Alan Root, oft-bitten wildlife film-maker, dies at 80

Alan Root, 80, died on Saturday (Aug 26) in Kenya, where he lived on the edge of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy near Mount Kenya.
Alan Root, 80, died on Saturday (Aug 26) in Kenya, where he lived on the edge of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy near Mount Kenya. PHOTO: ST FILE

(NYTimes) - Alan Root, an innovative wildlife film-maker with a daredevil streak and the scarred body to prove it, died on Saturday in Kenya, where he lived on the edge of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy near Mount Kenya. He was 80.

Delta Willis, a friend who was the publicist for some of Root's films in the 1970s, said he and his family had returned from a trip to Alaska only days before his death. She did not specify the cause.

Root, whose film-making concentrated on the natural wonders of Africa, was known for inventive shots that captured both the grandeur of gigantic herds and up-close images of animals and their behaviour. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, camera equipment had not yet shrunk to its current size, yet Root, working for much of that time with his first wife, Joan Root, found ways to get the kind of shots that make viewers ask, "How did they photograph that?"

The Roots, whose clients included the British nature program Survival, hid a camera inside a tortoise shell to photograph stampeding wildebeests. They went aloft in hot-air balloons to shoot vast migrations, and underwater to film hippopotamuses. They captured close-ups of termites and of nesting birds inside a tree trunk.

And through it all, various animals - a hippo, a gorilla, a snake, a leopard and more - took chunks out of Root or otherwise injured him. A bite from a puff adder in 1968 cost him a finger. He was hurt so often that friends learned not to be surprised at the condition they might find him in after not having seen him for a while.

"He'd just flown for five hours after injuring himself in a motorbike accident in the forest in Zaire," the film-maker Mark Deeble, a friend for whom Root was a mentor, said of one such reunion, "and his lip was in tatters after a 'tame' marsh mongoose had fastened on and decided it was edible."

Root was born on May 12, 1937, in London, where his father managed a fish-paste factory until after World War II, when a new job took him and the family to Kenya. While still a boy, Root started filming animals, mostly snakes, using an eight-millimetre camera.

His earliest professional jobs included working on the 1959 documentary Serengeti Shall Not Die, which was being made by the father-son team of Bernhard and Michael Grzimek. When Michael Grzimek was killed in a plane crash before the film was finished, Root took it upon himself to complete the movie, which went on to win an Oscar.

In 1961 he married Joan Thorpe, the daughter of a British coffee farmer in Nairobi, and the two collaborated on documentaries that helped bring the natural world to television viewers in England and the United States in vivid fashion.

Baobab: Portrait Of A Tree (1973) examined the birds, insects and other animals that live in a particular type of tree found in Africa. The Year Of The Wildebeest (1975) tracked the migration of the great herds in the central African plains. Mysterious Castles Of Clay (1978), about giant termite mounds, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and received a Peabody Award.

The Roots are said to have shown the American zoologist Dian Fossey, of Gorillas In The Mist fame, her first mountain gorillas. Years later Root filmed a sequence for that 1988 movie, in which Sigourney Weaver played Fossey.

The Roots turned their home on Lake Naivasha in Kenya into a sort of sanctuary, harbouring all sorts of animals. The writer George Plimpton was a frequent visitor.

"On one occasion," he wrote in a 1999 article for The New Yorker titled The Man Who Was Eaten Alive, a reference to Root's run-ins with wildlife, "what I thought was a water bed on the far side of the living room got up, walked out the door, across the grass, and into the lake - a pet hippo named Sally."

Joan Root stayed at Naivasha after the couple divorced in 1990 and became an advocate for conservation practices on the lake, battling illegal fishing. In 2006 she was murdered by gunmen on her property.

Root married Jennie Hammond in 1991; she died in 2000. He is survived by his wife, Fran Michelmore, and their sons, Myles and Rory.

Root told his story in an autobiography, Ivory, Apes And Peacocks: Animals, Adventure And Discovery In The Wild Places Of Africa, published in 2012. At his death he was an executive producer of a film that Deeble and his wife, Victoria Stone, are making about an elephant family.

Wildlife film-makers praised Root for having the patience necessary to achieve striking shots.

"If he wanted his audience to experience the termites' point of view of what it was like for the colony to be raided by an aardvark, that meant Joan putting years into raising an orphaned aardvark to accomplish it," Deeble wrote in a blog entry on the occasion of Root's death.

He was also admired for telling the story of an entire ecosystem, not simply serving up a bunch of pretty scenes. And he helped lead wildlife film-making away from a reliance on human interaction, letting the animals be the stars.

For Root, the adventurous spirit that made him a great wildlife film-maker came with a certain nonchalance. Mark Seal, who wrote a Vanity Fair article and then a book (Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life And Untimely Death In Africa) about Joan Root's murder, recalled arranging to talk with Root, whom he had met only briefly, at a friend's home.

"I expected Alan to come walking through his friend's house," Seal wrote in an email. "Instead, I heard a roar, and he descended into the yard in his helicopter, picked me up and flew me over the wildlife-infested plains of his beloved Kenya. 'I've crashed two of these,' he advised me mid-flight." Seal added, "Will never forget him holding the copter throttle with that hand missing the finger that the puff adder had taken."