Keith Partridge is an International Emmy award-winning cinematographer known for his work in extreme environments, including the BBC's iconic Human Planet series, where he filmed the 'Eagle Hunters' of Western Mongolia, inside an active volcano in Indonesia, and in Greenland in winter. In a career spanning over 30 years he has witnessed and pushed the limits of adventure filmmaking across 70 films that have taken him to some of the most remote places on Earth.

Keith is the recipient of the Guild of Television Camera Professionals Award for Excellence, the Explorers Festival Camera Extreme award and was the International Alliance for Mountain Film Grand Prize winner in 2019.

You left your job with the BBC to pursue a career as an adventure filmmaker. What drove you to do that?

I joined the BBC straight from school as a 'technical operator' – a kind of jack of all trades, and mastered in two areas: location camerawork and sound. Work was a heap of fun but my weekend warrior life as a climber and mountaineer, coupled with reading books by mountain filmmakers Jim Curran and Leo Dickinson, made me wonder if there was a path where I could combine my fledgling career in television with what had become an all-consuming passion. After six years at the BBC I resigned and sold my house and car. With no financial burdens, and essentially no full-time employment, I was free to see if my pipe-dream could become a reality. It was like falling off a metaphoric cliff.

With no financial burdens, and essentially no full-time employment, I was free to see if my pipe-dream could become a reality. It was like falling off a metaphoric cliff.

Did your new career choice require special training?

My first expedition, ski-mountaineering on the Vatnajokull Icecap in a wintery southest Iceland, led to offers to work on a BBC series called 'The Climbers' in 1990, then four years later to work on the series 'The Edge – 100 years of Scottish Mountaineering’. This proved to be a pivotal series, with producer Richard Else picking up a BAFTA, and it really got the ball rolling for me.

Training? Well, it was a baptism by fire with a team much more experienced than myself. The learning curve was sky-rocket, but when you’re surrounded by some of the best mountaineers, climbers and guides in the business their experience flowed to douse the flames.

Filming in the jaws of an Alaskan moulin where a relaxed posture belies the real threat from the environment. (Expedition Alaska - Discovery Channel)

You've found yourself in a variety of situations, whether it’s climbing a mountain or a steep rock-face, skiing remote areas of the Arctic, or off in a jungle somewhere. What’s your favourite setting to film in?

Over the years I’ve travelled on something like 70 filming expeditions to all seven continents. Every environment brings a set of demands and challenges; cold, hot, humid, rock-fall, rope-work and safety, but they also bring immense beauty in the landscapes, the people and the wildlife.

There’s always a take away, be it watching the power of a calving glacier or a breaching whale, studying how the locals have learned to live within some of these hostile environments or learning how to camp in comfort while hanging from some immense cliff. You couldn't avoid being into all the locations in which I’ve found myself, after all we live in a world full of surprise and wonder. Having said that, I cut my expedition teeth in cold places. Maybe I feel more at home there than anywhere?

What are some of the biggest challenges when filming in extreme environments?

I think the biggest challenge is being organized and streamlined. Being able to have the correct – minimal amount – of both personal gear and camera equipment is vital. The times when you can afford to take the kitchen sink along are minimal, and it’s easy to think, "Oh, I’ll just take those things as well," in which case you end up so heavy you can’t move. Of course, the flip side can also happen, when you end up with not enough kit to capture what you want or to get the camera to where it needs to go. Changes in conditions and humidity are always the killer in terms of camera equipment, especially the move from cold to hot – it's the instant fog-fest that renders it impossible to shoot.

A head for heights is essential while climbing beside the Angel Falls, Venezuela. The river is over 900m (3,000 ft.) below. (One Strange Rock - National Geographic)

Do you require special camera gear when shooting in extreme hot, cold or humid conditions?

In the bad-old days of tape-based cameras, continuing to shoot when conditions were tough meant choosing the most robust of cameras – if that was indeed possible, since some productions demanded the use of a particular camera system, in which case the decision was already made or out of the cameraman’s hands. Film cameras were pretty bullet proof, but not entirely immune to issues in the field. Now we're pretty much shooting with solid-state media and we seem to be able to work in hot, cold or humid conditions with very little concern. What a relief!

Has there been any place that has pushed your limits physically and mentally? What did you do to overcome that?

There have been two really big moments that I’ve had to push really hard to get through. One was in the Mageni cave system deep the Nakanai mountains of New Britain, Papua New Guinea. The whole expedition was grueling with extremely difficult conditions above ground with the constant hammering rain, but underground it was tantamount to technology suicide. Dragging the cameras up and down waterfalls and through cave passages full of white water made the whole escapade feel like a war of attrition where, despite the overwhelming draw of new discovery, there was a dangerous edge over which it would have been all too easy to step.

The whole expedition was grueling with extremely difficult conditions above ground with the constant hammering rain, but underground it was tantamount to technology suicide.

Then there was the ascent and – more importantly – the descent of Mt. Everest. While not technically difficult you do become acutely aware of the vastness of the mountain and the fact that it will take no prisoners. Both projects placed demands that drew on every bit of experience, not just from a filming point of view but also in terms of endurance. Returning from the highest point on the planet I found myself searching eagerly for that extra 10% within, and when that was depleted had to find another, then another until I reached Base Camp. From that you realize that everything you do has a point, a relevance, providing energy to deal with the situations.

Partridge embarks on a two-day descent of the world’s highest waterfall, rappelling on gossamer thin ropes. (Extreme Mountain Challenge - BBC)

Is there a film of which you’re particularly proud?

Many. But I guess Touching the Void, because no one involved really expected it to take off the way it did. It was obviously an incredible story, brilliantly told, but the stunned effect on audiences is something that will stay with me as I watched the film in cinemas. For the film to then go on to win the BAFTA Best British Film Award really placed the stamp of approval on our work

How do films such as Touching the Void, where scenes are recreated, differ from those where events are filmed as they unfold, and which do you prefer?

Both styles of films are equally enjoyable to shoot and both bring their own challenges. Even recreating scenes of previous mountain adventures (or misadventures) can bring their own very seat-of-the-pants filming moments. Shooting as a fly on the wall requires a very different mindset – no retakes.

Complex rope management and challenging shooting on The Sphinx in Peru, an 850m (2,800 ft.) granite monolith. (Mountains - BBC)

For projects that involve filming in extreme circumstances – such as The Beckoning Silence, which included filming on the North Face of the Eiger – how much planning goes into logistics like equipment and safety?

Just one day on The Beckoning Silence, when we were splitting into effectively three teams, the level and detail of planning was extraordinary. I was going to access the North Face of the Eiger by long-line by helicopter alongside some of the safety team and Joe Simpson to film on the Hinterstoisser Traverse, the first icefield where the 1936 team headed with their return across the traverse barred by heavy verglas. Jeremy Hewson was to film from the Stollenjoch window and we had another camera down in Kleine Scheidegg with a huge zoom lens for the 'dots on the wall' shots.

Our team, playing the 1936 team, climbed up from Jeremy’s position through the Difficult Crack and to the start of the Traverse. I spent most of the day filming with Joe and then we were plucked off by chopper to leave the way clear for our tweed-clad characters in the sights of the camera nestled amongst the hotels below. With very complex people movement on terrain that commands huge respect there could be nothing left to chance. Coming out of the production planning meeting the evening before, it felt like I’d just done some heavy physics exam.

In your Book, ‘The Adventure Game’, you take people behind the scenes of your profession. What prompted you to write it?

I’d had to have some pretty serious surgery on my right ankle after the failure of a previous partial ankle fusion. Out of action, it was suggested by a friend that I put on a show to keep me from going bored so I booked a theatre in Edinburgh to give a one night only presentation of the stories behind the stories. The week before the event I had to go through to discuss the projection and sound, hopped onto a train, leg in plaster and slumped into a seat next to a man who’s opening line was, "Football, was it?" We got chatting and he asked if I’d written anything. That man turned out to be Bob Davidson from the Sandstone Press, a publishers based I Scotland. I invited him along to the show and the next day he phoned declaring that we were going to do a book and 'No' wasn’t going to cut it. So the book came about from a chance meeting and a chat on a train.

In his book, The Adventure Game, Partridge takes readers behind the scenes of extreme filmmaking.

Can you talk about the current film landscape?

It’s no surprise that the landscape of film is changing, but then it always has. The full democratization of filmmaking is here, with cameras that are more than capable of great results. We are blessed with an ever more sophisticated arsenal of toys that can truly deliver spectacular results on the screen and accessible, sophisticated editing software to allow stories to be told in an increasingly creative way.

But we still need compelling stories and people to tell them, both in front of, and behind, the lens. What’s more, as filmmakers, we need to be ever more skillful. Aspirations are high, versatility in the way we work is vital and the demands on us as creatives continue to rise, so we need to harness the plethora of technology in a way that does not hinder the very thing we are trying to create.

The full democratization of filmmaking is here, with cameras that are more than capable of great results.

One thing is sure, the good stuff will always rise above the noisy crowd of the exciting world of the moving image. With stills cameras offering superb video capabilities, together with a raft of dedicated cine cameras, the move into the moving image can be a minefield. But, once mastered, an all-new vista will open across a panorama of possibilities.

The sheer power of the planet. Partridge descends the mighty Kaieteur Falls in Guyana.
(Serious Explorers - BBC)

What advice would you give to an aspiring adventure filmmaker who wants to follow their dream, but also wants make a living while doing it?

I think that following dreams, or let’s put it another way, to have total passion about a subject or an area of work does several things. Passion ensures commitment, energy, enthusiasm and an eagerness to explore yourself and the things around you. Without those attributes the willingness to take on the challenge of the location and the difficulty of filming would not be there.

The other critical thing is to never take your eye off the ball, and realize that an opening door is an opportunity to go in a direction that you may never have envisaged. Always grasp these opportunities with great gusto. This should always be tempered by the real understanding of your personal skills base and limits. Stretching yourself always forces you to be on the top of your game and focused on bringing back what you set out to achieve. Stretch too far and there lies a world that is detrimental to everything.

Making a living at filmmaking is entirely possible. Just be prepared for the long game and for a few knocks along the way. But it is the most fun I can imagine and gets you into all sorts of trouble of the good kind.

Follow Keith Partridge on Instagram to see more of his adventures around the world.