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.
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?
Producers and directors expect from cinematographers today the same thing they have done for many years gone by: Great pictures, a great work ethic, technical knowhow, sensitivity towards the subject, a collaborative spirit, the ability to keep a team working cohesively, a big smile and “let’s have a crack no matter how hard the going gets” — and to pick up the first round at the end of anything less than a 12 hour day! A director hopes a cinematographer will be a strong partner in assisting him/her in realising their vision.
Shooting in close proximity to nature
From past experience working on natural history projects of vastly different production budgets, the challenges a cinematographer is faced with on smaller budgets are significantly greater than those of larger budgets. Have the expectations changed, and is it getting harder? Consider this: the call comes in from the Production Manager, the budget’s tight (it’s a very common call we all know too well), we’ll need to keep things tight. Cut to the field, the cinematographers lugging his/her kit up and down mountains, in and out of boats, through rainforests, all day every day, the main job and focus is shooting great pictures, but perhaps is also running audio on the shoot, is lighting — outdoors that may mean setting reflector boards/diffusion on stands for talent, indoors perhaps more elaborate involving 5, 6 or more lights — finishes shooting for the day, packs the kit, loads the van, road trip back to the hotel however long that is, unpacks the car, opens the door of the hotel room, gets power running and batteries on charger as soon as possible, opens the laptop, hooks up hard-drive 1, get cracking on the ingest of all the day’s material from the various cameras used — main camera, GoPro’s, DSLR’s shooting time-lapses. Done; change to hard-drive 2, do it all again, set alarm for a 2 or 3 am wake up, crash on the bed, alarm goes off, get up to change batteries over on all chargers, reset alarm, alarm goes off, quick bite, get the kit downstairs, load the van, do it all again. Sound like a hard day’s work? Or the glamorous life of a cinematographer? Maybe something that should be a part of every media student’s curriculum. That said, still smiling and still loving it with a passion!
What makes a good wildlife cinematographer?
I’d say a great eye to compose a frame, the observation of an eagle, the perseverance of a saint, the zen-like attitude of Gandhi, the timing of a Roger Federer backhand, and the patience of an oyster. Actually, when it comes to wildlife (Natural History), first and foremost, you’ve got to realise that animals are like kids, they don’t listen, are unpredictable and they do what they want. They can be aggressive too, and highly uncooperative. A good wildlife cinematographer has to have the ability to build compelling, aesthetically pleasing sequences, with a cinematic approach, capture the subject in the best light, manage a myriad of technical hurdles and all that whilst having no control over an animal’s erratic behaviour. I’m still working on achieving any, or all of these feats. Someday maybe… Perhaps I’d also throw in there, the heart rate of a Tour de France cyclist on EPO, so you never see camera shake from the pulse running through the fingertips holding the tripod pan handle on the end of a 1000mm lens.
Do you see new trends emerging in the choice of subject matter for the natural history genre?
New ways of telling stories are emerging all the time, across all genres. With natural history the old ways don’t necessarily grab the “new” audiences’ attention like they use to. Gone are the days of Jacque Cousteau and David Attenborough; being informed and observing amazing natural history was the pay off. Cut to 2014: up close and personal with the beast, presenter hanging by seat of the pants, big adventure, big jeopardy — will he lose his arm and half a leg crossing this river? Maybe that’s taking it a little far, but you get my drift — the style is changing a lot.
Over the past four or so years, I’ve been working on a number of Animal Planet U.S. series which are not your typical natural history programming. One of those series follows an anthropologist’s quest to uncover stories of children brought up by wild animals at some stage in their childhood development. In the pay-off towards the end of her travels, you meet the subject – now an adult – and what has become of them. That series did involve animals, but has a solid mix of other genres — heavy drama reconstructions, actuality style documentary, and travel.
Raised Wild: The Dog Girl of Ukraine
When in the field how do you capture your subject without them knowing, and without endangering yourself and your crew?
Every situation calls for a different modus operandi. If it’s a human-interest piece where I’m working with people, my first job is to make that person feel comfortable with me, and by extension, my camera. When they get to know you as a person, they relax and I can shoot freely with them hardly noticing me anymore. Sometimes, you have to weigh out your options by listening to the content – if I change positions now, will I disrupt the moment? Can I build out this sequence in another way?
If it’s wildlife/nature, it varies depending on the subject you’re shooting. Whether it be elephants, snakes, crocs, monkeys, sharks, hippos, wild horses, birds, dogs, tigers, spiders, lions, they all require different considerations. The basics would go something like this: 1) Study and know behaviour patterns; 2) Get the longest lens you have bolted on; 3) Kick into stealth mode; 4) Camouflage; 5) Hopefully you’ve got a camera platform, hide, or vehicle organised; 6) Patience; 6) Once you’ve got a usable sequence in the can, consider moving closer (if safe!). Play it smart and play it safe, don’t spook the creature — it can go wrong pretty quickly. We discuss plans, particularly safety considerations. You trust your crew, voice concerns when/if you have them. I never put myself in a position I don’t see ending well, and I don’t expect anyone else to do any different. We all have families to go home to. I will say I’ve had a few close calls over the years. What I’ve learnt: the less time you have on a location, the less you know how to anticipate the behaviour of the animal(s) you’re shooting, the greater the risks you take. Restricted budgets and shortened production timelines start to play a part in the consequences on location.
Can you share about the next project you’re working on?
Without saying too much about confidential production commitments, in the Most Wanted Pictures calendar at present, we have projects booked to shoot food & travel, music, commercial, sports, drama, documentary, along with some camera department training for a television network. That equates to work in Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Dubai, USA, Malaysia, Philippines, UK, Thailand, and Vietnam. Lots of different genres to keep it varied and us on our toes. Lots of airport check-ins too, fun times ahead!