So you want to be a Wildlife Film-maker?
How to get started
There are many different routes into the wildlife film-making industry – and many of these involve luck and chance. There is no set path that will guarantee you success, but there are definitely a number of things you can do to prepare yourself for the best chance.
Let’s start by looking at a few general ways you can prepare yourself, whatever job in wildlife film you are looking for:
1. Learn about Natural History
This should come naturally to you! If you are not passionate about natural history in the first place perhaps you will be better-off pursuing a career in another area of film/TV that will be easier to get into and better paid!
Learn about natural history by studying, by reading, by watching TV and through first-hand experience in the field. A good knowledge of wildlife throughout the world is highly desirable (but not essential as you always research your topic), along with a good grasp of world geography. Although there may be specific aspects of natural history you specialise in, you can’t guarantee work in your particular field of interest, so a wide general knowledge can only be a good thing.
Your learning about natural history should include animal behaviour, and much of this will come from watching wildlife films, and from nature itself. Spend time in the field watching wildlife for long periods, make notes, understand what the animals are doing, start to learn fieldcraft so that you can watch animals without being seen, heard or smelt. Get yourself a good pair of binoculars. Practise tracking animals, building hides, pretend you are making a film and make notes of shots you could have taken or sequences you would like. This is useful whether you want to be a camera operator, or a producer, writer, picture editor and so on.
Read books on natural history, and magazines such as BBC Wildlife Magazine. Study atlases and test yourself on where in the world various creatures (and plants) come from. Strive for expertise – never stop learning.
2. Watch TV
It may sound like an obvious thing to do, but I am amazed at the number of people I talk to (both wannabes and those already in the industry) who haven’t seen, or maybe haven’t even heard of, certain landmark programmes or series. So, watch as much wildlife TV as you can. Subscribe to satellite or cable TV if available, or watch online, and regularly tune into channels such as Discovery Animal Planet and National Geographic as well as any wildlife programmes on your regular national channels.
When you are watching wildlife programmes it is useful to record them so that you can go over certain points later. For each film make notes on all the credits and remember who it was produced by. Get to know the names of personnel connected with various companies/productions. Pretend you are a judge at a wildlife film festival and analyse each film carefully. Not all that you see will be good! Give the film a score for various aspects such as photography, sound, editing, script, narration, animal behaviour, educational value, scientific content, music and so on. Build up files of notes on films you have seen for future reference. This may sound like a lot of hard work, but it is free (!) and a very valuable way of learning the art, and understanding the elements that go to make a good film.
It will also help you develop your own style – what type of programmes ‘work’ for you, how could you improve on what has been done before, what would you have changed if you had been the producer/writer/editor etc? At the same time be conscious of changing trends – what sort of films are being shown at the time, what doesn’t work anymore, what styles are favoured by different channels. All this will help you build up a picture of the industry. Again – making notes on channels/styles etc will help you remember the information and will form a useful reference for future research.
Make a special effort to see films that win awards at the wildlife film festivals. You can find lists of the most recent winners at each festival’s website. Find out when the films are airing from the producers, or buy them on video, or you can view them in video booths at the festivals. Think about why they have won the awards they have – do you agree with the judges?
3. Get informed
The more you know about the industry the better – so:
- Subscribe to and read the e-zine Wildlife Film News every month (it’s free!).
- Read Wild Pages: The Wildlife Film-makers’ Resource Guide – explore the directories to see who does what.
- Surf the Internet – find out more about production companies from their own websites.
- Read trade publications such as RealScreen magazine.
- Join as many relevant organisations as you can – such as Filmmakers for Conservation, The International Association of Wildlife Film-Makers.
4. Develop skills
First of all there are a number of skills that will be useful to you whatever job you want to do.
Computer skills are needed across the board these days – so make sure you are completely happy with the basic necessities such as emailing, surfing the Internet, word processing (especially using Microsoft Word), and generally using computers. Strive to ensure your typing is up to speed – you don’t need to be a 100 word-a-minute touch typist, but it is painful to watch somebody typing up a shooting list with occasional jabs of one finger while constantly searching the keyboard for the ‘m’!
Other skills such as image manipulation (eg using Adobe Photoshop), desktop publishing, video editing (eg Adobe Premiere or Final Cut), website editing (eg Macromedia Dreamweaver and/or WordPress) and interactive programming will be a bonus, and may even make the difference between you getting a job or not. Develop your computer skills through courses, teach-yourself books, watching someone already skilled, and lots of practice.
Communication skills are also essential whatever you do. This may sound obvious yet I have employed people in the past who were highly skilled at specific jobs yet unable to communicate adequately. I had to let go an incredibly talented database programmer recently because he simply couldn’t make himself understood on the phone! You need to be able to speak clearly and confidently, giving the right amount of information at the right pace and in the right tone. You need to be able to do this on the phone, face to face, and to a group of people. You also need to be able to communicate effectively in writing – by email and letter. If you feel unsure about any of these skills they can be improved by short courses in communication and by lots of practice!
Financial skills will certainly be important if you are a producer in charge of the film budget, but will also be crucial if you are to be self-employed. You can take short courses in basic accounting and book-keeping, or study from teach-yourself books. Practice using spreadsheets on your computer (eg Microsoft Excel).
Then there are all the skills to develop that may be more closely allied to the job you are aiming for. You will benefit from the following skills whatever job you are aiming for, as I keep mentioning, the more you know about the entire process the better-off you will be.
Production Planning – read as much as you can about TV production (although it is unlikely to be specific to wildlife, it will still be very useful). Pretend you are in charge of a new production and go through every part that a producer will have to deal with. Make copious notes and flow charts – plan everything you will require to realise the production (staff, equipment, logisitics etc) – cost everything up and prepare a budget and timescale.
Research – choose a topic for a film and go through the research process. Use libraries and the Internet to find out as much about the subject as you can, and condense your notes to the facts that you think will be most relevant for the film idea. Get to know the most effective and quickest routes to get the information you need.
Writing – study award-winning scripts and practise writing your own. Examine subject-selection and story-line structures. Develop an idea for a wildlife film in your head and just start writing what you envisage the narrator saying. Then keep going back to it and re-writing. Get someone else to read it to you and see how it sounds. Take courses in creative writing (correspondence courses or at adult education centres). Find a mentor who can guide and advise you.
Camera work – assuming you can’t afford to buy a top end High Definition or 4K camera and dive in at the deep end, the best way to start practising is with a DV camcorder. Even the cheapest palmcorder or mobile phone will at least get you taking moving pictures and analysing your results. Practise your camera skills and your fieldcraft together – then watch the footage on your TV and make notes about what you need to improve. How do the pictures compare to films you want to emulate? Learn to understand filmic-grammar. Improving your stills photography skills will also help you understand the basics of lighting, exposure, lenses, framing shots etc.
Sound recording – you can start to practise recording wildlife sound with almost any sort of portable recorder – small digital recorders are very affordable these days. Get yourself a good directional microphone and a pair of omnis and you’re off. Practise recording atmospheres as well as individual animal sounds, mono and stereo. Find the best methods of reducing hiss, and avoiding traffic and handling noise. Parabolic reflectors will help you pick up sounds from animals without having to get so close that you disturb them. Also practise editing the sound you record – the best method these days is to do it on your computer with software such as Audacity or Reaper. Great advice can be had from the Wildlife Sound Recording Society.
Picture Editing – a good way to start is with plenty of practice on your computer. Only recently have computers been able to handle the large file-sizes involved with video, so you are starting at a good time. The basic editing packages that come free with computers (MovieMaker on a PC and iMovie on a Mac) are perfectly good to start practising editing. Then later you can upgrade to a more versatile platform such as Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premier. Experiment using sequences in different ways. Write and record a narration over the top – it will help you develop a flow for the production.
Presenting – team up with someone who wants to be a camera operator, and practise together! The more you do it the less self-conscious you will feel, and the less likely you will be to stumble on words (and tree roots). Develop your own style; watch other presenters on TV and analyse what they are doing. Get other people to watch your results and tell you what they really think. Write down their comments and make necessary changes. Work at it. It doesn’t always come naturally – everyone can improve…
It’s true that it’s often ‘whom you know’ not ‘what you know’ that gives you the biggest breaks in this industry. ‘Networking’ is simply meeting others in the industry, introducing yourself, getting your name and face known, seeking opportunities, selling yourself. It’s vital, and it’s a skill that doesn’t come easily to some.
Letters, emails and phone-calls are some methods but there is nothing like meeting people face to face, and wildlife film festivals are the best place to do this. Go to as many festivals as you can – IWFF, Wildscreen, Jackson Hole etc. – details of these in the festivals directory of www.wildlife-film.com and Wild Pages: The Wildlife Film-makers’ Resource Guide. They all have excellent masterclasses, workshops, seminars etc..
Networking when you are young, unsure of yourself and unknown is far from easy. It’s often a fine line between making a good impression and being a pain in the neck! You need confidence but humility, enthusiasm but respect. You need to be memorable, but for the right reasons! You need to leave people thinking – ‘yes – I’d like to work with them’ or ‘they had some great ideas – I must remember them’ etc. Be honest – tell people if you love their work and would love to work with them. There’s no shame in admitting to nervousness, or in being direct about what you want.
Work, overall, on being the sort of person others will gladly want to work with. When I think of the people I have met at festivals and ended up working with, they have largely been people I simply liked and got on well with! Practise as much as you can and just go for it. Once you get stuck in you’ll find you are talking to people with the same passions as yourself and it will get easier.
You are very unlikely to find an advert for your ideal job. Wildlife film production companies get so many unsolicited requests for work they rarely need to advertise positions (although some, like the BBC, advertise on principle). Occasionally jobs are advertised in Wildlife Film News but it is not common! Other posts can sometimes be found in the national press, but it is best to assume you have to be more pro-active in your job-hunting.
Let’s now look at a few of the common ways in:
If you are interested in a career in production, there are a number of ways to get a foot in the door:
# Approach production companies for work-experience as an assistant/runner/researcher/dogsbody… This may be unpaid, or for a very small wage if you’re lucky, but it will be a foot in. Once there, you will learn huge amounts about how the whole business works, and when you impress all around with your enthusiasm, efficiency and ideas you will be in a good position when a proper job becomes vacant. You will find contact details for production companies in Wild Pages: The Wildlife Film-makers’ Resource Guide. Approach with a brief covering letter explaining exactly what you are looking for, and your CV/résumé. Bear in mind that this has to impress within a matter of seconds – busy people with a stack of mail to get through are not suddenly going to stop work for twenty minutes to wade through your unsolicited life story.
# Some entrants to the wildlife film industry started their careers by working in other areas of television – news or children’s programme production for example. You may find these genres easier to get into, then you can learn skills and approach the wildlife producers with more ammunition.
# Pitch an idea. If you have a great idea for a programme (and better still – the contacts/access to the story) then you can pitch the idea directly to a production company/distributor/broadcaster. Ideally send no more than one page introduction and one page synopsis, plus your CV. In your covering letter explain exactly what you see your role being (eg researcher) and be realistic – you won’t be taken on as producer if you have no previous experience. You may find the following exercise useful as a template: Carefully research and target the companies you approach. Find out what sort of programmes they produce and where they are broadcast, and pitch to the sort of companies who already produce programmes in a similar style, and for a similar output, to your idea. Find out the name of the right person to send your pitch to and whether they have any guidelines.
Be aware – ideas can get stolen! There is a minority of unscrupulous producers who may find out all they can about your killer idea and then go and make the film without you. BUT – this is very rare, and if you keep your film to yourself it will never get made. Remember it is ‘only an idea’, and you should have lots of other ideas, and in any case many people may already have had the same idea and approached the same company with it! In the guide Wild Pages: The Wildlife Film-makers’ Resource Guide, companies have indicated which are open to pitched ideas and how best to approach them.
If you are looking for camera-work then the following are possible routes in:
# Approach camera operators to see if they need an assistant or are happy for you to shadow them. This may well be unpaid, and you may even have to offer to pay your travel and expenses along the way, but it will be invaluable experience if you can get it. It will certainly be hard work and you may have to do everything from carrying equipment to driving and cooking. You can either contact camera operators directly (you’ll find them listed in Wild Pages: The Wildlife Film-makers’ Resource Guide), or approach production companies and ask if they have any camera assistant work-experience/shadowing with any of their camera operators. ‘Shadowing’ basically means you just accompany a camera operator (unpaid of course) and learn from watching them. If you’re lucky they will teach you a great deal.
# If you are already skilled enough you can approach a company with your showreel on DVD. This should be about 5 minutes (never more than 10) of varied footage showing what you are capable of. It could accompany a pitch if you have a strong film idea as well. It has to be stunning – or why should they use you rather than the camera operators they are accustomed to using?
Package it in a DVD case with a beautifully designed inlay card, with colour shots and title. Also – address, phone, email, website, details of equipment available, and locations for material on the showreel.
If you want to be a presenter then again one approach is to target production companies with a showreel. It is incredibly competitive. Companies get many demos from wannabe wildlife film presenters – and many of them are dreadful! Don’t send yours in until you are sure it is as perfect as you can achieve – practise endlessly, get feedback, develop your style. Don’t spend years waiting to be discovered – get a life in the meantime! If you can get work-experience with a production company, for example, you will better placed in the future to land your showreel-to-die-for on the appropriate desk.
Wannabe wildlife sound recordists can compile an audio audition CD. You may also get unpaid work-experience by shadowing an accomplished sound recordist. Another approach is to contact camera operators directly to see if they need someone to help on the sound side with any forthcoming projects. You can also increase your skills by working in sound in a different genre – other areas of television or video or music production for example – it’s all good experience.
Don’t forget this is a very varied industry and there are other opportunities besides the conventional production company/television route. Some have successful careers using their skills for multimedia productions or for education and conservation. Some combine working part-time on wildlife films with other work (such as producing commercials) or with completely unrelated ventures. Others do not pigeon-hole themselves with just one job/skill but take on a variety of work such as writing, narrating, editing – freelancing here and there as they find the work. Job security is not what it was, to say the least! Adaptability and flexibility are key for survival (no pun intended!).
Above all you have to CREATE YOUR OPPORTUNITIES. No-one will come and seek you out – you have to be pro-active – and you must be passionate about the business. Be positive – forward-thinking – seize every chance you can – plan – focus – put yourself in the right places – get yourself known for the right reasons!
Your life is your work of art. Make it a good one!
Education and Training
One of the questions I am most often asked is ‘what qualifications does a wildlife film-maker need?’ Of course there is no easy answer to this. Some of the most successful people have almost no qualifications – certainly no relevant ones – while there are others who would not have got where they are today without a university degree in zoology.
Factors affecting the qualifications you should aim for are:
- Your age
- Your academic potential
- Your interests
- The sort of job you are aiming for
- Whether you want to be employed or freelance
Many other factors are often more important than qualifications in this industry – determination, enthusiasm, talent, experience for example. But, having said that, qualifications will always be a positive attribute, and in some cases are essential.
In all jobs connected with wildlife film-making the more you know about natural history the better. Much knowledge should come from your own interest, but qualifications in biology/zoology should certainly be pursued at school. Whether you go on to take a university degree depends on what you want to do – if you want to work in production with a large company, for example, then a biology/zoology degree will be highly desirable – sometimes a prerequisite.
If you’re a school-leaver and not sure exactly what you want to do – but know you want to work in the wildlife film-making industry – then a degree is probably the next-best step. Having said that I would definitely advise talking at least a year off before going to university. Get some experience of life/travel/the world etc and it will help you clarify your direction.
If you are seeking further qualifications there are various possibilities such as the specific courses in Natural History Film-making:
UWE (University of the West of England) – 1 year postgraduate MA Wildlife Filmmaking
University of Salford, UK – 1 year postgraduate MA Wildlife Documentary Production
National Film and Television School, UK – 2 year postgraduate Directing Natural History and Science MA
The University of Otago, New Zealand – 1 year postgraduate diploma in Natural History Filmmaking and Communication.
Montana State University at Bozeman – offers a 3 year postgraduate master’s course in Science and Natural History Filmmaking.
American University in Washington, DC – offers a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) degree with a concentration in environmental and wildlife filmmaking (Center for Environmental Filmmaking: www.environmentalfilm.org)
These courses are an excellent background but occur only in a couple of places in the world – so are beyond the reach/means of many people.
If you want to specialise in some aspect of natural history then you could follow other postgraduate routes such as a doctorate (PhD). If you specialised in ape behaviour for example, this may help you get work on an ape film (as researcher/producer), but you need to be aware that you cannot always expect to work in your chosen area of interest – so good general knowledge is important too.
Another approach is to take the film-school route. There are many film schools throughout the world and some have excellent courses specialising in documentary production. This route is more applicable if you are aiming for work as a camera operator, video editor etc – but, like biological qualifications, film-school qualifications can be useful whatever you do, giving you a great technological base.
For those without the time/means/inclination/academic ability to take three years or so to do a degree, there are plenty of other options for further training. Wildlife Film Festivals run various excellent workshops and masterclasses. For those wishing to improve certain specific skills there are short courses in all manner of technical and production skills (not specific to wildlife) at various colleges, training institutions, and studios. For example you can take short courses (from a day or two to a few weeks) in subjects such as editing, script-writing, DV camera operation etc. Of course you have to pay for these courses and they can be quite expensive. Bear in mind that experience in areas beyond your speciality may be very beneficial – for example if you intend to be a camera operator, but get a chance to do an editing course, then this will help you to understand how a film is put together, and what sort of footage is needed to create the finished product.
If you are employed by a larger production company then they should be willing to send you on a variety of short courses to improve your skills and enhance your career prospects – take every training opportunity you can. For some, the perfect start will be work-experience with a production company that also sends you on a number of training courses.
For those aiming to be freelance it is true to say that your experience and skill is more important than qualifications. Particularly if you have camera operator ambitions, your showreel will be your most important tool – but having said that, any background knowledge/training you have in natural history and film production techniques will be to your advantage, and help you to get a more complete picture of the industry
This guide includes extracts from the book ‘Careers in Wildlife Film-making‘ © Piers Warren
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