Adam Britton interview

Want a crocodile in your movie? Then you need to call Adam Britton. That's what the makers of Black Water did...

Adam Britton left England for Australia to study crocodiles, and in the process, became a stop-off point for any movie and TV companies looking for quality croc footage in their features. He spared some time – via a mobile phone call to Australia that we suspect has cost us thousands – to tell us more…

I’m curious; what draws a young boy living in the UK to the world of crocodiles over in Australia?

Well it was one of those childhood things, y’know, where you’re fascinated by dinosaurs. Only in my case it was crocodiles. It was basically I always wanted to get out of the UK to go and study crocs, and eventually I had the opportunity to do so. After I had done my PhD in the UK I came out to Australia.

So where did you first encounter crocodiles? Through the screen, the zoo?

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Yeah, I visited the zoo many times when I was young, so I got to see crocs, and I always found them fascinating. I just thought that they were a little bit like living dinosaurs. So I thought why bother studying dusty bones, when you’ve got a living dinosaurs in front of you. And obviously we know now that crocodiles aren’t living dinosaurs, but it didn’t really matter to me when I was young!

You’ve said in the past that when you got to Australia, the crocodiles were almost a hated animal…?

Well yeah, that was the thing that brought me over here. I was interested in the fact that you’ve got this animal that most people didn’t like, because obviously they’re potentially dangerous. And yet in Northern Australia, particularly in the Northern Territory, they’d managed to find a way of bringing crocodiles back from pretty much the brink of extinction to being extremely populous in just about every river system up there. So I was fascinated as to how that was actually achieved. I wanted to find out more about the management and conservation that had been done, and find out if that was something that could be applied elsewhere.And so how do you get from the work that you’re doing now to being involved in the movies?

Well, I was basically trained as a scientist, and I’ve always believed that scientists have got an obligation to try and educate people about the things that they’re working on. If people don’t understand in particular crocodiles, you don’t really have much hope of trying to convince people they are worth conserving.

And so obviously, somebody who works with crocodiles is going to be of interest to the media, because crocs are interesting animals. The fact that it’s a British guy working with crocodiles is even more interesting. It goes against the norm. So naturally over the years, we get a lot of interest from natural history crews and all the rest who wanted to do stories, and we built up over many, many years, a reputation of being able to get a lot of really good footage with crocodiles. Because obviously people want to see crocs doing interesting stuff.

So we ended up working with a lot of natural history shows, the BBC, National Geographic all the rest. My wife and I established our company a couple of years ago specifically doing crocodile consultancy work. One aspect of that was being able to offer our services to television shows and movie directors, to be able to get footage of crocodiles.

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And that’s a service you’ve been quite in demand for?

Well one of the things we do is we work very closely with the crocs to try and get what we want. We’ve got a lot of really excellent footage over the years, and obviously people see that and go ‘who the hell got that?’. So one thing leads to another. And when it came to Black Water, the guys were really interested in not using computer generated imagery, they wanted the real crocodiles, which I thought was quite a bold move, because it’s obviously more difficult to do that. But at the same time it was going to look a lot more effective.

So we were very keen to help them out.

So how involved do you get? How can you mix together a crocodile and a film set?

Well [with Black Water] the film set actually went to the crocodile. What they did is they inserted the footage that we got with the crocodiles digitally into the film. So when you see the actor and the crocodile, obviously the crocodile has been filmed in a separate element.

The director would say ‘this is the storyboard, we want this crocodile to do this, that and the other’. So it was our job to get the crocodile to do this, that or the other! And different crocodiles are good at different behaviours. So we actually ended up using different crocodiles for different shots. Some crocs are really good at launching themselves out of the water, some are good at rolling, some are good at jumping. So you can say look, this animal can do this, and this is where you need to put the camera, we’ll get the crocodile to do what you want, and then you film it.

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Some of the things they were asking us to do were a little bit much for the crocs. They wanted the crocs to walk over here, walk over there, climb in a boat. We had to some things in separate elements and then cut them together.

What was the most bizarre or taxing request you’ve had to try and get a crocodile to do?

Erm, well I think one of the most bizarre things was what these [Black Water] guys wanted to do. They wanted the crocodile to leap out of the water, into a boat, and chase someone out of the boat and then jump out the other side. And obviously we said well, it’s the kind of thing that’s actually not that difficult to do with a crocodile if you’re got a lot of time to train it. I think a lot of people don’t realise that crocs can be trained – they’re actually pretty smart animals.

But at the end of the day, training works in exactly the same way as it does with any other animal, you ask the animal to do something and you give it a reward of food. And then the next time you ask it to do that same thing it thinks ‘I’m going to get fed’ and you reinforce the behaviour. It’s the same with crocs.

The only problem was that the director didn’t really have enough time to do that, so we ended up mocking a few things up, like you’ve got the crocodile on the bank by a boat. And then we put the boat in place and we tried to encourage the crocodile to run off the bank, into the boat, and off the boat the other side. It’s those little short shots that actually work really well.

Do you find that very often you’re surprising people with what crocodiles can do, or do you have to reign people’s expectations in?

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No, I think we end up surprising people with what they can do, because most people think that crocodiles are just there to snap their jaws and that’s about it. They can do a lot of different things, and mostly people are surprised that they can actually learn different behaviours. One of the problems we have I suppose is that people say they want to come and visit us next week and do this, that and the other. And we’ll say, that’s great, we can do that, but I need more than a week to prepare it. And unfortunately sometimes it’s really a case of getting across to people that with a little bit more time you can do some quite remarkable things. Most people go away pretty amazed, I think.

And do you think that crocodiles get a fair deal from the movies?

Most of the time they don’t. Most of the time they don’t get a fair deal from natural history documentaries, so you can’t really expect it from movies! Most natural history documentaries fall back on the same things that you see time and time again, crocodiles plucking wildebeest off the banks, that kind of thing – it’s all very spectacular. But it doesn’t really tell you that much about what these animals are like.

And yeah, the movie industry always use them as monsters.

I guess it frustrates you more that the natural history documentaries, who are presenting things as fact, are the ones who are muddling it the most?

Well it does, because people don’t watch Black Water to learn anything about crocodile behaviour. But they do watch National Geographic, or the BBC, or the Discovery Channel, to find something out about crocodiles behaviour. So when they are seeing behaviour which is really not a true reflection of the animal… well, crocodiles do that thing, they do what’s being portrayed, but it’s often edited in such a way that it gives a false impression of what the animal’s like.

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It goes down to the fact that there’s a producer or scriptwriter who has their own ideas about what the animal is like, and that’s how they put the script together, and they come to you to get the shots. And it is frustrating. One of the things we’re trying to do is put together our own documentaries, where we’re doing the directing and the editing. We’re slowly trying to get some money to do that, but it’s difficult, because if you put forward an idea about something that’s not what an executive expects to hear, then they’re most likely to say I don’t think that’s going to work, because that’s not what an audience demands. Whereas our argument is that if you demand a little bit more of your audience, then they’ll be surprised. And they’ll come away with something that I think they’ll remember.

But obviously when you’re dealing with a film, it’s a very different medium, at the end of the day you’re telling a story. As far as we’re concerned, we’d rather the crocodile reacts in more believable way in the movie, which I think is what it does. There’s still an artificiality about it in many ways, because the director has a certain number of shots, and they put the shots together in a way they think the animal’s going to behave. But they’ve done a pretty good job I think this time, and you can be confident that when you see the crocodile on the screen [in Black Water], it’s actually behaving like a crocodile.

And if you had to pick one favourite crocodile movie that you have seen?

It’s probably The Rescuers, I think…

… the Disney movie?

Yeah, it had a few interesting crocodiles in it! [laughs] I was very young! Often the animated crocodiles have more personality than the ones that are computer generated!

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Adam Britton, thank you for your time…!

Black Water is out now, and will be heading to DVD later this year.