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September 23, 2017

[TRIBUTE] Renowned wildlife filmmaker Alan Root dies aged 80

Renown wildlife filmmaker Alan Root. /PHOTO VIA AFANA.ORG
Renown wildlife filmmaker Alan Root. /PHOTO VIA AFANA.ORG

Renowned filmmaker Alan Root died on Saturday morning at age 80.

He was born on May 12, 1937 in London, the United Kingdom, and moved to Kenya as a child.

Root is known for movies including 'Serengeti Shall Not Die, Lights', 'The Year of the Wildebeest' and 'Action, Africa!', and wrote the book 'Ivory, Apes & Peacocks: Animals, Adventure and Discovery in the Wild Places of Africa'.

The filmmaker received more than 60 awards including two Emmys, a Peabody and The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

In his tribute, Delta Willis, former publicist for Survival films in the US, said: "He crafted narratives about ecosystems, with a full cast of symbiotic natural players, and not a croc-wrestling presenter in sight".

Root will be remembered for his contributions, captured in Willis' full tribute below:

"MAGIC TO MILLIONS OF TV VIEWERS"

From the wildebeest migration to chicks inside a hornbill nest, Alan Root brought the magic of Africa to millions of television viewers around the world. Not only do many scripts from the 70’s remain timeless, but his innovative filming techniques foreshadowed technology.

In lieu of a Go-Pro on a drone, Root used a hot air balloon as a filming platform. Without a tiny lens to insert into a bird’s nest, he inserted a pane of glass on a cutaway of the tree trunk, filming through that window.

But perhaps the most important distinction, he crafted narratives about ecosystems, with a full cast of symbiotic natural players, and not a croc-wrestling presenter in sight, helping to establish a genre known as Blue Chip films: compelling music, intelligent writing and masterful story arcs.

Sir David Attenborough, who made his debut in 1979, said: “Alan Root made natural history filmmaking grow up.”

Ten years earlier, a Serengeti project with Frankfurt Zoological forced a steep learning curve on the 21 year-old, tasked with finishing Serengeti Shall Not Die, after Michael Grizmek was killed when his plane collided with a vulture, leaving his father Bernard devastated. That film, which won an Oscar in 1969, was pivotal to shaping what many believe is Root’s best documentary, Year of the Wildebeest.

When Professor Bernard Grizmek tapped Root to help in Tanzania, “New park boundaries were being drawn up and it was essential to know the herd’s route;” Root wrote in his autobiography Ivory, Apes & Peacocks.

“At that time a quarter of a million wildebeest seemed to simply disappear from the plains….Thanks to a long balloon float before having to burn, closing credits of Year of the Wildebeest feature an endless procession of gnus meandering and lowing towards, “a place where the grass meets the sky.”

Among Survival’s stable of a dozen outstanding filmmakers, including Des & Jen Bartlett, Dieter Plage, and Al Giddings, Root was the only cameraman ceded creative control.

He not only wrote the script but selected the music. Consequently, 'Thus Spake Zarathustra' pounded under the opening of Safari By Balloon, seen by 98 million people in 26 countries. Viewers were taken over the snows of Kilimanjaro, in a balloon Root called Lengai, named after the only active volcano in Tanzania. Nearly four decades later, the balloon flight over Africa’s tallest peak remains unrivalled.

"ROOT UNDERSTOOD ANIMALS"

Pivotal to his success was first wife Joan, who not only piloted the balloon over Kili but sewed up the envelope after mishaps. Joan also managed film location camps, shot stills for National Geographic, and stared down a spitting cobra so Alan could record the venom flying in slow motion.

She acclimatized wild animals, allowing a caracal to sleep in her bedroom, so that it would perform naturally in front of a camera. So brilliant were her observations on behavior and adaptations, when I introduced evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard professor spent much of our dinner probing her insights on life in the Serengeti, namely births timed to imminent rains.

National Geographic editor Wilbur E. Garrett said: “It’s not like sending a film crew to Africa. Their films are an extension of their lives. Somehow, you think the animals can understand them.” I would flip that to suggest the Roots understood animals better than many zoologists.

They introduced Dian Fossey to her first mountain gorillas, devised a humane trap for bongos (which led to a greater population in zoos than in the Aberdares) and rescued thousands of flamingo chicks at Lake Magadi.

The Roots’ home at Lake Naivasha harbored a bestiary of orphans, including Sally the Hippo, Million the Aardvark, an African porcupine, and Lilac breasted rollers that arrived at tea time, for tossed meal worms the birds caught in mid-air. A Cessna in the backyard was used to give visitors a glimpse of Hell’s Gate, if you could possibly take your eyes off how close wingtips came to narrow canyon walls.

“Not to worry,” Alan shouted; “The only other pilot who flies in here is Iain Douglas-Hamilton. But if we meet, he goes up and I go down.” Pause. “Or is it he goes down and I pull up.”

His body bearing scars from a hippo, a leopard, a mountain gorilla, and a missing index finger thanks to a puff adder, inspiring George Plimpton to write a New Yorker profile entitled 'The Man Who Was Eaten Alive in Africa'.

As the publicist for Survival films in the USA, I wore out the sprockets of the wildebeest film, and in 1977 made the first of thirty-six journeys to Kenya, drawn here by the Roots. Despite his crash landing with former first lady Jackie Onassis,

I jumped in his gondola near Keekorok Lodge, where Balloon Safaris for travelers was launched. The concept of floating over the Mara to enjoy a champagne breakfast wherever the winds took you was successful, spawning as many imitators as did the wildebeest film. The tiny Balloon Safari office at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport graduated to a glassy blue high rise, which Root also named Lengai.

MORE THAN 60 AWARDS

In 1982, Alan and Joan began to separate but continued to collaborate on films. Their last safari was to the Congo, where they camped a little too close to a volcano throwing hot boulders towards their tent. “I don’t know what he sees [in the other women],” Joan exclaimed to me afterwards; “But they will never beat that!”

Fearless alongside Alan, she had followed him underwater at Mzima Springs, where an angry hippo ripped off her face mask.

But after Alan remarried twice, Joan fell into a vulnerable trap, fighting poachers at Lake Naivasha. In 2006 she was murdered alone at home, her killers never prosecuted. Alan wept when paying tribute at her memorial service, but by the time of her death, had a new life, with a family, and a new flying machine, a copter which found a perch on the edge of Lewa.

During my last visit with him and wife Fran Michelmore, we reviewed an e-version of his autobiography, which laments “a heartbreaking holocaust, as wildlife conservation has proved to be a disastrous failure”.

Named an O.B.E. in 2008, Root has received over 60 awards, including two Emmys, a Peabody, and Lifetime Achievement Awards from Wildscreen, The Explorers Club, and The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, where he was known to close out the last dance by singing “House of the Rising Sun.” In 2016 Nature TV in Kenya broadcast a few of his greatest hits, alongside films by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone, who Root inspired and supported as Executive Producer.

On May 12, 2017, Alan Root marked his 80th birthday only weeks after being diagnosed with glioblastoma, the same cancerous brain tumor that felled Jock Leslie-Melville and Conrad Akin.

Supported by his remarkable wife, Fran Michelmore, he beat the doctor’s grim odds to enjoy a safari to Alaska in August with their boys, Myles and Rory, students at Glenalmond College in Scotland. While the Roots were watching Brown bears capture salmon, in Tanzania, Lengai began to rumble to such an extent that geologists predicted an eruption was imminent. Alan Root died peacefully on the morning of August 26."

Delta Willis, former publicist for Survival films in the US, has served as a judge for The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, The Explorers Club WILD Festival, and The International Wildlife Film Festival.

Several Root documentaries can be screened free online, including Year of the Wildebeest, Safari by Balloon, and Mysterious Castles of Clay.

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