Wildlife filmmaking jobs are highly prized in the filmmaking industry. Today, with reduced budgets there can be cross-over significant crossover between wildlife filmmaking jobs in a crew. Camerapeople can be the directors as can producers. Occasionally, the cameraperson is also the producer. Assistant producers can double up as directors and researchers as talent and so forth. But for those of you looking to find your niche in wildlife film making here are some of the most common and useful roles in the industry! This article describes some of the essential wildlife filmmaking jobs that should be a must for every professional crew.
Many people start off as a runner at a production company or facilities house (place where programmes are edited and equipment is hired out. Runners are general dogs bodies but a good one is invaluable. Runners could be asked to make the tea, be a taxi service for crew, pick up tapes, deliver equipment, do some photocopying – or any relatively unskilled job that helps everyone else on the team to work efficiently. Being a runner is a great way of meeting people in the industry and an opportunity, through snatched conversations and glimpses of shoots, to learn from them. You should be prepared to keep smiling whatever you’re asked to do.
The job of a researcher can include researching possible filming locations, finding and checking facts about wildlife and habitats to be featured in a film, contacting scientists to help with a programme, coming up with new programme ideas, writing draft programme proposals and footage research (ie. searching through existing footage in image libraries to find suitable shots for a programme). Sometimes researchers are lucky enough to go on location. Researchers can be freelance or staff.
Talent is a generic term for anyone who appears onscreen as part of the documentary. This includes actors (yes occasionally documentaries require acting), characters and hosts. In wildlife documentaries talent is often sourced from experts in the wildlife industry including scientists, conservationists and ecotourism operators.
Directors are responsible for the ‘look’ of a film, and amongst the wildlife filmmaking jobs presented, Directors are typically the most creative. They work closely with producers, camera people sound people and other production staff to translate the original concept of the programme or draft script into pictures and sound that tell the story in a coherent and stimulating way. Directors are involved in choosing suitable locations and ensuring there is enough coverage of different shot sizes and angles to build a sequence. They need to be aware of budget and technical constraints and work within them. A good director has a very clear idea of how he/she wants the programme to look, how to achieve it and how to communicate this to other members of the production and crew. Directors are usually people who are already experienced in film production. Often they will already have worked as researchers, assistant producers or producers.
In wildlife filmmaking, camerapeople are also directors to varying degrees, depending on the programme. Wildlife camerapeople, with a brief from the producer, have to be able to react and adapt to what the wildlife is doing (or not doing!) and make sequence-building and story-telling decisions. Directors are usually freelance but can be staff, especially if they are also producers.
Assistant Producer (AP)
Often assistant producers are experienced researchers and there is still a researching role. To varying extents AP’s might also direct shoots, help with scripting, liase with and interview contributors and generally be more more involved with creative aspects of the programme than a researcher. The AP job is usually a career stepping stone between being a researcher and being a producer. AP’s can be freelance or staff
Producers are responsible for facilitating a programme from beginning to end. They are responsible for the overall content, structure and quality of the show. A producer is essentially a team leader who works closely with other production staff and crew. Prodeucers also will decide on who. The producer may make decisions about which camerapeople and other crew are employed on a show. Often producers will also be directors. The producer may write the script if there is not a separate script-writer and work together with editors to put the film together once it has been shot. They are also involved with budgeting. Producers can be freelance or staff.
Editors assemble the various shots into a coherent film with the help of the producer. Just as a cameraperson is skilled in operating a camera and using it creatively, editors are fluent in operating the computers and software used to edit the material which allows them to concentrate on creatively assembling the footage to tell the story. Editors are usually freelance.
Production manager (PM)
Production managers are responsible for making sure the film production stays on schedule and within budget. They supervise the logistical rather than the creative aspects of the production. Working with the producer, PM’s manage operating costs such as salaries, flights, location fees, equipment rental costs. They also oversee health and safety aspects of the production. Production managers directly supervise production coordinators. PM’s and PC’s are often staff rather than freelance and in terms of contract-length, these roles provide some of the best job security in the industry.
Production coordinator (PC)
Under the supervision of the production manager and producer. PC’s directly handle logistics such as booking flights, booking film crews, hiring in equipment, book hotels or organise camping facilities etc. They can sometimes go on location but usually this is an office job.
A fixer is responsible for solving all manner of problems on location and smoothing the way for production and crew on location. They are usually people living locally to the filming location. They have many contacts and help with arranging access to sites, filming permissions, hiring vehicles, arranging accommodation. They are the oil of the production on location.
Ryan is a well known wildlife film maker and biologist and filled numerous wildlife filmmaking jobs during his 15 years in the industry. This has primarily been through his work as researcher, host, camera operator and scientist on shark and marine documentaries. At Africa Media, he runs the Wildlife Documentary Filmmaking Internship Program where students can learn more about wildlife filmmaking jobs and how to break into this competitive industry.