British documentary filmmaker and wildlife TV presenter Patrick Aryee is a self-confessed thrill seeker whose thirst for knowledge has taken him all over the world. Most recently excited by the way evolution can inspire technological advancements, he led the documentary series EVOVLE as it explored the ways in which species have adapted to survive in their specific niches.
We caught up with Aryee to find out what it takes to make it in the competitive world of wildlife presenting, and how an understanding of the connection between chickens and cancer helped him along the way.
What do you do?
I am a wildlife TV host and documentary filmmaker.
What did it take to get here?
Pure and utter self-belief. When you strive to do something different or seemingly unattainable very few people, if any, will back you. It’s up to you to take that first big leap of faith. It’s only once the success starts to manifest itself that the plaudits of your achievements begin to roll in. Even at that stage though I think it’s important not to be blinded or motivated by the accolades themselves as it’s all temporary and based on other people’s opinions, which can change on a daily basis. Stay grounded in your own self-belief, and in your VISION; it will take you to the Moon and beyond.
For anyone wanting to get into a similar industry or career path, things are WAY different to when I started. Experience in TV was virtually your only way in. Today however, we have all sorts of platforms with incredible reach, from TikTok, to Instagram, and even LinkedIn. We’re so fortunate to live in a time where we each have a global communication device with a 4K stabilised camera built into them, in the palm of our hands. The power for any one individual to inspire is almost unfathomable.
The key lies in creating something you’d be doing anyway, be it gaming, building model trainsets, making music, or cheffing up blueberry jam! As long as it’s entertaining and/or educational you’re already winning. Use video, stills imagery, and audio content to serve and build a community. Content built around a community is where your window to success lies.
What about education or hobbies?
Academically I’ve always been drawn to the sciences. I’ve a degree in Cancer Biology and a master’s in Science Communication. Performing on stage, in plays and musical theatre shows however, has always been a passion of mine. In fact, it was the desire to combine my love of performing along with my interest in science that led to where I am today.
As far as hobbies go, I’ve got a few that are a bit out there, quite literally, from mountain biking to gaming, DJing, and even jumping out of planes! Yes, you read that last part correctly. Having recently learnt how to skydive, I can confirm that the feeling is simply out of this world. I absolutely love it. That moment of living on the edge and pushing past your fears in order to experience something so magical: flying through the sky.
It’s an incredible sport, not without its risks of course, but much in the same way getting close to wild animals is equally — if at times not more — dangerous. It’s a calculated risk. One that makes you cherish your very existence.
How did you come to work on EVOLVE?
Biomimicry has always been a subject that I thought would be a fascinating topic to delve into. In my eyes, it stands as the perfect union between science and wildlife, two related fields which may come as a surprise to your readers, are often produced by entirely different teams.
My first real opportunity to explore this further came about when I was offered the chance to do my very own TedX Talk hosted in the awesome city of Bristol. I called it "How the Chicken Cured Cancer" and it’s still up on YouTube for anyone that wants to check it out.
I talked about desert-dwelling beetles with the power to harvest water out of thin air, and how the purr of a cheetah could help us learn how to regenerate and fix broken bones even faster. I remember being so nervous at the time, but deep down I loved sharing all those unexpected stories. The audience were gripped from start to finish, and that’s when I knew I was onto something.
It was five years later, after being somewhat inspired by that Ted Talk, that the producers of Beach House Pictures reached out with a pitch for a show around the same subject area. I just checked through my emails, and my exact response was “WOW-BLOODY-WEE it looks AMAZING”.
I’m laughing to myself at reading that now, but it felt like the project was made for me. Considering the challenges of filming during a pandemic, I think we did it justice. There are still so many incredible stories out there, though, so perhaps there's reason for us to head out again for a second season.
Favourite moment from the series?
When it comes to favourite moments from the series a few come to mind. Meeting tardigrades just a few days before they were blasted on board a Falcon 9 rocket to their new home onboard the International Space Station, for one. Then there’s having the fastest animal on land, a cheetah, walking up to me and lick my hands. Plus, the frantic underwater moment we caught a colour-changing shape-shifting octopus. Just brilliant!
Having the chance to look at the internal structure of an active termite mound though was a real fun one, mainly because I’d never seen anything like it before. It was so intricate. After carefully removing a portion of the tower with the help of our expert Prof. Eugene Marais, the result was something that looked like the inner workings of a spaceship after a crash landing, so alien, yet so familiar.
The best way to describe it is like the alveoli of our lungs. Smooth, cavernous, and organic. Putting my hand deep inside the space I could feel just how cool it was. The mechanism by which these mounds harness the power of the wind to create pressure differentials, that in turn cycle fresh air through the entire chamber every 40 minutes, I found truly astonishing. All built by a tiny creature, with no eyes, the size of a grain of rice. Fascinating!
Hairiest moment on the job?
One of the hairiest moments on the job had to be the instant I was sat on the back of an adult bull shark! I can’t give too much away but we were on the Florida coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, on the beach, fishing for sharks! It sounds ridiculous but it’s one of the easiest and safest ways (for both the animal and the human researchers) to get these apex predators tagged and back into the water as quickly as possible.
The plan was to get an impression of its skin to better understand how the dermal denticles that make up the outer dermis work to prevent the growth of bacteria. To our eyes, the shark was huge yet nowhere as big as they can get out in the open ocean. Still, I could feel its raw power as it wrestled against my grip. The shark was only out of the water for a few minutes, but time seemed to warp, and everything slowed down even my heartbeats felt longer than usual. A truly mind-blowing experience and a must-watch for all shark lovers.
What do you never leave the house without?
My Bose Soundsport Free noise-cancelling earbuds, I never leave the house without them. I love music, it’s the ideal way to engineer your mood, and these earbuds are just perfect. For long haul flights, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones are also a godsend.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
Similar to what I mentioned above, make sure you’re going into something you love and is easy for you to achieve. You might think that wildlife presenting is for you, but even with an academic background in biology or zoology, doing it all day might start to get tedious. What might be better and way more exciting for any budding creatives out there is to combine something like wildlife content creation with another passion, like house music, or backpack travel, or African cuisine. That’s where the magic lies, in really good mashups that no one’s thought of before.
There’s a lot of truth to that old saying, “build it and they will come”. Start out by making content for this imaginary community of yours, with those same interests in mind, and post on as many platforms as you’re comfortable managing. If it’s five fantastic, and if it’s just one that’s also fantastic. You can always hire or collaborate with other creatives at a later stage to help build your brand out to additional platforms. And that brings me on to the final point, which is collaboration.
It can be tricky and challenging at times for us to relinquish "control" of our artistic expression, however, perhaps it’ll help to see it as "sharing" in your expression. If you can overcome this internal struggle, there’s so much glory that awaits you on the other side by working with a trusted team. I’m yet to master this, but I’m working on it, and day-by-day I’m steadily getting better.
As a sidenote, be sensitive to identifying the people who add to your shared creations with their own suggestions. The people who give you big-ups but also gently ease you to question and pressure test each element of your idea(s) are the people you want to keep around. As you rise take them with you, pay them when you can, and if they’re invaluable in making your vision come true then offer them a percentage share of the business as a healthy business incentive.
Just remember that the contract is king, so be sure to lay it out all in writing with good intentions. I’ll leave you with a great quote from marketing media mogul Gary Vaynerchuk that I’ve been trying to internalise. “Hire fast, fire faster, and promote fastest”. I hope that hits with whoever’s meant to hear it!
Aryee's six-part docuseries EVOLVE is available to stream now on CuriosityStream.