What are the challenges a wildlife cinematographer faces in the field, both technical or otherwise?

When you come onto a production, any production, you hope the production company/network has made the right decisions in pre-production to aid the image capture opportunities — none more so than in the temperamental and sometimes taboo genre of wildlife. A fair amount of planning is required and this covers a lot of different areas: pre-prod recces, logistics, local knowledge support, the environment and terrain, the equipment available for the shoot… the list goes on.

From a technical perspective, it’s about having the right kit to do the job. Being in the field with unreliable and unrealistic kit is the beginning of a really bad shoot. You spend more time fighting the equipment than using it to obtain great pictures. For example, in a situation when you have too much kit but not enough hands, you find yourself chasing your tail and are more likely to bring home a hard drive full of sub-standard pictures. The “right kit” consists of the right camera for the job, lenses, quality tripod head and legs systems, and an excellent viewfinder to rely on for sharp, true image reproduction. Once those basics are locked down, you can then start looking at the opportunity to use specialty equipment to add greater value and image potential. This can be anything as simple as a CineSaddle to various camera gizmos and gadgets which provide innovative ways to get unusual visuals to excite a viewing audience.

Local knowledge is key: it plays a big part in knowing the behaviours of the subject and the environment in which it/they live. Being in the right place at the right time is magic when it all comes together. I’ve had fantastic experiences with local scouts but also some not so fantastic ones too. A close friend, National Geographic magazine photographer Mike Yamashita once told me: “We’re paid to be lucky, so make sure you’ve got the right team to come back with the shots.” A wise man!

Having the right team on a project is vital, and not in just a professional sense! The right spark of encouragement, gel, and camaraderie between the team is sometimes the only thing that keeps you sane on a 45-day stint. Past experiences of the camera assistant who is busy chatting with the sound recordist about his or her love woes while you’re focusing with all your attention on that one chance shot or the associate producer who is vaguely walking across the back of frame trying to pick up a phone network to send a “selfie” to the world on Facebook. Don’t laugh, it happens!

Bottom line: with great prep, a fantastic Director/Producer, the full commitment of the production management team through to Execs, you have a very good chance of obtaining great pictures and building a captivating programme. The list of challenges is long, but there are some very talented people doing it incredibly well.

Brad Dillon

Is it more expensive to make wildlife documentaries?

It’s a question production management could answer more precisely, but I’ll give some thoughts from a cinematographer’s side of the fence.

How expensive any programme is depends on a long list of factors. Some subjects are more complex — underwater shoots for example — therefore typically more expensive. How remote? What’s the logistics of it? How long are the crew/kit in production? How extensive or elaborate is the kit? How many gizmos and gadgets? How big a crew do we need to manage the amount of kit we’re travelling with? How much on-ground support such as transport vehicles/drivers/porters/cooks do we need? We’re always trying to find the most cost effective way to make it work for the budget, whilst bringing back the gold.

Other thoughts are: what scale of documentary you are making, what has it been pitched as, and to whom? Certain networks, in certain regions, have considerably more dollars to put into great production ideas then others. If those great ideas are elaborate, then you’d better be talking to the right people if you ever want to see it on a screen. New camera technology and endless gadgetry present new ways of telling stories and visual opportunities, which could well push production costs up. With inflation, the cost of most production items goes up, like in other industries. The van, drivers, fuel, hotels, airlines’ excess baggage and other charges, logistic hurdles created by more permit requirements today, local fixers fees, on-ground support, talent, etc… That said, production crew rates haven’t moved much in more than 10 years.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of shooting in 4K in the field?

If working on a production that is expected to go onto a cinema release, sure, 4K would be fantastic. You would think if a production is going 4K, then they probably have dollars to spend in the right places to ensure a beautifully finished product. I’ve had several requests to shoot 4K projects for various clients, but am yet to have one get across the line and into production. I’m excited for the opportunity.

The biggest concern in my eyes would be data management in the field. As production costs go up, the size of production crews get smaller, with more multi-tasking required particularly by the cinematographer. I guess we’d all love to live in a world where we have a specialised data wrangler to download and back up all our rushes on the road, but it’s just not the way it is from my experience, in this part of the world that is. Depending on the size of your crew, data management can be an absolute nightmare. I’ve been on many shoots where we’re shooting 16-18 hour days, every day, on card-based camera systems. When you’re done shooting for the day it’s back to the hotel to start the long ingest of every camera you’ve used in the field that day, twice minimum, for master and back-up, and that’s just with HD material. You find yourself out in the field trying to shoot great pictures day after day with a positive attitude, while living on 3 hours sleep. It’s worse than having a newborn. As with any piece of gear that you would bring on a production, the first question should always, always be: Is this helping or hindering? The debate of resolution rages on and will continue to until the new “norm” is established. A strong case can be made for Roger Deakins ASC, BSC, the legendary DP with 11 Oscar nominations, who’s still shooting Hollywood blockbusters in 2K, proving that it’s not quite the size of your pistol that counts.

Does 4K bridge the gap between shooting Film vs Digital?

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in the latitude, colour replication and noise floor of every single digital system and film stock. To tell you the truth, the last time I worked on film I was 17-years-old camera assisting on TV network promos. From what I have experienced myself, the amount of information a digital camera can capture and retain has come so far and I’m constantly amazed at how good it looks. The quality of both film and digital capture today is outstanding. I find that it is the quality of digital capture that continues to supersede itself. And don’t forget that film production including cameras and film stock have also made their own advancements. I can’t say if 4K alone bridges the gap; if anything, I think it has built an entire different bridge altogether. Right now, we have a whole bunch of different bridges to cross the same river. The question is which path you decide to take — each has its own benefits and pitfalls.

What do producers/directors expect from documentary cinematographers today?