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Wildlife filming feature & tips from Steffan Hewitt By Nancy Cavill on behalf of Polecam
FROM camping out in the Arctic to film walrus to pitching up on a rocky outcrop to film gannets in Scotland, a wildlife cameraman’s lot is never an easy one.
But an invitation to film wildlife is always tempting, revealed experienced cameraman Steffan Hewitt.
Steffan, who’s been a cameraman for more than two decades, has tackled plenty of extreme jobs – so last summer’s wildlife shoot on a tiny, rocky outcrop off Scotland’s east coast sounded like a walk in the park in comparison with three weeks living on the Arctic ice filming for the production Arctic Tale.
He was asked by the RSPB to film breeding birds on Bass Rock, an island which is home to thousands of gannets, as well as on the sea around the island.
Armed with his trusty Polecam crane (he is the owner-inventor of the lightweight, portable crane) Steffan was able to get all his kit onto a tiny fishing boat, and get it off onto the steep-sided island quickly – but not without incident.
“We had to get off the boat and set up on the rock in the middle of gannet headquarters – and they didn’t take too kindly to our arrival. Some of them dive-bombed us and one of them actually drew blood from the camera assistant."
“Luckily, because the Polecam is so transportable it was easy to get on and off the boat and quick to set up on the island – the less time wasted in these situations the better,” laughed Steffan.
“When we were unloading it the swell meant the boat was bobbing up or down by five or six feet – it’s not like putting your bags on a carousel!”
They had a small window for filming, due to the tides, then it was back on the boat to capture footage of the gannets fishing – both above and below the water. Thanks to Polecam’s Fish Face submersible remote-controlled pan/tilt head there was no need to change heads to get the above and below water shots and, luckily, no need for extra kit on the already-crowded boat.
“We had one day to film with an eight-hour window of daylight, so like any wildlife job, if you need to be there when the sun comes up it’s a very early start,” said Steffan. “Wildlife filming is like that – it’s not for you if you like a warm, dry studio or regular hours. It can also be hugely frustrating."
“On Arctic Tale I spent four hours crawling through ice, slush and walrus poop just to get within 20 feet of the walrus pack. I’d just got into position when someone popped their head over the cliff not knowing the pack was there – and within 30 seconds they’d all disappeared.”
The repetitive diet you can expect on a shoot in remote locations is also something Steffan warns would-be wildlife cameramen about.
“When I was filming Arctic Tale we camped out on the ice for three weeks. The food we had with us was basically just pork chops – we ate them every day, twice a day – with the odd helping of beluga whale. I’m not fussy, and I like sushi, but it was like a lump of salty, gritty, fishy cold leather. Still it provided fantastic energy, and you don’t really have a choice – that’s how it is in all kinds of wildlife filming situations."
“Of course the reason why so many of us do it is the thrill of getting that shot, whatever difficulties you have to go through to get it. Even if it takes weeks or months to get one amazing shot, it really is quite a fantastic feeling of achievement.”
Steffan’s wildlife filming tips
Know and understand your subject.
Don’t go without asking questions – what will the security be like (in the Arctic we all needed shotguns for polar bears), have they organised similar shoots before?
Have a local with you – his or her knowledge will be invaluable.
Invest in the right clothes. If you are cold/hot/wet and uncomfortable you’ll have a bad start to every day.
Know your camera kit – there’s no service/repair shop nearby. I always take a soldering iron and plenty of batteries and cables.
Don't expect culinary masterpieces every day – I still can't eat pork chops. Three weeks of those in the Arctic and I've had enough for life.
If you are a private person, this may not be the job for you unless you can do it all alone.
This type of vocation is a love affair. You won't become a millionaire!
Take risks but only calculated ones – getting the shot no one’s got before is all very well, but I’d never do anything where I thought I might die. It sounds obvious but it’s easy to get carried away in the moment. Just say no!
Be patient, sometimes these things take a while – but also be prepared for it to all be over in the blink of an eye. Mostly you will need to get up early and film all day so long hours are part of the job!
Be patient with yourself, with others and your subject.
Can Turtles and Tourists Mix?
Turkey’s Turtles in Trouble.
by Richard Brock
From May to September every summer loggerhead turtles come (to try) to lay their eggs on particular beaches on Turkey’s beautiful Mediterranean coastline. And every summer thousands of tourists come to lay their pale bodies on harmless-looking sunbeds. And enjoy water sports, beachside fun with music and lights at night. Tourism brings trouble to turtles all over the world and turtle supporters try to reduce the problems, and not just be seen to be killjoys wanting to spoil people’s holidays! There is usually a compromise and this was achieved brilliantly at a magnificent beach near Dalyan, at one time threatened by major development. Today it is a classic compromise – lots of sunbeds in the right place; a zone for nesting turtles; helpful signs about turtles; a small education and rescue centre; minimal water sports; litter control; no access at night (when turtles nest). So, at Dalyan it’s very much a success story. But just along the coast it’s a very different story and it implicates large hotels and local government. So, what to do?
Confidential details included all the usual suspects, and population studies revealed a steady decline of nesting turtles as tourist development crept along the beaches supposedly protected as an SPA, a Specially Protected Area, and one of among the 12 most important nesting beaches in Turkey. MEDASSET, the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles, invited me, as an ex-BBC wildlife film-maker to investigate the situation around Fethiye and Calis, to show what was happening and perhaps find a solution, as at the Dalyan beach not far away.
Footage revealed many examples of ‘bad behaviour’, including negligence by several large hotels, including the huge Hilton, which even uses the turtle as a logo! TUI, a German company and one of the biggest in the world, owning Thomsons and First Choice, claimed in a filmed speech at an international turtle conference to really help turtles around the world. Not so in Turkey, where sunbeds block the beach, watersports injure female turtles waiting offshore (a sign urges tourists not to swim in that dangerous area – can turtles read?).
Armed with this footage, all carefully checked for the truth, the case was taken by Medasset to European level. The Bern Convention came into play and official pressure was applied so as to help the declining turtles without hurting tourism too much. After all, local entrepreneurs see an attractive beach as a good place to start up a new business and may not know about the lifestyle of sea turtles, often invisible under the sea or ashore at night. They know now. This year, in response to the film we made, Turkey’s Turtles in Trouble, the situation should improve. We’ll be back! To see - and film. (See the film listed on the Films That Make a Difference database!)
There’s no question about the power of the Internet these days. Two things have happened – one, concern by the public of how things are connected and the impact on the planet; and two, the effect of exposure on large companies, both positive and negative. Greenpeace are particularly good at this having shaken the big boys like Volkswagen and Nestlé. This is bound to increase. The Environmental Investigation Agency have dramatically exposed the trade in whales, ivory, tigers.
An extreme example of the reach of the Internet was Kony 2012 on YouTube. It’s a 30-minute film made by a campaigning organisation called Invisible Children. Its goal was to raise awareness of the activities of Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord who uses children to fight. The video has now “gone viral” with some 100 million viewers. Admittedly this is not about turtles but it confirms the potential of the Internet and every time it happens and is successful, it adds to the track record/”the CV” of the system.
Already we have taken on Mitsubishi and their greed with bluefin tuna (as seen in the movie End of the Line; Waitrose supermarkets and flowers from Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, claiming a “sustainable source” (their words) when it is not – actually, scientifically it is a dying lake. This puts them behind Marks and Spencer with their appealing Plan A. And the Turkey turtle problem, which may be solved soon. We’ll see, and film.
By the way, I’m not just an angry old man! After the BBC Natural History Unit I’ve made films on water voles, egrets, moorhens, ponds squirrels and vultures. This is the soft side of conservation but I suspect the harder approach may make more difference in the end. And anyone can do it.
Wildlife Film-making – no time like the present!
by Piers Warren
Whether you want to film wildlife with your camcorder as a fascinating hobby, or are hoping for a career as a professional wildlife film-maker, there has never been a better time to get started. All you need is a camera, a computer (most come with built in video-editing software) and patience!
Making wildlife films ticks many boxes – it gets you out in the fresh air, is a creative pastime, helps you to understand animal behaviour and the natural environment, and involves you in documenting a wild world that is changing increasingly rapidly. For those who fear technology, many modern camcorders are easy to use – pick-up-and-shoot, for those who love gadgets there is a plethora available, and for those who relish a challenge, wildlife film-making presents many.
Your first camera for filming wildlife may be a DSLR that shoots HD footage, a camcorder (of which there are many and various available to suit all budgets) or even your mobile phone. It’s likely you already have all the kit you need to make your first wildlife film.
While watching wildlife programmes on television you may marvel at the stunning images, and wonder how the sequences are captured and woven into the finished film. With a little background information and guidance there is no better way to find out how films are made than to try it yourself. It is true that many of the programmes you will have grown up watching are made by skilled crews with many years of experience, but it is also true that newcomers are producing some superb results. There are numerous books and courses available to give you a helping hand (see below).
The unusual thing about the wildlife film-making industry is that although some programmes are made by a large team of specialists spread all over the world (such as the big series from the BBC Natural History Unit), it is also true that some wildlife films are produced entirely by one person with little more than a camcorder. Not that anyone can do it – filming wildlife professionally takes dedication, patience and skill as well as a huge amount of luck! Having said that, if you have a yearning to capture wildlife images, whether it be a butterfly in your garden, a badger in the nearby wood, or hermit crabs on your holiday-beach, then all you need is some basic kit and determination. Then through channels like youTube and Vimeo you can share your films with the world!
Into the Wild, Ethically
Nature Filmmakers Need a Code of Conduct
by Chris Palmer
As an 11-year old in 1958, I watched the Disney film White Wilderness. We see a cute little bear cub lose its footing on a steep, snow-covered mountainside and fall faster and faster until it’s tumbling down totally out of control. It eventually stops falling after banging hard into rocks. The audience laughs because we assume it is totally natural and authentic and it’s funny in a slapstick kind of way––at least at first. In fact, it is totally staged top to bottom, including the use of a man-made artificial mountain and captive bear cubs.
When I was a teenager growing up in England, Life Magazine carried a prize-winning sequence of photographs showing a leopard hunting a baboon. It was dramatic and thrilling. The final picture showed the leopard crushing the baboon’s skull in its jaws. Later it was shown to be all staged with a captive leopard and a captive and terrified baboon.
When I first got into television in my early 30s, I brought home a film I had just completed to show my wife, Gail. She especially liked a close-up scene of a grizzly bear splashing through a stream and asked me how we were able to record the sound of water dripping off the grizzly’s paws. I had to admit that my talented sound guy had filled a basin full of water and recorded the thrashings he made with his hands and elbows. He then matched the video of the bear walking in the stream with the sounds he had recorded. Gail was shocked, offended and outraged––and called me “a big fake” and a “big phony-baloney.” I had made a documentary after all, which led her to expect authenticity and truth.
What ethical issues do these three stories illustrate? First, audience deception through staging and manipulation. Second, cruelty to animals. And third, a more subtle ethical issue but a vital one nonetheless: Do wildlife films encourage conservation?
Animal harassment and cruelty have been pervasive in wildlife filming for decades. This harassment can take the form of everything from simply getting too close to wild animals and disturbing their habitat to deliberate violence. In the old days, if a filmmaker wanted to capture a hunting scene of a bobcat chasing a rabbit, it was standard practice to get the shot by the use of invisible filament around the rabbit’s neck or leg to artificially slow it down. Luckily, such overt abuse is now uncommon. However, many on-camera hosts like Jeff Corwin, Bear Grylls or the late Steve Irwin still grab and harass animals in order to create entertainment.
Unfortunately, however, the physical abuse of animals is only one of several major problems in the wildlife film industry. Far too many producers have resorted to creating “nature porn”––productions focusing solely on the blood, guts and sex of the animal kingdom. Graphic footage of shark attacks and feeding frenzies might make for thrilling entertainment, but it is irresponsible. Programs like Untamed and Uncut and Man vs. Wild depict animals as menacing at a time when these animals face constant threat. By misleading audiences and inspiring fear and terror, these TV programs are effectively discouraging conservation.
When filmmakers depict wild animals as murderous and evil, they make it all the more difficult to convince the public of the need for protecting these animals. Sharks, for example, face dire threats from the pollution of their habitat and the disgusting practice of shark finning for shark fin soup. If viewers think of sharks only as killers, they are much less likely to act to protect and conserve them.
Concerns over ethics have been with us throughout the history of wildlife filmmaking. But it was a tall, eccentric Englishman, Jeffery Boswall, who began a systematic study of the issue starting in the 1970s. Boswall, born in 1931, spent nearly three decades as a producer for the BBC Natural History Unit and is one of the industry’s most probing and illuminating thinkers.
In a 1988 paper on wildlife filmmaking ethics, “The Moral Pivots of Wildlife Filmmaking,” Boswall asserted that anything that made an animal behave unnaturally—for example, baiting it or giving it food it does not normally eat—constitutes audience deception. He points out that introducing one animal to another it does not normally interact with—for example, a wolverine and a python—is deceptive. So is having the film crew behave in a way that disturbs an animal’s behavior—for example, frightening a bird off its eggs by moving too fast near its nest.
Other deceptions include the temptations to exaggerate, overdramatize and sentimentalize. Boswall describes the common sin of anthropomorphism––or attributing human characteristics to animals––as “a kind of lying” because it teaches audiences to misunderstand the real nature of animals.
His definition of audience deception is sweeping. In his mind, it includes pretending that a recording of a bird’s song was made at the same time as the pictures for that scene. Or recording the flapping of an umbrella and pretending it’s the noise made by a bird’s wings. Boswall claims that even music can introduce a lie. If you accompany footage of animal behavior with music that suggests that the animal is behaving in a human way (for example, by making it look as though the animal is dancing or feeling romantic), then “you are deceiving the people who are experiencing the film.”
Though these all qualify as deceptions in Boswall’s mind, they are not all necessarily bad. Boswall believes it’s up to individual filmmakers to decide where to draw the line—but warns that audiences might be surprised to know where filmmakers have been drawing it recently. Even strongly conservation-minded filmmakers sometimes bait sea creatures with chum (an oily mix of fish bait and blood), which can lead to unnatural feeding frenzies, or use bright spotlights to film lions hunting at night, which give lions an unfair advantage. And if you see a bear feeding on a deer carcass in a film, it is almost certainly a tame bear searching for hidden jellybeans in the entrails of the deer’s stomach. The candy gives the impression that the proud carnivore is feasting on a fresh kill.
Let me now relate another story––this one about Randy Wimberg, a highly capable and experienced cinematographer. A few years ago, he was with his dive team at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific filming wildlife in an area known as Shark Pass, which has a large congregation of reef sharks.
Crew members built a cage to protect him from danger, but they removed some of the panels to give the camera an unobstructed view. The plan was for Wimberg to be in the cage while someone in the nearby support boat threw chum into the water to attract the sharks.
He climbed into the cage and was eased out on a tether about 15 feet from the boat. When a deckhand threw in the chum, reef sharks quickly showed up in large numbers. Some of the chum drifted into the cage. Wimberg watched helplessly as frenzied sharks began crashing into the cage, tearing at chunks of food caught in the wire mesh. Soon, more than 30 sharks were competing for food that was either stuck to the cage or drifting through it.
Suddenly, a shark shot right through the gap and exited out the other side of the cage, grazing Wimberg as it passed. He tried to remain calm, the camera still rolling. He was frantically batting away sharks with his camera, but there were too many of them and too much chum.
Another shark shot through the gap. To Wimberg’s horror, it didn’t pass smoothly out the other side. Instead the shark ended up in the bottom of the cage and started thrashing wildly. Wimberg tried to curl up in the corner of the cage to escape the frightened animal. He knew that the shark felt very threatened and would use the only defense it had—its teeth and jaws.
Wimberg desperately attempted to push the animal up toward the exit with his camera, but that didn’t work. He decided his only chance was to get himself out. As he edged toward the opening in the cage, his teammates in the boat saw what was happening and began raising the cage to the surface. And before the shark could get in a position to bite, Wimberg scrambled out of the cage and into the boat. The shark was released unhurt.
What went wrong? Well, there’s one thing I haven’t told you: The producer had positioned another cameraman in a protective chain-mail suit about 20 feet below the shark cage to capture all the action. In fact, Wimberg’s brush with disaster became a high point in the film. My interpretation of this incident is that it was all about getting the money shot. The producer knew that the more dramatic the action, the more successful the film would be. This is why the producer kept telling the deckhand to keep throwing in more chum. Wimberg’s life was endangered for the sake of getting exciting footage to help push up the show’s ratings.
Two other points: First, the film’s audiences were misled. They didn’t know about the chum, so many viewers went away thinking that such frenzied feeding behavior happens naturally. And two, the cause of conservation was ill served. At a time when shark populations are plummeting worldwide, sharks were being unfairly portrayed as ferocious attackers.
You could argue that what went wrong in the incident with Wimberg is fairly obvious, but making ethically correct choices in wildlife filmmaking isn’t always obvious. Consider the following six scenarios:
First, suppose you are making a film about chimps. You know that violence (or any extreme behavior) fascinates people and that chimps sometimes hunt for prey, such as other primates. You know that viewers will be shocked, even horrified, by the bloodthirsty brutality of the chimps, and the ratings will be big. Yet you also know that meat makes up only about two percent of the chimpanzees’ diet. Mostly they feed on fruits, leaves and other plant material. By serving up a series of hunts, your film shows a far more violent picture of chimpanzee nature than is actually the case. It gives a wrong impression. Is the film unethical?
In my view, this may not be unethical, but it bothers me. I’d say don’t make the film only about the hunts. The film has to be more balanced, even though the ratings might suffer.
Second, imagine you are a producer and you want a shot of a spider eating a fly. It’s obvious you have to stage it because you don’t have the money to wait around for weeks for it to happen naturally. But how far will you go with staging? For example, you also want a shot of a boa constrictor eating a monkey. Do you stage that as well? In other words, capture a boa constrictor, capture a monkey, put them in an enclosure and film the resulting predation? It’s routine predatory behavior and happens all the time, and your film will promote conservation. Do the ends justify the means? Is it ethical to stage it?
I’d say, definitely don’t do this. It’s cruel and unacceptable, but you’ll pay a price in lower ratings.
Third, imagine you’re in Africa with Jeff Corwin and your goal is for him to find a rare lizard, not seen for 25 years. This is to be the climax of the film. You search for days with no luck, but finally the rare lizard is found––not by Corwin, but by a local African tracker who barely speaks English. You put the animal back where it was found, and let Corwin “discover” it and act surprised for the camera, thus capturing for your film an emotional highpoint. Is that bit of acting by Corwin unethical?
I’d say we shouldn’t lie to audiences. Corwin should interview the tracker about his find even though the film may now have a reduced emotional impact and lower ratings.
Fourth, suppose you are in the field filming komodo dragons. You’ve heard that a komodo dragon was seen swimming out to sea to feed on an unfortunate goat that had fallen off a local boat and was drowning. It’s the first time a komodo dragon has been seen swimming and hunting at sea and it would be a real coup to reproduce the behavior for the camera. Getting this sequence for your film would bring you a great deal of prestige, help your career and help pay to send your daughter to college. Are you willing to put live bait (a goat) in the water to help you get the shot? If you do, would you tell the audience, or keep it a secret?
I would say that putting a live goat in the water to seduce a komodo dragon to hunt is cruel and unacceptable.
Fifth, continuing with the last scenario, imagine that although the cameraman captured the sequence using a pole-cam (a camera on the end of a pole, so the cameraman doesn’t need to be in the water) to add jeopardy to the “making-of” piece at the end of the film, you as the editor have been asked to cut together shots of the komodo dragon swimming with shots of the cameraman filming underwater—to add a sense of danger to the sequence. The shots of the underwater cameraman were actually filmed in another location with no komodo dragons in the water, so the sequence you are being asked to cut is untruthful. Is this type of deceit acceptable?
I’d say don’t do this, because it’s lying; if you do it, be open about it.
Sixth and finally, suppose you’re filming tigers hunting an antelope, which is extremely difficult to see. You come across a young antelope that is lying quietly in the grass having been abandoned by its mother. It’s the final afternoon of the shoot, your budget is exhausted, the weather is closing in, you have totally failed so far to obtain any money shots, and you are very worried about your job. You also know that there is a tiger only 500 meters away.
Is it ethical for you to herd the young antelope towards the tiger knowing that without its mother, it will die anyway?
I’d say don’t do that because you can’t be 100 percent sure that the antelope has been abandoned by its mother.
These are tough questions, especially if you are a filmmaker with a family to support and a retirement to save for. What can we learn from the stories I’ve described and from those six dilemmas? As I’ve already indicated, there are three ethical issues with wildlife films:
First, Are audiences deceived and misled, and if so, does it matter? When does legitimate filmmaking artifice become unacceptable deception? I’m thinking here of fake sounds, the use of CGI to manipulate images, and captive animals that appear free-roaming. Recently, I saw amazing footage of a cougar hunting down a bear cub. It looked genuine and not fake in any way, but in fact, it had all been carefully scripted and shot with trained animals from game farms.
Second, Are wild animals harassed and disturbed during filming, and does it matter? Recently, I learned of a filmmaker who darted a hyena and then slit its skin open to implant a GPS transmitter underneath so he could track it and thus film it more easily.
And third, is conservation advanced by these films? Do they matter? It would be facile and misleading to claim that The Cove hasn’t yet stopped the killing of dolphins in Taiji, Japan; Food Inc. has not yet led viewers to change their eating habits; and The End of the Line has not yet reduced over-fishing in our oceans—facile and misleading because where you stand on that issue depends on where you sit. If you’re a dolphin in Taiji about to be butchered, then you might well think the film has failed to advance conservation. But if you’re a viewer moved by the film to demonstrate outside the barbed wire surrounding the cove where the slaughter takes place, and the press is covering you and more attention is being brought to the issue, then the film may seem like a success in terms of conservation.
When I first got into wildlife filmmaking, I naively thought that the number of people watching a program told me something about the conservation impact. Of course it doesn’t. Ratings (or the box office results) and conservation impact are very different. I also naively thought that everybody viewing the program would be influenced in some way, but most people watching are already card-carrying environmentalists whose views are not changed by the program.
What made me question the conservation achievements of environmental and wildlife films is hearing producers claim smugly that their films have done great things for conservation, but when asked for evidence, point to a few admiring e-mails that they received, which may have been written by people already dedicated to conservation. Or they point to impressive ratings or box office numbers, as if the number of viewers is synonymous with conservation.
Raising awareness is good, but hard results are what really count. If dolphins in Taiji are still being slaughtered at the same rate, it’s fair to raise the question: What good did The Cove do? Yes, there was more awareness after it won an Oscar, but has the film actually produced conservation results?
One approach is to pose that question to the viewers who made a film a box office success. After all, if one viewer changes eating habits after watching Food, Inc., then that viewer has a legitimate right to claim that the film advanced conservation. But it gets tricky. Many viewers who are moved by a film may rate it highly in conservation effectiveness terms, but have to admit, when pressed, that actually nothing changed in their lives because of it. They may have found it to be a richly rewarding but temporary distraction, and after a few hours basically forgot about it. If they didn’t take any action, then nothing has changed. They were simply entertained.
I fear that environmental and wildlife films don’t advance conservation as much as they could or should. If films are really to make a difference, then they must be one component of an overall campaign involving many different media platforms and social action. I’m delighted that entities like Participant Media, Working Films, The Good Pitch and ITVS encourage documentary filmmakers to make activist outreach and partnerships with NGOs an essential component of their distribution process.
Without wildlife films, people would have little knowledge of wildlife, but whether such programs actually promote conservation is still open to debate. Too many films fail to mention conservation, and some even imply an anti-conservation message by demonizing animals and encouraging us to fear and hate them.
Filmmakers have a responsibility to promote conservation because it is the morally right thing for them to do, especially since they exploit the resource to earn a living. Besides, filmmakers have a vested interest in conservation: It’s impossible to make wildlife films when animals have gone extinct.
In sum, film has such unique potential for impacting public opinion that it is irresponsible to rely on sensationalized, inaccurate, destructive programming. The ethical questions related to wildlife filmmaking are not simple, but we must at least openly confront the issue of ethics instead of constantly pushing for nothing but ratings, no matter the cost. Wildlife filmmakers have a responsibility to depict the natural world accurately and in a way that will inspire people to preserve it.
"The wildlife film industry is in flux; new formats, increasing democratisation of the media and ever shrinking budgets. Add to this ongoing discussions about conservation versus wildlife film, corporate and celebrity sponsorship and there is plenty to talk about.
Looking to the Future presents a well balanced collection of opinions from a diverse range of people.
From the forward by Neil Nightingale, Creative Director of BBC Earth, to Alex Rhodes, a 15-year old aspiring Wildlife film-maker from Bristol, the result is a very readable book that presents a snap shot of the industry, seen from the very different perspectives of nearly 60 people working in the industry, across the globe.
This book has been cleverly edited to include so many opinions; Jackson Xu speaks of the emerging wildlife film industry in China, Neil Harraway of the changes in demand for New Zealand’s NHNZ productions and Sophie Vartan on 3D production in South Africa.
Henrik Ekman, Acquisitions Executive from SVT in Sweden is optimistic about the changes technology is bringing and the fact that even the smallest productions can meet the technical demands of broadcasters.There are discussions from others on tapeless cameras, high speed cameras for slow motion, DSLRs for low budgets and mini cameras for new PoVs, all at reduced cost from the days of film.
Increasingly, multi-skilled is becoming the norm and from the days of “Five-man wildlife film crew, 30 pieces of luggage” described by Richard Brock, 1 man production and YouTube is increasingly possible as is so clearly illustrated by Patrick Rouxel’s powerful ‘Green’.
The case for big budget ‘Blue Chips’ is made by several people, especially in connection with the increasingly popular 3D medium, but the talk is of cooperation, distribution and money, the importance not only of broadcast sales, but of DVD and download sales, something that was not even factored into budgets 10 years ago.
Some of those features had a relatively easy entry into the industry, while others have made substantial sacrifices, giving up well paid positions to get a foothold on the ladder. What shines through clearly from those featured is the passion for animals, for wild places and the art of storytelling
This is a book that is packed with information and one read is probably not going to be enough.
Shoot on the wild side
By Nancy Cavill on behalf of Polecam
IT was just before Christmas when cameraman Chris Taber got a call offering him a wildlife shoot in Africa. It seemed an opportunity too good to turn down – the kind of job that memories are made of. And that’s the way it turned out, although not for the reasons he’d anticipated.
Back in 2008 experienced Mid Wales-based cameraman Chris had just invested in a Polecam crane rig – and it was the possibility of using this to get up close and personal wildlife shots that prompted a French production company to give him a call.
“I’d never been to Africa but I had lots of communication with the director and it sounded great. The plan was I’d be working alongside the main camera unit and we’d have a cook, a guide and two drivers. We weren’t going to stay in a lodge – we were going to camp out in the bush,” he added.
Excited, Chris flew to Nairobi and met up with the team who headed out into the Masai Mara for a seven-hour drive by land cruiser across the Great Rift Valley to the southern border of the nature reserve. They pitched camp next to the Mara River, their base for the two-week shoot.
“I’d spoken to colleagues back home before going and been told about various camps with semi-permanent facilities but our camp was a bit of grass with A-frame tents and the loo was a hole in the ground,” explained Chris.
The camp staff cooked their food over an open fire and they were well fed, surfacing at 5am each morning to eat a cooked breakfast before heading out in search of the wildlife. There was a lot to learn, not least adapting to filming from the roof of a vehicle. “I don’t think anyone had ever taken a Polecam crane to shoot wildlife in Africa before.
“Taking traditional cranes into that environment is difficult – you’ve got to build scaffolding to get the kind of shots where you look straight down at the wildlife. But because the Polecam is so small and light I could set up quickly on the roof of the vehicle for this type of shot,” explained Chris.
“Also, traditionally you’d shoot wildlife with a long lens to get tight in on the action but this compresses the depth of field and can feel a bit flat.
“I use a fixed rather than a zoom lens because I can retain the depth and still get close in with the pole – as we don’t zoom with our eyes in real life it gives a very natural feel. But it does mean you’ve got to be within 10 feet of the wildlife to get the full value.”
So that’s exactly what he did, with the help of the team’s animal tracker. “My biggest lesson was to listen to the guide. He’d spot a herd of elephants and work out that they were probably heading to a watering hole so we’d go and park up wind in their path.
“A lot of times they’d go off in a different direction but one time they didn’t. I saw about 20 elephants heading towards me and thought, ‘They’re not going to change direction,’ and they didn’t. I was sat on top of the vehicle and surrounded by a wall of grey.
“The bull walked past at virtually the same height as me. Clive, our guide, said, ‘Don’t move!’ but I had to make a tiny movement to get that shot. Basically I was looking straight down at them from six feet above their heads.”
Day seven of the shoot was the best yet, according to Chris with a ‘lion moment’ that topped even his earlier ‘wall of grey’.
“We’d had an amazing day in lion country,” he recalled. “We had dinner round the camp fire – goat – that night and I’d gone to bed (we each had our own tent) about 10ish and was listening to music on my iPod through headphones.
“I heard a lot of shouting and a big bang. I thought the guys were having a laugh but then I realised there were more voices than there were people in the camp.”
A gang of around 10 men armed with guns and machetes had attacked the camp which had nothing in the way of security.
“Some of the shouting sounded aggressive – at that point in hindsight I realised they were rounding up the camp crew – and then I heard a gunshot.
“I’d heard Clive shouting then the gunshot and then I didn’t hear him again – I was pretty sure they’d shot him. I thought, ‘What do I do?’ I decided I wouldn’t hide under the bed because if they had guns there wasn’t a lot of point. I thought I’d take my chances in the bush.”
It was pitch black – before moon-rise – and Chris had managed to get one shoe on while trying to quietly unzip his tent when the gang heard him.
“Two guys with head torches appeared, one of them had a very big knife. They started shouting at me, probably in Swahili, and thumping me about.
“I didn’t know what they were saying but as I turned I saw one bringing the machete down on the back of my neck. It felt like being hit with a bat. It hit my shoulder first and bounced into my neck.
“Then they bundled me into the tent and started shaking the knife in my face and screaming at me.
“I was conscious of bleeding but the adrenalin was pumping so I didn’t feel the pain. They started pointing at stuff in my tent so I was just throwing it at them to give them whatever they wanted – my torch, my phone, one shoe, one boot – but all I could see coming out of the darkness was that great big knife.
“I didn’t know if they were going to kill me, I thought they were, but then someone shouted from outside the tent – I guess they said we’re leaving – and they went.”
In shock, he grabbed a t-shirt to stem the flow of blood. The knife had cut him just an inch from the jugular vein.
“I heard them all run off and I just sat there. It was a strange moment, absolutely silent. Normally it was really noisy with animal sounds at night but there was nothing. I couldn’t hear the camp crew or the other cameraman, Pete.”
When Chris emerged from his tent Clive appeared from out of the bush. Using his iPod for light, Chris found Pete’s tent shredded to pieces and feared the worst for his colleague. They eventually discovered him naked, cut and beaten up – but alive – having jumped down a 15-foot cliff into the crocodile-infested Mara River below.
There followed a drive to a tourist lodge 10km away, which had a medical centre, then an early morning flight by light aircraft toNairobi. Chris’ 4-inch long deep wound was properly dressed at a hospital then, 24 hours after the attack, he boarded a flight to London – still wearing his bloodied t-shirt, ripped trousers and only carrying his wallet, passport and keys. His camera kit was forwarded by the safari company later.
It wasn’t the Christmashomecoming he’d expected. “I didn’t sleep on the plane so by the time I got home I’d been awake for more than 48 hours. I had a bath, lay down on the bed and when I saw my wife I just broke down. I lost it completely,” said Chris.
Now, three years on, the memory of the shoot is less painful but in the immediate aftermath he suffered panic attacks and a fear of the dark – and head torches. “Every time I closed my eyesI saw the knife coming down. I had a recurring nightmare that I was at the bottom of a grave looking up at my family,” he remembered.
Before the shoot Chris had been more concerned about dangers posed by lions or crocodiles rather than human attackers. “Now I think we were probably being watched from the time we pitched camp.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of film-makers since and they’ve said we should have had armed guards and visible security. If I was asked to go to film in Africa again I’d go – but only if it was with the BBC or someone else who I knew would organise it properly.”
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