Capturing that “Magical” Moment

Roger Horrocks is an underwater cinematographer specializing in sequences for documentaries, features, and commercials. He is best known for his work on My Octopus Teacher, Our Planet and Blue Planet 2. Roger is currently working on Planet Earth 3 for the BBC NHU and an Ocean Series for Netflix.

“We are alien visitors in their watery world and they want to know what we are and why we’re here. They bump and roll us — something in their eyes says they want to play. They move with intimidating speed, but they pose us no threat and just want to play.”

Roger has worked from the frozen poles to the tropical equator, specialising in immersive imagery of dynamic and fast moving animals and events. Since 2007, he has worked on projects for National Geographic, Disney Films, Netflix and the BBC, including Blue Planet 2 and Our Planet.

He developed his underwater field craft as a competitive spear fisherman while studying for an Honours Degree at the University of Natal in South Africa. He continued to dive while working in the digital and financial services sectors, and furthered his management training at the UCT Graduate School of Business and the London Business School.

While he was doing his MBA program, he realized he did not want to be in corporate anymore. He reconnected with some of his old spearfishing friends, and through them, he got a job as an assistant on one of the BBC series — Nature’s Great Events.

In 2007, he began working for the BBC Natural History on the Nature’s Great Events series directed by Hugh Pearson, while he concurrently did his apprenticeship under cameramen Didier Noirot and Doug Anderson.

Didier Noirot, who was Jacques Cousteau’s cameraman, and Roger became good friends, and Didier became Roger’s mentor. That was the start of his career as an underwater cinematographer.

During this period, he narrated and co-directed three documentaries with Craig Foster (My Octopus Teacher — Oscar winner) and his brother, Damon Foster.

The first of these “Into the Dragon’s Lair” was nominated for an Emmy, for best Cinematography in 2010, and the sequel, ”Touching the Dragon” was selected as one of the feature shows for National Geographic’s 125th centenary year celebrations.

Roger close with Nile Crocodile
Roger close with Nile Crocodile

First encounters with amazing animals

Roger Horrocks had swum with large predators like Bull sharks, Great White sharks and Nile crocodiles.

The South African cinematographer learned his field craft while spearfishing, and that provided him with all the necessary skills to get close to animals, to identify the behaviour and to be intimate with them. During underwater filming, you need to get really close to the animals you want to film, in order to achieve the best shots in low light and limited visibility conditions.

Apart from using the best equipment available to capture these unique shots (he owns and maintains both a Red Helium 8K and Red Dragon 6K Underwater Imaging System, and is CCR TRIMIX and CAVE qualified), the end product should be emotive and engage the audience. Therefore, a cinematographer must do in-depth research and preparation before the actual filming process begins.

Thinking how and what the team potentially could capture and how to optimize the material is absolutely crucial.

Here, animals are the stars, and aiming to produce a Mini Series Documentary like Blue Planet II, may take four to five years.

Roger mentions the scarcity of the phenomena captured — a lot of the things happening underwater may happen just once a year and if that shot doesn’t go well, then it has to be repeated next year. Just imagine the production and post production budget costs in capturing the perfect shot!

For Blue Planet 2, Horrocks received cinematography credits on four of the six main episodes, shooting for producers Jonathan Smith, Katheryn Jeffs, and Joe Steven. For his contribution to the series, he was awarded a BAFTA for Outstanding Cinematography in 2018.

Major Accomplishments

  • “Into the Dragon’s Lair” was nominated for an Emmy, for best Cinematography in 2010, and the sequel, “Touching the Dragon” was selected as one of the feature shows for National Geographic’s 125th centenary year celebrations.
  • Nominated for Best Narration at Jackson Hole in the blue chip sequence for John Downer’s “Earthflight” and for producer Rob Pilley.
  • He has done long-term assignments with John Downer to film bottle-nose dolphins for the “Spy in the Pod” series which aired on BBC One in 2013, and two sequences on the BBC Atlantic series for producer Ted Giffords in 2010.
  • He spent 110 days filming for Silverback Films on Disneynature’s “Blue,” for director Keith Scholey, and worked as a second unit DOP on the National Geographic “Into the Okavango” feature directed by Neil Gelinas.
  • Appointed as the underwater DOP on the National Geographic Pristine Seas Expedition to Tristan da Cunha, led by Paul Rose, working for producer Alex Verville.
  • Worked for producer Hugh Pearson on the Coastal Seas and High Seas episodes of the Netflix original series “Our Planet,” produced by Silverback Films.
  • Won a nomination, alongside cameraman Jamie McPherson, for Outstanding Cinematography and for a Nonfiction Program at the 2019 PrimeTime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.
  • He was one of the two underwater DOPs hired by Jonathan Smith of the BBC Natural History Unit to shoot underwater screensavers for Apple TV.

The Octopus that won an Oscar

In the Oscar-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” Roger Horrocks was the Director of Photography and captured the filmmaker Craig Foster, forming a remarkable relationship with an octopus while free-diving in an underwater kelp forest in South Africa’s False Bay.

The Art of Cinematography in the Digital Era

What started as a childhood hobby turned into a passionate career. Roger says that, although adventure cinematography is one of the most challenging and exciting ways to spend your life, it is also one of the most difficult professions to break into. Even for fully fledged cameramen with many years of experience, it can be a very tenuous and unpredictable industry to make a living in.

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