Born 12 May 1937 in London, Alan Root moved to Kenya with his family as a child. Choosing to leave school at the age of 16, he tried his hand at trapping, guiding, and flying aircraft, and picked up a Bolex 16mm camera. In approximately 1956, he began working for the father and son team of Bernard and Michael Grzimek, who were making films under the auspices of the Frankfurt Zoological Society. Tragically, Michael Grzimek's zebra-striped plane crashed into the slopes of Ngorogoro, killing him and leaving his father distraught and unable to finish the film on which they'd been working. Root was asked by Professor Jumak (sp?) to finish the 35mm effort, which he did, and was distributed under the title The Serengeti Shall Not Die (1958).
An exceptional maker of wildlife films, Root never attended film school and considers himself a self-taught naturalist. His films were co-produced by wife Joan Root, and were originally made as television series, for organizations such as Anglia televison, the BBC, and National Geographic. In the mid-1970s, he brought the first hot-air balloon to Africa for filming purposes, recognizing that airplanes were too fast to film animals adequately, while the noise of the slower helicopters frightened them away. The resulting film, Balloon Safari, is a visually-stunning and amusing film which chronicles the arrival of the balloons, as well as the tribulations of learning to fly them. Rootís films have all the characteristics of great nature documentary film: an understated --- or non-existent --- music track, insightful narration, and spectacular footage. Occasionally, he will use tame animals as actors, anathema to purists, but quite effective in allowing him to film often spectacular close-ups illustrating animal behavior.
Root's filming is often made under dangerous conditions. He had a hole ripped in his leg during an underwater hippo attack, was bitten by a leopard and a gorilla, and has suffered bouts of malaria and river blindness. In a letter he wrote to us on August 21, 2002, he describes the loss of a finger:
As an ongoing project, Root has been working on a bio-diversity project in Zaire, and also has turned his passion for balloons into a commercial enterprise, providing rides for tourists near his home in Lake Naivasha.
We are attempting to complete Root's filmography. He has served as cameraman and/or producer on the following films:
The Serengeti Shall Not Die (1958), directed by Bernhard Grzimek, camera by Alan Root, described above.
Survival: A Tear for Karamoja (1961), co-producer, camera.
Survival: S.S.S. Rhino (1961), camera, co-producer.
Voyage to The Enchanted Isles (1967), camera. Alan and Joan Root are shown in the Galapagos Islands.
Kill by Kindness (1967), camera, co-producer.
Box Me a Bongo (1971), producer, camera.
Man of Serengeti (1972), camera. National Geographic Special, directed by Robert M. Young.
Baobab: Portrait of a Tree (1973), producer, camera. An engaging film about the amazing baobab tree of Africa, an ecosystem unto itself. This film is a fascinating look at the birds, insects, and other flora and fauna that live off this singularly robust giant of the bushveld.
The Big Cats (1974), camera. National Geographic Special, directed by Paul Boorstin and Jeri Sopanen.
Balloon Safari (1976), producer, camera.
Mysterious Castles of Clay (1978), producer, camera. This is Root's own personal favorite. Halfway through the film, after the termites have painstakingly build a huge mud anthill (these are in Africa, and often are taller than you or I), an aardvark comes and eats the whole damn thing. The termites themselves are fascinating creatures, and Root masterfully films them as they go about building the nest, protecting the queen, raising their young, and foraging for food.
Lights, Action, Africa (1980), producer, camera. Alan and Joan Root discuss different techniques in filming dangerous or challenging aspects of wildlife, encountered during the making of their films "Mzima: Portrait of a Spring", "Mysterious Castles of Clay", "Year of the Wildebeest", and "Baobab: Portrait of a Tree". Perhaps the most shocking sequence is the filming of the deadly spitting cobra, which aims its venom at the eyes of its prey with deadly accuracy. As Alan films, Joan is the target (if she's too far away, the snake loses interest, if she's too close, she gets bitten), and gets nailed repeatedly on her spectacles. No matter, she wipes them off, and goes back for more...
Mzima: Portrait of a Spring (1983), producer, camera. The ecosystem of a body of water in Tsavo, where Root takes the camera to the underwater world of the hippo.
Sky Above, The (1984), camera. 'The Living Planet' series, produced by Adrian Warren.
Year of the Wildebeest, The (1984). One million wildebeest travel 2,000 miles through Tanzania, accompanied by predators, and bush fires, births and flash floods.
Kopjes: Islands in a Sea of Grass (1985), producer, camera. Out in the Serengeti, large granite boulder formations loom like fortresses over the plain, housing a large and interesting collection of animals in an interdependent chain of survival. The stupefying shots of black eagles hunting the hyrax are juxtaposed with what seems to be impossibly difficult footage of porcupine passing by the camera through a narrow cave opening. Along the way, lion, leopard, caracal, and klipspringer claim a portion of the terrain as their own, and even the presence of man is felt, in the age-old rock-gongs (which Root suggests are among the oldest of musical instruments) and rock paintings. There is no music until 50 or so minutes into the film, and then it consists of Marc Wilkinsonís neat treatment of a variation on a rock-gong. Narrator David Robb is erudite, but almost reverentially quiet, leaving Root to explore this hidden world seemingly on his own, while we track silently in his footsteps...
Gorillas in the Mist: the Story of Diane Fossey (feature film, 1988), special gorilla photographer: Zaire.
Legend of the Lightning Bird (1989), producer, camera. The life-cycles of three birds are followed: the hammerkop and Egyptian storks, and the kestrel (small falcon).
Season in the Sun (1989), producer, camera. Juxtaposes the impact of wet and dry seasons on some of Africa's eco-systems.
Heart of Brightness (1990), producer, camera. A Survival Anglia film that was probably never distributed in the U.S. Focuses on Bambuti pygmies of the Congo's Ituri Forest, and on the work of biologists John and Terese Hart.
Virunga: Rivers of Fire and Ice (1995), producer, camera.
Built for the Kill: Grassland (2001), camera.