Wildlife filmmaking is a dream for many. To work in some incredible environments, see some of the world’s most beautiful creatures, and then record often unseen remarkable behaviour. As with all ‘dream jobs’ it can be a nightmare reaching your goal, and many (I mean many) will fall at the wayside. I am currently undertaking this journey, wading through the murky waters of freelance work, whilst trying to produce eye-catching video that could entice that single, all-important connection. Here are a few filming tips I have picked up along the way, to give you just a little leg-up.
1. Patience and quiet
This is the biggie, and is at my no. 1 spot for so many reasons. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been waiting ‘patiently’ for an animal to appear and given up, only a split second before it’s wandered in to view before fleeing. Always stay that extra few minutes, and you’ll have more luck. Similarly, if you wait long enough you will see the animal before it sees you and this means capturing ‘natural’ behaviour, instead of the edgy “there’s a predator pointing something at me” frozen stance.
Patience also means that in some cases, the more you persevere with a particular location, the more animals will become used to your presence and be happy to wander closer to the camera. I’ve also noticed that during filming, there’s a tendency to want the animal to ‘do something’, either resulting in a prod or whistle that will change the animal’s behaviour – again most of the time these unnatural behaviours are noticeable in the end result, so best avoided. If you wait you’re likely to capture something far more interesting.
I have found that after entering an environment (say forest), setting up my tripod and just sitting quietly for 15 minutes, the wildlife around me begins to appear. You also notice more by staying still and waiting, like a glistening spider web or bizarre fungus under a log. This leads me nicely onto number 2….
2. Make what you can with what you have
I like this one because it’s reflective of my situation. I’ll firstly talk about location. Of course you will have an easier time making eye-catching films if you travel about, visiting locations which appear ‘exotic’ to your particular demographic. But there are two ways of looking at this 1) You can still find amazing wildlife where you live, that I guarantee people won’t have seen before, 2) Make your location visible to a different demographic e.g. get your documentary about ‘Snowy England’ exposed to people who live in the tropics. When I described snow to my research assistant in Borneo he was mesmerised (he’d never seen it before up close).
In reference to the last part of no. 1, there is an incredible amount of wildlife around you if you stop and look. Be patient, check under leaves and under rocks carefully – you’ll be very surprised. Try not to be so blinded searching for foxes that you miss the amazing endangered caterpillars right next to you.
The second part of this refers to gear. Quite simply you don’t need to spend a lot on cameras, exceptions if you want to achieve something specific like macro or night videography, or you are working on a world class documentary! A good bridge camera with a decent zoom, and the ability to slow mo (e.g. 50fps – 100fps) will do. The most important thing is to know whatever gear you have inside out, and be able to change settings rapidly. I highly recommend the Panasonic Lumix FZ-1000 (and family). You don’t need ten lenses, it’s light, great zoom, versatile, can film 4K and up to 100fps. You can achieve smooth filming handheld these days due to good stabilisation options in most editors (the Panasonic even has one in-built), which leads me on to number 3…
3. Integrate a tripod
This is debatable, but was one of the things I always picked up on in certain videos. If you’re trying to achieve a perfectly still shot, and don’t use a tripod, it is nearly impossible. If you stabilise a shaky still shot it will help, but the edges of your picture may warp slightly, and can look a bit nauseating. I always carry a tripod with me, and when filming wildlife I think it makes such a difference. Allow me to explain a little.
When the subject is moving you really have two basic choices: 1) follow the subject or 2) keep the camera still and let the subject walk across the shot (and leaving the frame is nice). Both are great, but using a tripod for the latter is really effective. It gives the sense of a still ‘window’ onto the animal in question, a little like you are watching it with your own eyes. It’s also crisper, sleeker and generally looks more professional. Tripods also really help when you are filming at both a high frame rate, and especially when zoomed in – in these scenarios your image will be much more unsteady.
Of course dynamic camera movements are important, and often more engaging for the watcher. But tripods offer that element of certainty that means your filming won’t look amateurish. My advice would be to start with most of your shots on the tripod and gradually work more dynamics shots into your pieces as you get more comfortable.
4. Simplicity is key
This carries on from what I just said about tripods. Often the best way to make something watchable is to keep it simple. If you’re filming wildlife it really does not need to be complex. Generally, it is the animals that are doing the interesting thing and it is your job to capture it so the viewer can watch it.
Look at the editing style on programmes like Planet Earth 2, or Natural World – they are actually very simple. Despite amazing locations, cameras, patience and music, it follows a relatively formulaic and successful pattern. Simple, coherent narration is coupled with (mostly) dynamic shots introducing the relevant environment, this is followed by (mostly) still shots of the subject animals’ behaviour. If you include narration, it tends to be one or two lines of speech over one or two shots followed by silence over two or three more shots. Attenborough likes to open and close sections with one line, or even one word for emphasis. Legend.
5. ‘Filler’ footage
Of course there is a very good argument that no footage should be used to ‘pad out’ a video. However, if you spend all your filming time recording the main subject, you’ll come to realise that you have nothing to introduce your video with, or anything to go between sections. It’s amazing how much of this kind of footage is needed. I like to film efficiently, meaning that I don’t need to sift though hours of footage (big organisations don’t have this problem as they employ people to do just that), but often it does mean I am short of these ‘filler’ shots (as I’ve come to call them).
This might be something as arbitrary as a leaf blowing or a fern catching the sun – but they go a long way. In fact, getting beautiful filler shots is extremely important as they will more often than not introduce you video, and keep the audience engaged between sections. If you have a drone, aerial footage is great for this (but can be seriously overused), otherwise try to keep it relevant and focused on the environment that is the subject of your video.
Thanks for making it through all five, and I hope it offered a little bit of insight. I’m definitely no pro, but at least I can give some advice as to what I’ve discovered by myself along the way. Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions, debate what I’ve said above or add a bit of your own knowledge. So go out, film as much as you can, and let us know what you make!