Oct 5
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Wildscreen With: Rodents of Unusual Size

Rodents of Unusual Size has been nominated for the Wildscreen People and Nature Panda Award. This documentary explores the relationship with the people of Louisiana and the nutria, large South American rodents, which are decimating the landscape. 

We spoke with directors Chris Metzler, Quinn Costello & Jeff Springer about making this film.

When did you start making films and where did your interest in the industry stem from?

Chris and Jeff met at film school at the University of Southern California (USC). For Quinn, it was all about being high school and re-creating scenes from his favorite films to crack his friends up. There wasn’t much else to do in his little town in Idaho.  It started becoming a challenge of always wanting to raise the stakes and see where he and his friends could go next. Once he was hooked he couldn’t stop and now here we are.  All of us love to travel and meeting interesting people, so making documentaries helps us do both.

 

What made you decide to make a film about rodents considering your background of making country and rock and roll music videos?

A lot of life is serendipity and we’re ever curious, so we have pursued unique opportunities wherever we go.

The three of us are big fans of quirky documentaries with interesting characters trying to overcome the odds. Even though this movie is about giant swamp rats (and what’s not to love about that?), we hope the broader environmental themes resonate beyond the animals.

Many years ago, when we were on tour with a previous film, “Plagues & Pleasures On The Salton Sea,” we became friends with a theater programmer who was from a generations-old Cajun family in the southeast part of the state of Louisiana and she introduced me to the subject matter of nutria: A Rodent Of Unusual Size. However, we were involved in the making of another film at that time, so we filed the story idea away. We kept kicking around ideas about how best to approach the story, and at one point we just decided that we needed to jump on an airplane and head to Louisiana. Once we got down there, you get taken in by beauty of the area, the sheer number of nutria that were destroying the wetlands and the unbelievable dedication and joy of the people who were tackling the issue. We think this movie resonates best with those who have a taste for the offbeat. It’s part horror story, part environmental love affair and a biopic of a giant invasive rat. What’s not to like?

 

Rodents of Unusual Size directors; Jeff Springer, Chris Metzler & Quinn Costello

 

Did you take any different approaches when filming animals compared to your previous experience making films? Did you have to contend with any interesting situations or unexpected curveballs? 

It was definitely a new experience, as none of us are wildlife photographers or hunters.  But with that said, putting ourselves in new situations is one of things we really enjoy about making documentaries.  So at first we were just really curious and keeping an open mind.

It probably was tougher for Jeff because as being both a director and cinematographer he had put his face up close and personal with all of those nutria. But he always felt that looking through the lens or at the viewfinder kind of creates a barrier to all of this action you are witnessing and so you feel a bit detached. But as the bodies pile up (any given hunt could yield a body count as high as 300 nutrias) and you look up from the camera it quickly brings you back to reality.

And then after a while when you see the destruction they cause and consider how many other animals are going to suffer because of that, we started to understand and accept that hunting is just part of what’s necessary and controlling their numbers. Also, hunting is not just about collecting food. It’s really an activity that bonds families together.

© Gabrielle Savoy

“Hard headed Louisiana fisherman Thomas Gonzales doesn’t know what will hit him next. After decades of hurricanes and oil spills he faces a new threat – hordes of monstrous 20 pound swamp rats. Known as “nutria”, these invasive South American rodents breed faster than the roving squads of hunters can control them. And with their orange teeth and voracious appetite they are eating up the coastal wetlands that protects Thomas and his town of Delacroix Island from hurricanes.”

 

The human stories are really what make this film shine, do you think this is a more successful route in engaging the public with conservation issues?

It is a tricky one to answer as we aren’t advocacy minded filmmakers.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have strong personal opinions when it comes to the environment, but it’s not what motivates us to tell the stories we do.  We always go into a film to explore the nuances about the difficult decisions in life and we hope in sharing these human centered stories (with humor) the audience will empathize with their way of life and at least be curious to dig deeper and learn more.  That’s a long way of say, “yes.”

The film tackles the issue of nutria with a level of humour, despite it being a very serious issue regarding the loss of wetland and elemental protection for the residents. What is the overall feeling of Louisiana residents toward their future in this environment and its sustainability?

Louisianans live life one day at a time and do it with a sense of joy.  They’re practical and know that things are always changing, so they accept their fate that everyone will have to continue to adapt.

 

Has the wetland started to show signs of recovery with any increase in biodiversity?

The nutria control program is making enormous strides in controlling their numbers. Over the course of the program they’ve gone from more than 20 million down to about 5 million. So we would say that there has been a lot of success, although as Thomas says, “as long as there are two left there’s going to be millions more.”  There is no way getting around it, nutria like to breed and have lots of babies.

Because of this success, PETA has kind of been silent on the issue as many see it as the lesser of two evils.

 

Has the nutria catching been met with any resistance? Trap tampering, protests etc.

In the rural areas not so much, but in urban areas more wealthy people have a fondness for the nutria and feed them, so they often tamper with traps.

 

California is now facing a nutria invasion, do you think the people of California will be as understanding to a cull, or even to the utilisation of any catches for products such as fur and meat?

We promise we didn’t introduce them as a street level marketing opportunity for the film.  :)  I think Californians in general will be more resistant to culling the animals as it is such a new and unusual issue to many of us.

 

Many thanks to Chris, Jeff & Quinn for talking to us, and for making such a fantastic and engaging documentary telling the story of a new and unusual environmental issue.

The trailer is available to watch below, and the whole documentary will be available for public viewing at the Wildscreen Festival in Bristol on Tuesday 16 October 2018, at the Arnolfini.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of Festival speakers and screenings!

RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZE  from Tilapia Film

…They DO exsist! 😱

 

Sep 24
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Wildscreen With – Tom Hooker: Hedgehog Close

The small but mighty film ‘Hedgehog Close’ has been nominated for two Wildscreen Panda Awards: Impact (small budget) and Children’s Award. This 2-minute film is an engaging stop motion animation which shines a spotlight on the plight of the hedgehog in the UK.

We spoke to Film Director Tom Hooker, from Zest Productions, about making this film and the recognition it has received.

Hedgehog close is a really fun little film. What made you decide to get involved with this project?

I wanted to make something fun and different, but with a strong conservation message. After brainstorming a few ideas, I settled on Hedgehogs. They are declining rapidly but this downwards trend could still be reversed by very simple actions. There is an urgency to this and I felt that it could be addressed powerfully through video. Working with a small budget meant scaling everything down and the idea of building models to depict an ‘ideal’ hedgehog habitat appealed to me. This fitted the original vision to create something warm and charming and also seemed like a useful device to tell the story.

Being nominated for the Children’s Award means the film was a hit with our toughest judges: a group of 8-12 year olds! Was the aim at the outset to create a film for a younger audience?

It’s fantastic the film has been so well received by young audiences. This was definitely a priority from the outset and influenced every aspect of production. The most challenging part was writing a script that clearly communicated the key points without sounding too preachy……or dull! Beyond that, the models needed to look appealing and paying attention to small details helped make it more visually exciting. Lots of inspiration was drawn from the brilliant work of Aardman Animations who excel at captivating both young and adult audiences. The film is still being shown in schools around the country and many parents and teachers have got in touch to request copies and pass on positive feedback which has been brilliant.

The aptly named ‘hedgehog at fence obstacle’ shot | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

What does it take for a film to successfully engage with the intended audience?

I think it’s vital to weigh every decision and element against the intended audience. Whoever they are, and whatever age group, people have short attention spans and plenty of other distractions. It’s important to give people a reason to keep watching at every stage. In the case of Hedgehog Close which was distributed on social media, it needed to be short and to the point. There were other models and scenes which never made it into the film as it was a priority to keep it under two minutes. In the end, every shot, and almost every word, had a purpose! As far as the creative stuff goes, the visual style is important and music obviously plays a huge part too, as does the tone and delivery of the voiceover. I think it helped being mindful of all these elements from the outset.

We also created a dedicated twitter account for the film where we tried to push it out far and wide. It was important to me to get the film seen outside a traditional wildlife audience to avoid preaching to the converted. The language used around its promotion was also important so as not to turn people off.

How important was the presence of Gordon Buchanan as the narrator? What did he bring to the production?

Gordon’s voice was the icing on the cake and provided the perfect tone and feel. A warm, friendly voice that simply flows with the pictures without being over bearing or too ‘instructional’. For me, it was important to have a recognisable voice that was trustworthy and genuine. I always imagined it being read softly as a bedtime story before functioning as a powerful conservation film and I feel Gordon’s tone makes it work on both levels.

The film is made by stop motion animation, what is it about this style of filmmaking that lends itself to this particular film?

There are several reasons why stop motion felt like the right choice. For starters, we could make the hedgehogs move wherever we wanted and show this from any angle. I wasn’t too concerned about smooth motion and perfect technique as much of the film’s character lies in its rustic, home-made style. The model hedgehogs fit into the environment better than a computer generated version would have done and, crucially, it was also a lot cheaper! Stop motion also lends itself to a more nostalgic, family friendly feel that I wanted to capture. As a lighting cameraman, I enjoy lighting real objects in three dimensions whilst thinking about textures, shadows and how they interact. Consequently, I think it produces images that are more eye catching and engaging than a 2D animation would have been.

The main point in the film is about connectivity, illustrating the purpose of joining neighbouring gardens and allowing hedgehogs to roam. By using stop motion we were able to show this happening. With 30cm high houses, it was possible to film aerial shots and move between fence-lines without needing a huge crane, big lights and obliging residents! The resultant look hopefully has more charm and visual appeal too.

The whole set with camera on motorised slider | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

There is an incredible amount of attention to detail in the film, how did you go about creating all the scenes? And how long did the entire filmmaking process take?!

Adding the detail was definitely a lot of fun! The basic script just required a living room, shed and a series of gardens. It was only at the time of building them that they began to take on more character and interest……And absorb more time! The basic structures were made from cardboard and balsa wood although many other obscure items were also used, ranging from lolly sticks for roof tiles to coffee granules and tea bag contents for soil. Most of the wallpapers and brickwork patterns were created in photoshop and then glued onto card.

The houses under construction – tiles were individually added to provide texture and some realism | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

The model building process started slowly as it was important to establish the right scale. The models had to be large enough to be workable and allow the desired depth of field, but also not so large that we would have been forced to hire Pinewood Studios! Some sets were built to two different scales to enable certain shots.

Lots of time was spent on the internet browsing houses and gardens which helped inspire some of the designs. I wanted each house and garden to be individual whilst still being in keeping with the overall style. The alleyway was based on a familiar local alley, complete with wheelie bins.

The entire filmmaking process took about six months from start to end. This was from the original idea to the final release of the film during Hedgehog Awareness Week. It was helpful to have a deadline or it could still be going on!

Attention to detail: the hedgehog themed living room (above) and the scattering of moss, lichen and grass | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

In addition to two Panda Award nominations, this production has won multiple awards including People’s Choice at the Charity Film Awards. What has been the wider impact of the film since its release?

It would be great to know how many new hedgehog highways have been created as a result of the film! There’s definitely a few but what has also been rewarding is hearing from people who previously had no idea about the plight of hedgehogs and pledged to make changes following the film. I was conscious from the start that we needed to avoid preaching to the converted so found these moments very reassuring. It was initially shared on Facebook and twitter by BBC Springwatch, The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the RSPB but very quickly spread. It was great to see the film being retweeted and shared by various well known people outside of the ‘conservation circle’ including comedians, presenters and Aardman Animations Producer Peter Lord who praised its charm!

The film is still being distributed by the Hedgehog Society and shown within schools and educational settings which is fantastic. This will hopefully continue until a time when every street is like Hedgehog Close and their population begins to recover.

Many thanks for talking to us Tom, the film is available to watch below.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of Festival speakers and screenings!

Hedgehog Close from Zest Productions on Vimeo.

Sep 11
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Wildscreen With: Lindsey Paretti – Blood Island

Lindsey Paretti’s debut film Blood Island has been nominated for two Wildscreen Panda Awards: Emerging Talent and Shorts. This 12-minute film tells the story of chimpanzees in Liberia which were infected with hepatitis and underwent testing in order to ‘unlock the mysteries of human diseases’. The experiments lasted for three decades before ending in 2007, however the remaining chimps – raised in captivity and still infected – were transported to remote islands in the West African country. Blood Island tells the powerful story of the chimpanzees, their captors and the people still fighting to save them.

We spoke to Lindsey about how she found making her first film and the recognition it has received.

Blood Island is your first production as a filmmaker but you have previously worked for almost 10 years as a journalist. What made you decide to put down a pen and pick up a camera?!

I picked up a camera, an iPhone actually, while I was living and reporting in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution. There were days when thousands of people were out protesting but state TV channels were broadcasting footage of empty streets. A lot of times you could only find out what was really going on by being physically present at any event, and even then it was chaotic with so many conflicting agendas and narratives. I realised that I had to go back to the basics of a journalist as a witness. Video evidence seemed both the most accessible and least controvertible way to show what was happening. It’s still why I love film; films have the power to reach everyone regardless of language or background.

The story behind the chimps and their banishment to remote islands is shocking, how did you first hear about it and come up with the idea for the film?

Actually it was right here in Bristol. I was looking for an idea for my master’s film when I attended a conservation talk at Bristol Zoo. The topic of the talk had nothing to do with the chimps, but I just heard someone say “blood chimps” and “Liberia” toward the end and it immediately piqued my interest. When I got home and started researching the story I just kept unearthing more and more surprising layers.

Image result for blood island film

We heard you only had 2 and a half days to film in Liberia! How did you find filming in the country and did you have to contend with any interesting situations or unexpected curveballs?

I was actually terrified during the entire planning and filming process that it might not come together. Working to tight deadlines as a journalist definitely helped me to get what I needed on location, but the humidity did play with the cameras and mics. The drone stopped working (we ended up just using it handheld for some of the shots). It certainly wasn’t ideal but in other ways I was really lucky, especially with how strong the human and chimp characters turned out to be.

How does it feel to not only have won a BAFTA for your debut film, but also have two nominations for the ‘Green Oscars’ of natural world storytelling?

Pretty surreal. I was a volunteer at the last Wildscreen when I was just starting my MA in Wildlife Filmmaking in Bristol. I absolutely loved it and it was amazing hearing from the best people in this craft about their work, but I had no idea then I’d be returning as a nominee. It’s wonderful being embraced by BAFTA and the wildlife film industry here in Bristol. I’m just taking it as a sign we should keep pushing for more environmental impact stories on screen.

We are running an environmental film competition with Earthwatch Europe for 14-17 year olds; what advice would you give to a budding wildlife filmmaker just starting out?

Judging by the work of the young natural history photographers I’ve seen I don’t think they need my advice! I guess I’d say everyone has a different path to follow so use your own strengths to pursue your passion. Be generous, share your skills and don’t be afraid to reach out to people for help. I think we could take inspiration from young people – at that age you think you can change the world. We’re all going to need some of that passion and conviction if we hope to make a difference.

You can find out more about this incredible story by watching the entire film below:

Lindsey Parietti will be speaking at Wildscreen Festival 2018, held in Bristol later this year: join host, Emanuelle Biggi, as he meets Lindsey and other emerging storytellers to discover what drives them to use their work to inspire stewardship of our wild things and wild places.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of speakers!

Sep 4
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Wildscreen With: Rise of the Warrior Apes’ John Mitani

Rise Of The Warrior Apes is the award-winning wildlife documentary and a Panda Award nominee at this year’s Wildscreen Festival. The film, by James Reed, tells the twenty-year story of the largest and most powerful chimpanzee society ever known. Through the extraordinary lives of four unique chimps we experience an intense political drama and bloody conflict in the African jungle. Using previously unseen footage, and witness testimony from the scientists who have observed and filmed them since 1993, the film reveals a story of unbreakable friendship, fierce rivalry and unparalleled ambition that gave rise to the warrior apes of Ngogo.

John Mitani, a primate behaviourist and university professor, is one of the scientists featured in Rise of the Warrior Apes. John has studied the chimpanzees of Ngogo for over 20 years, after his first visit in 1995, and shares with us some of his experience.

John Mitani, University of Michigan Professor, in the Ugandan forest, home to the Ngogo chimpanzee community

During your years studying primate behaviour, what separates the chimpanzees from the other primates groups you have studied?

I started my career 40 years ago studying the two Asian apes, gibbons and orangutans. Gibbons live in small, socially monogamous groups, and orangutans often roam the forest by themselves. This limits the number and types of social relationships they can form.

Chimpanzees are quite different as they live in relatively large groups, ranging anywhere from 20 to 200 individuals, called “communities.” Male chimpanzees live in their natal communities their entire lives and form strong long-lasting social bonds with each other reinforced through a variety of behaviors, including grooming, helping each other in fights, and sharing scarce and valuable resources such as meat obtained in hunts.

Beyond this chimps also display a suite of unusual behaviors not often found in other primates. These include the previously mentioned hunting vertebrate prey, tool-making and use, and quite shockingly, killing other chimpanzees.

What were you looking for when you first followed the Ngogo community?

I had been conducting fieldwork with chimpanzees at the Mahale Mountains National Park for several years prior to visiting Ngogo in 1995. I was working with one of the pioneers in the study of wild chimpanzees, the late Toshisada Nishida.

I had every intention of continuing to work with Nishida, as he was a mentor, colleague, and dear friend, who taught me the ways of wild chimpanzees. I wanted to come to Ngogo because it was in Kibale National Park, one of the world’s legendary primate field sites, established by another friend, Tom Struhsaker. I just wanted to see the place. But after only a few weeks at Ngogo, I realized that there was something very strange there. There were a lot of chimpanzees, and they were everywhere! As things turn out, there were well over 100 chimpanzees in the Ngogo community. This was an order of magnitude larger than any other chimpanzee community that had been described before.

So the first question to address was how did so many chimpanzees manage to live together? And by doing so, would they reveal secrets of their lives that had not been documented elsewhere?

The initial challenge of studying the Ngogo chimpanzees was that they were not used to human presence. They would run away every time we would encounter them, it took considerable time to habituate them so that we could follow and observe their behavior. In those early days there were times I wondered if habituating them was the best use of my time. In retrospect, though, it was fun, stimulating, and ultimately rewarding.

What is your favourite aspect of your research?
Behavioral research on chimpanzees has been, and always will be, an observational science. So I enjoy spending long periods following chimpanzees and watching what they do. Occasionally, patience pays off with an “aha” moment that leads to a new discovery.

But now, having studied wild chimpanzees for nearly 30 years, I relish some magical, almost spiritual-like moments that are hard to describe. Imagine this: I am out alone with a large party of chimpanzees. There is an abundance of food, and there are perhaps 40, 50, maybe even 60 chimpanzees together. And it’s a glorious, dry, sunlit day. The chimpanzees have settled down to rest and socialize. Everywhere I look, there are chimpanzees on the ground. A few adult males groom. Moms relax and begin to doze off as their kids start to play. Some of the youngsters wrestle, laughing noisily in the process. Others chase each other in small saplings and then drop to the ground with a thud. I have experienced countless times like this, and as I survey the scene, I am overcome with utter joy.

I am astonished that the chimps permit me to be a part of their world, and I feel that I am the luckiest person on Earth. Moments like these may be the most important reason I continue to study chimpanzees at the ripe old age of 64!

“I am astonished that the chimps permit me to be a part of their world”

What has been your most surprising observation?
We have been able to document many surprising findings based on our study of the Ngogo chimpanzees, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to decide which observation has been the most astonishing. One obvious candidate is the split that has recently occurred.

 Toward the end of Rise of the Warrior Apes we allude to the fact that the Ngogo chimpanzee community had grown to an astronomical size, with over 200 individuals. Since 2015, and during 2016 while James Reed filmed part of the documentary, males from two subgroups started to fight with each other in the same way members from different communities do. Like many other animals, chimpanzees are territorial. For three years as this was happening, some males would continue to move back and forth between the two subgroups. This stopped earlier this year; males from both sides now show a clear allegiance to one group or the other.

The defining moment that signalled a split in the Ngogo chimpanzee community occurred earlier this year in January 2018 when males from one group killed a young adult male from the other group. Because chimps are territorial, intergroup encounters are hostile, but sometimes hostilities escalate to the point where someone falls victim.

Why did the initial split occur? That’s an issue we are currently grappling with now. It’s complicated as it involves, ecological, demographic, social, and genetic factors. It’s also a story that deserves a follow-up documentary! Stay tuned.

Why is your research important and what are the applications to what you have found?

Chimpanzees fascinate scientists and non-scientists alike, in part due to their evolutionary relationship with us. Along with their sister species, the bonobo, chimpanzees are humankind’s closest living relatives. We shared a common ancestor with them sometime between 6 to 8 million years ago. Because of this evolutionary relationship, we share many features in common with them, anatomically, genetically, and as I’ve alluded to before, even behaviorally. Our research on the Ngogo chimpanzees continues to shed new light on wild chimpanzee behavior, often in surprising ways that reduce the gap between them and us.

Chimpanzees are endangered everywhere they are found across the African continent. Sadly, research on them continues to show, time in and time out, that they are extremely vulnerable and at risk, with populations declining. Happily, the story from Ngogo is different and indicates that when living in specific ecological conditions, chimpanzees can live a very long time, thrive, and actually increase in numbers. We will have to identify areas similar to Ngogo and work hard to protect them and chimpanzees so that our children, our children’s children, and generations into the future continue to share this planet with these fascinating creatures.

“An increased understanding of chimpanzees is likely lead to more interest in protecting and conserving them”

What impact to do you hope Rise of the Warrior Apes has upon the field of primate studies?

Primate field research is a small and esoteric discipline. Not many are lucky to be able to do what I do. If the discipline is to grow and thrive, we must educate the public about what we do, why we do it, and why it’s important. Knowledge is power, and an increased understanding of chimpanzees is likely lead to more interest in protecting and conserving them.

There are multiple ways to engage the person on the street to learn about chimpanzees and other primates. Films like Rise of the Warrior Apes are perhaps the best way to teach the public about these animals because wildlife documentaries attract broad attention from people worldwide. So my first hope is that the film will translate in greater understanding of chimpanzees. This is bound to help the study of primates for the reason mentioned above.

Rise of the Warrior Apes was made by James Reed, a brilliant young filmmaker and master storyteller. All the credit for the film goes to him and to the Ngogo chimps. The film has already received some critical acclaim, and my second hope is that this will provide more opportunities for James to do what he does best, namely make and direct extraordinary wildlife films that educate the public. In doing so, he will be able to contribute to primate and animal behavior studies and conservation in a significant way.

This sounds incredibly exciting, we look forward to seeing what is released next – thank you John for your time!

John Mitani, alongside James Reed, will speaking at Wildscreen Festival 2018, held in Bristol later this year. You’ll be able to hear more of his work with The Ngogo Chimpanzee Project and James’  experience filming this amazing community.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of speakers!

 

Aug 21
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Top Tips for Becoming a Wildlife Filmmaker

As part of our new Young Earthwatcher Film Competition with Earthwatch, we have been talking to producers and wildlife filmmakers about their experiences in the field, and what tips they would pass on to budding young filmmakers.

First up is factual TV producer Sophie Morgan, who has worked on a variety of natural history productions, from short wildlife films for The One Show to that scene in Blue Planet II, where Giant Trevallies were leaping into the air to catch seabirds in the Seychelles.

Sophie Morgan, Factual TV Producer

  1. Find Your Niche

Wildlife filmmaking covers a wide range of subjects. For new starters I would recommend picking a subject or skill you love or issue you are passionate about and running with it. Whether it’s following the lives of insects in macro detail, honing your timelapse skills or being an advocate for ocean conservation, being a specialist in one area will make you and your films stand out from the crowd. My specialism is underwater and my diving qualifications and marine knowledge are what landed me a role on Blue Planet II.

  1. Get Outside

Whether you have a relevant degree or not, nothing beats field experience. And you don’t have to go to Africa or the Coral Triangle to get it. I was fortunate enough to get field experience abroad, but I’ve subsequently learnt a great deal more from tracking, studying and filming wildlife in the UK. And my cold water UK diving experience is far more impressive to employers than my stints in the tropics. There are many local wildlife groups keen for volunteers – something I still do and learn from to this day. So whether it’s birding, mammal surveys, moth trapping or rock pooling, go outdoors, spend time with other naturalists, observe and ask questions. I’m always curious and always thinking about how things can be conveyed in film. I literally have a notebook filled with behaviours and ideas for potential future projects.

© James Warwick

  1. Get Inspired

Seek inspiration from other filmmakers. Watch and study both wildlife and other types of film. As technology and creativity pushes the boundaries away from conventional natural history documentary, there is far more of a crossover with other genres. Recently filming a macro sequence for upcoming series ‘Hostile Planet’, our team took a tea break to watch relevant scenes from both BBC’s The Hunt and Marvel’s Ant Man. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to others in the industry for advice – we were all in your shoes once and I’m still learning too.

  1. Think About Your Story

Try and be different to what’s come before you – whether it’s a new story, a new angle or a new way of filming it that delivers a unique perspective. It’s also really important that your story can be visualised. So many animal behaviours are fascinating to me, but if they are so subtle you have to explain them with narrative then your audience will turn off, or your producer will tell you to ditch them before you even start! If you are tackling an environmental issue you have to work especially hard to create visual engagement, so be creative – use illustrations, archive and stunts to keep the audience on board. I find creating a shotlist or storyboard in an advance of shooting is vital to work this out.

  1. Do Your Research

Once you’ve decided on your story immerse yourself in relevant content – articles, scientific papers and videos (and always make a note of your references for when it comes to checking your facts). Make time to contact and speak with experts in the field. If you are looking to film a behaviour than there is nothing more useful than an eyewitness (ideally you want to speak to several as they may have different takes) – these can be scientists, but also people that spend time in the area or with the subject – for me it is often also divers, photographers, fishermen and watersports operators. Remember that these people don’t often make films, so ask them specific questions. A good one, handed down to me from a senior producer, is ‘If I come for a week, how often would I expect to see the behaviour?’ – remember this needs to be a decent number of times to get a camera on it and cut a story. Make sure your research also tackles your approach to filming and how you will avoid disturbing the animal – for example, will you need a hide? I often have to navigate filming animals that are disturbed by scuba divers by utilizing closed circuit rebreathers (no bubbles!), free diving or even pole cams.

Just remember – a fed crew is a happy crew! | © Shannon Wild

  1. Planning and logistics

Not the most entertaining part of the job, but it is vital that you have a plan for access to the site and the time spent filming, and that your crew are adequately briefed on this. It will increase your efficiency. Build in enough time for things to run over (as they will), but also knowing when to move on is an important skill. Do not underestimate the importance of arranging food – a fed crew is a happy crew. Safety is important, even on a personal project. Ask the question – ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ and make sure you know how to react in most situations – at minimum have access to basic first aid and emergency numbers.

  1. Invest Time and Effort

Whilst working on Blue Planet II I filmed the story of a lifetime – Giant Trevallies leaping into the air to hunt birds in the Seychelles. I nearly wrote the words ‘I was lucky enough…’ to precede this, but let’s face it, it wasn’t luck. It was months of thorough research and planning. And once on location we were blighted by strong winds and figuring out how to put a camera on a behaviour that could happen anywhere and was over in the blink of an eye. The patience required here was a learning curve for me; it took us over a week, working with an experienced local fisherman, to learn to read the behaviour and get our first shot in the can. Wildlife filmmaking is not glamourous, its hard physical work and long hours spent in often harsh environments. I’m sure that as soon as I mentioned the Seychelles my friends pictured me with a cocktail in hand on a sun lounger, when in reality I spent my long days dragging kit around a hot, windy, bird poo covered island. It just happens I’m mad enough to love that kind of thing.

  1. Always shoot B-Roll

It’s easy to get engrossed in your main story when shooting, but remember to shoot around your key shots. Whether it’s the gesturing hands of your contributor, a boat passing in the background, or a non-leading animal giving a comical look it will all add depth to your film and can even make up for missing something you thought was vital. You’ll be thankful in the edit. If you have any editor friends ask if you can observe them cutting to understand what shots they find useful.

  1. Expect the Unexpected

Inevitably, the unforeseen can and will occur. Contributors will get stuck in traffic, animals will behave in mysterious ways and, if you are me, the fish you came to film will have been completely removed from the area by local hobby fishermen on their summer holidays (true story). Keep a cool head and be creative. Also allow yourself to be flexible in your story – being on location can lead you to find another interesting twist or behaviour if you aren’t too blinkered. And sometimes you may find a story that betters yours – don’t be so rigid to your plan that you miss out.

If Sophie has inspired you to try your hand at wildlife filmmaking, why not enter the Young Earthwatcher Film Competition and put her top tips to the test?

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