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.
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.