Obituary: Alan Root OBE, wildlife filmmaker

Alan and Joan Root filming Survival (Picture: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock)
Alan and Joan Root filming Survival (Picture: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock)

Alan Root OBE, filmmaker. Born: 12 May 1937, London. Died: 26 August 2017, Kenya, aged 80.

Alan Root was a self-effacing, scar-ridden, pioneering wildlife filmmaker, who was one of the first to bring Africa’s wildlife to our screens on ITV’s long running Survival programme, and fabled for his inventive shots capturing animals in their natural habitat without human interference, making them the stars.

He was likened to Crocodile Dundee due to the number of scars and near-death encounters; over the decades, Root had been mauled by a hippo, bitten on the bottom by a leopard and survived an attack by a mountain gorilla, which he described as “a Doberman on steroids”. It ripped into his thigh while he was helping to shoot a scene for the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist.

On another occasion he nearly died after going into anaphylactic shock after a bite from the venomous puff adder. In the end it “only” cost him the index finger of his right-hand; however, he was forced to reconfigure the hand controls of his helicopter, which he started flying in his sixties and had crashed at least twice.

As Root was hurt so often, friends learned not to be surprised at the condition they might find him in after not having seen him for a while.

Born in 1930s London, Alan Root’s father managed a fish-paste factory until after the Second World War, when a new job at a corned beef plant took him and the family to Kenya. Upon hearing of their imminent departure, nine-year old Alan burst into tears. “I’d just learned every one of the British birds,” he wrote in his well-received 2012 memoir Ivory, Apes & Peacocks. “Now I was going to a country where that knowledge would be useless.”

However, he soon found even greater joy when he started to capture African birds – but mostly snakes – with his father’s 8mm Bolex camera. He left school at 16 and taught himself to trap, guide and fly planes while developing what Root’s protégé Mark Deeble described as a “repertoire of baboon alarm calls, elephant farts and wildebeest contact calls”.

By 1956 he was filming all types of birds near Lake Naivasha, even capturing the elusive Congo peacock, and splashing through crocodile-infested rivers, but it was the hornbill bird that gave television viewers their first glimpse of his genius. Root impressed visiting filmmakers Armand and Michaela Denis and quickly began working for the couple, filming animals of the Serengeti for their BBC series, On Safari. He then collaborated with father and son team Bernhard and Michael Grzimek on their Oscar winning film Serengeti Shall Not Die (1959), with Root completing filming on his own after Michael’s tragic death in a plane crash. Root became drawn into making films that corrected the excesses of early nature TV programmes – shows that, as he put it, made it seem as though animals “were something you picked up, basically molested and used to augment your ego”.

In 1961 Root married Joan Thorpe, the daughter of a British coffee farmer in Nairobi. She was working as a safari guide and heard of a man who kept a bongo antelope in his mother’s spare room, as a companion for a large male baboon and assorted reptiles. He heard of a girl who had nursed a baby elephant back to health. A meeting of minds and lifestyles followed. The couple created a formidable filmmaking partnership, releasing an array of stunning award-winning wildlife films over the next 20 years.

Their first international success came in 1973 with Baobab: Portrait of a Tree. Famous for their innovative cinematography techniques, in 1974 the Roots captured the pounding energy of a thundering wildebeest herd in The Year of the Wildebeest by positioning cameras at ground level and protecting them with tortoise shells. Dealing with the creatures’ migration, the film was narrated by Oscar-winning actor James Mason.

In 1975 the Roots completed the first hot-air balloon ascent over the 19,340-feet of Mount Kilimanjaro for their breath-taking, epic film, Balloon Safari, which went on to be viewed by 98 million people in 26 countries. The innovation of using a balloon came about because Root was concerned that helicopters were too noisy and airplanes too fast.

He later established a hot-air balloon safari company, and reportedly crashed while piloting former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Among the couple’s most acclaimed works was the Oscar-nominated Mysterious Castle of Clay (1978), set on termite mounds, featuring narration from Orson Welles and a memorably destructive appearance from an aardvark – an animal that was, as the narration observed, the “first word in the dictionary, last word in ant-eater design”.

In the mid-1980s their marriage ended, as did their collaborations, although in 1989 their compilation film, Two in the Bush, about their enthusiasm for filming animals, was screened. It included footage of a spitting cobra directing its venom at Joan’s face, positioned just a few feet from the snake while Root filmed.

During the filming of Mzima: Portrait of a Spring (1983) in Tsavo Park, Kenya, both husband and wife were bitten by hippos.

Root went on to complete projects for Survival, National Geographic and the BBC. In 1987, he took budding wildlife filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone under his wing. Inviting them to the Serengeti, he helped the couple photograph and produce the critically acclaimed film Here Be Dragons (1989), which broke ITV viewing records.

Tragically, Joan was fatally shot by intruders while at home in Kenya in 2006; the case remains unsolved but has been linked to her conservation efforts.

During his long career, Root was the recipient of more than 60 awards – including the OBE in 2008 – and in 1994 he received an Outstanding Achievement Award at the Wildscreen Festival.

Always fully aware of the perils of his work, Root once said that, “when he dies, he intends his body to be left on an African savannah… He will be repaying old debts to vultures, hyenas and porcupines. Those creatures will in turn be scratching off obligations to the smaller creatures – the beetles, bot flies and termites. His end, in short, will be many beginnings.”

Root married Jennie Hammond in 1991; she died in 2000. In March 2017 he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive brain cancer. He died in Nanyuki after returning from a holiday to Alaska with his third wife, Fran Michelmore, and two sons, who survive him.

Martin Childs