Science - March 1, 2015

Fascinated by the beauty of nature

Alexandra Branderhorst

Nature photographer and filmmaker Ruben Smit achieved national fame with his film De Nieuwe Wildernis. He is a Wageningen alumnus and wants to see filmmakers and Wageningen scientists collaborating on new nature films.

The biggest achievement of De Nieuwe Wildernis is to get people appreciating nature again in a time when it has been put out with the garbage,’ says Ruben Smit, who did the filming for the 2013 prizewinning nature film about the Oostvaardersplassen. The film attracted 700,000 viewers and the associated educational project reached 300,000 primary school students.

What was it like, making De Nieuwe Wildernis?

‘I only start to feel proud of it now, when I look back. At first the main thing I felt was tired. The film was quite an ordeal, physically, in my private life and financially. We were already talking about it on [TV talkshow] Pauw & Witteman two years before it came out. The Netherlands has no tradition in this area and expectations were sky-high. I felt all the responsibility resting on my shoulders, and there were big commercial interests at stake too. With my own production company I want to make beautiful films with real substance, not just to make money.’

And do you want to collaborate more with Wageningen University?

The BBC has a separate department in Bristol, where academics and filmmakers collaborate on nature documentaries. In imitation of that, I have set up the Natural History Unit NL (NHU Netherlands). I am talking with Wageningen University about locating the NHU on the campus. I want to create a breeding ground where students can learn about visual communication, a newly emerging discipline. And I want to make nature films that are based on scientific knowledge from the university.’

Do you still work as a cameraman yourself?

‘My role is increasingly changing from that of filmmaker to that of director and producer. It is nice to think up multiple productions and be responsible for the content. The filming itself is always hard work, and lots of lugging heavy equipment around. We recently took aerial shots using a drone on the Razende Bol sandbank on Texel. The tide came in faster than expected and we had to sprint to the boat. In the end I was up to my shoulders in the water, holding the camera above my head. That was a bit too exciting. I love the results but the making of the film is like a military exercise.’

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Ruben Smit’s career - Between 1990 and 1996, Ruben Smit studied forestry at Wageningen, and in 2000 he got his PhD for a study of the effects on vegetation of grazing by deer. Alongside his work as an associate professor, Smit published photos and columns in magazines such as Roots and National Geographic. His photo of mating toads won the annual BBC wildlife photography competition in 2005. At that point Smit became a fulltime nature photographer and started to make films as well, including for TV Gelderland’s programme BuitenGewoon and Vara’s Vroege Vogels. De Nieuwe Wildernis, the documentary he directed, came out in 2013. Smit now has his own production company. A TV series, De Levende Rivier [The Living River] comes out at the end of this year, and he is also now working on a film about the Waddenzee. See and

Where did your fascination with nature come from?

‘When I was 12 or 13 I liked to be alone and wander around in the Amsterdam Waterleiding dunes near Heemstede, where I grew up. When I was thirteen I was the youngest ever participant in a count of breeding birds for a national study of the effects of grazing by cattle. I have always been incredibly inquisitive. And then I am very visually oriented. I once saw a couple of falcons feeding their young dragonflies. So, at 14, I sold my model railway, got myself a paper round and bought my first single-lens reflex camera for 300 guilders. Later, as a teacher, I used my own photos in lectures.’

And yet a university career was not what you were aiming at, in the end?

‘I taught at Wageningen for about 6 years. Gradually I realized I was beginning to lose the fascination with nature with which it all began. Researchers dig deeper and deeper, but lose sight of the bigger picture. Whereas that holistic perspective is exactly what I cherish. Besides, I couldn’t express my artistic side. Aesthetics is part of what drives researchers as well. A strange distinction is drawn between art and science. But if you don’t have that fascination with beauty, you cannot immerse yourself in the subject matter.’

You have become known for your own style. What characterizes your style?

‘The use of light, sharp and soft focus and atmosphere. First of all, the composition and the light have to be right. Then it has to have a story to tell. What is that animal doing, exactly, and why? When I see animals, it doesn’t take me long to see the story. That is because of my Wageningen background and knowledge. At the moment I am shooting footage in the Wadden Sea. In a colony of seals I spotted a young seal that had just been abandoned by its mothers. Seals have to fend for themselves after only three weeks. I wanted to film that in a way that made you feel the abandoned seal’s despair from the look in its eyes. I look for the soul of an animal, by looking very carefully and putting myself in the animal’s position.’

Aren’t you anthropomorphizing animals’ emotions?

‘This is no Disney story. I always look for a scientific basis for the story I am filming. That young seal really is feeling very sad at that moment; behavioural scientists confirm that.’

Do you still sometimes go out with a camera?

‘No, I am definitely in a different phase. At the moment I only think in terms of big projects. I can’t make just one nice picture anymore. But it would be a nice goal to do that again at some point. Sometimes I think about doing something completely different, like writing children’s books. About nature of course.’

Photo: Melchert Meijer zu Schlochtern

Ruben Smit speaks at dies natalis

On 9 March Wageningen University will celebrate its 97th Dies Natalis (Founders Day). This year’s theme is nature and biodiversity, and the connection with food security and sustainable use of natural resources. Keynote speaker Ruben Smit will talk about ‘fascinating nature’ and several young researchers will describe their work. The Dies Natalis will be held in the Junushof theatre on Monday 9 March. Register at: