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Fife wildlife filmmaker Libby Penman hopes filmmaking can help save the world’s endangered animals

Libby Penman. Image: Declan
Libby Penman. Image: Declan

Michael Alexander speaks to Kirkcaldy-raised filmmaker, extreme sports enthusiast and nature fanatic Libby Penman who’ll be sharing stories about filming and exploring the climate crisis in a home-town Royal Scottish Geographical Society talk.

From her teenage years filming extreme sports at Kirkcaldy skate park, to a recent appearance on BBC Two’s Winterwatch, Libby Penman has been on the journey of a lifetime pursuing her goal of becoming a wildlife filmmaker.

But the climate crisis means that wildlife has rarely been in so much trouble as it is now.

Impact of climate change

Three years ago, the devastating wildfires in Australia, which have been linked to climate change, caused the death of a billion animals.

Ten thousand years ago, 1% of the Earth’s mammal mass was human with 99% of the world comprising wild animals.

Today, it is the opposite with just 1% of the world’s mammal population comprising wildlife and 99% of it being human.

In 2021, amid UN warnings of “code red for humanity”, Libby embarked upon an epic adventure to tell this story and to find out what can be done in Scotland to help our environment.

Her documentary, ‘Shooting Animals: Can film making help save them?’ followed her journey from skate park filmmaker to Glasgow COP26.

She believes filmmakers have a new duty to tell the story behind the cataclysmic images.

Libby Penman on location. Image: Declan Friel

Now, as she prepares to give public talks called Adventure Connects Us to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Kirkcaldy and Glasgow on February 20 and 22 respectively, she explains how the outdoors and filming wildlife means everything to her.

The 27-year-old will share stories about her years of filming epic wildlife in Scotland, outdoor challenges for TV, and exploring the climate crisis at home, in her quest to know more about our natural world.

She’ll also reveal some first-hand emotional moments in nature, as well as laughs and thrills, all with her key belief that there is no better way to feel connected to the environment and to each other than through sharing an adventure.

Adventures in the outdoors

“It’s going to be about a lot of the films that I’ve been working on,” she tells The Courier.

“Obviously I’m very much focussed on wildlife and adventure films.

Libby Penman loves nothing better than being outside with friends and connected to nature. Image: Declan Friel

“But a theme behind everything is that I think the best way for people to be connected through friendships and have great times and memories with family members and really be conscious of what’s going on with the outdoors and nature is to spend time on adventures whether on bikes, a camping trip, Munro bagging or kayaking.

“I’ve been filming for the BBC’ The Adventure Show all last year.

“I’ve done everything from ice climbing to cave kayaking to pack rafting – all sorts of different adventures.

“And it’s going to be me reflecting on spending a year in Scotland doing all these different adventures, but also filming a lot of wildlife.

“The idea is adventure connects us to everything.

“But it’s going to be a chat about what I’ve seen climate change wise and what I’ve seen through wildlife.

“There will also be quite a few fun stories as well when things have gone horribly wrong, as happens with film making when you don’t get the right shot.

“There will also be some nice little stories about just having the best time ever.”

Growing up in Kirkcaldy

Born and bred in Kirkcaldy, Libby doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t immersed in the outdoors.

During childhood, she was always down the beach walking the dogs or riding bikes through the woods.

She remembers being out for walks with her dad and, if he saw litter strewn amongst the trees, he’d pick it up and instil in her that littering was wrong.

Libby Penman has loved the outdoors since childhood. Image: Declan Friel

She was also always into sports and was “obsessed” with Kirkcaldy’s Beveridge Park skate park during her teenage years.

As a pupil at Balwearie High School, she’d film her twin sister Pip doing tricks and flips.

Filmmaking was the only job she ever told her high school friends she wanted to do.

When she moved to Edinburgh to study film making at Napier University, however, it was the start of a road that cemented her interest in pursuing wildlife filmmaking in particular.

Image by Libby Penman

She was offered a study abroad year in California and did a Masters in wildlife filmmaking at Salford University.

Despite there being no cinema in Kirkcaldy, she watched movies all the time and was in dreamland when she got a job in an Edinburgh cinema where she was able to watch films regularly.

Focussed on making documentaries

“I just absolutely loved films and I loved filming people,” she recalls.

“When I came back to the UK after being in California, I got involved in drama much more as a junior runner and things on some much more high end stuff – BBC One dramas, Netflix films, Warner Bros, Batman – I worked on all these big dramas.

“But for me I always really wanted to be behind the camera.

Libby Penman always wanted to be behind the camera. Image: Declan Friel

“Documentary was much more suited to what I wanted to do than these big dramas.

“I made a decision I would focus my passion a bit more into a cause I really cared about which was the outdoors.

“So I started using everything I’d learned about film over the last five odd years and started to really focus on documentary.”

A “definite highlight” of her career so far has been Shooting Animals, which went on to win best film at the Scottish Short Film Festival.

She loved featuring legendary Scottish wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan.

Naturalist Steve Backshall presented her footage at COP26 where she talked about her career at a time when animals are really “up against it”.

Thinking back to last year when she spent a lot of time doing outdoor activities for the BBC Adventure Show, she sometimes asks herself: “Is this really my job? I just spent the day kayaking around Scotland and filming!

“It seems like an epic weekend more than anything.”

Appearance on Winterwatch

At the time of this interview, Libby is also still on a high following her appearance on BBC Two’s Winterwatch.

It featured a few minutes of her filming urban wildlife in Glasgow.

“This is definitely a career highlight!” she smiles.

“Especially to have a wee segment in the same episode as David Attenborough!”

Libby Penman. Image: Declan Friel

She laughs at a memory of filming eagles on Mull a year ago.

After achieving the perfect shot of an eagle on a rock, and increasingly worried about her dying battery and memory card, the eagle waited until she moved the shot away before it flew off, ruining her sequence.

She laughs at the day she got bitten by so many midges while filming deer, it looked like she had chicken pox!

There was also an emotional encounter when out trying to film basking sharks. The basking sharks were nowhere to be seen.

But instead she had a “pretty phenomenal” encounter with a minke whale that came so close to her boat, she could hear its song.

Support of fellow Fifer Doug Allan

Looking to the future, she’s equally excited to have found a friend in fellow Fifer and world-renowned filmmaker Doug Allan, whose conversations recently helped her win an award at a leading international wildlife film festival.

Libby Penman with cameraman Doug Allan. Image: Libby Penman

In front of an industry-leading panel of judges from the BBC, National Geographic, and Netflix at the Wildscreen Festival in Brighton, she presented the idea for The Animal Kingdom of Fife, a documentary exploring the impact of the climate crisis.

The pitch was to work alongside one of the world’s best in Allan, one of Sir David Attenborough’s go-to cinematographers, to explore the viewpoints of different generations.

Allan, from Dunfermline, who was recently interviewed by The Courier ahead of his own RSGS talk, has won numerous Bafta and Emmy awards as part of Frozen Planet, Blue Planet and Planet Earth, and has become a friend and mentor to Penman over the past year.

They’ve found plenty in common beyond just the accent – including the fact they’re both twins.

Libby Penman and Doug Allan working on their documentary trailer at Tentsmuir. Image: Declan Friel

“I’ve always known his name because he’s a really famous camera operator and like David Attenborough’s pal!” laughs Libby.

“I can’t remember if it was Blue Planet or Frozen Planet – one of the big Planet Earth series. Doug was featured for a couple of minutes in the ‘behind the scenes’ section.

“I remember watching it and my ears just pricked up. ‘Who’s this person with my Fifer accent’?

“But the first time I met him was after finishing my Masters’ degree.

“I went up to him after one of his talks and said ‘I really like what you had to say about climate change’.

“I said ‘I can tell you are really wanting to make a difference at this point in your career and think back on things’.

“We had a chat about that and I said ‘I’m from Kirkcaldy by the way and a wildlife filmmaker as well’.

“I think he thought that was quite amusing that I was from Kirkcaldy and he was from Dunfermline. We are both twins actually too!

“We just struck up a hell of a friendship after that.”

‘Mentor and pal’

Doug invited Libby to send him some of her wildlife films.

Libby wasn’t sure if he’d ever have the time to watch them.

But he sent her back a nice email saying the footage was “really impressive”.

Since then he’s become “like a mentor and a pal” and they “talk all the time”, says Libby.

Doug Allan filming with his RED 9A5A51. Image: Doug Allan

“I was obviously then down in Brighton doing the Wildscreen Festival – the National Geographic pitch contest,” she adds.

“That’s when we chatted some more and said we could maybe do something about Fife where we are both from.

“There’s almost 50 years between us, so we talked about looking at the environment from the perspective of different generations.

“And then my pitch idea for The Animal Kingdom of Fife won the contest.

“We’ve just been out filming a trailer in Fife on what the show could be and have loads to talk about if we want to seriously consider making this show this year. It’s a strange old friendship but a lovely one.”

Responsiblity of film crews

Doug, who’s been travelling the world for around five decades, recently spoke to The Courier about the growing responsibility of film crews to be aware of and limit their own carbon footprint when embarking upon expeditions.

Image by Libby Penman

It’s a view shared by Libby who says there should be a lot more thought in place about safeguarding the environments that they travel to and working with more local people where possible.

“That’s what me and Doug Allan talk about a lot – he’s literally seen climate change because he’s been filming for over 50 years in the wild,” she says.

“But from my point of view, it’s a very unique time for me to be really getting into this business because we’ve never had so few wildlife.

“It’s almost like starting getting into wildlife filmmaking – I’m still early in my career – but at a junction where it’s never actually been so hard to see the animals.”

Fox cub by Libby Penman

Libby doesn’t think she’s yet exhausted what Scotland has to offer in terms of wildlife filmmaking.

But she would like to get involved with some of the “high end” wildlife filmmaking eventually.

“If that means going abroad or filming high end stuff in the UK or Europe, I’m not sure, but I definitely have ambitions to be working on really big wildlife shows at some point soon I hope,” she adds.

“Adventure connects us to the environment. But environmental film making connects more people to the bigger issues at stake.”

How to attend the Kirkcaldy talk

*Libby Penman: Adventure Connects Us, takes place at the Old Kirk, 40 Kirk Wynd, Kirkcaldy, on Monday February 20 from 7.30pm until 9pm.

Tickets are available through Eventbrite or on the door.