'Our Planet' Cinematographer Matt Aeberhard On Documenting Wildlife

Nov 6, 2019

In a popular scene from the Netflix series Our Planet, in the “Jungles” episode, a jay-sized bird called the western parotia performs a courting dance in the forests of New Guinea. He bows, shows off fancy footwork, spins and flashes his iridescent yellow throat patch to a potential partner. And watching all this from behind the camera was Northeast Kingdom resident and wildlife cinematographer Matt Aeberhard.

Aeberhard was nominated for an Emmy for that episode, and he has also worked on the new Netflix special Dancing With The Birds. He told VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb he’s been filming wildlife all his working life.

“I’m an incredibly lucky person,” Aeberhard said. “I was trained in Serengeti National Park, mentored by a man called Hugo Van Lawick, who was, I’d say, quietly famous. He was married to Jane Goodall, the famous chimpanzee researcher. And I had this just idyllic early start in wildlife filming where Hugo took me into the Serengeti and taught me about animals and taught me about how to film them creatively.”

In his own career, Aeberhard said he uses a range of camera techniques “you can’t really be taught in a book.”

“Sometimes you have to go into stealth mode and you have to creep through the forest or build [blinds] and be invisible, like a hunter,” he said. “Other times, in the forest, you have to learn to move quickly and smoothly with the animals and learn how to habituate them. You can’t expect to film them unless they are used to you.”

Filming wildlife also takes a lot of time. Aeberhard said for three minutes of screen time, it can take four to five weeks to gather the footage.

“And of course, there’s an enormous team of people behind guys like me who are spending their time researching these different behaviors, figuring out the best times to go, working with the scientists, putting us into the right place,” he said. “And then it’s up to us, the sort of creative people, to figure out, ‘Okay, how am I going to get this image?’”

Watch the western parotia's courting dance, as seen in Our Planet, below (mobile users, click here for video):

While he said his work is generally safer than, say, driving from his home in Kirby, Vermont to an interview in Colchester the day after a wind and rain storm knocked down trees everywhere, Aeberhard acknowledged there have been some hairy moments.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we’re winding up animals or we’re putting ourselves in unnecessary danger,” he said. “Having said that, there have been some fun moments. I’ve been charged by a silverback gorilla — that is a heart-stopping moment.”

Aeberhard said he was with a local tracker, on the trail of the gorilla tracks between Nigeria and Cameroon, and because they weren’t habituated to people, the gorillas knew they were being followed.

“We were coming up through a forest trail into an open area where we our gorillas were, and the big silverback was waiting for us,” he said. “He effectively ambushed us. So as we were coming out into the glade, this huge animal just sprung out and shouted at the top of his voice, screaming.”

Aeberhard added that he and the tracker stopped, and they weren’t attacked.

“All the same, his point was taken: don’t come any closer, and leave us alone,” he said.

From all his on-the-job experience, Aeberhard said he’s concerned about what’s happening to the planet.

“As a person who goes to these last remaining wild places, I often feel like I’m an explorer, but an explorer of planetary diminishment,” he said. “We are cherry picking more and more from less and less and less.”

He added, “This planet is our life support system —  the beauty and the abundance we find here keeps us alive. We have to learn these things. We have to relearn these things.”

"As a person who goes to these last remaining wild places, I often feel like I'm an explorer, but an explorer of planetary diminishment." — Wildlife cinematographer Matt Aeberhard

When Aeberhard was in Brazil recently to film river turtles, he said he had to drive 11 hours on a fast road to get to the Amazon rainforest, but 35 years ago, the area that road ran through was all rainforest.

“It’s kind of crazy when you see that,” Aeberhard said. “But there is still hope, and that’s what we have to focus on.”

When he isn’t traveling to far-flung places and witnessing this ongoing change, Aeberhard returns home to the Northeast Kingdom.

“Sometimes when I get back, I just need to soak up some peace and quiet,” he said. “Often, though, I’ve got other jobs to do. We have a woodland lot. I’ve really enjoyed that, in the past few years, looking after a piece of second growth Vermont woodland and promoting good wildlife value in that forest habitat.”

Aeberhard said he also spends time with his wife and two daughters, and together, they see plenty of wildlife right at home: moose, bobcat and birds.

“My children run around like virtual feral animals themselves in the summer, and that’s what I enjoy,” he said.