Wildlife filmmaker Tania Esteban talks about her 2017 BAFTA-nominated documentary
Wex Photographic: What interested you about wildlife filmmaking? Is this something you had always planned to pursue?
Tania Esteban: I’ve always been close to nature since I was a child, and have known for a long time that I wanted to get into wildlife filmmaking. Growing up watching David Attenborough and living in the countryside greatly inspired me.
I lived in southern Spain all my life before moving to the UK at 18 to study.
Upon graduating, I came to Bristol to pursue an MA in Wildlife Filmmaking at the University of West England. There was no academic support in Spain for me to progress in this field, and I dreamed of getting into camerawork and research at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, where a staggering 40% of the world’s wildlife documentaries are made. The MA course certainly helped me achieve this. Part of the MA involved making our own film, drawing upon all the skills we had learned.
WP: Congratulations on the BAFTA nomination for your documentary A Lion’s Tale. What inspired you to do the project?
TE: Thank you, I feel thrilled and very humbled! The story of A Lion’s Tale began with my passion for lions, and a chance meeting with leading ape conservationist Ian Redmond. This love of Africa and felines started during my childhood, when I was enraptured by the true story of George and Joy Adamson [the wildlife conservationists best known from the film Born Free].
For me, the purpose of making A Lion’s Tale was to emotionally engage people and raise awareness – focusing on one of the major issues not only concerning lions, but all wildlife in Kenya. Lions have declined by 90% in Kenya since the making of the film.
The original Born Free story captured the emotions of millions on its release in 1956 – a time when our relationship with the natural world and “wild” animals was viewed negatively. And so, while a large conservation movement was seemingly triggered by the momentum of a single film, it was also due to the emotive driving force behind the true story about the real Adamsons, who released an orphaned lioness into the wild, which led actress Virginia McKenna to change her entire career and life plan to become an activist.
I also felt it a timely film to produce, with the upcoming ivory burn and Convention on the International Trade on Endangered Species meetings in Johannesburg.
I didn’t want to write a set script; instead I used the characters’ voices in the film. I hope this has allowed audiences to connect with and care about the cause, rather than being lectured about it. The major theme of the film is hope – an emotion that all humans can relate to, and a message that I believe everyone involved in the filmmaking and conservation industries can use to inspire and drive change.
WP: How did you go about planning for this project?
TE: I was responsible for all the research, script-writing, scheduling, budgeting, interviewing, shooting and editing, and that did take extensive planning. After conducting all the research – calling and making the contacts – getting out on location was thrilling, but accounted for only about 20% of the production!
Logistically it was quite challenging: Meru National Park is not a well-visited park like the Maasai Mara or Amboseli. I booked a direct flight from London Gatwick to Nairobi to go and film at the Born Free office based there, then to the ivory burn, and then a small carrier plane into the heart of Meru for the lions.
Descending upon Meru, all I could see was a small office – no runway as such, but more of a dirt track – then suddenly a giraffe galloping away from us in an attempt to avoid a collision! The Born Free team and Kenya Wildlife Service were remarkable; they helped make the shoot a success, driving me to all the locations within this most beautiful and underrepresented of parks. The ivory burn was undoubtedly the hardest to get permits for, but with a lot of patience and incredible support from the Born Free’s president (CEO) as well as one of my contributors, Will Travers, I was fortunate enough to be able to film at this historic event.
I calculated a rough budget of £3000, as most of my negotiations had brought the prices down and the park’s filming fees were waived in return for a separate edited version of the film. This amount may seem ludicrously small to most drama filmmakers, but in wildlife the budgets are far smaller – this is where precision plays a part throughout the production process. In total, it cost £2600 for a 10-day shoot – this of course excludes all the pre- and post-production costs, as I was the one researching, filming, directing, producing, editing, grading, sound mixing. The music was beautifully composed by MA student Richard Collins as part of his course.
The facilities were provided by my university and the training in advance, but also a lot of practical reading and watching hours and hours of “How to…” videos! Kit was also borrowed from the university, and so most of the budget was spent on flights and accommodation. I did however set up a crowdfunding campaign and managed to raise half the funds to go, with kind support from family, friends and strangers alike. IndieGoGo was the platform I used, as it’s less risky if you don’t hit your top target.
But for me, the story was key – it always is if you want to hold your audience’s attentions, engage their emotions, and touch their hearts…
WP: What were the main challenges on this project?
TE: Getting all aspects of the script on paper and then in the can! This was my first film, and actually capturing all the components to tell the story was quite challenging at first during the pre-production stage. However you quickly realise that on location it’s the weather and the elements you have to battle against, and that proves to be one of the greatest challenges when you have limited time.
During the ivory burn, for example, there were things you simply could not have prepared for, such as the sheer number of journalists and reporters that turn up wanting a piece of the action too, not to mention the horrific downpour! When it rains in Kenya, it certainly buckets it down. The ground quickly turned into a quagmire mess, and keeping the kit dry and working became the top priority. But hopefully I managed to capture a sequence that will raise awareness about the illegal wildlife trade – what’s life without a challenge?!
WP: What would you say are the most important skills needed when it comes to wildlife filmmaking?
TE: Storytelling, creativity and innovation I would say are my top three – there are so many different aspects to wildlife filmmaking that it would take an age to list them all! Different people within the industry possess their own rare combination of various skills, whether they’re a camera operator – whose patience, creativity and resilience are unrivalled – or a producer with storytelling capacity, determination and ingenuity.
Equally, one aspect that many forget is ethics – the very reason a lot of us are in this business is not to make money, but to try and raise awareness about the plight of our planet and share our passion for the natural world. What would be more hypocritical than overlooking the welfare of the very wildlife stars we film? I’m especially attentive to this – integrity and honesty in wildlife filmmaking forms the foundations of trust not only with our viewers, but also the scientists and conservationists who dedicate their lives to protecting wildlife
WP: You’re a camera operator, researcher, drone pilot, and sound technician. How important is it for modern day filmmakers to be multi-skilled?
TE: I think it’s not only in the company’s (or your) interest for you to be able to multitask and understand all the process involved, but also the people you work with. It’s key to have your specialism but if you can work across a production and can help your team with their trade, it makes production life a whole lot easier – and more fun! I’m always keen to learn – it’s thrilling. I personally focus on my camera and research work – storytelling and capturing your creative vision. Self-shooting producers are particular masters of all trades – something I really aspire to become!
It’s funny because wildlife filmmaking is quite different to drama in my experience. While we are adopting more cinematic techniques and technology – we might be using gimbals and aerials to create a parallax or dynamic edge – the setup times, cast, budgets, and skillset are quite different. I worked recently on a drama set as a camera assistant and found the whole thing fascinating. In drama you have many specialised roles such as focus pullers, gaffers, and make up. Wildlife crews are noticeably smaller as costs for location shoots would soon quickly rise - budgets are equally smaller.
Most wildlife crews are jacks of all trades for this reason, and you learn quickly how to be as multi-skilled and useful to a team as possible. It’s the most incredibly rewarding and thrilling industry, and you never quite know what animals you will see and how they will behave. If you’re lucky, you can capture unique behaviour that’s never been seen before.
WP: How important is your filming kit choice when it comes to wildlife filmmaking? What would we normally see in your kit bag?
TE: For the film I used what was available at university: the Sony FS700 with the kit lens (18-200mm f/3.5-6.3), the 50mm f/1.8, 100mm Canon f/2.0 primes and the 100-400mm with the EF Metabones adaptor. The telephoto was crucial for getting close to the action when it would have otherwise been too distant or dangerous. This was especially the case with the lions!
For sound, radio mics: Sennheiser 416 with the 522 mixer, and a Tascam for good measure – the latter was used to record atmosphere in the field. The wild sounds of Kenya truly are as vivid and vibrant as you would imagine. I loved recording the young group of school children who sang to us, it stirs up many joyful memories when played back.
The film was edited on Premiere Pro and Pro Tools, and graded in Da Vinci. In hindsight, I would have loved to have taken an DJI Ronin MX gimbal, FS7 and a Phantom 4 Pro drone for the aerials, but am very grateful for the access to the kit we had, especially as students.
Nowadays my kit choice involves a range of things, from a GH5, Inspire 2 + 5XR, Atomos Inferno external recorder for UHD/4K recording, Syrp Genie for time-lapse (love it!), FS7 II, A7S II. I will be very excited to test the new Fujinon MK 18-55mm and MK 50-135mm cine lenses and the Panasonic EVA 1 – Sony’s FS7 competitor.
Lenses: the Canon EF 200-400mm is superb, as are the nifty fifty (50mm) and the Lecia DG Summilux 15mm 1.7. So a mixed bag really. Very high-end wildlife filmmaking productions use cameras that most could only ever dream of owning. However, most importantly, you are only ever truly limited by your own imagination.
WP: What advice would give to those interested in pursuing a career in wildlife filmmaking?
TE: I would say the best thing to do is get out there and film! If you really want to work in this industry you’ve got to show that you are willing to do everything and work well with a team too. Prove to the employers that you eat, sleep, drink wildlife and are dedicated to the role. Build up a portfolio of work to show.
However, collaboration and people skills are probably the most important – nobody wants to work with a grumpy camera operator researcher! Get generating relevant content and be creative. Most of all (although this sounds cheesy), show how passionate you are. Being slightly mad and keen to get stuck in will get you a long way!
WP: What’s next for you? Any interesting projects lined up?
TE: I’m currently employed at the BBC as a researcher with an amazing team working on an exciting new mini-landmark series – they’re some of the most innovative, creative and energetic people you’ll meet at the Natural History Unit! Loving every moment. It’s incredibly exciting as you get to be creative, contact scientists and go out on location to see a story through.
However I’ve always also got my own content bubbling away in the background and so in the future film-wise I have a couple of personal project ideas in the pipeline soon in quite remote locations, involving VERY big animals and thrilling technology… watch this space!
Stay up to date with Tania’s work by heading over to her website treproductions.co.uk
About the Author
Kristian Hampton is Wex Photographic’s Technical Editor for Pro Video. A video specialist who has worked in corporate studios for companies such as Vodafone Group and PwC, as well as working as a freelance grip on various TV productions and features. He also runs Krade Media, providing enterprises with production services. Follow Kristian on twitter @KrissHampton