Here are answers to some of the most common questions that I get asked.
How did you happen to become a wildlife filmmaker?
I’ve been fascinated with nature for as long as I can remember, but in my early childhood this interest often manifested itself in destructive ways – I’m afraid I was rather free with my catapult in those days! When I was ten years old my sister lent me a book by Gerald Durrell and I can truly say that it changed my life. It taught me that it was far more interesting to observe and study the creatures around me unobtrusively, and I became an ardent naturalist. Our garden was tiny, but close inspection revealed a host of creatures – ants, skinks, garden lizards, palm squirrels, sunbirds and parakeets.
When I was 13, I visited the Madras Snake Park with a friend and fell completely under the spell of snakes. Thanks to the encouragement of the snake park’s Founder-Director, Rom Whitaker, I enrolled as a volunteer and began spending a great deal of time there. Working in the snake park’s darkroom kindled my interest in still photography.
In the mid-80s Rom’s friends, filmmakers John and Louise Riber, came to live in Madras to make a film on snakebite. I was deputed to help them when Rom was away, and picked up the rudiments of filmmaking by observing them work. Later, when the Ribers left Madras to make films elsewhere in the world, a few of us (Rom, Zai Whitaker, Revati Mukerjee and myself) started a small filmmaking company called Eco Media. Since I had spent the most amount of time under the tutelage of the Ribers I became the designated cameraman, editor and general dogsbody of the team.
Around that time, Bittu Sahgal, Editor of Sanctuary Magazine, had embarked on an ambitious project to make a TV series on Project Tiger Reserves in India. Rom and I were asked to help produce two of the episodes. Since there were only a couple of wildlife cinematographers in India in those days, and they were unavailable, Bittu sent an experienced Bollywood cameraman and his assistant for the first shoot in Periyar. In an unexpected stroke of luck for me, the cameraman got bored out of his skull by the third day of the shoot and wanted to go back to Bombay. Waking up at the crack of dawn and watching and filming animals the whole day just wasn’t his cup of tea!
The shoot had to be salvaged at all costs, and over the telephone Bittu and I decided that I would take over - I had been promoted to wildlife cameraman! That was the first of many instances in my life when I truly understood the meaning of the adage “in every challenge lies an opportunity”!
Can anyone become a wildlife filmmaker?
Wildlife filmmaking is a very specialized occupation and not for everyone. Genuine passion for the wild, mental and physical stamina, the ability to sit alone quietly in the forest for hours at a time, and the patience to wait days or weeks to get a particular shot, are the attributes needed to be a wildlife filmmaker. Of course, you also need an aptitude for the medium and lots of different skills. Wildlife filmmaking also requires an investment in expensive equipment.
The monetary rewards are not always great and there is no ‘job security’. You have to work as a freelancer, and it usually takes several years of hard work to make your mark. In short, you should be prepared to enter this profession for the love of it and treat any rewards, monetary or otherwise, as a bonus!
How does one start?
There is no formula or short cut to becoming a wildlife filmmaker. Each person has to find his or her own path, and it can be a lonely one. The best way, is to begin is by attaching oneself as an assistant to an established wildlife filmmaker and learn on the job. You must be willing to work extremely hard and do any kind of work for little or no money – for at least a couple of years.
What are the opportunities to apprentice with an established wildlife filmmaker in India?
Unfortunately, very limited. There are only a handful of genuine, experienced wildlife filmmakers in the country, and most of them work with an extremely small, hand picked crew. It is difficult for them to find room for an apprentice. You have to keep on pounding on their doors until they let you in! One way to make yourself attractive to them is by developing as many field skills as you can – being a good naturalist helps. So does being able to drive, climb trees, scuba dive, take good photographs, type or cook! In fact, the more skills you have, the better. It is also important to have a cheerful disposition, and be an alert and reliable helper. Basically all filmmakers will want to know what skills you can add to their existing team. Many young people land up at a filmmaker’s door and say “I know nothing about wildlife and nothing about film making, but I love watching Nat Geo and Discovery and I want to make wildlife films, so please give me a chance!”. This approach usually doesn’t work!
What are the other options for a beginner?
1. Enroll in a course in environmental and wildlife filmmaking. The University of Montana in Bozeman, Montana, USA, offers a three-year course. Otago University in New Zealand also has a program. Details can be downloaded from the net. Jeffrey Boswall, an experienced filmmaker and teacher conducts shorter duration of courses in the U.K. and so does Wildeye, also in the U.K. However, doing a course is only a start. To succeed as a professional wildlife filmmaker, you will need to surmount all sorts of real life obstacles in the field.
2. If you have some filmmaking experience and you think you can do it, go out and make a small film by yourself or with like-minded friends. It’s easier to convince people to give you a chance if you have something good to show. However, do not invest in expensive equipment if you are not sure about pursuing this as a career. It is better to beg, borrow or rent a camera at first.
3. If you have a great idea for a natural history film and have researched the subject thoroughly, you could try convincing an established filmmaker to make the film, with you as an assistant.
4. If you are photogenic, articulate and comfortable in front of a camera, you could try becoming a wildlife television presenter. Make a ‘Show Reel’ and approach some of the major broadcasters/ filmmakers.
5. Take part in the Animal Planet competition ‘UNEARTHED’ to discover new talent.
6. Use your imagination and see if there is another way! And if you find one, tell me about it and I’ll post it here for other people to see.