Careers in Wildlife Film-making
I get a lot of emails from people wanting advice on the best way to get into the television industry so I’ve decided to post a few tips here, based on my experiences and the questions that people have asked. I’m going to concentrate on the wildlife side of things and on camera work specifically as this is what I know best. However, much of this will apply to the industry as a whole.
The Nature of the Beast
The best people in the industry started young.
The first thing to bear in mind, if you don’t know already, is that pretty much all wildlife camera people are freelance. There may be staff positions available to a lucky few (which I’ll discuss shortly), but you are entering a market that is fiercely competitive. You will be chasing the same work as people who may have been around much longer, are better qualified and have much more experience. To make matters worse you should also know that this is not a career path that is ever going to make you rich, at least not in a financial sense! Having said all that, if you’re prepared to work hard, make your own luck and can keep your living costs down, it is definitely as rewarding and satisfying a job as you will find anywhere.
For reasons not entirely clear to me, there seem to be very few women in wildlife camerawork (with a few notable exceptions), though they are better represented in production. In case you are in any doubt, there is no reason at all why women should not pursue this as a career path. There may be a perception that the job is physically demanding, but if anything most of us suffer from a lack of physical activity when filming rather than an excess of it. It’s true to say that you need to be able-bodied and have good colour vision but that’s really it.
Justine Evans on location up a tall tree.
Fortunately, there are no academic qualifications required to be a camera person. There are camera people who have PhDs from the best universities in the world, and there are some who can barely read, but they all get along fine because it’s all about knowing how to get the best from the equipment and being able to put a sequence together. For people at school or college looking at film schools, media studies and photography courses, I would advise you to think carefully before taking that route. The courses tend to be quite general and will often focus on drama and human documentary techniques, all of which are loosely relevant but not specific to wildlife. It's worth making sure they have up to date equipment and that the course isn't too theory based. Practical experience is what is important.
There specific courses in wildlife filming techniques, which many people have found useful but of course they don’t offer any guarantees of career progression. If you have, or are thinking about a biology degree, this can be really useful when applying for TV researcher jobs, which can in themselves offer a back door into camerawork. Many camera people have started out this way. To a prospective employer, any degree will help to demonstrate a commitment to a long-term goal but as I say, it’s definitely not a necessity.
One important aspect of wildlife filming which is often overlooked is field craft. It’s great if you can operate a camera but in order to shoot anything you need to be able to get close enough to your subject. Filming animals in the wild presents a particular challenge so it’s really useful to be able demonstrate your abilities to potential employers. If you have experience of observing and recording wild animal behaviour in difficult conditions, perhaps as part of a science or conservation project, make sure people know about it.
This is the usual route for most people trying to get into the industry, and pretty much everyone in the business has done it at some time or other. Usually it involves little or no pay, long hours and work that is not particularly relevant to what you want to be doing. You might be a tape-logger, film librarian, bag-carrier, receptionist, runner, wildlife-spotter, kit monkey or second assistant fluffer to the tea-boy. The point is that you will make friends and contacts, people will get to know your face and you will have the opportunity to show your commitment and hard-working nature, and it should be good fun.
Boris Johnson turned out to be a natural at this.
The best way to get this sort of experience is to approach the BBC or any independent production companies that are making the kind of programmes you would like to be involved in. In the past, many companies ran dedicated work experience schemes but these are few and far between these days, so you’ll have to work hard to find those. Don’t be surprised or disappointed if you don’t get something first off. So much of this is about luck, timing and what people are doing, so you will have to be persistent.
If you are really sure you want to be in the camera side, it can be worth approaching freelance camera people to see whether they need any help on shoots. The reality is that anything you do get will probably be based in the same country as you, as neither camera people nor producers can afford to take extra people on foreign locations, for financial and logistical reasons. Speaking personally, pretty much all my work is abroad, so my ability to offer useful experience to anyone is very limited. I’m sure it will be the same for many others.
You can try advertising your services on the IAWF website. When camera people need someone to help them in the field, this is usually the first place they will look. You’ll have to become a member but this is a good idea anyway, as it can be a useful resource.
Doing work experience can mean being subjected to all kinds of indignity.
The BBC Natural History Unit used to run a trainee cameraman bursary scheme in which they would employ a person for a year or two. During that time the person would have access to equipment and on-the-job training in wildlife filming. This hasn’t happened for a number of years now, but there has been talk of getting it going again. Keep an eye on the industry press, in case it happens. For the lucky person it offers by far the best opportunity to break in to the business.
Many of the independent producers and equipment hire companies will take on casual staff to help out in various capacities. Sometimes they need people to help with the management and operating of their filming equipment. It won’t be formal training but it might be a good opportunity to get your hands on the kit and maybe get your work on screen.
It helps if you have family members already established in the business.
CVs, Show Reels and Portfolios
Inevitably, at some stage you will have to approach people for a job or work experience. Whether you are approaching a camera person, producer or someone in a large company, there are a few things you can do to stand out from the crowd. The following tips might seem really obvious but you’d be surprised at how many people get this badly wrong!
Do your research before applying. Make sure that you have addressed your letter, email or phone call to the right individual in the company and do so by their name. Try to get their name right. I once received an email which began, ‘Dear Mr Slemmings…’. It made me laugh like a drain, but not for the right reasons. Avoid ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ as it smacks of mass mailing and looks like you couldn’t be bothered.
Keep your introduction brief and concise, and make it relevant to the thing you’re applying for. It’s good to give some background if it’s relevant to filming (for instance if you have qualifications in diving, climbing, flying planes or whatever) but your tastes in wine, music and literature can probably wait for a face-to-face meeting.
One of my pictures. Bored yet?
You should attach a CV but again, keep it well-spaced, clean and relevant. Two pages at most and one if you can do it but in either case try to fill each page. People in TV often have quite short attention spans so a lot of dense text and unnecessary detail will make them put it down and move onto the next one. Avoid multi-coloured fonts and messy graphics. Scented and marbled paper might be best avoided too, but that’s a personal thing. Whatever you do, it’s crucial that you re-read and spell check everything before sending.
It’s fashionable at the moment to write CVs in the third person, as if somebody else was writing about you, in the style of a gushing critical review. I’m not sure why this is, as no-one is seriously going to believe that it wasn’t you that wrote it. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the first person, but I guess it’s a matter of personal preference.
Most applicants will have a show reel of film material they have shot or a portfolio of stills. I would avoid sending DVDs and prints initially, but if you have a web link that people can go to and see your material then it’s worth offering it. Make sure the link works and remember that many people will have low connection speeds and limited patience! If you are invited for a meeting or interview, that is probably the best time to introduce your DVD or portfolio.
The really important thing with show reels and photography portfolios is that you only include your very best material. It can be wildlife-based if that’s your specific interest, but it’s not strictly necessary. Show reels can be in montage form, narrative sequences, or short films, but they need to be short and preferably under two minutes. Don’t use over-blown music as this can detract significantly from the images. I did exactly that and I won’t do it again! It’s a really tricky thing to get right but if in doubt, go with something instrumental and soothing, which can melt into the background a bit and compliment the pictures.
Many seasoned pros have bemoaned the loss of manual iris rings on modern SLRs.
For stills portfolios, go for quality rather than quantity. If you only have 6 great photos, that’s fine. Don’t dilute your folio with anything you feel is of a lower standard. It’s much better to show them 6 great shots than to show them 6 great ones and 6 mediocre ones. Of course if you have 12 fantastic pictures, even better! It can be really hard to choose pictures for your final selection. Seek advice from people outside your immediate circle of friends and family, someone who can be coldly dispassionate and give you an honest view on your images. It’s all too easy to get attached to pictures that were hard-gotten for some reason but which aren’t that great. Pictures that show a degree of originality and creativity will stand out. They should also show a range of techniques, for example long lens, landscapes, macro etc. Avoid trying to make dull pictures interesting with heavy Photoshop effects as this rarely works.
Whether it be a stills selection or a show reel, remember they will be looking for evidence of your commitment to the cause, your field skills, and that you have a good ‘eye’ for a picture. Good technical quality in the pictures can help to create a good overall impression but it’s not the most important thing. If you have access to professional kit then so much the better, but if not, just do what you can within the limitations of the equipment you have and make it look as nice as possible.
I hope this has been of some use to you but if you still have questions unanswered, let me know and I’ll try to update this section when I can. Please forgive me for not publishing details of people to send CVs to. They would probably kill me with a brick if I did.
Please forward any more useful links to me. Thanks.
International Association of Wildlife Filmmakers - www.iawf.org.uk
The Knowledge www.theknowledgeonline.com
Production Base www.productionbase.co.uk
The Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com
British Council Film Team www.britfilms.com
More career advice from my great mate Charlie Hamilton-James can be found here: www.charliehamiltonjames.co.uk
Thanks to the following for their help and contributions in the making of this page:
Justine Evans, Dana Kellett, Some kids.