This is my all time favourite shot. It would not have been possible without the help of an expert, here, Oxford cuckoo guru Mike Bayliss. The aim was to film a cuckoo laying in a reed warbler's nest, and several times we had come very close. After many hours in the hide I heard this female land heavily in the reeds to the right of the nest - I can still hardly believe it happened.
This type of filming has been about 80% of my work these last couple of years...presenter led programmes with a good percentage of wildlife filming. Gavin Thurston was on RInca Island 2 weeks before the rest of the crew getting the 'meatier' sequences.
There were two of us working on this one, the other cameraman being Keith Brust. Filming often brings with it privileged access, and this was one of those times. I spent many days on my own on the Vermejo Ranch in New Mexico, ticking off shots from the list. Other times I was with a crew and a team of scientists trying to unravel the mysterious language of prairie dogs.
Autumn and the Wye Valley makes for a wondrous combination. The locations here are just a few miles up the road from our house. We can't take the credit for nice light and conditions, but you can make your own luck by being out there early as often as you can in the best locations.
Not being very big can be a massive advantage sometimes. Imagine a small rowing boat with a wooden hide on board and a small slit to poke the lens through. Then knock out the bottom of the stern of the boat. Cram yourself inside with a tripod and start walking slowly towards the flamingos whilst occasionally vanishing into holes in the bottom of the lagoon. I love this job.
Over the years I have done quite a lot of set filming. In all honesty I find it quite stressful, as the priority has to be the well-being of the animals. In any case, if they're not relaxed they're not going to behave naturally. These little chaps were on loan from a research project. We were always hoping that they would breed while in our care, but they never did.
Filming an infra red bat sequence can be quite challenging. The welfare of the bats always comes first. Lesser horseshoe bats are protected by legislation. If you’d like to know a little more about them follow this link.
A few days ago we were in North Wales to film an infra red bat sequence. It was never going to be a pure wildlife cameraman type sequence. In its own way it was equally challenging. You might imagine a wildlife cameraman sequence being sumptuous shots of lesser horseshoe bats sweeping past the lens in slow motion. Perhaps they’d pluck a moth out of the air right in front of the camera. You might also expect to see them streaming from a roost hole. Not in this case. Our series is more about discovering wildlife in towns: encounters that most people might have if they are in the right place at the right time.
The aim was to introduce the presenter and contributor in the town square. This was always going to look best after the street lights had come on. Waiting for the street lights to come on meant cutting it fine with the bats. According to local knowledge they usually emerge shortly after sunset and disperse rapidly. There was very little time between filming the presenter meeting the contributor and the bats emerging. I must add, this is not the sort of sequence a wildlife cameraman films often.
The picture shows the scene behind the town square well before sunset. We had four cameras in use: the Sony F55, Sony FS7, Sony NX30 and Canon 5D. The 5D was on hire, optimised for infra red filming. Sony’s NX30 has native infra red filming. Firstly, the easy bit. I filmed general set up shots of the town square with street lights, car headlights and hotel decorative lights providing the illumination. The F55 was in Custom Mode with an ISO of 8000 for that. I also filmed the presenter walking around town on the way to the bat roost. Our director used the FS7 set up similarly for walk and talks and meeting the contributor. From the town square it was a short walk down an alley way onto a lawn area behind an old building. Bats emerge from a window opening high at the back of the building.
Lighting was always going to be something of a compromise. We are a small mobile unit. Blitz lighting the whole area with infra red was never an option. We had three ‘normal’ IR lamps and a black source lamp. The latter was to light the presenter and contributor without their eyes looking like those of blood crazed demons. Slightly modified car batteries and large Sony camera batteries provided the power source. One of the things we found filming an infra red bat sequence was that expert knowledge was not always spot on. Bats had already emerged by the time we had finished the set up filming. In fact, contrary to flying off into the park, they were flying back and forward through the alley into the garden. If we had know this I suspect we would have changed the sequence, because bats fluttering around heads looks great on video. Key cameras were now the Canon 5D IR and the NX 30. I used the 5D to film the presenter and contributor, while the director moved lights around for best placement. Don’t forget, this, to us, was in the dark. It was pretty black away from the street lights, and normal lighting was strictly forbidden in proximity of the bats.
It’s a mystery
Quite how a sequence emerged from the mayhem I’m still not sure. But it did. A Canon 5D is not an easy beast to use without the aid of some sort of handling device. In the dark you have a bright screen in IR black and white staring at you, so hitting focus is challenging to say the least. The lens was supplied without a hood, and not having time to fashion one I had flare streaming in from all of the IR lights. In context it sort of looks OK, but I’d prefer it were not there. Digital flare can be produced in the edit if you really want it! The NX 30 was held by the presenter, so although I haven’t seen that footage it could turn out to be an inspirational idea. What I remember was very few bats emerging from the building, but bats in shot as the presenter and contributor spoke about them.
Although it felt like mayhem at the time, the director reports that we nailed it. That is always music to my ears. Ask any wildlife cameraman. Filming an infra red bat sequence, certainly the whole thing in one bash, is not easy. It was fun though. Just can’t wait to see the sequence cut.
Stoats and the wildlife cameraman Just a few words about stoats and the wildlife cameraman. I have a friend called John Keeling. John is a countryman through and through. Over the years he has developed some sort of affinity to the weasel clan. The badger is a member of the weasel family. So are weasels… Continue Reading
Being a wildlife cameraman doesn’t make me sick Being a wildlife cameraman doesn’t make me sick. It’s official. At least, so far it hasn’t made me sick. I’m not talking about medical sickness caused by gastroenteritis or other afflictions. I’m talking about sickness caused by motion. It is an interesting subject and you can read… Continue Reading
I'm a freelance documentary and wildlifecameraman, wildlife photographer with a track record for filming blue-chip natural history and presenter and contributor led documentaries for the BBC, ITV and other major television channels. Most of the time I film TV programmes with natural history as the subject matter, but I happily film sport, music videos, drama and other types of television documentary.
It is slightly inaccurate to say 'wildlife photography' as a description for 'wildlife filming', but all wildlife cinematographers become used to the alternative title. Being a wildlife cameraman is very different to taking still photographs, though the principles of getting close to wild behaviour and respecting the subject are exactly the same.
From the outside a career as a wildlife cameraman looks like a very attractive way to live. It is, but it doesn't suit everyone. For young people, take advice from someone who is doing it, then see if you can assist them in any way. You will have to persevere... and persevere.
Filming wildlife is something that I love. Like many colleagues I'd happily do it for nothing... and sometimes I do. Many of us would continue to film wildlife as a hobby if it were not our profession.
This article by Matt Hamilton is a really great description of a part of a filming trip we went on last year.