Wildlife Cameraman Blog

Category Archives: How to be a wildlife cameraman

A series of articles based on real wildlife filming experiences.

filming wildlife sequences – part one

filming wildlife sequences – part one

how to keep editors happy

If you can keep editors happy with your sequence building ability, congratulations. If any of them ever says, ‘Today’s lesson is filming wildlife sequences – part one,’ just listen with humility. You will almost certainly learn something.

filming wildlife sequences – part one: this is a subject that I could write a book about. Don’t worry, I don’t intend to do that! There’s more demand for a dustbin that says ‘get lost’ every time you throw something putrid into it. Hang on, thinking about it… 🙂

As a wildlife cameraman your goal in life is to film stunning shots, footage that audiences will never forget. I hope you achieve that. But in truth, the vast majority of any programme comprises ‘normal’ footage, filler material that helps to tell the story. Most of what you film will be relatively unexciting in its own right. Even so, that material will build sequences leading to the climax shots, and it will give them some context. Don’t dismiss that footage as second rate, as unworthy of your concentration; it is just as important as the ‘filmic gold’ that you’re desperate to capture.

In theory filming wildlife sequences is not rocket science, it’s not even a Christmas chemistry set. Despite that, everyone knows that theory and practice are uncomfortable siblings. What seems easy when you’re discussing it over a coffee can be challenging in practice and under pressure. I’ll be exploring all of this in later posts, but for the time being let’s detail one example of filming that I encounter regularly. Hence, filming wildlife sequences – part one.

You can build wildlife sequences over any span of time, indeed, it may take years to film some sequences. This particular post is about a sequence that was built in  minutes, and one of the many that I am particularly fond of. Check out this link for information about the muntjac deer.

someone spots a muntjac deer

Here is the context. I am filming a wildlife series with Iolo Williams. The brief is to film wildlife encounters as they happen. The pressure is on, because we are filming half hour programmes in four days. If the wildlife is cooperative and the weather is fine, great, but fat chance of that in the UK! This time we are in Norfolk, at dawn, out on a reserve on a quiet, glorious morning. The chance of anyone disturbing us is quite slim, so we have that in our favour. Bear in mind that we are a crew of five stalking around, trying to be quiet: it ain’t ideal.

filming wildlife sequences - part one
Iolo talking about the muntjac he has just spotted in the distance

Someone in the team spots a muntjac deer on the far side of a field, so the director decides it’s worth trying to make a sequence of this. In this series we try to film two shots, that is, Iolo and the subject in shot at the same time. That can be very tricky depending on many factors. In this case we’re talking about a relatively large animal that we will not be able to approach without spooking it, so it’s a matter of getting Iolo in the foreground, muntjac – background. In addition to the two shots the sequence is only worth having if I can film reasonable close shots of the deer. It’s very likely that the muntjac will disappear into cover to feed. Our filming window could be extremely short.

At the time that we spot the deer I have a Canon HJ14 on the Sony F55, which is great for wider set up shots but not for close shots of the deer. We make a sign language decision to cover Iolo talking about spotting the deer with that lens. After that we are looking to the gods for help.

breaking down the sequence

The sequence looks has three parts, like any good story. There’s the discovery, the bit in the middle, and a conclusion. Like I say, none of it is rocket science. The filming however in my mind is in two parts. Firstly we have Iolo talking about discovering the deer, which is in the background. Trust me, it’s there, it’s just not a very good copy. After his dialogue I spent a few seconds filming a couple of shots of Iolo just watching through binoculars too. With the introduction, set up and ‘watching’ cutaways filmed it was time to change lens. By this time I am twitchy that the deer will vanish without us having any close shots of it.

change the lens

The rest of the sequene was filmed with a Canon HJ18 telephoto. Just a tip, practise changing those lenses if you ever do this type of filming; it’s the difference between success and failure. Under pressure you can get the lens alignment wrong, drop bits of the lens support accidentally knock a macro button in. If it can go wrong it will. Alternatively, use the wildlife cameraman’s favourite, the HJ40. You could do the whole sequence on that lens and have no worries about changing.

the unexpected

With the telephoto on the camera the muntjac decides to come across the field towards us, and it just keeps coming. In this situation I just keep the camera running. Everything Iolo is saying is being recorded ‘as live’. Replicating this kind of excited delivery in narration is impossible. In my head I’m also thinking about editing: do I let the muntjac come into shot? Do I let it go out of shot? It’s all a bit ‘cold zero’ and there’s no time to think it through. The deer isn’t going to hang around and perform for us so I decide to just stay on it. No messing around, because every frame is going to be useful and the editor can always cut to Iolo watching if I mess up.

muntjac deer crossing field
muntjac deer on the move

disappearing muntjac

Eventually the muntjac disappears from view. It has come so close to us that it disappears behind the foreground vegetation. Then it appears to be moving away to our left down the field edge. At a prompt from our director Iolo moves down the track in the same direction. Who knows what is going to happen next, but there is a chance the muntjac will cross the track and Iolo is in the foreground. With the HJ18 zoomed out as wide as possible the deer obliges and crosses the track. It’s one of those wildlife cameraman moments where you go, ‘Phew.’ On the sequence you will see Iolo look around at me with a, ‘Did you get that?’ look. What about the little zoom in? It felt right at the time and in context works for me. Perhaps it enhances that ‘live’ feel that we were looking for.

muntjac deer crossing track
Iolo spots anticipates muntjac crossing the track

Conclusions

I reckon that the cut sequence is not far off what happened in real time. And I think just about every usable bit of muntjac footage was in there. For our current series we are tending to approach sequences like this with two cameras, the director on Iolo, me on the wildlife. That makes a lot of sense. Things can fall apart when you have to change lenses where wildlife is concerned, but not always.

That’s the end of filming wildlife sequences – part one. I hope it’s useful. I’m never quite sure how much detail to go into. Next time we’ll try something a bit more blue chip. Hwyl!

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.

 

Watching Wild Life

Watching Wild Life

‘Watching Wild Life’. It’s a small point, perhaps, but you don’t see those words written quite like that any more. You’re more likely to see ‘watching wildlife.’ Wildlife cameraman, the job title, is a label, but equally, Wild Life Cameraman could be too. Is there a difference? I think there is.

A lot of what wildlife cameramen film is not actually wild at all. But ask any wildlife cameraman what they would prefer to film and it would be wild life, for sure. I’m on about the type of filming where you conceal yourself for hours, maybe days, on end. It’s the type of filming where the subject is shy, rarely seen by anyone unless they’re either very lucky or have made a huge effort. I’m not for one moment criticising the filming of subject matter that is relatively tame, because almost all wildlife filming comes with huge challenges. I’m just saying that wildlife filming as a career, becoming a wildlife cameraman, attracts a certain sort of person, there’s something feral about it. There’s some sort of connection with wild creatures deep in your spirit. Sadly, I don’t think there is so much of this filming to be had any more, unless you go out and do it for the hell of it. Sometimes it can be hell, I suppose, but it’s what we do.

watching wild life by David Stephen
Watching wild life by David Stephen

It was the title of the book above that made me ponder about wildlife versus wild life. The book was written by David Stephen, a Scottish naturalist. The link tells a little about David’s many achievements over the years.

To me this isn’t just any old book. This is the book that I picked up in Chepstow Bookshop when I was 12 or 13 years old. The shop owner must have wondered whether I would ever buy it. Every Friday, after school, I’d go in, procrastinating about spending my hard earned lawn mowing money on a small paperback. I knew that I’d get it eventually. What a little gem this book is. It’s written by someone who had been out there watching badgers, foxes, otters and whole range of wild life. I found it to be absolutely inspirational, and it’s the book that had me walking across the fields in the dark looking for badgers and goodness knows what else.