Introduction to Wildlife Filmmaking
AN INTRODUCTION TO WILDLIFE FILMMAKING
When you watch a good film, you get so drawn into it that you don’t usually pause to think of all the steps that would have gone into the making of it. But the truth is, filmmaking is a complex undertaking that involves a number of steps from start to finish. A good film is a perfect blend of creative ability and technical know- how. Making a wildlife or natural history film adds another layer of complexity, since the filmmaker rarely has any control over the subject. Unlike an advertisement film or a feature film, where one starts off with an extremely detailed script and storyboard, the wildlife film has to contend with the unpredictability of nature. Animals in the jungle cannot be made to perform for the camera according to one’s wishes. This does not mean that you cannot plan a wildlife film, only that the process of planning and making a wildlife film is quite different from what is involved in the making of a film involving people.
In addition to technical prowess and creative ability, the making of a good wildlife film also requires an in-depth understanding of nature. Such knowledge does not come from simply reading books or earning a degree in biology, but through years of watching and studying wildlife in its natural habitats. Indeed, the best wildlife filmmakers are invariably dedicated naturalists who have developed filmmaking skills rather than film makers who’ve decided to make films on nature.
How do wildlife films get made? What are the stages a film must go through from concept to completion? What does a team consist of and who does what? While it is not possible to describe all the processes in great detail in this article I have tried to give a fair idea of what wildlife filmmaking involves. The process of filmmaking can be divided into three stages. Pre-production, Production and Post-Production.
- This stage precedes the commencement of filming, and includes the following activities, though not necessarily in the order mentioned:
- Researching the subject thoroughly, through personal observation, reading relevant research papers and books, and interacting with knowledgeable individuals.
- Contacting resource persons such as scientists, technicians and potential crew members.
- Doing a recce to get a feel for the locations, meet people such as Forest Officers and local naturalists, check out logistical details such as availability of transport and accomodation, and gather other information vital to the success of the shoot.
- Writing up a proposal and preparing a detailed budget.
- Obtaining the funds necessary to make the film.
- Obtaining the necessary permits. To work in a Wildlife Sanctuary or National Park in India it is necessary to get a permit from the Chief Wildlife Warden of the respective State).
This is the stage when the actual filming takes place. In the case of a one-hour natural history film the production stage can last up to two years or more depending on the degree of difficulty the subject poses. Ideally, by the time this stage commences, the filmmaker should have a rough shooting script in hand that will indicate all the different sequences that need to be obtained. For example, if you are making a film about the life history of the cobra, some of the sequences is your list would be: feeding sequence, mating sequence, egg laying sequence, hatching sequence, and so on. Under each sequence it is useful to make a detailed shot list of all the things that you would like to film to make it complete. The shot breakdown should include natural history details that will help the cinematographer make the most of it. For example:
Feeding sequence: Set inside a village hut at night. Rats scurrying around inside, feeding on grain out of hole in a sack, fighting with one another; cobra enters hut through hole in the wall, crawls around house; close-ups of head and tongue flicking; different angles of cobra’s progress in search of rats; cobra and rat come face to face, cobra strikes, rat slinks away after being bitten; rat dies, cobra follows scent trail and swallows rat; different angles of the swallowing; cobra exits hut after meal. Other shots: people sleeping on the floor, oblivious to the drama; cobra crawling past sleeping people. Rat looking down from rafter at crawling snake. Point of View (POV) shots of snake and rat.
Apart from being an important mental exercise, the shooting script will also help you to schedule your shoots so that the crew can be at the right place at the right time. Even so, since luck has a major role to play in one’s success, it must be understood that many shots or sequences on the wish list or shooting script may not happen despite one’s best efforts. On the other hand, one sometimes gets to film something totally unexpected. This is fine and, depending on what you eventually get, changes in the storyline can be made during the third stage.
III. Post Production:
The post-production of a film begins once the shooting is over, and encompasses all the stages that go into the making of a finished film. Editing, scripting, graphics, music, narration, sound effects and incorporation of credits are all part of the post production process. Post-production needs the most meticulous care since this is when the raw material (the footage) gets turned into a finished product. Just like the best quality teakwood can turn into a crude piece of furniture in the hands of a sloppy carpenter, so can good footage be turned into a mediocre film through bad post-production. The post-production of an hour-long natural history film could take as long as 3 – 4 months of full time work.
Good films are the result of teamwork on the part of several professionals. A typical wildlife film crew would consist of the following key people.
THE PRODUCER: In the context of a wildlife film the Producer is the key person. While other members of the team may have a particular part to play at a particular stage of production or post-production it is the producer who is responsible for taking the film from concept to completion. Among the many duties of the producer are the following (these may vary from film to film):
- - conceiving the idea for the film and writing the shooting script
- - finding funds
- - obtaining permits
- - choosing the team
- - doing the recces
- - drawing up the production and post-production schedules and ensuring that everything goes according to plan
- - being answerable to the investors in the project at every stage of the film
Sometimes the producer could also be the cinematographer and/or editor, scriptwriter or sound recordist of the film.
THE PRODUCTION MANAGER: The production manager ‘manages’ the production by taking care of the hundred and one administrative details of a project. Keeping track of the expenditure, organizing air tickets and transport for the crew, coordinating between the various personnel on a project and organizing studio bookings for the post production are just some of the duties of this person who is, quite literally, the producer’s right arm.
THE WILDLIFE CINEMATOGRAPHER: This is the person who is responsible for turning the producer’s concept into reality; the person who will spend days, weeks, months or, even, years filming the sequences that the producer has envisioned. For projects that are vast in scope, or when time is limited, the producer may employ more than one cinematographer. Sometimes three to four cinematographers could contribute to a single film. This does not matter so long as the producer has a clear idea of the story to be told. On particularly demanding projects sometimes a producer might want specialist cinematographers to shoot certain segments of a film. For instance the film might call for ultra close-up shots of the breeding behaviour of spiders and this may require the services of a macro cinematographer. There may be other shots to be taken underwater for which the services of an experienced underwater cinematographer may be requisitioned, and so on.
Wildlife cinematographers are a special breed, and they need to be! To excel at this job you must be passionate about wildlife and love nothing more than to spend time in wild places. Without this almost fanatical love or fascination for nature, it would be impossible to do a job that requires great endurance and a capacity to bear all kinds of physical hardship cheerfully day after day. It goes without saying that filming wildlife requires enormous patience and perseverance as well – many species are notoriously difficult to film. But equally, the wildlife cinematographer must feel at one with the environment and with wild animals of every shape and size – from king cobras to elephants, from gold fish to great white sharks.
Hunting with a camera is considerably more difficult than hunting with a gun. Frightened or disturbed animals can be shot quickly with a gun, but do not make for good footage. To film wild animals behaving naturally in their environment calls for a thorough understanding of their behaviour, and the ability to approach them without causing distress. Along with this, it is important to be well versed in field craft. Animals have senses that are often superior to ours, and to outwit them requires considerable skill. Whether it is filming from a small, precarious platform high up in the forest canopy or from a well-concealed hide on the forest floor, the wildlife cinematographer must learn to become invisible when the situation requires it.
Of course, combined with all this, one must also have an artistic eye and be technically skilled. Split-second reflexes and the ability to consistently shoot beautifully composed images that are perfectly exposed, and in sharp focus, are the hallmarks of a successful wildlife cinematographer. Versatility – some wildlife cinematographers are equally proficient whether they are shooting in the rainforest or deep under the ocean – and an innovative bent of mind are other qualities that further enhance a wildlife cinematographer’s capabilities.
Wildlife cinematographers generally work by themselves most of the time since the producer may not always have the time to be in the field. Once the cinematographer is established in the location and logistical arrangements have been made the producer might leave him or her to get on with the job after a thorough briefing. Thus a producer can even work on more than one film at a time, juggling his or her time between different projects.
THE LOCATION SOUND RECORDIST: Sound for wildlife films is rarely recorded simultaneously while the scenes are being shot. Instead the sound is usually recorded separately and then edited into the film during post-production. It is rarely practical, affordable, or even, necessary, for a sound recordist on a wildlife film project to accompany the cinematographer every time. Usually, if a shoot goes on for a whole year, the sound recordist will visit the location just two or three times, for, say, 10 – 15 days each time. During these visits he or she will attempt to get good ambient sound recordings at different times of the day, and also attempt to record the calls of any animals or birds that the cinematographer has filmed, or hopes to film in the future. The producer will give the sound recordist a list of all specific sounds to record. As with photography, here too, luck has a role to play, and the recordist may not be able to capture every sound on the list. These missing sounds will then have to be recorded by other crew members, possibly even by the producer or cinematographer, in their spare time. In fact, with budgets for wildlife films shrinking, many cinematographers or producers also double up as sound recordists. Sometimes specific sounds can also be bought from a sound library.
The equipment of wildlife film making
There is a mind boggling variety of equipment available to cater to every professional filmmaking need. To start with, here are the basic requirements.
THE CAMERA: Wildlife filmmaking usually requires specialized equipment. Until recently most high quality wildlife documentaries were shot on 16mm film, particularly on a format called Super 16mm. The advantages of shooting on film are many. Colour negative film, which is what is used most of the time, has a very long shelf life. If properly preserved a roll of negative film can be stored for up to 200 years! Many historical documentaries include clips from film shot many decades ago. And in the future, footage of many rare animals could only be available from a film library. Film also has the advantage of being able to handle a wide variety of lighting conditions, and produce images that are extremely rich and true to life. Film cameras are very rugged and can withstand the extreme climatic conditions that many wildlife documentaries are shot in. But shooting on film also has its disadvantages, and many people are switching over to video. For instance, with film, you cannot view your results immediately. The film has to be sent for processing and transfer to video tape, usually at a distant lab. By the time the cinematographer gets to see the ‘rushes’, many days, weeks or even months may have elapsed. Thus any problems with a lens or other equipment may go undetected for a while. There are other problems inherent in sending the film off for processing to a distant laboratory. Film rolls could get lost in transit, or they may be subject to heavy-duty x-rays at various airports along the way. Even a single pass through a new generation x-ray machine can cause irreversible fogging of unprocessed film.
Because of these and other reasons, Producers of high quality wildlife documentaries are now switching to hi-definition video. The image quality of these new generation cameras rivals that of 35mm film, with the added advantage that you can view what you’ve shot immediately. Since the capture medium is video tape, there is no processing involved. However hi-definition video cameras are still prohibitively expensive and it will be a few years before they come into widespread use. There are currently other, less expensive, video formats to shoot on. Digi-Beta, DV Cam, DVC Pro and Mini DV are some of the popular formats (DV stands for ‘Digital Video’). Of these, Digi-Beta is the most expensive and the Mini-DV the least expensive. For the beginner there is no better format to choose than Mini DV. Camcorders of this format are compact and relatively inexpensive. They also provide remarkably good quality picture and sound. Many travel shows and documentaries that you see on TV are shot on Mini DV. Of the many brands of Mini DV camcorders on the market, the Canon XL series (XL1, XL1s and XL2) is the most suitable for wildlife filming since it can accept interchangeable lenses. Still-camera lenses from a SLR camera can be mounted onto this camcorder through the use of special adapters.
LENSES: A natural history cinematographer needs an array of lenses to be able to capture different images in nature. Telephoto and long zoom lenses bring distant subjects closer, ‘macro’ lenses are a must for close-up filming of insects or other tiny subjects, and wide-angle lenses are useful for filming landscapes. Apart from these, there are also specialised lenses such as the Periscope, Borescope and Endoscope for specialised applications.
TRIPOD: A good tripod is one of the most important requirements for filming wildlife. All professional wildlife cinematographers use a rock-solid, heavy-duty tripod virtually at all times. The best film or video tripods provide smooth panning (side to side) and tilting (up and down) movements. These are called ‘fluid head’ tripods and are very expensive.
SOUND RECORDING EQUIPMENT: When using a film camera sound has to be recorded separately on an audio recorder. Nowadays the format of choice for field sound recording is DAT or Digital Audio Tape. A sound recordist uses a variety of different microphones to suit different situations just as a cinematographer uses different lenses. Shotgun microphones and parabolic microphones are used to home in on specific sounds, such as, for example, to isolate the song of a bird from other ambient sounds. Stereo mics are used to record general ambience, lapel mics are used for interviews with people and so on. When shooting on video, sound gets recorded simultaneously with the picture directly onto the video tape. Some camcorders have a provision to attach an external mic in place of the standard stereo mic that is provided with the camera.
WHEN THE SHOOTING STOPS: When all the filming is over, post-production begins. In this phase a whole new range of professionals get involved.
THE LOGGER: Typically, for an hour-long natural history film, about 25 hours of material would have been shot. Sifting through this enormous amount of footage to pick out the best shots would be extremely difficult without a detailed list of each and every shot. It is the logger’s job to catalogue the raw footage and categorise each shot. A log would look somewhat like this:
- NAGARAHOLE LOG – ROLL NO.1:
- 00:00:00:00 – 00:03:05:10: WIDE SHOT OF SLOTH BEAR WALKING THROUGH FOREST
- 00:03:05:11 – 00:05:43:00: CLOSE-UP OF SLOTH BEAR DIGGING INTO TERMITE MOUND
- 00:05:43:01 – 00:08:32:05: BIG CLOSE-UP OF CLAWS DEMOLISHING MOUND
Special computer software is available for logging, using which it is easy to incorporate the logged files into the editing program.
THE EDITOR: Selecting the right shots and putting them together to form the story requires specialized skill. This is what an editor does. The editor will first view the rushes (the raw footage) several times and, directed by the producer, whittle down the material to about two hours of sequences strung together in the correct order. This is known as an assembly. Over many days or weeks, the assembly will be further shortened until it is close to the length of the finished film. This stage is known as the Rough Cut. In the final stage, the film will be cut down to the exact number of minutes and seconds required for television. This is known as the Fine Cut. When all the last-minute changes have been made on the Fine Cut, the ‘picture’ is said to be ‘locked’. This stage is known as ‘picture lock’ and no more changes are allowed to the fine cut after this stage. To reach the picture lock stage may require 10 weeks or more of editing for an hour-long natural history film.
THE SCRIPT WRITER: The scriptwriter comes into the Project at the Rough Cut stage. The producer will brief the scriptwriter on the kind of script required, and provide all the research materials, background information and list of references relevant to the subject. The writer will then take a copy of the Rough Cut and start crafting the sentences to go with the images. There is always quite a bit of interaction between the producer, the writer and the editor until the pictures and words come together in harmony, complementing each other. Writing the script for an hour long natural history film could take 4-5 weeks.
THE MUSIC COMPOSER: If the film requires music the producer will engage a composer to write the score and record the music. The composer will usually be brought in at the Rough Cut stage. Along with the producer and editor, he or she will view the rough cut to discuss where music is required in the film and what the mood should be for each musical piece. One sequence might require humorous music to make the audience laugh, another might require a melancholic tune. Over the next few days the composer will come up with rough musical ‘sketches’. The producer will listen to these rough pieces of music and suggest changes. The composer will keep fine-tuning the musical pieces but will turn the sketches into finished pieces only after the editing reaches the Picture Lock stage.
THE SOUND DESIGNER: The sound track of a natural history film is extremely important and has to be rich and multi-layered. Only when good images are combined with a dynamic sound track does the audience feel involved with the film. There is art and craft involved in designing the sound track for a film. The natural sounds gathered assiduously in the field cannot just be affixed at random onto the film. For instance it would be factually incorrect to put a recording of winter ambience on a scene depicting summer or vice versa. But there is more to it than just factual accuracy. To create a dynamic sound track each scene of the film needs many layers of sound. For example, to bring alive a scene depicting a herd of deer grazing in the forest at dawn, the sound designer may put a general early morning ambience on Track 1, add sound of jungle fowl crowing on Track 2, the sounds of a song bird recorded with a shotgun microphone on Track 3, close-up sounds of deer chomping grass on Track 4, and so on.
The sound design for a film involves not only cutting and layering the natural sounds (known as the “effects” track), but also accurate placement of the music and the recorded commentary. So you see, it’s not a simple job!
THE NARRATOR: After the picture has been fine cut, the writer will finalise the script. Once the producer is satisfied with the written words, a professional narrator will be engaged to narrate the script in sync with the picture. Choosing the right narrator and directing him or her is the producer’s job. Does the film need a man’s voice or a woman’s? Should the narration be dramatic or understated? Should it be fast-paced or languid? These are some of the creative decisions that the producer will need to make.
The artful mixing of natural effects, musical score and commentary results in a sound track that considerably enhances the impact of the images.
THE EQUIPMENT OF FILM EDITING: These days, virtually all picture and sound editing is done on computers incorporating special software developed by companies such as Avid and Adobe. These ‘non-linear’ editing systems make the process of editing as easy as word processing. With the click of a mouse, you can cut and paste and make changes to the picture or sound track, and move images or pieces of sound effortlessly. You can even get editing software that will work on your PC. In fact, armed with a Mini DV camcorder and a PC or an Apple Mac computer you can now produce professional quality films even with limited resources. But of course, having the right equipment is only useful if you’ve learnt the abc’s of filmmaking well.
This article was first published in the CEE publication ‘Wild Dreams, Green Screens’
WILDLIFE & CONSERVATION FILMMAKING