When you had your careers advice chat at school were you disappointed? I was, because the adviser told me that there was no such job as ‘naturalist’. How things have changed, and for the better. It’s so different now, and I wonder what they’d have thought if I’d said I wanted to be a wildlife cameraman private eye?
the curtain twitched
A coniferous forest in Scotland, I think that’s a good place to film red squirrels. Here I am sitting in a car in Anglesey and thinking of wilder places. I’m breaking the tedium by listening to Pop Master on Radio 2 with Ken Bruce. I haven’t seen a squirrel for several hours and the curtains are starting to twitch. This is a respectable neighbourhood with leaf blowers and litter by Sainsburys, and I feel watched. The hand of a wealthy pensioner twitches a curtain to look at the stranger in the camouflaged hat and she calls neighbourhood watch. I knew I should never have ditched the SAAB. Affronted by my thoughts the windows of the little C4 steam up even more.
nothing happened… absolutely nothing
Time ticks on, and despite me answering an obscure question about Showaddywaddy my spirits remain low. A man shuffles down his drive to blow leaves from his lawn onto the street and pretends he isn’t writing down my car number. Thanks mate, I mumble, red squirrels just love the sound of a leaf blower.
“Have you seen anything Gra?” The 2 way radio disturbs an abstract reverie involving beach volleyball players and radio microphones. There’s another car down the street containing the rest of the crew and I count my blessings. That car must be like an ice hockey changing room by now and when the wind’s in the right direction I’m sure I can smell it. “No,” I reply honestly, and I smear away the condensation to check there are no squirrels sitting on the bonnet.
another hour and another
The radio messages come thicker and faster as our communication, like the leaves, head for the gutter. I hear, “There’s more chance of seeing a red squirrel at a pencil museum,” before the battery goes flat, and it’s just as well, because I was devoid of a witty riposte. Suddenly my heart jumps and I make ready to man the camera. I can see something with a bushy tail creeping along behind the cotoneaster. But it’s a false alarm; I’ve been duped by an immensely fat tabby and I now hate cats even more.
maybe another time
As the hours drag I resign myself to the prospect of not seeing a red squirrel cavorting on this particular suburban street today. Somebody raps on the car window and I see a very refined looking lady holding a tray of fine china cups and shortbread biscuits. Bless her: I am the object of someone’s pity. If it had been the police I would not have been in the least surprised, and perhaps a little relieved that police on the street actually do exist in these times of austerity. The lady is lovely, and the shortbread biscuits, imbued with a hint of lemon, are just fine. Soon the whole crew is huddled around, lamenting our lack of success with the philosophy of, ‘Maybe another time.’ That’s the end of my time as a wildlife cameraman private eye, for today at least, so roll on the next time, and the next…
For more information about red squirrels have a look here and ponder on the injustice of having vulgaris in your scientific name.
Being a wildlife cameraman isn’t all fun, but usually there is positive to be had. That’s why I’ve called this ‘dark wet miserable brilliant.’
One day in early December we set out to film a couple more sequences in our city life series. The forecast said ‘dark wet miserable brilliant.’ OK, it didn’t say brilliant, but that’s how it turned out. We spent a few minutes filming a mistle thrush defending berries on very large hawthorn bushes, then it started to pour down and we dived for shelter. The we headed for location two, a little underwhelmed by the day so far.
We have a running joke within our crew about the most boring birds to film, but where would we be without those birds? Sometimes, and I imagine this is a typical wildlife cameraman thing, I stand around longing for something to film. Herring gull, meadow pipit, carrion crow, grey wagtail and pied wagtail all fit into our ‘desperation’ group. But where would we be without them. I like these birds! On this occasion we had actually gone out there to film pied wagtails. For more information about pied wagtails.
I have to be honest, I’m not a great fan of using stills form cameras for video, but they can come into their own. We reached location two just as the sun waved goodbye to the metropolis of downtown Newport. That’s that’s what I want to do whenever I’m in Newport, wave goodbye to it. Sorry, only joking, sort of. The lighting we were now enjoying came from streetlights, car headlights, shop facades, Christmas decorations and the beaming faces of native Newport people. It was a bit dark to be fair.
Dark wet miserable brilliant. This is where we get to the brilliant bit. Apart from being the best selling album of 1997 ‘the arrival’ was something that our crew awaited with eager anticipation. Wildlife cameraman. director, presenter and sound recordist, all standing on the side of the road in Newport waiting for the little grey birds to arrive. Yes, it was a waiting game, but the researcher knew it was worth the wait. One by one the pied wagtails flew in to perch on the buildings around Friar’s Walk, coming in from all directions.
As their numbers increased a peregrine shot across, trying its luck. Then, in waves, they flew down from the buildings to roost in some birch trees right in the middle of a traffic island. We filmed them fly past buses full of commuters heading home, oblivious to what was happening just a few feet away. Headlights played across these fragile little creatures as they settled down to roost. Finally they tucked their heads back for a night in this most unlikely place.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!