Robert Brown grew up on the Taieri Plains, southwest of Dunedin. His father and grandfather took him on hunting trips into Fiordland and the Southern Alps as a boy. He told the Otago Daily Times' Sally Rae in 2011 that his grandfather "just taught me so much – looking for little things, as to whether their ears were back or up, or whether their pupils were enlarged, the flicking of the tail and body posture. You really learnt to understand animals, know what they are going to do before they do it."
Possum trapping funded the purchase of a 8mm movie camera when he was 10, and as a teenager he won awards for his films. After graduating from King's High School in Dunedin, he paired work in advertising with trips into the mountains, where he eventually swapped his rifle for a movie camera. He shot a colour film on fishing and hunting for American TV (before colour had screened on New Zealand TV screens).
In 1971 the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation Dunedin news team "got sick of me hanging around", and Brown was hired as an assistant cameraman. Brown describes the NZBC Dunedin production studio as a "brilliant training ground", where he filmed for news, sports, documentaries, and kids shows like Spot On. He often got to sit in with the editor: "You really learn very quickly what's going to work and what's not. I just covered the field, did absolutely everything." Brown also cut his teeth on Bruce Morrison’s and Keith Hunter’s documentaries, Red Deer (1976) and Saddleback (1976).
From 1974, over a few years, Brown joined reporter Neil Harraway and sound operator Adrian Kubala to head into the Fiordland mountains on film expeditions. They wanted to capture the first professional footage of the takahē (thought to be extinct before it was rediscovered in 1948), and an even rarer bird, the kākāpō (which had only recently been located in that area).
Brown and Harraway came from outdoor backgrounds, and could "live with cold baked beans, under a fly cover". Crucially, "unlike the Wellington news crew", they got on well with the Wildlife Service rangers. Conservation pioneer and kākāpō saviour Don Merton said of Brown: "I knew that his level of respect, consideration and sensitivity to wild animals was second to none."
A 1974 day trip for Brown, Harraway and Kubala to film a story on takahē turned into a one week lockdown, after bad weather prevented them from leaving Fiordland. Crammed in a two-man hut with three Wildlife Service officers and nowhere to go, the men talked about capturing wildlife on film. The conversations marked the very beginning of the Natural History Unit (later NHNZ).
It was around 1977 when Brown and Harraway joined producer Graeme Wilson and director Robin Scholes to officially start the Natural History Unit in Dunedin. It was a Kiwi take on the BBC's well-known Natural History Unit (NHU). The Hidden Places series (1978) of short nature documentaries was the first series produced by the team. Brown's bush camera skills contributed to the takahē episode and the Feltex Award-winning edition on Ōkarito.
In 1977, BBC producer Christopher Parsons came to New Zealand to film flightless birds, and after viewing Brown's footage, he offered Brown a four-month bursary to work with the UK NHU, based in Bristol. Later, Brown was offered a place at the BBC's NHU unit as a specialist wildlife cameraman; he was able to split his time between New Zealand and England. Back home, Brown shot a run of Wild South documentaries (including the series opener Project Takahē, Island of Strange Noises, and Kākāpō - Night Parrot), many of which have become Kiwi nature classics. In 1981 he was awarded a Craft Excellence gong at the Feltex Awards for his work on the series.
After a few years, Brown turned to freelancing. He was often sent to shoot wildlife footage, as part of the teams filming content for BBC staple Wildlife on One and Australian natural history strand The World Around Us. In 1985 Brown returned to TVNZ for five years, shooting episodes of the Peter Hayden-presented Journeys in National Parks (Westland/Aoraki, Tongariro) and Journeys Across Latitude 45 South (Atawhenua Shadowland, Old Gold New Gold), along with more Wild South documentaries, and current affairs reports (eg an episode from In the National Interest, where conservationist Alan Mark drew attention to the threats faced by landscapes in the High Country).
Over three decades Brown worked on programmes for Discovery and National Geographic, and filmed extensively for Sir David Attenborough. Brown was a regular name on the credits of Attenborough’s major international series, Life on Earth, Trials of Life, The Living Planet and The Life of Birds. Attenborough provided a testimonial for two decades of working with Brown, admiring "his enthusiasm, temperament and specialist wildlife camera skills."
Brown's work has taken him to the Arctic, Antarctic, India, South America, United Kingdom, New Guinea, Sri Lanka, the Pacific, and from Siberia to South Georgia. He has shot for several global co-productions (Albatross Watch, World Safari, Wild Australasia).
He told the Otago Daily Times in 2011 he becomes "amazingly antisocial", and that "nothing else exists", when filming. He told NZ On Screen in 2018 that his job has "never been like work", and that "swanning around with animals is living the dream" – whether it be elephants or elephant seals, spending four months in Siberia filming bears (Realm of the Russian Bear) or travelling around the globe with penguin expert Lloyd Spencer Davis (Meet the Real Penguins).
Brown lives in Broad Bay on the Otago Peninsula. He teaches wildlife filmmaking through his company, Wildfilm New Zealand, and lectures at Otago University’s Centre for Science Communication, where he is a Professional Practice Fellow. Brown continues to freelance as a wildlife cameraman, and work on his own projects, including a documentary about a Kenyan national park ranger who carries an AK47 rifle and has a licence to kill — poachers, that is.
Published on 27 April 2018
Rod Morris and Hal Smith, Wild South - Saving New Zealand's Endangered Birds (Auckland: TVNZ with Century Hutchinson, 1988)
Sally Rae, 'Cameraman clicks with the animals', Otago Daily Times, 27 June 2011. Accessed 17 April 2018.