Alan Root, wildlife filmmaker, dies at 80

Alan and Joan Root

Wildlife filmmaker, Alan Root, died on Saturday 26 August 2017 in Kenya, where he lived on the edge of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy near Mount Kenya. He was 80.

Alan Root (1937-2017) was born on 12 May, in London. The family moved to Kenya where his father had employment. Alan began filming animals, mostly snakes, using an eight-millimetre camera.

His earliest professional job was working on the Bernhard and Michael Grzimek 1959 documentary “Serengeti Shall Not Die.” When Michael Grzimek was killed in a plane crash before the film was finished, Alan completed the movie, which received an Oscar.

In 1961 he married Joan Thorpe, the daughter of a British coffee farmer in Nairobi, and the two collaborated on wildlife documentaries.

“Baobab: Portrait of a Tree” (1973) examined the birds, insects and other animals that lived in the baobab tree of Africa. In ‘’The Year of the Wildebeest’’ (1975) he filmed the migration of the wildebeest from Tanzania to Kenya. ‘’Mysterious Castles of Clay’’ (1978) was about giant termite mounds.

The Roots are said to have shown the American zoologist Dian Fossey of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame, her first mountain gorillas. Years later Alan filmed a sequence for the 1988 movie, in which Sigourney Weaver played Fossey. Alan and Joan Root lived at Lake Naivasha in Kenya. The writer George Plimpton was a frequent visitor.

Alan’s filmmaking was known for inventive shots that captured both the gigantic herds migrating and up-close images of insects. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, camera equipment was cumbersome and heavy, so he invented ways to take shots of various animals.

For the British nature program “Survival” Alan and joan hid a camera inside a tortoise shell to photograph stampeding wildebeests. They went in hot-air balloons to shoot migrations, and they went underwater to film hippopotamuses. They captured close-ups of termites and of nesting birds inside a tree trunk.

A bite from a puff adder in 1968 cost Alan a finger and his lip was shredded after a marsh mongoose tried to eat it.

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

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

Alan wrote his autobiography “Ivory, Apes and Peacocks: Animals, Adventure and Discovery in the Wild Places of Africa” published in 2012.

Wildlife filmmakers praised Mr. Root for having the patience necessary to achieve striking shots. Mark Deeble wrote of Alan, “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.”

Alan Root was also admired for telling the story of an entire ecosystem, not simply trying to get a sensational shot. He also helped lead wildlife filmmaking away from a reliance on human interaction, letting the animals be the stars.


Alan Root



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