decided it was edible.
Alan was a fine bush pilot, with an eagle’s instinct for stalls, side-slips and gliding. He never finished flying school – but bought an aircraft and when he thought he knew enough, simply flew off one day and didn’t return. He liked nothing better than to fly from Naivasha down to Serengeti, 10m off the ground, reeling off the names of the birds he spotted on the way.
Not content to simply ‘buzz’ a lodge to declare his arrival, he would fly straight at it, and at the last moment, as the guests dived for cover, pull up and bounce the wheels of his 1954 Cessna 180 off the thatch roof.
A helicopter followed, but Alan was more eagle than hummingbird. He thought nothing of learning to fly rotary aircraft in his 60’s, but it meant trying to drop the habits of a lifetime. He crashed the first, then the second, and then, when he could no longer get insurance, bought another – only more powerful and much more expensive. His explanation: “It was the only way to make me concentrate…”
As a teenager, he made his first film about lily-trotters on Lake Naivasha. He was the first to film the adults gathering their young beneath their wings to carry them as they strode across the lilies. But he wasn’t content with that – he wanted to know what would happen if the lily pads were spaced further apart, and the birds felt the need to add a flap to their jump – would they drop their babies in the water? It was the birth of an approach that would recur in later films – first-class natural history detective work and then, ‘what if…?’
When Alan was 21, his best friend, Michael Grzimek, a cameraman, was killed, when the Dornier he was piloting, hit a vulture in the Sanjan gorge in Serengeti’s Gol mountains. The collision trapped the control cables in the leading edge of the wing and caused the plane to crash. Alan went on to finish the film Michael was shooting. “Serengeti Shall Not Die” won an Oscar and, as Alan declared, “It was all downhill after that”.
His break into television came with one of two films he made for the BBC, ‘Mzima – Portrait of a Spring’. Alan convinced the BBC that he’d be able to get underwater to film hippos and crocodiles. The BBC agreed to fund half the film’s budget and wanted to Alan to shoot in black and white. Alan and Joan wanted to film in colour and agreed to cover the field costs, in return for the rights for the rest of the world. Despite Alan getting severely mauled when they got caught up in a fight between two male hippos, the film got finished and became an instant success. They subsequently sold it in the US to CBS and they never looked back.
Fifty years ago, the BBC didn’t share Alan’s vision for selling wildlife films worldwide. They didn’t think there would be a market; but an independent ‘start-up’ did. Aubrey Buxton had just established ‘Survival’ at Anglia TV. It was a natural fit and the start of a relationship that would last almost forty years.
The films that followed, ‘Year of the Wildebeest’, ‘Mysterious Castles of Clay’ and ‘Two in the Bush’, became wildlife classics.
Always resourceful, Alan used every trick he knew to film new and exciting behaviour and tell exquisite wildlife stories. He pioneered the use of remote cameras and hot-air balloons for wildlife filmmaking.
He was an excellent mimic – he’d attract birds to film them, by imitating their calls. If he needed additional wildlife sounds in track-laying, then his repertoire of baboon alarm calls, elephant farts and wildebeest contact calls was extraordinary.
He loved to catch snakes – cobras, mambas, boomslangs … the more venomous, the better. He couldn’t walk past a puff-adder without picking it up, but he was vocal about presenters that he felt molested or exploited wildlife.
Alan planned to celebrate his 80th year in a way that was typically audacious and would take him back to his spiritual home, the Serengeti. It would be a film about following the wildebeest migration – in the company of lions and hyenas.
He planned to follow the migration alone and on foot.
It would be the antidote to the over-hyped jeopardy of wildlife ‘reality tv’, of which he was so dismissive. It would be forty years after he’d made ‘Year of the Wildebeest’; sixty years since ‘Serengeti Shall not Die’ – he had plenty to celebrate.
Unarmed, except for his wits and a bottle of sunscreen, he planned to walk with the wildebeest from the short-grass plains in the south of Serengeti, up into Kenya’s Maasai Mara. He knew it might take weeks, but he was prepared. He’d designed body mounts for cameras, and had a drone that would follow him. He knew that National Parks would never give him permission, so he planned, as so often before, to go in ‘under the radar’. A Serengeti safari with his wife Fran and teenage sons, Myles and Rory would give him the cover he needed to bury caches of food, water and batteries along the route. He’d have no contact with anyone on his ‘amble through the Pleistocene’, but he’d carry a gps tracker, so once Myles and Rory knew he’d visited a ‘drop’, they’d go in after him to remove any trace, and pick up expired batteries and memory cards.
It was pure Alan Root – the maverick filmmaker, making a statement, as only he knew how. Sadly he didn’t live to make happen.
To spend time with Alan’s films, is to enter a world where the wild animals are the stars, and the story is the way to engage with them and bring them to an audience. Alan and Joan’s films had a global audience of hundreds of millions. He had boxes of awards – an Oscar, Emmys, Peabodys… He was honoured with international lifetime achievement awards and, more recently, an OBE – he declared it an acronym for “Other Buggers’ Efforts”. Nothing can have been further from the truth.
R.I.P Alan – we miss you.
Thank you for making me smile amid this loss.
Wonderfully written tribute Mark….. we all enjoyed Alan, while
you and Vicky had some of the best time of all!
A brilliant piece, Mark, on your extraordinary mentor and friend. You and Vicky learnt at the feet of the master and it shows in every film you make.
Really lovely piece!
Are you guys going to GSCA/Jackson this year? It would be good to catch up.
beautiful piece Mark – I had no idea XX
Incredible, can’t find words. What a guy. What stories and what a brave, crazy and inspired maverick. Such a loss for you all. Mark thank you for sharing.
Written from the heart Mark…a truly extraordinary man and filmmaker. Thank you.
This is wonderful to read. Thank you Mark. RIP Alan~ an absolute legend.
Formidable. Just beautiful.
Aw bless him, what a man, so sorry to hear this. Am on plane just about to fly to Copenhagen and on to Lund for conference. Send you you, Vicky & the boys lots of love & best thoughts, Karen xxxx
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Thank you for this tribute.
Thank you, so well put Mark and Louis & I are so sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine the hole he’s left.
Never easy or dull, such a pioneer & incredible story teller, I’m glad to have known him. We should have a shindig & gathering soon, it’s been too long.
Love to you all.
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Thank you Mark. Alan also knew talent when he saw it. Looking forward (for years?!) to The Elephant Movie.
A wonderful piece, Mark. I am sure Alan is riding a recently tamed Unicorn, and reeling in the warmth of his immortality. He will live on forever in our lives.
Lovely tribute. R.I.P Alan Root.
Thanks, Mark. A beautiful, eloquent eulogy to an outstanding pioneer and leader.
A beautiful tribute – perfectly capturing Alan’s spirit. Thank you Mark.
How did Alan Root die? The Eulogy doesn’t say.
Dear Mark and Vicky.
Thanks for a heartwarming and brilliant eulogy.
It’s a loss for all of us who has tried to follow in his footsteps as filmmakers, or been captivated audiences worldwide.
Well done Mark, a wonderful tribute to an incredible man and his extraordinary life.
Brilliant ! Mark you guys are now so clearly following in his tradition but evolving the process too. Each mentor is a guidepost, each student an investment. Alan’s investment was in you guys. You are graciously holding the flag high and honoring the guru. What a guy Alan was. I would love to have seen him in action in Africa, alas only met him in Wildscreen circumstances ! Love to him and his family, to all who carry this important mission forward. Jai Jai Jai!! Alanji!
Mark, this is a beautifully written eulogy that truly captures the spirit of a remarkable man. It really deserves to be read by an even wider audience – maybe you would consider submitting it to some other publications? Thank you for sharing your memories with us.
Thanks, Mark and Vicky,
what a memorable way to honour Alan and for those not fortunate enough to meet him or know of his achievements, to gain an insight into his incredible character.
Thanks Mark and Vicky for the excellent tribute to Alan. You are very fortunate to have had such a brilliant mentor!
Thanks so much for this. Never forget seeing the first film I saw of his – inside the termite burrow. Whenever we met briefly he was always interested in our TV development work. He reached out to millions and changed their understanding of wildlife and so many are deeply grateful for that. An extraordinary safari and sad to hear he did not make the last one he planned. RIP
See you on the other side.
Mark, that is very beautifully done. Speaks for all of us who knew Alan well. Many thanks. Markus
Bravo Vic & Mark – for such an eloquent, sensitive and intriguing tribute to a dear friend.
Alan would appreciate it, just as he appreciated and applauded so many things you have both done.
In solidarity xx
Never met him personally, always looked forward to the day I would! Truly an inspiring, witty and gentle soul! He will truly be missed!!!
Wonderful way to honor such an extraordinary fellow. My heart goes out to you.
A wonderful tribute Mark … I was a huge fan of his and will always remember Alan’s over developed sense of humour and a very tightly woven moral fibre. The truth was paramount. We’ll all miss him. Perhaps you might be able to finish his film … that would be marvellous!
Thank you Mark, wonderfully captured his essence. 30 years?! Safari njema Alan. Thinking of Fran and the boys most of all.
Thanks for sharing Mark. Truly a legend in the industry and set the standard for those of us that have tried to follow in his footsteps… they don’t make them like Alan any more….
Thank you Mark and Vicky for a wonderfully eloquent tribute to a very special person. We had such fun times and learnt so much from him in Zaire and since then. He even kept going for a last safari with Fran and the boys to Alaska. His legacy will never die…..Into the sunset, Silverback.
One of the best things I’ve read in sometime, Mark. Period, without a doubt. What a touching tribute and at the same time expose on how most wildlife filmmaking these days is nothing but entertainment. You gave me the resolve to keep turning away networks and stay focused on my film, even if it means selling shit to keep the film alive.
Reblogged this on Wildlife-film.com Blog.
A wonderful tribute – I could hear Alan’s voice throughout! The memories reach back deep into my childhood. He will live on through his sons, your work, and that of all the people he inspired. Love to you both and hope to see you soon. xxxxx
go well my friend Alan, memories of school, the regiment, flying, parties and Wild Life! Alan Herd and his ” Sheelah!” Bev
Beautifilly written. You’ve created such a vivid and personal portrait of a filmmaker so many have considered an icon for years but few of us had the privilege of knowing. Thank you for telling us his story. He will be sorely missed amd long treasured.
un très bel hommage. Merci.
Thank you Mark for sharing this great tribute. All of us are remembering Alan as a source of friendship, inspiration, and the adventures that always came with shared projects. I hope many of us can meet at a memorial for him. John and Terese Hart
Beautifully said. Thank you.
There was a time when tourism and greed had not yet devastated Kenya. I turned in to take a look a look at Mzimza Springs, but at the end of the track was a chain & sign saying No Entry, although I could see people. Twice in my life I was so curious that I used the world’s worst cliché. I went in and asked the man if he had a match! That was the beginning of a close friendship with Joan and Alan. From early 1969 to 1976 Diana and I spent 3 years in Kenya.
Once we went to camp on the Serengeti during migration and crossed them in the middle of nowhere.”Come set up by us,” Alan said. He explained he was just back from the UK and that “thing” on the trailer was a balloon. He recounted his conviction that led him to get a balloon pilot’s license, to landing in the lake in front of their house, but now he was going to try it over the migration for the first time. The next morning he said to come up on the trial run, Joan following us with the vehicle, the hard part. It was magic!
In ’75 I rented a place above the Gin Palace and we saw each other often. It was a small community of people in the wildlife world then and everyone knew everyone else. Joan and Alan were two of the most devoted, adventurous, brightest, and warmest people in that world.
In 1986 I went back for 4 months in remote regions, but everything had succumbed to money.
I could write a book on the transition and maybe I will, but Joan and Alan will certainly have a place center stage.
The silver lining to today’s dark cloud is that I found this web site.
He inspired so many, thank you Alan, thinking of Fran and the boys with huge sympathy
Beautifully written Mark
A perfect tribute to a giant presence who always appeared indestructible. Hearing of
Alan’s passing was a huge shock reminding us all to live in the moment – as if there was no tomorrow. I started out in 1977 as a fledgling safari guide at Alan’s Mara River Camp and always remember the day out driving across the savanna when a terrible roaring made me believe that I had blown the Camp Land Rover’s engine, only to see the wheels of Alan’s plane appear in the windscreen as he buzzed me to announce his arrival. Talking with Alan back then about the dearth of young aspiring cameramen and women, and that perhaps his huge shadow had something to do with that, he snorted: “If they were made of the right stuff that wouldn’t put them off. Reputation counts for nothing when matched against real talent.” And that is what you and Vicky have proved with your passion and creativity.
Sending love and condolences to Fran and the boys.
Simply wonderful Mark, thank you. What a guy! Now if only all his superb films were easily available to the public to keep inspiring audiences (and me!) and not be lost in the dustbin of history
A truly wonderful filmmaker! For years I’ve wanted to re-watch his film ‘Sunlight and Shadow: The Dapple Cats’ (1991) but can’t find it anywhere. Does anyone know where it might be possible to get hold of a copy??!
Any help much appreciated. Thanks.
I think Sunlight and Shadow: the Dappled Cats will be available online (as will all Alan’s films) within the next few months.
Hearing that all of Alan’s films will be available in the next few months on line (you tube or ?) is the best news I have heard in a long long time. Thank you Mark for letting me know. I was fretting that maybe they had died with Alan. That would have been toooo sad
That would be exciting. I assume you will let us know.
I will post on this page as soon as I know the details.
This film was also released in the “Predators of The Wild” series titled “Cheetah & Leopard”.
Here’s a link to the VHS tape for sale on Amazon US.
Thanks very much for letting us know William. I see it’s on YouTube as well! https://youtu.be/5qxmXrP-qYU
Any guess when you might know?
I think it will be a few months yet, while rights etc are sorted out, but it will happen.
Than k you Mark for this update. We look forward to having this link….What a legacy !
Hi Mark, I just wondered if you’d heard any more news regarding the releases?
Hi Kiern – I had a conversation at Christmas and it will definitely happen – just not quite sure when. I’ll let you know when I know.
I hope you are keeping well. I just thought I’d check in and see if there was any news/progress regarding the releases? I would still love to see ‘Sunlight and Shadow: The Dappled Cats’ with Ian Holm’s narration 🙂