In this two part series, we explore the fundamentals of starting a career in wildlife filmmaking. In part 1, we give a brief description about what it really entails to establish yourself in this field, and what wildlife filmmaking as a career is really about. Part 2 will give a more practical approach to what you can do to establish yourself in this highly competitive field.
Wildlife filmmaking has a glamorous “dream job” reputation amongst many members of the public. It is seen as exotic travel mixed with spectacular wildlife experiences and epic adventures. Sometimes, coupled with long hours, hard work and tropical illnesses, that’s exactly what it is. It’s no surprise that so many people aspire to become wildlife filmmakers. So here’s some advice on getting started. It’s important to realise there are down sides to the job too. It’s definitely not for everyone.
What jobs are there?
There are several job types in wildlife filmmaking. In addition to camerapeople, there are researchers, assistant producers, producers, production managers, production coordinators, editors and more. Most of the time. (or actually, all of the time) all wildlife camerapeople are freelance, a fact that should ring alarm bells with anyone starting out.
It’s true that as wildlife filmmakers we are privileged to witness some of the most secret and spectacular wildlife events around, even if they are often viewed via the small black and white viewfinder of a video camera. Local, everyday wildlife is often just as enjoyable to film. Most of us are at our happiest out in the wilds and are doing it for the love of the job.
There is not much, if any job security in wildlife filmmaking. There is a core of people in the industry who keep busy most of the year. There are significantly more who struggle for work and to make ends meet. It is very competitive and you will find yourself competing for jobs with people who have been around a lot longer, have more contacts and are more experienced. Producers understandably hire people they have worked with successfully in the past first, leaving relative newcomers to pick up the scraps.
Particularly in the early years, wildlife camerawork has been likened to a drug addiction. Its the best feeling in the world when you’re doing it and it can be pretty lonely, frustrating and demoralising when you can’t get work. Many can relate to a feeling of wanting to get out of the industry and wondering how else to earn a living during an extended quiet period only for a few days work to come along and inject that high again, making you realise that it is what you want to do if only you could get enough of it.
It can take many years to get established as a freelancer and even some of the most respected names in the business sometimes report that they haven’t had any work for a couple of months or more. If you get to the stage where you do go away on frequent filming trips, it can be disruptive to social life and destructive to relationships. It’s a way of living that can be easy to accommodate in your 20’s but, in your 30’s and beyond, with extra responsibilities it can get a bit stressful. Filming contracts worth thousands of pounds can get cancelled overnight. Last minute bookings come along and tear you away from family. It can be hard to plan social events ahead of time and friends and family will come to realise that your plans to join them are rarely 100% definite as some last minute work might come your way. There’s no fixed annual salary so you have good years when everything comes together and bad years when you suddenly find yourself back on the same salary you were on before you mistakenly felt you’d become well established.
Day to day as a cameraperson, you’ll likely be the first member of the team (even if you’re not working on your own!) out of bed in the morning and the last person into bed at night. You have to be able to maintain camera kit in all manner of conditions, be able to navigate trolleys full of cases through airports and organise and manage local help as necessary. You need to be adaptable and multi-skilled as every location is different and will have its own challenges.
It’s not all bad of course! There definitely are times when you can’t help but think “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this”. But, don’t underestimate the downsides. If you are truly passionate about nature and making images, the hard graft, long hours and unpredictable timetable and finances, can be outweighed by the privileged experiences on offer. If you are stoical and still think it’s for you, check in again in a day or so for part 2 of this article, where we tackle the more practical approaches to establish yourself in a wildlife filmmaking career.