Wildlife filming: What producers should know
So, you need some wildlife sequences for your production but don’t know where to start? Don’t panic! There are numerous professionals out there who can help you. The first thing to bear in mind is that filming wildlife on location is a specialist activity.
Many of the best wildlife camera operators are freelance and spend their entire careers purely filming wildlife. Many of them develop specialities within the genre – such as high speed filming (for slow-motion footage), time lapse, macro and aerials. All these techniques are often used while filming wildlife.
To get the best results in the shortest space of time you’ll be better off employing an experienced wildlife camera specialist. There are many to choose from, and from all corners of the earth. If you need some film of lions in Kenya, for example, your best option may well be to employ a camera operator who is already based and operating in Kenya. They are likely to already own the equipment required and will know exactly where to go to find and film the required wildlife quickly. This can save you a lot of money flying people and equipment all over the world.
There are various ways to find the right crew: online directories such as Wildlife-Film or The International Association of Wildlife Film-makers, as well as printed guides such as Wild Pages (The Wildlife Film-makers Resource Guide).
Crews for wildlife filming are nearly always small, often only the camera operator, but sometimes accompanied by a producer or assistant/driver. Of course it’s important not to disturb the wildlife while filming (for ethical reasons and also to capture natural behaviour) which is partly why wildlife camera operators usually prefer to work alone.
Sound recording on location is vital (and often forgotten about until the editor asks for atmospheres from the particular habitat!) so do ensure that the camera operator is briefed to also record sections of audio atmosphere (recommend three-minute continuous recordings) making careful note of location and time of day, species heard and so on. If the budget allows, it would be better to use a specialist wildlife sound recordist – there are many superb ones to choose from whom, again, will have all the right equipment to do a great job.
Directors are rarely involved unless a presenter is used in the production, and with wildlife films the producer may also be acting as director if required. Other crew depend on the size of the task. If work in the field will take some time there may well be a need for a base camp, which will require drivers, cooks, porters, guides, guards and so on. If this is the case, and certainly if you are operating in a country you are not familiar with, you are strongly advised to use the services of a location manager/fixer.
Most countries will have suitable fixers who have great experience in helping wildlife film shoots. If you were filming in the iconic Masai Mara for example (possibly the most filmed location for wildlife in the world) you could do no better but to use Jean Hartley from Viewfinders. Fixers like Jean will help with filming permits, licenses, permissions, transport, vehicles, camp crews, translators, guides, equipment hire (camping and filming) as well as the all-important side of getting you through airports smoothly if required. This is not to be overlooked; having your filming equipment held up in customs for days or even weeks can be highly expensive as well as frustrating. If desired the fixer will also be able to help with filming facilities and crews - depending on location they may well be your first port of call to discuss the project and the best ways of tackling it.
Working with wildlife on location will bring its own set of possible pitfalls and health and safety issues and you must have plans to address these. Your location manager will be able to help with this and point out hazards you may not have thought of. What to do if the camera operator is bitten by a snake for example, or goes down with malaria, or drops the main camera in a river. What to do if the vehicle breaks down in the bush, or the camp is flooded, or the sound recordist is arrested or kidnapped. These may sound like bizarre occurrences but they’ve all happened to me or my colleagues!
If underwater wildlife footage is required then it is even more crucial to employ specialists as the crew will need to be skilled divers as well as camera operators. With all the extra equipment and facilities needed, a production involving a lot of underwater sequences can easily be twice as expensive as a purely terrestrial one.
If aerials are required – and they often are in wildlife films to give a sense of habitat, scale and so on, don’t go rushing to your normal helicopter rental company. Not only are they expensive but the noise will frighten any wildlife away for miles. Investigate the use of remote-controlled helicopters. These have recently become very popular as cameras have become smaller and lighter, and the new machines, often with four, six or eight rotors, come with camera giro-stabilisation, GPS, many extra gadgets and are far quieter than the real thing. Although they are also rapidly becoming more affordable you will be well advised to use a trained operator with these as it is a skilled task and they will need the right licences and insurance.
If your film just requires a short sequence of a fairly common animal such as a leopard or hippopotamus, you may be tempted to film it in a local zoo or wildlife park. This will certainly be far cheaper and easier but you have to bear in mind that the animal is unlikely to be behaving like a wild animal, and long shots will be difficult (without it looking obviously like a zoo). You are also likely to have the wrong vegetation in the background and certainly the wrong sound.
Remember that if the production is a wildlife documentary, you should clearly state if parts of it were filmed in captivity or controlled conditions. Some large producers have recently been heavily criticised for not doing this clearly enough – the public feeling that they are being misled. If you can get the footage in the wild, without endangering the wildlife or the crew, then do so.
This brings us on to the final consideration of ethics, many of which are unique to wildlife filming. There are a few producers/broadcasters who have their own code of ethics. The following principles and guidelines for working in the field were developed by the international organisation Filmmakers for Conservation, which I was one of the founders of in 2000.
- Always place the welfare of the subject above all else;
- Ensure that your subjects are not caused any physical harm, anxiety, consequential predation or lessened reproductive success by your activities;
- Don't do anything that will permanently alter the natural behaviour of your subject. Be aware that habituation, baiting, and feeding may place your subjects at risk and may be lethal;
- It is unacceptable to restrict or restrain an animal by any means to attract a predator;
- Subjects should never be drugged or restrained in order to alter their behaviour for the sole purpose of filming;
- Be aware of and follow all local and national laws regarding wildlife where you are filming;
- Be courteous to your contributors (give appropriate credit where it is due). Whenever possible give copies of the finished programme, a copy of a long edit of an appropriate scene, and/or publicity photographs to the people who helped you;
- Images or scripts that give an audience abnormal, false or misleading information about a subject or its behaviour should be avoided;
- Always research your subject prior to filming.
Guidelines for working in the field:
- Restore all sites to their original state before you leave (for example: tie back rather than cut vegetation);
- Be aware and take precautions, as some species will permanently quit a site just because of your odour;
- Keep film, video equipment and crew at a distance sufficient to avoid site or subject disturbance;
- Night shooting with artificial lights can require precautions to avoid making the subject vulnerable to predation;
- Be prepared to meet unexpected conditions without damaging the environment or subject. Be especially prepared and deal with any people attracted by your activities as they could put the subject at risk;
- Be aware that filming a den or nest site could attract predators;
- The use of tame or captive animals should be acknowledged. If using tame or captive animals, ensure the subject receives proper care and make sure the subject's trainer or custodian is always present during filming.
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