Alan Root, a wildlife filmmaker who splashed through crocodile-infested rivers, piloted hot-air balloons over stampeding wildebeests, and lost a “Coke bottle”-size chunk of his calf to an angry hippopotamus, all while producing nearly two dozen acclaimed nature documentaries, died from brain cancer on 26 August.
He had just returned from a safari in Alaska when he was hospitalised near his home in central Kenya, just outside the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. He was 80.
Root, an Englishman, spent nearly all his life in Kenya, where he and his first wife Joan acquired a reputation as two of Africa’s finest – and most scar-ridden – documentarians.
“The Man Who Was Eaten Alive,” as a New Yorker profile by George Plimpton once described him, was working on a watering-hole scene when he was mauled by a hippo. He nearly died after going into anaphylactic shock following a bite from a puff adder, but lost only the index finger of his right hand, forcing him to reconfigure the hand controls of his helicopter – an aircraft that he began flying in his sixties and crashed at least twice.
A leopard once bit into his bottom, and a mountain gorilla – what Root described as “a Doberman on steroids” – ripped into his thigh while he was helping to shoot a scene for Gorillas in the Mist, the 1988 film about Dian Fossey, to whom Root reportedly introduced gorillas decades earlier.
He was considered one of the first filmmakers to capture animals in their natural habitat without human interference, and was credited with paving the way for migration movies such as March of the Penguins. He received two Emmy Awards and was given an OBE in 2008.
While he wrote, filmed and produced most of his documentaries – including television specials for National Geographic, the BBC and ITV’s Survival series – Joan Root often played a central role behind the scenes, allowing a cobra to spit on her sunglass-clad face for one shot, and piloting a balloon over the 19,000-foot peak of Mount Kilimanjaro for another.
“In a world where natural history films have become increasingly formulaic, made by big teams with big budgets, backed by an army of researchers, scientific advisers, and camera-people, Alan was the original auteur,” the filmmaker Mark Deeble, a protégé of Root, wrote in a tribute.
The Roots, he continued, “combined natural history integrity with irreverence [and] conveyed a knowledge of natural history and wildlife behaviour that…