The art of wildlife filming
Dedication, patience and trust are just some of the skills needed to succeed in wildlife filming. Seasoned cameraman Andrew Anderson – a member of the International Association of Wildlife Filmmakers – knows this all too well, having worked all over the world and in many different climates.
Speaking to KFTV, he describes some of the highlights and challenges over his thirty year career.
From an early age, I had been obsessed by wildlife, and started photographing wild badgers when I was 16. I moved on to birds, learning the techniques of getting close to them by reading the books of Eric Hosking and other acclaimed professionals.
There were almost no professional wildlife photographers or cameramen in those days, but I was keen on any photography and documentaries, so studied a three year photography course.
Of course this was in the days of film and hand printing. This is a craft that is now history. While there is certainly lighting, composition etc to learn, digital is so easy and instantly checkable that I certainly don't think you need three years to learn it now.
Then I was lucky enough to spend three months alone in East Africa, camping and photographing wildlife.
Back in England while working as a photographer, I taught myself how to put films together, making two progammes in my spare time before going freelance.
Getting close to your subjects
With anything larger than insects, one of the main challenges is to get close to the animals without them getting scared by your presence.
If you are filming them in the wild in their own habitat, or on a set, they must feel at ease. This will help to ensure they behave naturally.
You also need to be in place and ready to film, as soon as the animal is displaying the behaviour you need to record. This may be rare, but you can use a zoologist, who has studied the particular animal for years, to tell you exactly when and where this is likely to happen.
It’s also likely you will need to build and spend a long time in a hide, waiting to capture your subject at exactly the right point.
Buddying up with New Hampshire loons
I once shot a film on loons over two seasons in north America. The loon, also known as the Great Northern Diver, is a large, brightly patterned diving bird that spends its summer on the lakes of the USA and Canada from ice-out in the spring, to ice-in in the autumn, when they migrate out to sea.
I wanted to film them fishing underwater, but loons are shy birds, and try to avoid boats and people. They are frightened of anyone diving in their lake and stay well away.
But by great good fortune, I found an old man who lived by a lake in New Hampshire. He followed the loons on his lake in his boat, day after day. When loons have small young with them, they don't swim fast, so he would get close.
The same loons can return to the same lake for maybe 20 years, so he became a very familiar sight to them, year after year. The loons would get used to me being there, and soon I could start swimming around. We also began throwing minnows to them – they would be interested for a few minutes then not again until the next day.
I did it again seven years later with the same man, and probably the same loons, for David Attenborough's Life of Birds, for the BBC. Each time it took 2 or 3 weeks to build up and film.
My most memorable project
My first film has proved to be my most memorable, even though it was self-financed and filmed in my spare time.
The project was about barn owls in a disused church tower. I had photographed owls at night with flash for several years. It is a marvellous experience crouching in a hide in dark, sometimes lonely places, waiting for the owl to arrive.
Having done some test filming the year before, I already had some idea of what the owls would tolerate. Hoping they would nest the next year, I prepared the tower with lighting. I put up a scaffolding tower inside the church so I could film back through an aperture into the bell ringing chamber where the owls would nest. I did all this before the owls were interested in nesting.
Doing this before they started nesting meant I could get to my camera, slowly increase light on the dimmers and film without ever having to disturb the birds. Doing it this way, I managed to get behaviour never filmed before. That went into the first series of BBC’s Wildlife On One.
How things have changed
The advent of digital has changed everything. With film, you could go on an £80,000 trip and no one saw what you had filmed until you got back. If nothing else, you were depended upon as the director/cameraman to expose the film correctly and discover immediately if there was a hair in the gate or a camera was malfunctioning. These days, you can view everything in the field.
Digital is silent – an older high speed camera would make a racket - and you can even pre-record on a continuous loop so you can store the action after it has happened.
Digital also enables you to record in very low light levels. Cameras are smaller and cheaper, so lots more people can participate in filmmaking. All kinds of exciting behaviour is being captured on film, with trap or remotely operated cameras. Digital storage costs nothing compared to film.
Editors love digital recordings from ex-film camera people, as they have developed the habit of economic shooting on expensive film. They actually turn the camera OFF occasionally!
With digital, the camera tends to be left on all the time and the editor has to wade through literally days of nothing happening to extract the interesting nuggets.
I have to admit that digital is amazing. The quality is staggering, and has enabled the filming of all kinds of animal behaviour that was previously unthinkable.
What you need to succeed
A hunting instinct is essential. A lot of wildlife camera work is a sort of hunt, so you need to learn to assess the mood of an animal.
You soon learn to recognise the signs in the animal after you have been watching it. Being close to an unsuspecting animal is very exciting. I have spent a lot of my career waiting in hides or blinds I have built. When something is so rare and important to you, patience comes naturally. I once stayed in a hide for three days without getting out.
There is a type of filming called long lens recording, as opposed to macro work, which is filming small things close-up. Many cameramen can do both, but as with all professions, you get a reputation in the business for particular skills.
Fitness is important, as you may have to carry heavy kit. I used to be a scout during my school days, so I was used to camping and outdoor living when it came to filming in wild country.
Starting out in wildlife filming
Opportunities and times change. Who knows what kind of other outlets are on the horizon, apart from broadcast?
All wildlife cameramen are freelance. I would advise those starting out in the industry to shoot an interesting sequence, edit it and send it to producers. If they like it they may ask you to shoot another one.
For a shoot, it is likely that you will be provided with the gear. Video cameras become obsolete so quickly these days that you are not expected to have your own. With the BBC I was first employed for three days to film ravens nesting. That went well so I was given another sequence, and another, until before long I found myself filming in the Canadian Arctic.
Not being a particularly forthcoming person, I can happily spend more time with animals than humans - it’s probably why I am better at understanding animals.
If I lived my early career again, I would get to meet the people who matter, particularly the producers, and show them what I can do. I spent too much time lurking in the undergrowth, waiting to be spotted and recognised.
KFTV would like to thank Andrew Anderson for all his industry expertise and insight.