March 1989, Chalakudy forest, Kerala: Standing on a ridge in the predawn darkness, perspiring and out of breath, there was no time to rest and let my heartbeat return to normal. I had another climb before me, and this one was straight up. My companions, Krishnan from the local Kadaar tribe, and volunteer field assistant, Suresh Sharma, stood silently, well used to the routine that was to follow. Setting my backpack on the ground, I turned to face the huge rainforest tree that rose up into the inky sky. My destination was a small platform 25 metres up, near its crown, where we had earlier put up a hide for filming a great pied hornbill nest. Gingerly, I put my foot on the first rung of the flimsy looking, homemade rope ladder. Although it swayed a bit, I knew it wouldn’t break under my modest weight. A torchlight hanging from my neck cast a small pool of light and, looking neither up nor down, I began the ascent carefully, focusing on one rung at a time. With no climbing equipment or safety harness, a slip could be fatal, but fear wasn’t an option. For months, my colleagues and I had hoped to find a filmable nest, and this was an opportunity not to be missed.
A female hornbill and her chick occupied the nest cavity in a tree opposite the hide. They were completely dependent upon the male to bring them food, and my climb in the dark was to ensure that he remained completely unaware of my presence. Sending my helpers away, I would sit alone in the hide the whole day, in complete silence, and climb down only after dark. This is the universal dictum of responsible wildlife filmmaking: your subject’s safety comes first.
Once on the platform, I lowered a rope threaded through a pulley to haul up whatever I would need – a heavy tripod, the backpack containing the camera, and food and water for the day. Then the wait began. Everyday, for ten days, I sat in the hide up in the treetops for what would turn out to be a 3-minute sequence in our documentary on south India’s shola forests. The film, ‘Silent Valley – an Indian rainforest’ went on to win national and international awards, and catapulted us into the rarefied world of international wildlife filmmaking. Since then, much has changed – equipment, techniques and programming styles – but one thing remains the same: it is still extraordinarily difficult to succeed as a professional wildlife filmmaker.
Making it as a wildlife filmmaker The specialized field of natural history filmmaking has never been easy to break into, no matter what your nationality is or which country you live in. The rate of attrition is extremely high and only the most persevering and talented can even gain a foothold. The odds are even higher for Indian filmmakers, who have to contend with a host of special difficulties. To survive and grow in this profession one must gain the acceptance of reputed international channels as a producer or cameraperson. But with no support of any kind, and lacking outlets for wildlife films on Indian television, Indian filmmakers have virtually no opportunities for gaining the experience and expertise needed to compete in the highly crowded and intensely competitive international arena. Although India now has a bewildering number of homegrown television channels, none of them commission wildlife programmes, which are highly expensive and time consuming to produce. The Indian arm of the Discovery Channel and the Asian arm of the National Geographic Channel sometimes acquire films made by Indian filmmakers, but are not yet into commissioning programmes in a big way. Exorbitant government filming fees and highly restricted access to wildlife compound the problem, and are sounding the death knell for this genre of filmmaking even before it has a chance to bloom properly.
Problems aplenty The most basic assurance that a wildlife filmmaker needs is reasonably unrestricted access to his or her subjects for extended periods of time. Without this basic assurance, no film can be planned, and no proposal can be submitted to a broadcaster. Most wildlife in India, especially the charismatic species that are attractive to television audiences, exists only in Protected Areas such as Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks, which are controlled by the government. Special permits are required for filming in PAs, and these are usually not easy to obtain. When granted, they invariably come with a whole host of restrictions. Wildlife films often take months to shoot, if not years, but the people in charge of issuing permits rarely understand this. Recently, a friend of mine who applied for permission to film in a rainforest for ten days was told that since his presence “would disturb the forest”, permission would only be granted for three days of filming! Needless to say, my friend, an experienced and dedicated naturalist, had to give up the shoot.
In the event that you manage to get permission from the government for an extended length of time, you are then faced with many field restrictions that make filming difficult, if not altogether impossible. Take the entry and exit times from PAs, for instance. The hours around sunrise and sunset are the most crucial times of the day for wildlife filmmakers because of the possibility of beautiful light and because there is often a lot of animal activity at dawn and at dusk. You need to reach the point where your subjects are before sunrise, and be there when the sun goes down. However, if you’re only allowed to enter the park at 6.00 am along with all the tourist vehicles, and have to leave the park at the same time as the tourist vehicles, you end up missing the best times of day for filming.
Hide photography is another case in point: a great deal of wildlife filmmaking happens from hides either on the ground or up in trees. Yet, getting permission to put up a hide in an Indian National Park or Sanctuary is often very difficult. The same goes for accessing areas that are off-limits to tourists, such as the core area of a National Park. So, in effect, a wildlife filmmaker in India is usually only allowed the privileges extended to ordinary tourists but, unlike the ordinary tourist, he or she has to pay a hundred or thousand times more for the same privileges.
Until the mid 90s, filming fees in PAs were fairly reasonable, often not more than a few hundred rupees a day. This meant that an independent filmmaker in possession of the right equipment could scrape together some money and spend time in the forest collecting footage, with the idea of eventually turning it into a film. This situation changed when PAs were thrown open to foreign crews with liberal budgets in dollars and pounds. This opening up happened at a time when wildlife filmmaking was at its peak internationally, and dozens of crews poured into India. As a result of this influx, almost all states hiked up park fees into the stratosphere, with no distinction made in most states between struggling Indian filmmakers and well-funded foreign filmmakers. Today, park fees across most of the country are so high that only those representing big broadcasters can afford to film in India’s PAs. Aspiring Indian filmmakers without the ‘right contacts’ can only watch in frustration from the sidelines.
The challenge of new technology Changing technology has added to the woes of present day wildlife filmmakers. Until about 6 years ago, most wildlife films were shot on 16mm film stock. The cameras were simple and rugged, and were virtually indestructible. Even if you could not afford top of the line, new equipment, you could get by with old, used equipment. Many cameras allowed the use of still camera lenses with a lens adapter, helping to cut costs. Today, international broadcasters require programmes to be shot on Hi-Definition. The sophisticated cameras and accessories needed for this cost upwards of $100,000, putting them out of the reach of most independent filmmakers. Almost certainly, the cost of this equipment will come down with time, but, unlike film cameras, video equipment goes obsolete every three years. So, unless you have very deep pockets, or manage to hire your equipment out to other productions when you are not using it, it is impossible to think of owning such equipment. Even the rent for hi-definition cameras is extremely high at the moment – as much as Rs.25,000/per day, and this without the special lenses and accessories needed for filming wildlife! In any case, renting equipment is never practical for wildlife work because most equipment hirers in India will send two people along with the camera, and the equipment may not be available when you need it.
The road ahead So where does all this leave the aspiring Indian wildlife filmmaker? In an extremely unfortunate state, I’m afraid! There are now more people eager to enter this field than ever before, but the challenges have never been more daunting. Even established production companies in the west are struggling to survive. During the slump of the late 90s, dozens of big name production houses had to shut shop and many veterans had to throw in the towel. Recently there has been a slight upsurge in international wildlife film production, but budgets are now lower than they were six years ago. Broadcasters no longer allow filmmakers the luxury of spending years shooting a film. Today an innovative storyline is more important than capturing unusual animal behaviour. Filmmakers are expected to produce ‘exciting’ films quickly, and on a budget that would have been laughed at a few years ago. Yet, in India, park fees keep going up, regulations are becoming tighter and wildlife scarcer. Unless there is a sea change in the policies governing wildlife filmmaking, and a drastic reduction in filming fees for Indian filmmakers, the dreams of most aspirants to this field will come to nothing. This will be a great loss, not just to the few affected individuals, but also for India. At a time when the planet is in great peril, India needs talented filmmakers to increase public appreciation for the wild wonders of our country and the ecosystems that sustain all life. Without this awareness, there can be no understanding or action.
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Wildlife Filmmaking – changing international trends:
This is not a chronological account of the history of wildlife filmmaking, merely a quick peek into how international trends have been changing during the last three decades.
Internationally, the UK and the USA have been the strongholds of natural history television programmes because of a vast and dedicated viewership. In the UK, the BBC has been the driving force behind natural history films, although several companies such as the famed Survival Anglia gave it stiff competition in the past. Between them, and a host of independent production companies in the two countries, natural history filmmaking was transformed into a high art form, with extraordinarily innovative techniques and breathtaking production values. The advent of rugged 16mm cameras that were compact and silent enabled wildlife cameramen and women to go out into the remotest habitats and bring back images never seen before. Filmmakers like Alan Root, Dieter Plage and Des and Jen Bartlett, among many others, pushed the boundaries of wildlife filmmaking with each production, spending years on location to capture amazing animal behaviour on film. At the same time, others, like Peter Parks, Sean Morris and their colleagues at Oxford Scientific Films, were developing astounding techniques for macro cinematography, capturing the fascinating lives of insects and other small creatures for the first time. These astonishing scenes, which we now take for granted, required specialized equipment that had to be designed from scratch and built by hand. Today, a veritable arsenal of equipment is readily available for those who can afford it – periscopes, borescopes, time slice, time lapse, motion control, night vision, incredibly long zoom lenses and ultra close-up macro lenses; but the driving force still remains the vision and dedication of the men and women who wield these tools.
Filmmakers in the west benefited immensely from the ‘competitive creativity’ that was unleashed with the popularity of the first wildlife films. Every time a new technique was showcased, someone else refined it and took it further in the next production. A highly efficient and talented fraternity developed, where information was freely shared and ideas constantly exchanged. While the cinematographers were the heroes, a vast support system evolved around them – producers, researchers, writers, specialist editors, composers, sound designers, narrators and graphic artists. This synergy, and the resulting cross-pollination of ideas, made it possible for filmmakers in the UK and the US to reach an unimaginable level of creative and technical excellence. The relatively plentiful television slots for wildlife programmes meant that literally hundreds of people could make a decent living working exclusively on natural history programmes.
Blue chip – the driving force For decades, the mainstay of natural history on television was the so-called ‘blue chip natural history film’, which is, usually, a painstakingly crafted film about a single species or an ecosystem. Such films typically take over two years to produce, and require a huge budget. But thanks to their timeless appeal, they tend to be long-term money-spinners for the broadcasters, getting sold all over the world and being shown repeatedly.
Blue chip programmes were extremely popular until cable TV burst onto the scene in a big way. Suddenly, from requiring just a few hours of natural history programming every week, broadcasters found themselves needing many hours worth of programmes everyday, resulting in a boom in film production. But, without much more money to play with, broadcasters began spreading their resources thin. The market was soon flooded with low-budget, mediocre films, which didn’t go down well with audiences who had become used to seeing very high quality programmes. Ratings plummeted and the demand for blue chip went down, forcing many production companies to shut shop.
Enter the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ It was at this time, in the mid-90s, that a brash Australian zookeeper burst onto the scene. Steve Irwin was his name, and jumping on crocodiles was his game. Dubbed the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ his daredevil antics and his over-the-top mannerisms quickly became a big hit. Broadcasters were quick to realize that this was a win-win formula, and sensational ‘presenter-driven’ shows became the norm on wildlife television. The public, seemingly, couldn’t get enough of this brand of television, in which presenters got ‘hands-on’ with creatures great and small. Broadcasters struggling to survive got a fresh lease of life, as this new brand of programmes was relatively easy and cheap to produce, and garnered high ratings. For the price and time taken to produce one blue chip film, a broadcaster could film 3- 4 episodes of a presenter-driven programme. Blue chip became a bad word literally overnight, ending the careers of a great many giants among the wildlife filmmaking community.
Today, as with anything that becomes commonplace, the popularity of cheap presenter-driven programmes is slowly tapering off. With the advent of spectacular high definition television screens, there seems to be a move to produce new blue chip films. Whether adequate budgets will be available for a true blue chip renaissance, only time will tell. SD
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The challenge: can Indian wildlife filmmakers compete with their counterparts in the west and ‘make it’ on the world stage?
The answer to this question is, yes, no and maybe! The good news is that there is no discrimination in this field. If you have the talent, and can deliver the goods, western broadcasters will treat you on par with their own. The bad news is that, having watched a number of films made by aspiring Indian wildlife filmmakers during the last few years, I’m dismayed by the poor quality of camerawork and the low production values. Granted, Indian filmmakers face many constraints, but there is no reason why a low-budget film should be badly shot and sloppily put together in this day and age.
Poorly made films may sometimes win awards on the strength of their powerful subject matter, but such awards rarely sway the broadcasters. The only thing that matters to them is whether they can count on you to deliver world-class films consistently, justifying their investment. During the last 25 years only a small handful Indian filmmakers have made a mark in the world of international television. With most of them on the road to retirement, there is now a space for young talent to take over. It won’t be easy, but then, it never has been.
What every commissioning editor will want to see from a newcomer is an impressive first film or show reel. Even if the footage hasn’t been shot on the most expensive format, he or she will specifically look at storytelling ability, the construction of sequences and the quality of the camerawork. Aspiring producers should somehow go out and make at least one good film, even if it’s just 10-minutes long, enter it in festivals and ensure that as many industry professionals as possible see it. Aspiring cinematographers should put together a show reel that will demonstrate their abilities and impress busy Commissioning Editors. In this highly competitive sphere, if the first three minutes of a film or the first few shots of a show reel don’t impress, there is little chance of making it further.
Wildlife filmmaking in India is not a ‘growth industry’. Given all the constraints and obstacles, only a half a dozen people can survive doing this full time. To succeed in this specialized field, one not only needs talent, natural history knowledge and aptitude, but also patience, perseverance and dogged persistence. The ones who are most like to succeed are either those who can do excellent camerawork and have a good understanding of the grammar of filmmaking, or producer/directors who have good storytelling abilities and can assemble a top class team to work with them. SD