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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?