Nathan Smith - Part 2


Environmental Film Maker

Interviewee: Nathan Smith, born 1978

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 1 May, 2009

Transcription: Glenys Murray, May 2009

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

Did you actually develop any particular techniques for filming wildlife?

Not that I’ve not seen anyone else do afterwards. I thought I was pretty special with some of the things I used to do. I got a fish tank and emptied it out and used that to get underwater shots of yabbies in the creek. I put my video camera in and a few lead weights. I tried various things from flying foxes that didn’t work. I tried putting a little camera onto a Tonka truck and driving it into a wombat’s hole to see if I could find the wombat. Most of them I can’t say worked. I think the main thing I learnt was you’ve just got to sit and wait and try and remain hidden.

What do you think is the best shot that you’ve ever taken?

I’ve got a shot that I had of a brown tree snake. In terms of what the viewer would like to see probably that one. I had this brown tree snake and he was sussing out my camera. I was only about eight or ten inches away from him. You get to a certain point and I could see that he was either going to strike at my camera or back off. He looked like he was going to strike which was fine. I was standing back from the camera I thought do what you want. He did this what they call a yawn where they disengage their jaws. A snake can do that so they can swallow prey much larger than them. He did that as if he was going to have a go at my camera lens and try and take a big bite at it. The image that I got from that because of course he was staring straight down the barrel of my lens as he did this. You get to see the mouth right open and the saliva down there, it was fantastic. In terms of my best shot favourite shot I managed to get a dragonfly from fifteen metres away with a full twenty times zoom. I managed to get him hovering there above a pond. Most people wouldn’t appreciate how hard that was.

Did you have to go through any particular mad stunts? Hanging from trees and getting yourself in impossible positions to take a good shot sometimes?

Nothing too dangerous in climbing trees I’m pretty careful. You have to be in a stable position to film and get a good shot. So there’s no point being somewhere where you’re hanging out on a limb, shaking cause you’re just not going to get a steady shot. I did go out into a wetland chasing a black snake and it was a hot day and this black snake was quite aggressive. The only way to get a get a good close up shot was to wade out there in the mud, which meant effectively I couldn’t run away, it was very thick. I had this thing slithering around me past my legs… yeah a few hairy moments. I’m pretty calm with most of the things that I encounter. That four and a half metre python that I said I found. It was under a rock. They called it Sally it was at somebody’s house down the road. This lady rang me up and said “I’ve got this big snake come and film it, come and film it. It’s curled in there under a rock”. So I had to reach in and tickle this thing and get it a little bit curious or agitated, I’m not sure. Then take its tail and pull this thing out. I didn’t realise how big it was, normally you can pick a python up. It can’t pick its own body weight up. So you can lift it up to a point and it doesn’t have any traction on the ground and it’s hard for it to strike. But this thing I had nearly two feet hanging out of one side of my arm and I had my arm, I’m over six foot, I had my arm over my head and it still had a good metre and a half on the ground. A few moments of danger for sure but nothing too dramatic.

Black Snake photo by Adam Rose

Are they the kind of pythons that can wind themselves around you and squeeze you?

That’s what the danger was with this one. You can get bitten by a python, it’s like getting bitten by a dog. It’s unfortunate and it hurts but you’d be alright go and get a shot at the hospital. I’ve seen my friends go through that a few times. When you get one that’s four and a half metres long it’s deadly because it can crush. I was scared.

Did you have an insurance company that chanced a policy on you?

No, I didn’t even know about insurance in those days.

Now there are many ecosystems in the Shire aren’t there? There are grassy woodland then there’s more like a jungle. Tell me about the different ecosystems that exist in the Hills Shire?

As far as I know there’s around about twenty different ecosystems. A lot of them are quite hard to come across. The main one that everyone would know is the sandstone gully forest. You get that in the valleys, those slopey areas dominated by sandstone. You’ve got red gum and yellow barks. It’s not land that could have ever been farmed. That’s essentially why there’s so much of it. Kuringai National Park is full of it. Oh we’ve got these great big national parks look at our bushland regions of Sydney aren’t we proud? These are all the area we couldn’t farm. The other forest parts that we don’t know so much about are the ones that have been replaced by agriculture and are now mostly development housing. Those are one of the most endangered forests in the whole country. Blue gum high forests that you’ll get on the southern slopes of the Hills area. Places like West Pennant Hills, Cumberland State Forest has got a great little example of that. Turpentine ironbark forests you’ll get along the ridge tops. Pitt Town Road out in Kenthurst there’s little patches that remain. Up next to the library up in Round Corner, Dural there’s a great little spot there.

 Cumberland Plain vegetation

That’s another threatened plant community. So it varies there’s sandstone shale transition forest. There’s other ones like that. People need to be aware that that’s what we’re losing. You used to be able to come out to the Shire, and the first settlers did just that, and see these great forests of these massive trees all over the place. They would have dwarfed the sandstone forests that we see in the backyards of people today. It would have been magnificent forest. Of course that was where the good soil was and in those days you weren’t worrying about the environment you were just worrying about trying to get enough food to survive in those early days. I can understand why it is all gone. But it is very important that we do look at that and appreciate what it is and try to protect it.

Is there a danger to those ecosystems that they might totally disappear or be altered in many ways?

Well effectively something like blue gum high forest I would say that it is gone. I would really say that it has gone. There are patches remaining but it’s like having a species disappear in the wild and then having a couple of species left in a zoo. Is that really having it functioning and maintaining itself? The patches that do remain that I know of are all managed by people to keep them in the state that they are. Saying that blue gum high forest wasn’t a massive forest type it was contained within the Sydney region. It’s one of those things that comes with humans and development, we really have to accept I think.

Does the effect of droughts take a toll on the environment of the Shire?

I’ve seen definitely over the last ten years some of the hottest conditions that we’ve ever had. Things like swamp wallabies moving into areas of Kenthurst that they’ve never come to before. You think it’s great to see all these swamp wallabies now but it’s the western regions, west of Sydney. A lot of the wildlife I think are getting pushed up into these small corridors. Swamp wallabies come up into people’s backyards and feed on grass. They’ve got to be under a lot of pressure to have to do that. Climate change is a really tough one because it can cause effects that look like one thing and actually something else is taking place. That’s what I think we’ll see a lot of in our area. We’ve got these wildlife corridors. There’s development going on down on the Cumberland Basin, in the Cumberland Plain out Rouse Hill. So any wildlife out there tends to get forced up there before they’ll be out competed by whatever else is trying to live in those small corridors. Then of course you’ve got the climate change issue and rising temperatures, you’ve got bushfires. I don’t think I’ve lived long enough though to make a good standpoint on the whole climate change issue for our region, though I can definitely see it happening in other areas of Australia.

Life in our Backyard Hills to the Hawkesbury episode one cover

Once you’ve done some filming and you’ve got all that marvellous footage do you edit it yourself or do you go to someone else to do it for you?

I do all my own editing and sound work. I even started writing my own music. I used to be a musician as well. So I did all that at the beginning and now more and more I’m off loading as I can afford to because I’m getting paid more. So I employ other camera people now, a photographer, a musician. But I still like to do the editing myself. I definitely do like to do that, that’s the most important part of the storytelling.

How do you market your video productions (known as Nathan James Productions)?

The one that I did for The Hills Shire region I used the newspapers a lot because it was very topical. The newspapers were really interested in what I was doing. I went to all the small ones and then the Hills Shire Times. I wrote up articles for them, they came out and interviewed me. That was great publicity for me. I’d done quite a few talks around the area to Rotary Clubs, to Council bushland management teams. I did letterbox drops as well just before Christmas, A lot through word of mouth as well. I really took the whole thing on myself. It’s not a big enough region for me to make any money and I was never going to make any money out of this anyway. I did want everybody out there to know about the DVD’s. A big part of it for me was education. The pilot that I initially did on Kenthurst and Annangrove, Round Corner I did a little one there just to get a judge of what people would think. How people would respond to this sort of product. To give myself time to learn the skills of editing, that went quite well, it went really well. People were really interested in what was in their own backyards. I’d had a philosophy sort of like a newspaper. A newspaper will tend to have a way of marketing itself by trying to get stories that are as local as possible. The more local it is the more people respond to that story. The same with the wildlife documentaries, they’re always global. They’re always about a world market. There’s no chance of me ever competing on that market, especially with the inexperience I had in those days.

Scribbly Gum photo by Adam Rose

So it was a smart approach for me to find a market that would accept what I was doing as someone who was learning the art of film making. Who would still want my product, so it gave me that drive to be able say “well this is still serious, people are still going to be watching this”. It’s about something that I’m passionate about. So I did take on everything myself, it’s been a great learning experience. Afterwards I gave any extra DVD’s from that first one to the schools and all the kids in the schools. That’s probably my main motivation for doing these documentaries. Education, education, I would almost pay the kids to watch it, it means that much.

Have they been a commercial success then? Can you make a living out of it?

Oh no, no definitely not. I can make a bit of money and now that I’ve done them. In hindsight I put all that time into it and I was working part time for so many years. I was wasting a lot of time because I didn’t know productive methods and I didn’t know where all the wildlife was at that stage. If I was to go back to it, it would be possible. That’s all very good in hindsight and there’s a bit of money there to be made. If you’re trying to make money you wouldn’t get into wildlife filming in the first place. Whether it was for the BBC or for local productions, I think it can’t be something that’s on your mind it really can’t. You’ve just got to have an alternative motive for these sorts of things.

Now I noticed on your website that you also advertise the production of wedding videos?

Yes and that’s how you can make money.

How’s that experience been for you?

Oh great weddings are just such a fantastic event. Everyone is just so happy, you see people in love. It’s like a big Hollywood movie unfolding and you’ve just got to run round and capture it all for them. So I loved it. I’ve recently not closed down that operation but I’ve stopped advertising outside of my own website for that. I’m doing some other things at the moment taking up all my time. But I really enjoyed that. It was a good experience and it paid for new cameras and equipment as well.

Have any of the videos that you produced been shown overseas and say in different video competitions?

No well the one for The Hills to the Hawkesbury I’ve definitely never had an ambition to use it for anything other than local education. That’s all it’s out there for. If I wanted to win competitions I would be trying to write a scripted story for it. I’d probably use a few more fancy effects. Whereas I approached that one as I would if I was trying to put together a series of classes. It was quite a bit different. I’ve done other short film festivals and competitions over in New Zealand where I’m studying for my Masters in Natural History Film Making at the moment. So I did go back to uni and that’s pushed me into that area again. But mostly what I was doing was commercial conferences, weddings.

Now I believe you’re about to leave Sydney to do some filming in other places, tell me what your plans are for that?

I’m making a documentary which is really exciting called The Sacrificial River and it’s about our beloved Murray-Darling system. At this point in time it’s literally dying it’s been dying for a long time really. A lot is being done on it a lot is being said on it. A lot of newspapers at the time… It’s probably the biggest environmental issue of the last maybe ten years for Australia. I wanted to do my Master’s film on that. I’ve got avenues to be able to get this documentary out to National Geographic Wild Channel as well through the university which is run as one of the subsidiaries of Fox TV. I’m taking this opportunity to try and globalise this Murray-Darling situation and I’m taking it from a different perspective. I’m looking at history of the Murray-Darling and the way that we use the water. That technology stems back to the very beginning of our civilisation itself. I went over to the Euphrates and to the Nile to look at the first civilisations. To places like the Dead Sea, to compare the Dead Sea to what’s happening at the end of The Coorong where it is all becoming salty. That’s what I’m making at the moment. It’s going to be a very global look at how the Murray-Darling is an analogy for the way that we’ve got this relationship, mankind and nature in the world. There seems to be a big readjustment, especially with the issue of climate change, as to the way we position ourselves in relation to the world around us and nature in particular. So I’m off to places such as Bourke to look at where they’re growing lots of cotton, which of course uses a lot of water. Out to Albury where the dam levels in the largest dam in the system are well below ten percent now. Out to the Coorong where you can see big salt crystals along the water. There are acid sulphate soils forming in places like Bottle Bend and down there in the lakes. Key locations like that. A lot of driving around it’s going to be good.

Coorong National Park

That will be an exciting project huh?

Yes it is very exciting.

Coming back to life in The Hills Shire again if I can bring you back there, what do you think have been the biggest changes in lifestyle, environment and industry since you were young?

I’d definitely say that there is a lot more money in the area. I won’t say that’s a bad thing. You get Lleyton Hewitt moving in down the road and they come and build massive houses. Mansions, big fences and I wonder. I’ve never lived in a place like that. When I grew up it was different, there’s been a complete transformation. There’s still some of the older generation there. Their kids are probably around my age and they’ve grown up and left. But any of those that sold and the ones coming in, their properties were worth so much that it’s natural that only someone with money came in. Now the area has a stigma of being a nice place to live as opposed to a lifestyle change. It’s one of the closest areas that you can have five acres of land and be able to access the city. One of the closest five acre block areas to the city. So I’ve really seen that change, I’ve really seen how money coming in has changed the way that people live, there’s far less people with horses and motorbikes ripping up the front lawn. Far more people with their own private gardeners riding around and mowing their lawns for them and again I don’t say that’s good or bad. It’s just a fact of the way it is. But one of the sad things I do see from an environmental point of view is more and more people are just clearing those ridge top forests. Planting seed and grass and just grassing it all out, which is just crazy because for the last ten years at least we’ve been under constant water pressure? Those ideals that come with that sort of lifestyle has actually had a really negative impact on the area. I wouldn’t say that it is all bad. I’ve seen a lot of the cleaning up of the sewage and septic systems. That’s a big issue if you’re into the environment. You go down to the creeks, runs down into our beautiful Hawkesbury River. One of the most beautiful rivers I think in the country. A lot of the pollutants are coming from our area. We are still a lot of people on septic. People coming in with money now are actually the ones who are able to clean these sorts of things up and get in the proper systems. I’m hoping that the Council one day will get some money together and force the change for people to pump out. That will put a big weight of pressure off the Cattai catchment and the Hawkesbury River.

Civilisation close to waterway in the rural north of The Hills Shire 2003

You mentioned that there’s a loss of biodiversity because of the encroaching human populations. Forests their habitats are being lost, how do you see this trend? Is it going to continue do you think in the future or is there something we can do to arrest it and make people more aware? Is it your films in fact that help you do that?

Well my philosophy was that the problem was that people didn’t appreciate what they had. So first you’ve got to make people really proud. I went out there to show them the best of what we’ve got. Then they’ve got something to lose. Until they had something to lose they didn’t care. A lot of people would go out and just see bush. Bush is just trees and plants and most of them are scratchy and not really appreciating what they’ve got. A lot of my generation when we were kids we explored it and there’ll be another level of appreciation for it. But people like my Mum and Dad moving out there it was just a pain. They tried to clear it and shape it and they groomed for lawns and all the rest of it. They loved the space and they loved the view but they don’t want to interact with it too closely. I want to change people’s perspectives on that. I want people to see it as just the best garden you could ever have. It really is such a beautiful environment to have in your backyard. I do see though its still going backwards. I would say that the legislation is there to protect but the enforcement of the legislation does not exist in any shape or form. I can see people anywhere along our street, there are only thirteen houses, who would break it three or four times a year. So there’s certainly no enforcement of that. The Council would need to have someone actually going out and checking. Maybe there’s some new ways you could use GPS, Google Maps things like that hopefully some technology might help to change theses things.

The other one is bushfires. Now there is new legislation saying with regards to bushfires that people have a right to clear around their house. I think it’s up to seventy metres. Now that’s great but that’s also devastating for the bushland. What do we want to do here? Do we want to clear all the forests away which would lead to massive erosion which has already filled up the Hawkesbury River? You used to get whales up at Windsor. All the way up there. You can hardly get a boat up there these days. So do we want to have those sorts of impacts to protect ourselves from fire or are there smarter ways to do it. Surely with our technology we can develop houses that are fireproof to an extent. So I think that’s going to be a big issue. With more and more people coming out there in the future that’s going to be a big issue. I hate to see a NSW Government without enough money. When they don’t have enough money it’s time to subdivide areas like this up. If that happens and then you get the rights to clear around you house. If you look from aerial photos we will lose huge amounts of the bushland that we’ve got in that area. Eventually it’s going to be death by a thousand cuts if we don’t turn it around. The way I see it we need to be turning our attention to moving forwards in a different direction. Not moving backwards but moving forwards in a different direction. Humans have a great ability to just keep going in one direction thinking “this is great we’ll do this and this and this”. If we could have a sense of appreciation and value on the bushland and the natural flora and fauna of the region around us and want more and more of that and be proud of it and say “look what we’ve got”. I think it would improve in a hurry. But it’s all in the mental shift that needs to take place in our society.

Bushfire volunteers carrying out management burn 2006

You’ve told me of the many positives about living in the Shire what are some of the negatives that you can identify?

Isolation, it’s very normal for you to live out in the Shire and never get to meet your neighbours. Isolation is a big one as opposed to living in a city or a country town where you just interact with so many more people on a daily basis. Cultural aspects may be improving, but cultural depths to the Hills Shire, there isn’t much going on there. 
That will take time to develop that’s something we need more history for. There’s certainly something lacking there. There are attempts. We’ve got our little Orange Blossom Festivals. I think one of the main issues is as so many suburbs of big cities today. People don’t interact they have a house they get in their car and drive to work somewhere else in the city and they come back home again. The pressures of modern day working life they really don’t care to interact much more. They don’t have much more time or energy. These are greater social issues that people need to look at.

Is the distance from the Sydney CBD and the lack of a railway to it is that a factor do you think?

Yes, oh it would be great to have a railway, it would be wonderful. I was just thinking the other day wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a light railway all the way up Old Northern Road. You’d get tourists out there to Wisemans Ferry one of the most beautiful spots in the region. It was always a long way into the city. When I was younger I don’t think I went into the Sydney city more than a dozen times until I was eighteen. Probably less than ten in all that time people ask you here you live “I live in Sydney” well not really, not at all. We really did just live in the Hills that was our area. Going to Parramatta I remember seemed like a big drive. That’s changing a bit now and we’ve got roads like M2 and people can zip in and out a lot more. It’s certainly a big distance to get into the city and always will be.

Aerial view of M2 motorway from Winston Hills looking towards Baulkham Hills 2001

I haven’t got any further questions made up but is there something else you want to add to this? Some other point you might want to make? About you, your filming or the world in general?

No I’d ask people to think about the area where they live and look at what it offers to them. Have a look at the world around and really appreciate what we have in The Hills. It’s one of the most amazing places, especially to have a family, ever grow up. What’s so amazing about that? To ask yourself that question. I’ve travelled a lot and I know what the answer is for myself. I would definitely say that it’s not just environment. The environment’s got a huge part to play in that but it’s the fact that there is a bit of isolation. The people are friendly and the neighbourhoods were friendly. To care for those main aspects if people can care for those and protect those they’re protecting the future of their children and anyone else who comes to the area to have a family. I think that’s just imperative. I see more and more money being driven in there in a sense that development… I sometimes think it’s not the Garden Shire, it’s the development shire. Some of things they’ve done are great. But we’ve got ads and signs and things all over the place. It was really a beautiful, beautiful area and I’d like people to push and fight to keep it a beautiful area. Not just for ourselves but for the nature that was always there in the past and still fights to hold on there.