Richard Hughes is a Freelance Wildlife Cameraman and Location Director with four years experience as a CAA commercial drone operator. He has been a member of the site for five years and so we thought we'd ask him a few questions just ahead of his latest film project being broadcast on the BBC.
What do you do?
Currently I work as a wildlife cameraman and location director, as well as guest lecturing at a broadcasting university.
What projects have you worked on in the past few years?
I shot a number of sequences across the ‘Wild Great Britain’ series for Channel 5 with Plimsoll Productions and then went on to work on Steve Backshaw’s Deadly Dinosaurs, BBC Bristol One Show inserts, ‘Meet the Penguins’ for Animal Planet, European Carnivores series for Smithsonian and then made a film about St Mary’s Lighthouse for Springwatch in 2018. It’s been a really busy couple of years.
Commissioned film for BBC Springwatch 2018
What was it like changing your career in your mid-thirties?
I did not move into natural history film-making until I was 34. Making a career in this genre was always going to be a huge challenge. There are many very talented people looking for projects, who have more flexibility and more resources than myself.
Being older was problematic, as you can’t really get your foot in the door as a runner or assistant, and work your way up. Time was just not on my side. My idea was to contact Producers once I had built a portfolio of work, and that could come with something unique to offer. Before focusing on Nat History I spent 14 years as an editor, cutting tv documentaries and even features. Bringing this strong sense of what is needed in the edit along and a brain full of technical jargon could be a great asset on location.
As many will know, you don’t get the break if you have not got the experience!
I knew there was no point trying to meet with the people at the top of wildlife filmmaking game without something to offer. From my experience that first meeting is how people remember you from then on so I needed to be careful about who I met with and when.
I did however, and still do, go to as many events, festivals and screening as I could, to get my face known.
My approach; To make high production value films for wildlife / conservation charities, which I did for four years. Over that period, I made over 50 films and had the opportunity to travel to remote locations, work closely with ‘talent’, and film animals. Working voluntarily with the occasional ‘small budget’ makes you extremely innovative and resourceful! At the same time I was also trying to pay a mortgage and support 2 children, that is where the university lecturing came in to help pay the bills.
“The Ecoexist Project: Pathways to Coexistence”
Making these films was an amazing opportunity to develop my field craft and use both camera and editing skills. As part of my own training I also become an early adopter of camera drones. Over that period I must have made 20 films about bears and as a result someone noted the bear footage on my reel and then I got a paid job filming wild bears.
How did you get you first break?
For me it was about sheer persistence. I am dyslexic and always struggled slightly in verbalising my ideas at meetings with producers. I knew however that if I was given the opportunity to actually do the job I was more than capable and I am in my element on location.
My skills lied in composition, narrative and problems solving. When I added my background as an editor and technical knowledge it becomes quite a useful package in this era of decreasing budgets. I applied for a position as a shooting PD and in my application, I was very clear about where my strengths and weaknesses lied. The series Producer invited me in for an interview at Channel 5. It turned out he was also dyslexic and recognised my skillset and eye for detail. I went on to produce, director and shoot 2 x 1 hours for a presenter lead series.
Sample of work camerawork for the BBC NHU
What have just finished?
I have just finished a 3 part BBC series called ‘Secret Life of Farm Animals’ for Oxford Scientific Films. I was DoP as well as location directing whilst the SP was in the edit.
I met with one of the Exec Producers at OSF some six years earlier and kept in contact over that time. I would send them my film ideas for comment and eventually got invited in to edit the OSF reel. Finally, I got that call, and spent 50 days in 2018 filming the ‘Secret Life of Farm Animals’. It was an absolute joy to work on and I really appreciated the opportunity presented by the exec.
‘Secret Life of Farm Animals’ by Oxford Scientific Films
Note: ‘Secret Life of Farm Animals’. Part 1 of 3 starts Thursday 6 Dec 18 on BBC4. See: wildlife-film.com/features/Oxford-Scientific-Films-Three-Part-Series-Secret-Life-of-Farm-Animals-Coming-to-BBC-Four.html
It sounds like you have been working in the UK a lot this past year or so?
It is not very often that I get to spend so long in the UK and I am always in awe of the people I meet trying to restore and conserve our fragile landscape. The UK has such a diverse range of environments but it could support more wildlife. There are pockets of amazing species but they is also a lot missing, nature itself feels depleted. Having just filmed a farm series taking me across the UK, it was really interesting to talk to farmers about their responsible farming practice, and hear how they are always looking to improve farmland and hedgerows to increase the wildlife populations.
What is coming up next?
I am currently working on a baby animal series for a Bristol based indie, and in 2019 I am producing my own series which I hope to get distributed later in the year.
I still have ambitions to get into more ‘blue chip’ productions as I want to develop a better understanding of specific animal behaviour. Someone that can only be done by spending a great deal of time with one animal.
Aerial Camerawork for The One Show - sample
What advice do you have for new starters?
I remember a Producer once saying to me they have a folder for editors, a folder for camera people a folder for sound recordists, and so on. With my knowledge of editing, technology, cameras and directing the Producer made another folder called ‘other’, which is where I went. Obviously, they would never look in the ‘other’ box for any of these roles.
You have to work out what it is that you are best at and what you most enjoy doing. Work on these skills and try to meet with Producers whose work you like. Make sure to bring something with you to the meeting, not a reel (although useful) but an idea, access. You might not get work at the beginning but you can start to build a relationship.
People also move on in this industry. You can spend a lot of time developing relationships with a couple of people and then, suddenly, their email bounces back. The phase ‘…eggs in one basket’ comes to mind. Go to events and festivals. Don’t be a pain, come with ideas, be useful, be on hand. I would never mention that I got up at ‘silly o’clock’ to travel from London to Bristol for a ‘coffee’ meeting! Show that you are interested in their work, bring something useful. They will more likely hire someone they know well, or who they have worked with before. I remember a Nat History exec, whom I respect, saying to me ‘why should I give you the keys to my Ferrari?’ and I can see their point. Why should they trust you with their budget?
Excel, be excellent at what you do, be committed and slowly build relationships. It will happen, but it might not be overnight.