Roger Munns is an underwater wildlife cameraman with an enviable portfolio. One of the principal camera operatives on the BBC’s ground-breaking Blue Planet II, he has travelled extensively for his work; filming aquatic environments from the tropics to the frozen poles.
With a better first hand appreciation than most of the current state of our oceans, we bring you the first in a series of conversations with Roger, drawing on his intimate first-hand experience of the changing state of our seas.
Straight out of the gate; tell us about your work and your journey to becoming an underwater cameraman.
I grew up in North Cornwall, but closer to the moors than the sea. In Sixth Form college I fell in with some friends from Polzeath and moved there when I was 18. That’s when the sea really became a big focus for me. My mate and I bought a caravan from a vicar, which we called the vicarage obviously, and lived in it over the summers. I worked on the beach at TJ’s surf shop and, once I’d finished Uni, I followed the annual Cornish winter migration to places like Indonesia and Mexico to surf and travel. Looking back now it really was all-consuming, we had so much time on our hands and, not even having email at that time, very little to distract us from getting in the ocean. It was on one of those trips abroad that I learned to scuba dive and really felt an affinity for it. My travel started to focus on dive destinations and I worked as a divemaster to get free diving. I then landed a job in Borneo filming tourists scuba diving and honed my skills over a few years living in dive resorts. One of my first breaks in TV was working on the Really Wild Show with Nick Baker and Michaela Strachan. I never had a grand plan or ambition to build a proper career but I had a passion for it, I kept trying to improve, and always felt at home in the water with a camera in my hand.
You worked on Blue Planet II alongside Sir David and the prestige and legacy of the BBC. How does it feel to be a part of something that special?
The original Blue Planet came out just as I started filming underwater. I remember watching it in absolute awe. The standard of film-making (for its time) was breath-taking and if you told me then that I would be one of the principal cameramen on the sequel, 15 years later, I would have thought you were insane. The team that produced Blue Planet II were some of the most knowledgeable, hardest-working and talented ocean people that I’ve ever met. It was an absolute honour to work alongside them. At this stage Blue Planet II seems to have a chance of having a legacy of ocean conservation and that is something that I’m very proud to have been a part of.
What were your highlights from the most recent series? What exactly did you have your hand in?
As one of the principal camera operators I spent 600hrs shooting underwater on the series, filming 10 sequences across four of the episodes. Given I’m based in the heart of the coral triangle, Malaysia, a lot of my work was on the Coral Reef episode. We really focused on trying to show some of the amazing characters that live in these reef cities, to give a sense of the courage and charisma that these fish have and show some of the challenges they face in a ferociously competitive environment. For that reason I would say one of the highlights for me was filming Percy the Tuskfish on the Great Barrier Reef. He’s the kind of small, innocuous little fish that scuba divers swim past every day while they are looking out for turtles, sharks and other megafauna. Yet little Percy has worked out how to use an anvil to smash open the clams he collects. He’s a fish that uses tools. That’s the kind of behaviour and intelligence we only expect to see from higher primates. It was a real privilege to film Percy every day as he went about his business and by the end of the shoot I had really grown to love and respect that little guy.
Do you consider yourself to have a responsibility to bring these stories and visuals to the masses? What do you make of the recent wave of awareness and Attenborough effect?
It’s easy to exist in our own little bubbles but when I chat to people outside the industry I’m always amazed by how informed and enthusiastic people are about the ‘Planet’ series of programmes produced by the BBC. I’ve contributed to harder hitting documentaries such as ‘the end of the line’ but I often feel that type of documentary is only seen by the choir. To really get a message across to the general public an Attenborough documentary is a great way. It may not be quite as hard hitting as the ‘Sharkwater’s’ or ‘Blackfish’ but it will be seen by a huge audience. I think we really saw that with Blue Planet II and I hope that going forward more of these landmark documentaries will have a conservation message.
Your life and time clocked in the water is one of the most enviable jobs we could think of. What are the realities of spending 600+ hours underwater and your lifestyle?
The travel can be a real grind, especially when traveling to remote locations with large amounts of equipment. I’ve done my best recently to reduce my gear to the minimum needed, to save on costs, hassle and carbon footprint, but I still travel with around 150kg of check-in luggage. Travel days are often some of the hardest days I do. Time away from my family is also emotionally very hard for me and of course for everyone at home.
Your connection to the ocean is by default deeper than most. Almost a second home. Can you speak of your first-hand accounts with plastic pollution and the climate crisis?
I think that in most cases, the reefs I dive are getting worse every time I revisit them. A combination of factors including increased tourism pressure, warming oceans, pollution from agricultural run-off, destructive fishing practices etc are all playing a part in putting our coral reefs under immense pressure. It’s really hard to be positive about the world’s oceans right now. Plastic pollution is also a massive issue, especially here in SE Asia. I’m more shocked now when a beach is clean than when it is covered in plastic and debris. That seems to have become the norm. I don’t think I can remember a day on the ocean when I haven’t seen some form of plastic trash.
What do you have coming up in way of shooting commitments? One Planet, Seven Worlds?
I’m actually prepping right now for a shoot on Frozen Planet II. There's also a new series for Nat Geo Channel I’m about to start filming plus an episode of Earth’s Paradise Islands featuring the island of Borneo, my adopted home, which is just finished in the edit. I shot a couple of underwater stories for David Attenborough's One Planet: Seven Worlds which comes out on BBC One in Autumn this year.