From E.T. to Emmys, we focus the lens on local creative Dale Hancock and his career and successes as a professional wildlife filmmaker and photographer who is bringing the wilderness to our doorstep.

Howick is a small town, a tiny speck if you will, compared to the rest of our country and the world, but somehow there are many talented people who bring the world to us. If we don’t take the time to find them, we will walk right past them on our next visit to the grocery store. We love finding these seemingly hidden gems of talent and one of them is recently discovered Dale Hancock, a wildlife professional filmmaker, and part-time stills photographer, whom we caught up with to share more about his wild life behind the camera lens.

Dale was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg and found his way to Howick in 2003, where he currently lives with his family. Although he is based here, he is not standing still, and while he is not too “hung up” on awards, he humbly boasts a handful of accolades worth mentioning. He is the recipient of two Emmy awards, an Emmy nomination, a PANDA award by association, three SAFTA awards, numerous SAFTA nominations (including another this year), and two BG/Plc Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.


For Dale, his film career started with his love of film, inculcated in his early high school years. When he was 12 years old, Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial left an indelible impression on him. He remembers when he exited the movie theatre, he was left with a distinct “aha moment” that this was what he wanted to do. He was “emotionally engaged” with the film and questioned how it “grabbed” him as much as it did. It inspired him to look closer at how films were made and “who was pulling what string” to make them so impactful.


His parents also supported his love of filmmaking, buying him a lumbering first generation VHS video camera and recorder, which he strapped over his shoulder. He filmed and edited almost everything from weddings to school sports matches, as well as editing some experimental projects, long before computers made it all so easy — any excuse to learn about the equipment and what was involved in the filmmaking process. Another notable influence that sparked Dale’s other love is wildlife and his mother’s insatiable appetite for trips they would make to the Kruger National Park.


After his schooling years at Scottsville Primary and Maritzburg College, as well as spending two years in the army from 1989 to 1990, Dale decided to study film at the then Pretoria Technikon. It was a three-year-long course, and for his third year practical, Dale needed to work with someone in the film industry. This led him to marry his love of filmmaking with his love of wildlife. He approached Richard Goss, a producer making a mark in the international wildlife film industry, locally and internationally at that time.

Dale’s first wildlife documentary (or Blue-chip production as it’s referred to in the industry) focuses mainly on animal behaviour and was called Beauty and the Beasts – a Leopard’s Story (1993 – 1995). He was the assistant cameraman, lighting technician, and sound recordist and worked alongside cameraman, Kim Wolhuter. He explains that this was his “big break” in the film industry and one of his best experiences ever. The 83-minute documentary followed leopards and warthogs for 18 months in the Mala Mala Game Reserve.


Dale continued to make numerous films with Kim for just shy of a decade, working for international production companies like National Geographic and Survival Anglia. Towards the end of that period, another notable documentary was Stalking Leopards (1999 – 2001), in which he was involved as a second cameraman, sound recordist, and lighting technician, as well as post-production aspects like picture and sound editing. For this production, Dale received his first Emmy award for Sound Design and Editing and an Emmy nomination for Lighting in 2002.

Throughout Dale’s nearly 30 years of filmmaking and photography experience, his travels have led him to many magnificent countries, including Southern and East Africa, Russia, the United States, South America, and the United Arab Emirates; he has had the opportunity to capture the world of wildlife in all its glory. However, he also found different adventures in other areas of his life, like getting married and starting a family while filming shorter-term conservation projects for South African companies.


In November 2019, just before lockdown, Dale started working on the Netflix docu-series Penguin Town, which was produced by Red Rock Films, spanning eight episodes. The location was on the doorstep of Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town, in the Western Cape. The story’s main arc tracked the trails and whereabouts of penguins that live amongst humans. For example, breeding in someone’s garden or finding them on a populated beach.


Filming during the Christmas season in 2019 came with its own set of challenges, specifically the influence from the tourism industry, which has always posed difficulties when documenting wildlife in other locations like game parks. However, Dale and his team stayed on site in residential production houses, giving them the means to film when needed. Still, as any filmmaker or photographer knows, capturing wildlife relies on always having the camera at the ready, and, according to Dale, little happens for most of the day. One of the main challenges was getting the story and being there when something happened. Most of their days started from first light, lasting into the heat of the day, and then they would resume after lunch again, sometimes filming into the night, when Penguin chicks would hatch.

Overall, Penguin Town overall received three Daytime Emmy awards out of six nominations. Namely, “Outstanding Travel, Adventure and Nature Series”; “Outstanding Sound Mixing and Sound Editing”, and “Outstanding Cinematography”. Dale received his second Emmy award for Cinematography this year for this production.


More recently, Dale was also involved in the reboot of the docu-series Meerkat Manor: Rise of the Dynasty (September 2020 – February 2021), produced by BBC America. Dale is also the author and photographer of his book A Time with Leopards (2000), based on his experiences from the above-mentioned documentary Beauty and the Beasts – a Leopard’s Story, recalling his close-up views of one of Africa’s most beloved and feared predators.


Presently Dale is enjoying home-life in Howick while also helping other local filmmakers with shooting, and he has a few other ideas for future productions he hopes to make with other colleagues. We are proud to boast someone like Dale Hancock, whose films not only entertain but also educate us about the harsh realities facing our wildlife. For all the budding wildlife filmmakers, we will leave you with his truthful and cautionary advice that, while it is a tough industry to get into and there are many conjured romantic notions about working as a wildlife filmmaker, “the only real way is to have the passion and the drive” and to be determined and work hard to prove your worth.


Words: Alicia du Plessis

Photos: Dale Hancock & Boris Vonschoenbeck