Making your own Wildlife Films - part 1

In the first of a three part guide, wildlife film maker Chris Packham guides us through the steps to making your own wildlife film. See Part 2 - Research, Planning and the Script, and Part 3 - Getting the Shots.

Introduction and Ideas

Do it yourself. D.I.Y. carpentry, plumbing, gardening, schooling, aircraft building and archaeology. We can and do do them ourselves. It’s an industry, a phenomenon, a state of mind and an attitude which encourages us to take things quite literally into our own hands. But if we can be empowered to it least attempt stonemasonry, bagpipe playing and space rocket design why don’t we get to grips with do it yourself wildlife film-making?

Well, I think most people are intimidated by the prospect for several reasons. Firstly the fear of expertise. It is widely felt that those in the wildlife television business have such specialist skills that ‘Joe Public’ could not possibly aspire to such high - folutin’ practices. In fact many of those in that business often promote this idea to big themselves and their efforts up, to try and maintain the ancient myth that you need to be some sort of mystical cult member to have any chance of doing the business. There is a huge amount of snobbery and as we know this vice is almost always fuelled by insecurity! So let the debunking begin . . . it is simply not the case that you couldn’t make a decent wildlife film!

What good wildlife filmmakers have is an aptitude for camerawork and a keen interest and knowledge of wildlife. Of course there are many highly accomplished camera men and women but without the wildlife knowledge they would be, well...pretty useless in this field. Imagine lots of wonderful images but with no subjects in them! So really the crux of this specialist set of skills is merely the combination of knowing the subject and being able to use the gear and given the number of practitioners, handy-cam users, and not only keen but genuinely expert naturalists out there in suburbia, I have no doubt that lots of you have the basic foundations necessary to make very good wildlife films. In fact several times a year I am lucky enough to be sent ‘amateur films’ and some of them are real crackers - so this proves it!

Secondly, because of the big budget series on the BBC, Discovery and National Geographic, and those on Channel 4 and five for which programmes are made over years, all over the world by large teams of people, it is often presumed that the far more accessible wildlife in your garden, park or county could never compete - that its just not interesting or exotic enough. What rubbish! The absolute essential to good television is viewer involvement, usually through a mix of entertainment and education, and at its absolute core is a good story. We like stories , pure and simple , and there are stories unfolding beneath logs under my shed that are better than some of those I have seen screened from the Serengeti!

Thirdly, equipment and technology. Well, yes we do live in an age of gadgets and sneaky views of wildlife seem to have been the flavour of the last decade but often this novelty allows the gadgets to drive the idea. But technology cannot drive a story, just as carts cannot pull horses. The results are gimmicks, sometimes beautiful, often fascinating for a moment, but vapid and short lived. Even some of the big block-busting mega series are really only good to look at, the narrative is non-existent - I call them Wildlife Porn, and I watch them with the sound off! There is nothing wrong and often everything right with the simplicity of a good old fashioned story and besides much of this newfangled electronic wizardry is available from everyday retailers at very reasonable prices so if you want to stick a radio controlled mini-camera up a Badgers backside you can try!

So there. I believe the basic equipment is affordable, available from this site, usable and already being put to use by a small army of armchair naturalists who just need a push and a shove and an essential injection of confidence. And a few basic tips. So in this series of articles I’m going to try and present a few of the latter.

Developing an Idea for your Project

This is essential for the fundamental reason that it is all too easy to get up go out and film great sequences of wildlife or get a few brilliant single shots. Every once in a while by sheer chance something will pop up in front of you and you’ll get it onto tape, disc or drive. But then what? At best, after years of effort and accumulating huge piles of tape or space on your hard disk you will have, through coincidence, enough material to develop a common topic. More than likely something along the lines of ‘The Wildlife of my Garden’ or ‘Birds on my Feeders’ or ‘Brian and Barry - the Badgers from number 22’. Well, no thanks, keep it as a D-feature for the ‘Our Holiday in Florida’ or ‘Julies Wedding’ film night to bore the family because it won’t grip us or your Uncle Frank and Aunty Enid either. If you want to save a lot of time, a tremendous amount of effort and frustration then think very hard about realistic ideas before you even pick up the camera and start to shoot any sequences. By all means develop the skills needed to acquire decent shots, and if an Osprey decides to spend a weekend taking the goldfish from your pond do film it and post it on You tube , but don’t then go on to think about a project you might entitle ‘The private life of Ospreys in Bentley Close’ . You’ll die a very frustrated film un-maker!

Choosing a Subject

Planning is essential from the start. Okay , you might by chance have fortuitously caught your key sequence first of all and then want to build a film around it , but you will still benefit by sitting down and working through a storyline which you should definitely commit to paper or PC screen. Then it can evolve; invariably get better, as none of us have all our best Ideas at the outset. So first of all choose a topic. My advice would be to choose a subject which is eminently accessible to you. Of course ‘The Wild Dogs of the Kruger Park’ are very sexy indeed but not generally as available to us all as the ‘The Wild Voles of Marshy Vale‘, particularly when you only visit that part of South Africa on an annual holiday for two weeks, with the family, who might think you’re Attenborough pretensions a little tiresome. Pick a topic where you can miss things or make mistakes and immediately return to put them right, where your part-time hours mean you can chip away at that project until it comes together, a topic which you can financially afford to complete one day.

Another tip will be to choose a subject that you know better than anyone else and have a special fascination or fondness for. These aspects will fuel your enthusiasm when it inevitably wanes and mean that you are maximising your chances of success with the subject. So reject fantasy, possibly reject your favourite animals and concentrate on those where familiarity has bred a little contempt. For example I’d love to make a film in my spare time about nesting behaviour of Hawk Owls but I’m actually thinking about making a 10 minuter about my two black poodles. And that is true! If I had a little more time I’d do a short film about all the birds that visit a large dead oak tree in the garden, you know, the woodpeckers, creepers and hatches. If you are lucky this focus on your particular subject might mean that it is uniquely available to you and perhaps even an original topic.

That originality is often worth striving for because originality can attract a lot of interest, whether its novelty or surprise or a taste of something new and exotic. It might even be worth allowing a little compromise for this , but don’t procrastinate too long over finding something entirely novel because, as we will discover later, it could be your style, approach or treatment which breathes new life into an old topic. Okay you’ve been realistic, you’ve accepted some limitations and you’ve chosen a topic to tackle, what next? Keeping that realism to the fore you have to discover the story which will keep us all goggle-eyed.

The Essential Story

There is nothing new here I’m afraid because hopefully you will have heard them all before. There are beginnings, middles and ends. There can be prefaces and postscripts, there are highs and lows, tragedies and comedies, there is tension, terror and emotion. We are brought up with stories from the time we lay in our beds listening to fairy tales, through the time we pick up comic books, or in these modern days play video games, through to the time when we start to read novels and watch feature films. We are taught to understand stories from a very young age and often the simplest structure is the most striking and effective.

Imagine a wildlife fairytale. A poor downtrodden squirrel family has its drey blown out of a tree in a storm. Only one of the kits survives, he is attacked by owls, foxes, and badgers. His mother is hit by a car and his father washed down a drain. But eventually after many trials and tribulations he meets a friendly squirrel and learns to forage for himself. One day he becomes king of the squirrels, he meets a lady squirrel, they fall in love and raise a happy family in a drey which is safe and secure. It’s rubbish of course, full of anthropomorphism, but can you imagine how popular it would be? And it’s about squirrels, animals which live in all of our back gardens, creatures which are accessible to us 365 days a year, and thus ‘The Lucky Squirrel’ could be a cinematic reality. I’m going to send a treatment to Disney right away!

Of course fairytales are pretty straightforward, and stories can be much more complex, much more intriguing, so why not pick your favourite movie and sit down with a notepad and watch it just one more time. Only this time don’t cry or laugh during all your favourite bits, actually analyse how the story works, how it begins, how the characters are presented, why you like one of them but dislike the other, how tension is built, how emotion is expressed and how satisfaction is realised through the eventual conclusion. When you’ve done this for a couple of films you’ll see that essentially there are very few stories and very few components that are used to entertain us and this will give you the foundations for a script. So, come up with a few ideas and jot them down. This will be an entirely fanciful process of course, because you haven’t shot any of these sequences, because you’re working with animals not actors who you can direct, but it will give you some targets when you start filming and if you are as lucky as the lucky squirrel with a degree of flexibility you might be able to bend your sequences to fit your original storyline. Of course that flexibility is critical here, as if you stick to rigidly to your plans it is unlikely you will ever complete your project.

Summary so far

Okay, so we’ve been realistic, we’ve chosen to work on a species with which we are familiar and which is accessible to us most of the time. We’ve done a bit of filming to familiarise ourselves with our equipment and we’ve come up with a draft outline of a story. Next comes research and shooting schedule...

Continued on to Part 2 - Research, Planning and the Script.