1. What’s the Point?
One minute isn’t long so keep it simple - what is the point of your film? Watch TV adverts to get an inspiration for style and how a story can be told in 60 seconds. Don’t get embroiled in a complex introduction. Grab the viewers attention from the start and quickly get into the action and the story.
Grab the viewers attention from the start and quickly get into the action and the story.
Think about who or what your character is. Whether it’s a tree, a badger or a mountain - why should we care? Maybe your film is a beautiful emotive piece reflecting on a natural spectacle or event - try and build to a climax. Maybe its an extraordinary moment in an animals life - a bird fledging? What will make people remember it?
Lead with the pictures. Try telling the story without music and commentary, and then add these to help heighten emotion and add insight.
2. Animals Don’t Follow Scripts
Be flexible - don’t get so caught up in your shot-list and storyboard that you ignore the magic happening in front of you. Always be prepared to grab your camera and start rolling in case something extraordinary happens. If your camera is out of reach use your mobile phone.
3. Know the Location
When arriving at a location become familiar with the lay of the land and the possible vantage points. Where will the sun set and rise? I’ve found the following mobile apps particularly useful when planning a days filming: Photopills, Sun Seeker and Starwalk.
Ensuring that you have a full picture of the possibilities in your mind will allow you to respond to the unpredictabilities of filming wildlife, and will help you to think of backup plans. What can you do when it rains, what happens if your subject suddenly disappears - is there another?
4. Rise Early and Get the Best Light
In the summer the sun is high and light can be harsh by 9am. This may be the look that you want, but I like to be out on location well before sunrise and after sunset - when the glowing orange light creates a warmer, softer image and long shadows add interesting texture.
Many animals follow a similar routine, they find the middle of the day a little too hot and don’t do very much. Usually early morning is the best time to see and film wildlife.
You may not have any control of lighting but think about how it impacts your image. Front lighting can bring out the colours and details, but it eliminates shadows making the scene appear flat. Backlighting is more dramatic and helps draw attention to features like a foxes ears or dust being kicked up by a bird. I prefer a subject to be side lit as this subtly brings out features, but makes the subject appear bolder, and the long shadows highlight texture within the subject and the landscape. Try to keep the lightning consistent within a sequence.
5. Wait and Watch
As a wildlife filmmaker the number one thing you need is patience. The truth is that most of the time wildlife is boring. Animals don’t do much and many hide away during the day.
Research is key. Work with experts, people who follow and observe the animals on a regular basis. This will fast track you to a deeper understanding of your subject.
In wildlife filmmaking, you increase your luck by putting in the time.
Animals have individual personalities and only by spending time observing them can you start to understand their behaviour. I have a fox family in my garden and by spending many hours in a hide I’m able to learn who the individual characters are and what they might do. Often an animal will have a tell tale sign that it’s about to do something, learn what that is and be ready to respond. In wildlife filmmaking, you increase your luck by putting in the time.
6. Get into the Animals World
If filming a small animal like a frog or hedgehog get down at its level. The animal will look bigger, your film will be more immersive and by keeping low you will appear less threatening so the animal will behave more naturally. If you’re filming a bird try to get up into its world.
I was filming falcon chicks recently and I used a 75ft tall cherry picker to get level with the nest. The platform was a little wobbly but it was the only way to film chicks in the nest and get a sense of their world.
7. ...But Keep Your Distance
As wildlife filmmakers we are there to document natural behaviour and not to direct it. Keep a distance that’s safe for you but also non-intrusive to the animal. If you can keep quiet and out of sight you are more likely to see natural behaviour. Consider using remote cameras or camera traps - many of these have an infrared function for night filming.
For the series ‘Secrets of our Living Planet’ I wanted to film grizzly bears feeding on salmon within the enclosed confines of a forest. I was attaching a remote camera to a tree, when I heard a rustle behind me. I turned around to see a large female bear less than 10 metres away, she was certainly surprised. My training taught me that the best way to respond is to keep calm and talk to the bear. I said "Hey bear... sorry for trespassing on your forest". Thankfully, the bear understood my British accent and headed back to the river. I switched the camera on and we got out of there returning several days later to retrieve footage that was dangerous to film any other way.
10. Play with Time
Slow motion may give an added insight or reveal behaviour not visible any other way.
I’ve used it to reveal chameleons catching prey, and to slow down a split-second quarry blast. There are now a range of small, cheaper slow motion cameras available but they can be tricky to use when filming animals in the wild. For more see on slow motion, see Life in Slow Motion on BBC Nature.
Time-lapse is accessible to anyone with a digital stills camera but it’s an art-form and a technical skill in it’s own right. By speeding up the action time-lapses can show landscapes changing through the day, plants growing, clouds morphing, or stars moving across the night sky.
Using semi-permanent posts to film the same shot repeatedly over many weeks or months you can also create a time-study. Using this technique I was able to capture the Pantanal wetland flooding over many months. For more see on time-lapses, see Speeding up Life on BBC Nature.
I’ve also filmed time-lapses on my phone that have made it into wildlife TV films.
Motion controlled devices, can help to add pans, tilts or tracks to your time-lapse. I mostly use DSLRs, but I’ve also filmed time-lapses on my phone that have made it into wildlife TV films.
11. Be Creative
So long as you are ethical and considerate to wildlife, and true to nature, there are no rules in wildlife filmmaking. In Eden Shorts you have 60 seconds to capture the audiences attention. Experiment with style and technique but most of all be creative.