So, you want to be a wildlife camera operator ….
You’re not alone! It’s an attractive proposition and therefore competitive – but don’t let this deter you – with the right skills and determination it’s possible to create an amazing career filming the world’s magnificent wildlife.
Your main choices are: to be employed by a production company (or broadcaster like the BBC); to act as a self-employed camera operator (which could still mean working for a production company or broadcaster but in a freelance capacity); or you create your own projects and start your own company.
Training and qualifications
But before you get to that stage you need to get as much training and experience as possible. There are no formal qualifications required by employers, but some, like the BBC for example, are likely to look more favourably at those who have degrees in either zoology/biology or a film-making related subject. In addition there are currently two MA courses in the UK worth looking at:
UWE (University of the West of England) – 1 year postgraduate MA Wildlife Filmmaking (http://courses.uwe.ac.uk/D4P31/)
University of Salford – 1 year postgraduate MA Wildlife Documentary Production
For those without the time/means/academic ability to take three years or so to do a degree, there are plenty of other options for further training. Wildlife Film Festivals run various excellent workshops and masterclasses and for those wishing to gain certain specific skills there are short courses such as those run by Wildeye – the International School of Wildlife Film-making – based in Norfolk (www.wildeye.co.uk).
Developing skills (how to improve your chances of success)
There is no set path that will guarantee you success, but there are definitely a number of things you can do to prepare yourself for the best chance.
Learn about natural history by studying, by reading, by watching TV and through first-hand experience in the field. A good knowledge of wildlife throughout the world is highly desirable (but not essential as you always research your topic), along with a good grasp of world geography.
The more you know about the industry the better – so:
Read Wild Pages: The Wildlife Film-makers’ Resource Guide – explore the directories to see who does what (www.wildeye.co.uk/wild-pages)
Surf the Internet – find out more about production companies from their own websites.
The best way to develop your filming skills is to start practising with a digital camcorder or DSLR that can shoot video. Practise your camera skills and your fieldcraft together – then watch the footage on your TV and make notes about what you need to improve. How do the pictures compare to films you want to emulate? Learn to understand filmic-grammar. Improving your stills photography skills will also help you understand the basics of lighting, exposure, lenses, framing shots etc.
Seeking employment (where to look for work and network with possible employers/collaborators)
It’s true that it’s often ‘whom you know’ not ‘what you know’ that gives you the biggest breaks in this industry. Letters, emails and phone-calls are some methods but there is nothing like meeting people face to face, and wildlife film festivals and courses are the best place to do this. Go to as many festivals as you can – such as Wildscreen in Bristol or the Wildeye Conservation Film Festival in Norfolk – details of these are in the festivals directory of www.wildlife-film.com. They all have excellent masterclasses, workshops, seminars etc.
Possible routes in:
Approach camera operators to see if they need an assistant or are happy for you to shadow them. This may well be unpaid to start with but it will be invaluable experience if you can get it. It will certainly be hard work and you may have to do everything from carrying equipment to driving and cooking. You can either contact camera operators directly (you’ll find them listed at www.wildlife-film.com), or approach production companies and ask if they have any camera assistant work-experience/shadowing with any of their camera operators. ‘Shadowing’ basically means you just accompany a camera operator (unpaid of course) and learn from watching them. If you’re lucky they will teach you a great deal.
If you are already skilled enough you can approach a company with your showreel on DVD. This should be about 5 minutes (never more than 10) of varied footage showing what you are capable of. It could accompany a pitch if you have a strong film idea as well.
Do it Yourself
Increasingly these days wildlife camera operators are starting their own companies and creating their own projects. These can then be sold on to broadcasters, distributors, via DVD or the internet. The book Conservation Film-making: How to make films that make a difference – has chapters on how to fund your film project and reach audiences.
Careers in Wildlife Film-making – Guidance and advice for aspiring makers of wildlife films. Featuring many case studies from all over the world (www.wildeye.co.uk/careers-in-wildlife-film-making)
Conservation Film-making: How to make films that make a difference – Never has the time been more critical for film-making to help make a difference to the natural world. This book shows you how (www.wildeye.co.uk/conservation-film-making-book)
Wildlife Film-making: Looking to the Future – What does the future of wildlife film-making hold for us all? (www.wildeye.co.uk/wildlife-film-making)
Wild Pages: The Wildlife Film-makers’ Resource Guide – Many hundreds of listings – invaluable information at your fingertips to save hours of trawling through the Internet (www.wildeye.co.uk/wild-pages)
Go Wild with Your Camcorder – How to Make Wildlife Films – Information and advice on all aspects of making a wildlife film from choosing a camcorder to editing the final product (www.wildeye.co.uk/go-wild-with-your-camcorder)
Piers Warren, Principle of Wildeye International School of Wildlife Film-making (www.wildeye.co.uk)