Reading Time: 6 Minutes Print this page

Karina Holden’s earliest memory is as a carefree child running barefoot through the bush, with her two sisters and a gang of local kids. The daily pulse of those early years was linked to the rhythms of the sea. “It was knowing when it was high tide, and making sure you were ready to jump in the ocean at the bottom of the hill,” she recalls. “That was when the water was cleanest and you could dive down and see everything so clearly – little seahorses connected to the ropes on the jetty pool, and stingrays that would come along.”

Swimming in rock pools along the cave-strewn coast was second nature to young Karina. So was lighting fires inside the caves for mock smoking ceremonies, far from adult scrutiny. “I didn’t ever want to miss out on the opportunity of throwing myself in the water, so I used to sleep in my swimming costume at night,” she says. “We’d roam around like wild kids, which I don’t think kids get enough of these days. Nothing ever happened to us, and if it did, I guess we’d have learnt a whole lot of lessons from it.”

Karina Holden swims in an ocean rock pool.
This portrait, of Karina lying in a rock pool at Kiama with a rainbow on the horizon, is emblematic of both her enchanted childhood and her career behind the camera. Beautifully captured by fine-arts photographer Tamara Dean, the image is as much a portrait of the seascape as of Karina herself. And that’s precisely how she hoped it would turn out. “It’s about being inside a landscape, even embraced by a landscape,” she says. “Being nurtured by the light and the dark, and the salt and the air.”

Encounters with nature were visceral, unmediated by others and encouraged by her parents, whose busy retirement led to roles as NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service park rangers when aged in their 70s. “They imparted courage that, when the wind was blowing and the storm was coming, the rain was pounding and the surf was crashing, you could be in the landscape with its most elemental forces,” Karina says. “You had to respect it but you didn’t have to fear it.” 

It’s an approach she’s carried into her career as one of Australia’s pre-eminent natural-history filmmakers and a winner of multiple Emmy awards. As director, writer, producer and currently Head of Factual at Sydney-based Northern Pictures, Australian Geographic’s sister company, she keeps adding to an impressive body of 100 films from a 20-year career. Her university training in zoology and the history and philosophy of science gives her a different perspective from many arts-educated documentary makers. And that pulse of nature that she tuned into as a child has permeated every remarkable microsecond of footage. 

Having an impact

Karina has made films about storm chasers in Eye of the Storm, and catastrophic bushfires in After the Fires. In Big Weather she worked with television and radio presenter Craig Reucassel, well-known comedian and satirist, to depict real-life climate disasters and how to cope with them. In Meet the Penguins, her stars were the world’s smallest penguins – little penguins – and their quest for love and survival in coastal Victoria. 

But Karina wondered if there were different ways she could bring the experience of nature to audiences. “Natural-history filmmaking can be very traditional, giving the sense that the environment is static; it’s what we know, something you sit and watch with your kids,” she explains. “But how do we get people to be freshly engaged, to feel as much tension as when they watch an unfolding [human] drama? We thought If people watch sport, can we make natural history like sport?” 

This lateral thinking led to a historic broadcasting moment – the ABC’s live coverage of coral spawning on the Great Barrier Reef, as corals released trillions of eggs and sperm. But how to film this extraordinary spectacle? Would the coral be too sensitive to camera lights? Could the cinematographers get the right depth of field? Would underwater audio-recording masks work? 

“There was a lot of technical and scientific knowledge required to make it work,” Karina says. “I had completed a proof of concept test a year earlier when I went out with scientists on the night the spawning was predicted. I was in the water with a dive team and cameras – floating around in the dark was incredibly eerie.” 

“Courage…means ‘rage of the heart’, so every time I start to feel frustrated or burdened, I think, Well, do something about it.”

In 2020 the team set up an outside broadcast facility across several sites. One was a platform at sea, with lengths of cable running from it to shore sites, enabling them to transmit Reef Live during two nights. The tiny team that had scoped the concept swelled on broadcast night to 100 people working across a 1000km arc. “What was extraordinary was that the rehearsal was cactus – nothing worked properly,” Karina says. “On the Friday night when we went live, it was perfect!” 

The Reef Live documentary has since been seen by audiences worldwide, but Karina measures success by more than a head count. “Impact can be so much bigger than just broadcast viewers,” she says. “The program was a climate-change conversation by stealth. We talked about new technologies required to improve the recruitment of coral on the reef, because we face massive [coral] bleaching events. 

“We involved farmers and First Nations people, other voices in what was a very celebratory program that brought together this idea of giving the reef its best chance to renew.”

Conversation starters

Another of Karina’s award-winning feature documentaries – Blue – charted the decline in health of the world’s oceans. “When we toured Blue through coastal and regional Australia, we’d curate panel discussions about issues raised in the film with local fishers, scientists, politicians, the mayor, local Indigenous people,” Karina says. “I love that model – we make something that goes on TV but we also sprout conversations that may change the protection of a place, or give scientists the evidence they need to show public approval or get funded the next year. There are so many ways that smart factual content can create ripples.” 

And there are also many new tools available to record and depict nature, Karina says. “When I started in film and television, we would have our hands inside a darkroom bag in the field, changing negative on 16mm-film cameras, or we were literally using grease pencils, scissors and tape to edit film on a Steenbeck [editing machine].” 

Digital video and drone technology have since wrought miracles. “We used to have to hire a helicopter to get a landscape shot, so you’d only do it every six months,” Karina says. “Now you can track entire [suites of] animal behaviour and watch it unfold. It’s opened up the underwater world because you can watch something on the surface as it unfolds beneath.” She adds that technology has also allowed filmmakers to witness behaviour never seen before. In Meet the Penguins, for example, low-light cameras allowed Karina’s team to capture intimate penguin moves that took place in the dark, but were able to be seen “as if it was daylight”.

Drawing strength from nature

Her most recent production is Our Country: 360°Cinematic Experience, a multi-sensory production on Australia and its wildlife. Created for Australian Geographic and Tourism Australia, it’s touring the nation. “It’s an immersive film experience projected simultaneously on 40 screens, and it takes you around all the habitats of Australia,” Karina says of the work that’s been some 20 years in the making.

“It’s a personal discovery – nobody tells you what to look at, you discover it for yourself. That for me was a beautiful way for people who don’t spend a lot of time in nature to see things in an intimate way, to stop and look and listen and absorb.”

“There is nothing more beautiful than spending time making a film about a natural environment, even if it’s one that’s hurting.”

She says audiences need a rich diet of different genres, from live natural history to documentary series with lashings of humour. She wrote and directed Romeo and Juliet: A Monkey’s Tale, in which two monkeys from the mountains of Thailand are drawn together despite opposition from their respective groups. “It was a wacky adventure to create a Shakespearean film set in a monkey troupe!” she says. “You have to make strong things, hard things, joyful and funny celebratory things. You’ve got to find different ways to speak to the audience. If you only take one tone they’ll start tuning out.”

How does she remain optimistic in a world where nature seems to get low billing at every turn? “It’s getting harder, but it’s action that gets you out of despair,” she responds. “[For some] courage is a word that means ‘rage of the heart’, so every time I start to feel frustrated or burdened, I think, Well, do something about it. I always come back to nature, because it’s all we can come back to. We are here because of nature being successful, and we can’t transcend it. There is nothing more beautiful than spending time making a film about a natural environment, even if it’s one that’s hurting.”