• Rubber Monkey

Interview with Wildlife Filmmaker Madeleine Brennan

Hi everyone! My name is Madeleine Brennan, and I am a wildlife filmmaker, nature guide and bird nerd based here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Can you tell us where your passion for conservation comes from?

I think I’ve always been interested in wildlife and the environment. My parents really encouraged us to get outside as kids, and I had some really great biology teachers growing up that made conservation super interesting. One teacher in particular would take us on field trips through the forest to identify trees and bird calls, and we’d go rock-pooling and things like that, so I think that definitely helped spark an interest. And as I got older I became more aware of the threats to our environment, and that a lot of the biodiversity that we love here in New Zealand needs our help to reverse the damage and protect them.


So when I realised that you could actually study conservation and zoology at university, and do something that could potentially help our environment, that was it, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life!

When did you decide to pair your love of conservation and filmmaking? Can you tell us a bit about your creative journey?

So it took me a while to figure out that I actually wanted to be a filmmaker! After I finished up my degree in Zoology I went overseas for a bit and spent some time helping collect data on dolphin population sizes and the impact of commercial fishing on their social behaviours along the Southern African coastline. It was really interesting work that I enjoyed a lot, but it also made me realise that research wasn’t really for me. I was much more interested in the communications side of conservation, and I wanted to help share stories about wildlife, environment, and the people that dedicate their time to learning more about them.


It wasn’t too long after that I found out about the post-graduate Science Communication course at Otago University, and I came back home to study Natural History Filmmaking, and that’s where I made my first film ‘Growing Up Kiwi.’

Your recent film ‘Growing up Kiwi’ focuses on Almer, a Haast Tokoeka Kiwi. Why did you choose to focus on this particular bird? What about this bird is so special and why is it important to protect them?

Yeah, so I wasn’t actually planning on making a film about Haast Tokoeka Kiwi!! That kind of happened by chance. I was originally planning on making a film about some of the weird evolutionary quirks that New Zealand animals have, and I was looking into how the Rowi kiwi are slowly losing their eyesight due to their nocturnal lifestyle.


One of the DOC rangers I was in contact with suggested I look into Haast tokoeka kiwi instead, since they’re not a very well-known species and there are only 400 of them left in the wild. I didn’t know too much about them, and it seems like not many people do either since they’re such a reclusive species. They like to live deep in the bush, or right up a mountain, avoiding humans at all costs! The timing was just right as well since they had a final surprise egg of the season to collect for the Operation Nest Egg (ONE) conservation programme, so I jumped on the chance to go film it. And yeah, that’s how I ended up following a kiwi chick called Almer around for over a year and ended up with the documentary ‘Growing Up Kiwi!’ And hopefully, now that it’s done, the film can go on and show other people how cool these grumpy little kiwis are!

What was the most challenging aspect of making the documentary?

Oh man, there were a lot of challenges! One is that it took a long time to make! I wanted to capture all the stages Almer went through in ONE, which ended up with me following him around the South Island for about a year and a half and collecting about 4TB of footage! So at times, it was quite hard to motivate myself to keep going when the end result seemed so far away. It was also quite physically challenging. Like I thought I was quite fit before filming started, but once you have to keep up with DOC rangers chasing kiwis through the West Coast bush, while also carrying all your camera gear, you quickly realise that maybe you’re not quite as fit as you thought you were!! Then there were also some classic technological malfunctions, like hard drives breaking down on me, that really tested my sanity. I could keep on listing them, but that would probably get pretty boring.


So there were many challenges, but ultimately the good moments far outweighed the stressful ones!

What was your favourite aspect of making the documentary?

My favourite part of making this documentary would probably be getting to meet all the people that were involved in looking after Almer. You could tell that they were all really dedicated to protecting these kiwi, and they had great stories to share. They were also very patient with me! Following them around, asking them endless questions with my camera pointed in their faces probably felt like some kind of mild torture to them, but I am very grateful for all the help they gave me in creating this film.


Oh and also getting to hold a kiwi! That was pretty special as well.

How can people get involved themselves and help out our national bird? What are some positive initiatives people should be aware of?

There are lots of easy ways people can help out kiwis! Introduced predators are a big killer of kiwi and other native species, so if you want to be hands-on there are lots of predator control groups across the country looking for volunteers, or even just trapping in your own backyard can be a big help. Many of the organisations involved in the film also accept donations (eg. Orokonui Ecosanctuary, the West Coast Wildlife Centre, and the Pomona Island Charitable Trust).


There are also some great resources online where you can learn more about kiwi conservation, like the Department of Conservation website, and savethekiwi.nz.

What is your favourite bit of gear and how has it helped your filmmaking journey?

I don’t work with a whole lot of gear, so every piece I have I am quite attached to, so it’s almost like having to choose my favourite child. But for this film my favourite would have to be my old, reliable GoPro Hero 7! Because of its small size, it was so handy to have on me to be able to tuck into the corner of Almer’s nesting box, or inside the incubators, things like that. I was able to get some really cool close-up shots of Almer hatching which I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I was hoping to also get some cool shots of Poppy the conservation dog tracking a kiwi through the bush, so I attached one to her back, but when she came back the GoPro was nowhere to be found.


So if anyone comes across a beat-up GoPro amongst the ferns on Rona Island, please send it back to me!!

Is there anyone in your field that inspires you? What are some of your favourite nature documentaries?

My all-time favourite nature documentary would have to be ‘Chasing Ice,’ which follows a photographer and his multi-year study to capture the effects of climate change in the arctic. I also love ‘The Last Ocean’ by kiwi filmmaker Peter Young. They’re both incredible films and worth checking out if you haven’t seen them.


I’m also really inspired by lots of the emerging filmmakers that I have met and become friends with through the university course that I did, and also since finishing this film. It's hard work creating a documentary from scratch when you’re starting out and trying to make a name for yourself, especially here in New Zealand where funding is so limited. So it’s really great having support from other young filmmakers in the industry, and getting to see what amazing films they battle to create!

What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects for 2022?

I’ve got a couple of fun little film projects that I’m currently working on, both in the earlier stages though so I don’t want to jinx anything! But one is about another native bird that isn’t quite as charming as our iconic kiwi – the red-billed seagull! These birds seem like they’re everywhere, all along our coastlines, but climate change is hitting them pretty hard and populations are rapidly declining across the country.


So I’m working on a documentary that explores that with a couple of friends. We’re still in the development stage right now though, and trying to find some funding, but if anyone is keen to help us out or wants to keep up with how it is going, the best place is through my Instagram or they can contact me through my website.