Wildlife Cameraman Blog

Author Archives: filmit

wildlife cameraman and beyond

wildlife cameraman and beyond

Wildlife cameraman and beyond: it sounds like a bad title for a low budget movie. One day you’ll find it at the bottom of the £1 bin at Asda. You’ll be tempted to buy it for your friend, who just loves ‘those David Attenborough films’, but your friend will be so disappointed that they’ll give it to a charity shop. Then it will stay on the shelves next to a Bewitched CD until the manager finally throws it away. OK, I’m being insincere, and yet serious at the same time. Soon after starting to write this I realised that it could end up being a very negative post. On the other hand, if you’re a budding wildlife cameraman you might actually find encouragement here.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a very interesting chat with Doug Allan about new wildlife camera people coming into the business. I’ve had similar conversations with other will established camera people. There never was a true traditional path to being a wildlife cameraman; and there probably never will be. Right now there are many talented individuals graduating from wildlife film making courses, and I say good luck to them all. Is there room for the industry to accommodate all of these people? Not a chance, but with some luck, hard work, talent and persistence you might be one of the successful ones. Contacts in the industry will help you too. If you don’t have contacts, make them; you have no choice. For those of you still trying to break in I think this article on the IAWF website is still very useful.

wildlife cameraman and beyond filming in Argentina
A beach on the coast of Argentina – filming a colony of 20000 burrowing parrots

Looking ahead – wildlife cameraman and beyond. What if you do become a wildlife cameraman? What does life have in store for you? A relationship and mortgage? A solid oak mantelpiece stacked with BAFTAs, but children who hardly recognise you because you’re away so much? A book deal and an unlikely transition into the world of media celebrity? A shed full of redundant kit that you could not bear to part with and is now worth nothing. Nobody knows what life will bring, but I can guarantee that once you have a taste for being a wildlife cameraman you won’t want to do anything else.

And therein lies the problem – it’s like a drug, and getting your next fix is all that matters. You find yourself calling people you don’t know, and shuffling into conversations with strangers at media events. You’ll rewrite your CV until the person it represents is unrecognisable as you, and the 25th edit version of your show reel is still not quite right, but you ignore all advice to remove at least 25 minutes of it.

Finally, a miracle happens – you’re offered a proper job as a data wrangler, and you’re off. Of course, you’re not on a proper rate of pay, and in the excitement it’s easy to ignore the fact that low overheads and living in the UK don’t sit together comfortably in a sentence.  It’s a good job that your parents still love you otherwise you’d be homeless. But you’re going to be in South America for the next six weeks anyway so what the hell. The phone rings and the trip’s been cut to 3 weeks, and one of those weeks now clashes with another potentially amazing job. You opt for the second job, which falls through, but with a bit of tact and humble pie you climb back on board the first job, which is now just 2 weeks.

The pressure is on to succeed, to actually do something that your CV says you can. The truth is you are very good, fun to be around and willing to muck in. The trip is great, and you would have had a chance to do some operating, but the breeding season for the species that is the whole point of the shoot ends on the day that you land in South America, rendering the whole trip pointless. It’s not your fault, but it feels like it. You have no fresh material for your show reel, which remains at 30 minutes and 20 seconds.

As time passes by you come to appreciate the value of the £30k debt you accrued in doing your course. You’re qualified as a Shooting AP; you have all the skills. Again, the pay rate isn’t that good, what with budgetary cuts and all that, but the contracts are longer. You’re mum and dad still wonder when you’re going to get a proper job, and get out of the spare room, but things are looking up. All you have to do is make a brilliant job with hardly any money, which of course you do. Pigeon holes are, naturally, rife in the wildlife programme making world, and even though there are no pigeons in your series you find yourself in one. Everyone thinks you’re a shooting AP who can make diamonds from grit.

All you wanted to do as a shooting AP was play with the cameras and be out in the field. You wanted material for a classy, tight show reel and a chance of being a proper wildlife cameraman. You didn’t want all that office crap to deal with: talking to people and being nice on the phone; making coffee for colleagues that drive you nuts. You can’t decide now whether to broaden your skills base or become more specialised. You really want to be a long lens specialist, but there’s lots of competition out there and not enough work to go around.

You’re determined and you’re a survivor, and you make that leap because some of the footage you’ve shot as an AP is excellent. Getting enough work becomes even more of a challenge, but now you have a partner in life and growing responsibilities. Together you have a reasonable income and great hopes for the future, including a family. But as the work you so love becomes ever harder to come by you start to wonder whether you should have studied to be a lawyer and then you could afford to film wildlife purely as a hobby.

I’ll leave it there with my thoughts on ‘wildlife cameraman and beyond’. This rambling post represents represents some of the challenges that a wildlife cameraman will face on his or her journey. Whatever happens, it will be fun and interesting. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.

Another cameraman once said to me, ‘It’s not easy surviving in this bloody mad business.’ It is and it isn’t; it all depends on you. If you’re canny you might make good money, but if money is your motivation you’re probably looking at the wrong career. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about money when the photograph above was taken.

 

Great spotted woodpeckers drumming

Great spotted woodpeckers drumming

Great spotted woodpeckers drumming is a great sound. They’ll start drumming as early as February and carry on through April. No doubt people have recorded drumming in other months too.

You can read about great spotted woodpeckers here.

Last year I went out to have a go at woodpeckers drumming. I’m not filming for a programme; it’s just me having a wildlife cameraman busman’s holiday. I found a brilliant drumming tree and a nice spot for a hide. In the end I was very frustrated and wondered why something relatively easy was proving to be so awkward.

great spotted woodpeckers drumming
Great spotted woodpecker male

 

Last year I spent many hours in that hide. The woodpeckers never drummed on that tree while I was in the hide. Sometimes I heard them drumming as I approached from afar but never while I was actually there. What do you put this down to? I think it was a matter of bad luck and I suppose I could have spent more time in the hide. Sometimes you start to wonder whether you’re doing something wrong. For a fact I know that I wasn’t deterring the birds because they frequently came to the same tree to feed. The picture above is a still frame from some of the video I shot.

This year

This year the weather has been very wet and I didn’t particularly want to film great spotted woodpeckers drumming in the rain. They look so much nicer with a bit of sunlight on them. Last week the sun decided to shine from sunrise so I went out to the same site as last year. The woodpeckers were back in the same place so I placed my camouflage net hide in exactly the same place as last year. Then all I could do was wait to see what happened.

When I’m sitting under cover I rarely look at my watch and the time just passes by. I usually find that there’s plenty to keep your mind occupied. For example, this time a male crossbill descended from the tree tops and made a heck of racket quite near to my hiding place., near enough to make a nice shot and sound. There was a male chaffinch singing constantly and the wrens were starting to wind themselves up for a season of trilling.

After a few minutes I could hear a woodpecker drumming a couple of hundred metres away, and my immediate thought was, ‘Great, I’m in the wrong place,’ Anyway, you might call it laziness, but I would call it instinct, I decided to stay put. And behold, a woodpecker landed on the tree. This time it was the female and she scuttled to the top of the tree. Like me, she could hear the male nearby, and she did something that I found surprising, and annoying. She went around the back of the tree and drummed, the female. I didn’t realise that the females drummed, and even more interesting her mate drummed in answer.

Still frustrating

I should be happy, because I filmed all of this and you can clearly hear the sounds on the shots. Unfortunately all you can see is the side of the female woodpecker’s head as it bangs against the tree, which as a shot is not good enough. When the woodpeckers moved away I changed position so that I could see the other side of the tree, but although they both came back they never drummed. As it is I’m waiting for some more sunshine, but if I know life the woodpeckers will soon stop drumming altogether and that will be that for another year!

The value of reading

Male and female woodpeckers drum. If I had read up about this first I would have known. There’s something nice about believing you have witnessed something unusual. As a wildlife cameraman I should have known better. Very rarely do any of us film absolutely unique wildlife behaviour. In a future post I will show some of the footage, but I hope that I will also be able to show a decent shot of great spotted woodpeckers drumming too.

Unique wildlife behaviour

Unique wildlife behaviour

Unique wildlife behaviour and the filming thereof can take many forms. As a wildlife cameraman it is always exciting to be presented with the challenge of filming something a bit different. Okay, wouldn’t be all love to head off and film snow leopards; they’re fantastic animals. Or how about tigers in Siberia? Or what about water voles just a few miles down the road, where trains hurtle past and you can hear the dulcet moan of the M4 motorway. Take your pick; no pressure. The truth is that given the choice there isn’t a wildlife cameraman that would choose the voles. But I would argue that it is just as much a challenge as the other two, particularly if you are trying to film something more that just voles munching on an apple or reed stem.

Unique wildlife behaviour
Unique wildlife behaviour – water vole defecating

More information about water voles.

The picture above is a still frame from something I filmed last year. It’s a young water vole in the act of defecating. Whoopee! That’s exciting you might think. The chances are that anyone who has ever seen a water vole might have seen it doing this. There’s also every chance that they didn’t realise it. We’re not talking about buffalo sized poo here. The individual bits of water vole faeces measure a few millimetres. They don’t make much impact when they hit the ground. However, during the breeding season they do take on some significance. The breeding females defecate in latrine areas. Sometimes this is just an area of the bank; sometimes it’s a floating log. Often they will mark a territory, or the border of a territory.

For a wildlife cameraman having an area of interest that an animal returns to is a huge bonus. Latrines are one such area. The breeding females, after defecating, will tread in their own faeces. How often they do this and for how long I have no idea. I have never seen this happen. I know people who survey voles who have never seen this happen. The important thing is, it does happen, and it is one of my jobs to film it. Now, call me weird, many do, but I find that challenge quite exciting. In reality it means sitting on the bank of a ditch for hours on end. It will be a waiting game. Something might happen; something might not. I’ll keep you posted.

Habitat under threat This links to a previous post about the threats to water vole habitat on the Gwent Levels.

 

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The Spirit of the Kite

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