Most films about butterflies deal exclusively with their life-cycle. One can see why; the transformation from caterpillar to adult butterfly, via some miraculous chemistry in the pupa, is surely one of the natural world’s most breathtaking events. No one knows exactly how it happens — and many would probably want it to remain that way.
But the fact is that there is a limit to the number of times you want to see it on film. Our view is that there are thousands of other extraordinary things in the butterfly world, which deserve equally well to be explored, examined and reflected on. We live in an age when the secrets of the earth’s history, in deep time, are just beginning to be unravelled, in the wake of our realisation that the continents were once, some 160 million years ago, all united in a single land-mass, Pangaea; and then split into two super-continents, Gondwanaland and Laurasia. The butterflies started their existence in those days, and the species we see today are the survivors of the revolving years, punctuated by catastrophic events, one at least of which wiped out (we now believe) over 90% of the species that had developed.
The advantage of being primarily a film-maker and only secondarily an entomologist, is that one takes more global view, and also a more historical one. As a result we travel more widely to different continents, and so see a much greater variety of genus and species, from many regions and habitats, than most professional entomologists.
Those who take butterflies home and breed them are, I am sure, engaged in a worthwhile pursuit; and they can certainly produce some startling pictures, still and movie, from their sparklingly-fresh emerging adult butterflies, filmed in artificial conditions in their conservatories or wherever. But for us the pleasure and satisfaction is in trying to show the natural world naturally.
We may turn out to be among the last generations to be able to see many of the tropical species that frequent the forests and National Parks today. As we see it, logging, tourist development and road building will sooner or later do away with most of the tropical forests we can still visit at the opening of the 21st century. Much of the rest will probably succumb to 'accidents' like the 1997—8 Great Smog in Indonesia, Borneo and Malaysia, the annual fires raging in northern Brazil or the impact of severe drought as we have seen in recent years on the river Amazon at Manaus.
So there is a feeling of urgency in our ‘programme’; we would like to record as many as possible of our inheritance of wonderful creatures, in their original setting as far as possible, - before it may be too late.
Retirement has been the moment to seize for this. Time is not so short, now that there is no office calling one back from a too-short holiday. So Pat and I spent 2 months in the Tambopata Reserve in 1995 and then produced Diversity in the Rainforest, which shows 150 species never seen before on film, all taken in their original settings without the benefit of artificial lighting or any other aids, except patience and the accumulated experience of the past years of fieldwork and editing. This was the first time the video camera displaced the Bolex, and the last time the Bolex was taken along.
The Canon EX1, using the Hi-8 format, proved its value, especially in the low light of the forest, and for manoeuvrability and tolerance of damp and difficult conditions it totally won me over to video, despite having to see the butterflies through a black-and white viewfinder. Even in Peru, where it meant sending batteries down the river every day for recharging, there being no electricity in Tambopata at that time!
That was a watershed - the transition in 1995 from film to video. Now, 20 years later, we are well into the digital era. The EX1 seems like an antique, and since then, up to 2006 Pat and I used Canon’s XL—1 and XM—1, both of which proved themselves in humid hot forests as well as standing up to travelling to inaccessible locations.
In 2006, the XL—1 gave way to the XL—2, a heavier but refined version of its predecessor. And back home. the days of visiting the local studio for off-line edits and on-line completions and mixes are also long gone. An Apple G5 with Final Cut Pro does all that we need, and DVD Studio Pro has overtaken iDVD as the medium for editing the discs. A long journey from 16mm, and the Steinbeck 4-plate editor which was offered as a gift, along with our POE zoom 16mm Bolex camera, to the Media Studies Department of the University of East London.
And now, 10 years later, in 2016, we are at the changing point again. Cameras have evolved dramatically and the trusty Canon XL2 looks and feels old and cumbersome. We have a new HDMI Canon XF200, with a Zacuto Electronic View Finder attachment. It is the true successor of the XL2, with 20 times optical magnification. And MiniDV tape has given way to XF Flash Cards; a huge advance, but requiring a platform to upload on to,so that we can view the day's filming at the end of each day. So we need to take a Mac Book Pro with us, and a G-Drive to store it on.
And, for Pat, the smaller Canon XM2 and its 20 times magnification has found a true successor in the Canon AX20, a remarkable compressed version of the XF200. These have yet to be proved in the field but we hope to manage that in Hungary in the coming summer, accompanied by our Hungarian friend and mentor from the National History Museum in Budapest, Zsolt Balint.
Then, there's a major editing choice to make too. The We must at last change to Final Cut version 10 - from version 7 which we have used the past
Reaching the ‘market’ is another matter. So much good natural history is shown by the BBC that selling non-BBC material has always been a problem - even to the amateur natural history enthusiasts in Britain, who must be among the best-informed and active in the world - perhaps rivalled only by those in the USA. We hoped that DVD would sell more copies, and in any case we cannot hope to ‘break even’ with such niche material.
But a generous sponsor — himself a keen butterfly-watcher — offered us some financial help to enable us to transfer all the VHS films onto DVD, and that Project, started in 2006—07 was completed in 2016 with the revision and issue in DVD of Ghana's other Gold, with special recognition on its commentary of the sad passing away that year of Torben Larsen, an outstanding lepidopterist and the leading authority on African butterflies who had contributed so much to our films on Kenya and Ghana.
We were also able to bring some of our unused early 16mm material to the screen in the issue in 2010 of the DVD version of Wonders of the East — a nostalgic dip into the last century’s butterfly-filming!
Meanwhile the value of making and publishing the films does not diminish, in our view. Their value as a record, and as a stimulus to encourage people to find out more, can only grow as the years go by. We hope one day we can pass on the ‘business’ as a going concern to some young entrepreneur, to carry it forward when we are too old to do the fieldwork any longer. There are still so many worlds to conquer. One day we hope we will come across a sponsor who will see that some young successor can take it over and fill in all the gaps we shall have left.
John and Pat Banks