Robot Penguins and Red Wine Popsicles - cinematographer Frederique Olivier

  • Discover what life was like for Fred, living all winter in sub-zero temperatures, to bring you the vision you enjoy in the comfort of your home, for series like the BBC's Planet Earth.

Published by Simon Mustoe

We caught up with Frederique 'Fred' Olivier in the transit lounge at Reyjavik airport, at 4am, enroute from Greenland to Western Australia's Shark Bay, where she was headed to film dolphins for a BBC wildlife series.

We met Fred several years ago when she was second mate on board an Antarctic-going yacht 'The Blizzard' out of Hobart. Since then, she's become a rising star in the world of natural history film-making, carving a niche for herself as a go-to person for penguins.  

We asked Fred, how did it all start?

It started when I decided I wanted to go to Antarctica, for the new millenium. And I made it there, despite suffering a broken back from a car accident - I was hit on my push bike in Townsville. I always remember trying to write emails from my hospital bed - I wasn't about to let it get me down. 

I was then a marine science student on the Great Barrier Reef so I was canvassing for the chance to volunteer as a scientist. I'm pleased to say, I ended up doing a 2 month tour through the pack ice taking sea ice cores. I made it the Antarctic for the millenium and it's been a place I've returned to regularly ever since. 

What was it about the Antarctic that got you hooked?

It's a mixture of the science, environment and the community that's really attractive. As a young student, I really loved interacting with such a diverse community of people and then learning what life was like living in a really isolated place. 

It was also the chance to get out in the field ... I did by PhD on habitat selection by Snow Petrel and Wilson's Storm Petrels. Snow Petrels choose pretty remote places to live. We'd go camping for weeks, just me and another person, looking for the birds. Snow Petrels do live up to 400km inland but I essentially surveyed the coastal areas around Australian territory bases and once in the Ross Sea. This gave me the chance to get into more remote places. I spent 6 months there and only visited the station every six weeks. In between times, we'd camp or use huts to live in.  

And you're also have a master certificate, how did that come about?

I can't really remember. I developed initial qualifications when driving boats on the Great Barrier Reef as a coral scientist. I didn't get my masters ticket until 2007, through many years working on charter yachts in the Solomon Islands, spending a lot of time on research vessels and in Antarctic resupply. I guess I've always been deeply connected to the marine environment so it all fits together. 

How did you get involved in driving LARCs during the rabbit eradication on Macquarie Island? 

In small Antarctic stations you have to multi-skill. It's like a lifetime of work experience training you need to compete and survive for work. I was volunteering my time to Parks and Wildlife to do media coverage for the rabbit eradication. Rabbits were devastating the island until the decision was finally made to remove them. When the ships were at the station, I got my license to operate LARCs (Lighter, Amphibious Resupply, Cargo) - these are amphibious vehicles, we'd drive from the ships, up onto the beaches with supplies. This bit of paid work subsidised my volunteering ... otherwise I could never have afforded to do the other 3-4 months of voluntary work.

And how did this lead to your epic winters in the Antarctic for the BBC? 

Somehow the BBC selected me as a useful person to help in the field, owing to my 5 years work in the Antarctic. I joined a team in 2005 to film the BBC Planet Earth series. I ended up doing more Antarctic TV before three years in the Solomon Islands for the BBC series South Pacific.   

In 2012, I was asked to return, to film for Spy in the Huddle. This time I spent two winters there. The first winter was in the most isolated environment I've ever worked. Two of us lived in a hut, on the sea ice, 60km from the nearest station. The BBC wanted shots of birds in blizzards, in the winter and as natural as possible. We built robots that imitated chicks and drove them among the colony. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced?

From a filming perspective, the biggest challenge was to get the key shots of Emperor Penguins without disturbing the birds. There might be 3,000 of them but they're all doing the same thing. You get only a small handful of chances, maybe five times, to witness and film the birds' behaviour. Like all wildlife, they're unpredictable. Then there's the conditions. It all changes constantly - the light, the weather, you're constantly chasing your tail and trying to keep up with the pace from a cinematographic point of view.  Everything has to match together and tell a story. It takes months to get the few minutes you see on TV.  

What about the personal challenges?

Obviously the cold is the biggest challenge. The temperature outside is minus 35 degrees. The hut would never warm up more than -10 to -5 degrees and often -25. 

You only put up with the extreme cold because you're really engrossed in your subject, which I was. You have to hang in there, absorbed in getting the shots.

The first winter we spent there, we'd revisit the station, 60km away, every 6 weeks and even getting to and from there was hard work. It was dangerous but exciting. We had massive icebergs rolling in and we'd often be driving in a blizzard. Doing anything in a blizzard, let alone filming, is difficult. I liken it to muck-diving. You lose peripheral vision and you're constantly impeded by head gear.

I needn't describe the difficulties going to the loo in minus 25, dressed up like the Michelin man. All your freshwater is from ice and your food has to be defrosted before cooking it.

We discovered red wine freezes at about -13 ... but it really wasn't worth the effort. The corks pop out the bottles and you end up with red wine popsicles. Contact lenses freeze in their case, so you have to leave them in and you live, almost permanently, in two sleeping bags. Nevertheless, I loved it! But it was really challenging, it took its toll on body and mind.

I had also promised my PhD supervisor that I would complete my thesis - a condition of taking the BBC job. The problem is, laptops don't work in conditions less than -16 degrees, so we often had to warm up the cabin before I could even start. Thankfully I got my study finalised and submitted on time, finishing it off to submit, on ship home.  

Where do you go from here?

After some time in Shark Bay, I'm is heading back to Bristol soon - hopefully to talk about another Antarctic film shoot. So it's probably only a matter of time before I head down there again.


Find out more about Fred:

Wildiaries • August 2016