Sir David Attenborough’s eyes light up across the campfire in remote Ethiopia like those of a little kid.
It’s the early 2000s and opposite him sits Chadden Hunter, a Queenslander who’s been researching a herd of gelada baboons in the highlands, several thousand metres above sea level, as they pluck grass in alpine meadows.
To the world outside, Ethiopia is known for its famine and desert. But Hunter speaks of a land full of ancient rock churches carved into the cliffs, of beautiful lush islands covered in wildflowers and waterfalls.
While he doesn’t realise it yet, his life is about to change.
Sir David asks Hunter, a world expert on the baboons, to explain what he knows.
Fuelled by an endless curiosity, Sir David is excited as he takes in every word Hunter tells him.
“I was able to just tell him everything I knew, and it was really amazing to have this guru and living legend sit there by the campfire and just want to listen to you, and just ask questions,” he says.
“It’s incredible in that sense because his successes haven’t gone to his head whatsoever.
“He’s an incredible man, so incredibly knowledgeable but also really humble.
“I think it’s partly because he’s maintained this incredible sense of curiosity his whole life and that’s really what keeps him going.
“His eyes light up when you tell him a new story.”
So, by the flicker of the fire that night, the men connect.
And years after the embers have died away, the pair continue to work together across Sir David’s films.
About a decade after Ethiopia, Hunter signs on for Frozen Planet with Sir David, spending four months in Antarctica while they film.
It’s a far cry from his childhood home in the humid north Queensland city of Cairns.
During four months of filming, Hunter and the crew drill a two-metre wide hole through a sheet of ice.
Flecks float around them after they dive into the inky blue water below a white ceiling.
There is no barrier between Hunter and the unfettered wildness of nature. It is, he says, a place of pure connection.
But the flecks in the water are not dust.
They rise from the dark depths 500 metres down, quickly surrounding the filmmakers.
Dozens upon dozens of emperor penguins.
Hunter and his crew are the first humans the animals have seen.
They circle so fast, Hunter feels dizzy.
“They swim down half a kilometre to go fishing. And they were swimming up and getting bigger and bigger, and the emperor penguin is the world’s biggest penguin, they’re 40 kilograms in weight, and they’re like the size of a barrel,” he says.
“They’re huge, and they come up, these beautiful torpedo-shaped noses, and they started coming up and circling us underwater because they’d never seen humans before.
“It felt like you were in one of those snow domes, the ones you shake and then the snow flurries around.”
Over 20 years, Hunter has watched the world change.
He’s been to parts of the Amazon and south-east Asian rainforests that have been decimated.
“Habitat destruction is deeply upsetting and over the years, we’d like to have thought that working on these wildlife films helps people appreciate the nature and beauty out there and will make a difference,” he says.
“But it’s very hard to see what we’ve done in making these big, glossy Attenborough shows, it’s very hard to quantify whether that’s actually done anything to help the environment.
“Certainly environmentally over the last few years, it just sometimes feels like we’ve been going backwards and that’s the hardest thing – to keep that spirit up and try to inspire the next generation of wildlife biologists and filmmakers and conservationists to keep that fight going because it certainly is an uphill battle.”
Hunter and his colleagues are trying to introduce the importance of conservation in documentaries.
Just 10 years ago, conservation was not a concept in filmmaking, even in shows such as Planet Earth, he says.
“Across the 11 hours of that series, there’s not one single word in there about the environment, about conservation.
“Half a billion people saw it, it’s also owned by more homes around the world than any other DVD on the planet, by a long, long way.
“Not one single one of those hundreds of millions of viewers … no one thought it was odd that Planet Earth didn’t have a word in there.
“Through the Attenborough shows we’ve been working on … we’re finally at a stage where we’re still reaching the masses … but we’re weaving conservation into the fabric of the episodes as well.”
To leave conservation out of the conversation would be, he says, “inexcusable”.
Now based in Brisbane, Hunter aims to revolutionise Australia’s wildlife filmmaking, bringing home his experiences of working with renowned directors on award-winning programs.
He hopes to win the bigger productions and train a new generation of Australian filmmakers.
“It’s only recently the industry has started cracking and changing, and especially with the advent of the streamers coming along,” he says.
“It’s been a real game-changer for the wildlife filmmaking industry.
“I feel the chance for me to be based in somewhere like Brisbane and build a team and to sell a big – maybe not quite the size of Planet Earth – but to sell a big series to Netflix, Amazon, Apple.”
Along the way, Hunter hopes to prove glossy wildlife films are not just the preserve of Sir David and the BBC.
“I’m excited … to try and turn us into the next powerhouse of wildlife filmmaking,” he says.
“We’ve got some really exciting wildlife ideas in with National Geographic and with Disney, we’re talking to Netflix and even talking to Apple about some ideas.”
But, Hunter says, travel for film crews will be difficult, given the pandemic.
“A lot of the ideas I work on are very global wildlife ideas – if we’re doing something like Seven Worlds or Planet Earth, you’ve got to be able to travel everywhere,” he says.
“And the irony is that most of the world now is actually travelling. Europe is using vaccine passports, or you can travel to some of these places, but you’ve got to do some self-isolation in your home when you get back.
“Australia is one of the few places that really is, you know, we’re quite imprisoned at the moment, so when we do get some of these big wildlife shows off the ground again, and we are trying to film overseas, I’m going to have to hire foreign film crews, which is a bit disappointing.
“But until Australia sorts itself out with vaccines or changes the rules, I’ll have to work with remote film crews. And in some ways, that’s good for giving locals a chance, whether we’re working in the South Pacific or Africa or South America, there might be local people who can pick up a camera and help us capture material in those countries.”