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Wildlife Cameraman and the Sony PlayStation

Graham Horder talks about being a Wildlife Cameraman and the Sony PlayStation.

Years ago I thought I knew what being a wildlife cameraman meant. At that time I didn’t think it would have anything to do with playing computer games. What did I know? The future will always surprise you.

Sony PlayStation

Quite a while ago I played a couple of PlayStation games: Lara Croft in Tomb Raider was one of them and the other was some kind of space age racing game. I would never recommend the latter as a means of learning to drive because you’d die of horrible injuries within a few minutes at most. If you did anything that Lara Croft did you’d die of horrible injuries within a few minutes at most. Spot the pattern or pay the consequences. I don’t enjoy computer games – they’re too addictive and I’d rather play outdoors courting real death. But here I am a couple of decades later writing ‘Wildlife Cameraman and the Sony PlayStation.’

wildlife cameraman and the Sony PlayStation
partly rigged RED and PlayStation controller

the ‘conventional’ wildlife cameraman

It’s possible to be a wildlife cameraman and adopt the following manner of working almost all of the time – one hand on the tripod handle and the other on the lens. This tried and trusted method does not involve a technological interface unless you have a robotic arm. It has worked for years and years. However you cannot use that method for everything, and the moment you place the camera on a motorised head or track, a cable dolly, drone or jib you will not be able to put your hands anywhere, except on a remote control.

all hail the remote controller

I’ve used many remote control devices for cameras and camera heads. Recently I worked with a PlayStation controller for the first time in years and I learned a lesson – sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a misspent youth. If I had spent a little more time with Lara I would have been a better wildlife cameraman for it. At first I spent some time fumbling about with triangles, circles crosses and squares. And I was annoyed by how many times I accidentally pressed the button that started the whole unit vibrating. Yes, it was a learning curve, and necessarily a quick one.

We used the Red with an iFootage Shark Slider S1 and an eMotimo ST4 Pro kit. The PlayStation controller is part of the ST4 kit and comes with the Pro version. You can use the controller to operate focus, moves along the track, and pan and tilt of the head. You can programme all of these movements and you can see the readouts on the eMotimo display. Overall I am very impressed with this kit and for the price it is a bargain. When we used it in conjunction with a probe lens some of the shots were simply stunning. Unfortunately I can’t show you any because of NDA and all that.

being a wildlife cameraman

If you want to be a wildlife cameraman I recommend that you play some computer games and have a bit of fun at the same time. Learn how to use helpful telephone apps and the different remote control devices. You will not need them every day, or maybe ever, but one day someone will shout, ‘Help! How do I do this?’ And you will know.

Cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains

The location

This year I have been filming cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains. I find it hard to believe that two years ago I was also filming cuckoos. Time flies. At that time I predicted that I would take time to film cuckoos on my own, a wildlife cameraman ‘doing his own thing.’ For one reason and another I never did that, but this year cuckoos cropped up on the filming call sheet again.

Cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains
One of the cuckoo filming sites

The Series – Cambrian Mountains

The series is about the Cambrian Mountains. There is a good chance of seeing cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains, well, certain parts at least. The Cambrian Mountains consists of a relatively unpublicised land area in the centre of Wales. Our chosen area for cuckoos was at the northern end of the Elan Valley. This area is well known for a succession of large dams. The dams were built to supply water to the Midlands. Tourists will be familiar with the valley.

Male Cuckoo

We already had some very nice shots of a male cuckoo in the can. In fact, I’d say it would have been hard to get better. We achieved this with an active site and camouflage netting. The cuckoo was calling regularly from the top of a stand of coniferous trees but also called from lower perches. The bird seemed to call most in the mornings, afternoon and evenings. But what about the female; we wanted to film her too.

Female Cuckoos

Filming cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains, even the female, is probably not much different to filming them anywhere else. She seems to be a more elusive bird than the male and tends to skulk about. When you see her it will often be in flight, and her flight is fast and direct. Sometimes you will see her with one or more males in pursuit, calling her bubbling call which is so different to that of the male. She will perch, and when she does small birds, in our case meadow pipits, will mob her. Like any bird she needs to feed and in our territory we saw her come to the ground to search for large caterpillars.

Success or not

I will say now that we were only partly successful with filming cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains, but we didn’t have long, just a day.

Female cuckoo through viewfinder with mobile phone

On a previous visit we had seen the female cuckoo perching in a dead tree down by a stream, and she used the tree as a hunting perch. We decided to concentrate on this tree and hope that both sexes used it at the same time. Conveniently I was able to get under cover at the edge of a dark conifer plantation. Draped in the ubiquitous camouflage netting I practically vanished, I think, because you should never underestimate a cuckoo. Anyway, it worked, but the female only came to that tree twice in the whole day, and she didn’t do much when he came. On the screenshot you can see a pipit in the bottom left hand corner giving her a hard time.

Summary

I will go back to this site as a wildlife cameraman busman’s holiday, but that will be next year. We saw some great behaviour at this site but at a distance through some very heavy heat haze. You have to get as close as you can and you can’t just walk up to a cuckoo. There’s some exciting behaviour to be filmed here next year, or will it be the year after that.

wildlife cameraman private eye

wildlife cameraman private eye

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?

wildlife cameraman private eye
arboreal, omnivorous, mildly irritating

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.

wildlife cameraman private eye

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.

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