Making your own Wildlife Films - part 2

In the second part of a three part guide, wildlife film maker Chris Packham takes us through the steps to making your own wildlife film. See Part 1 - Introduction and Ideas, and Part 3 - Getting the Shots.

Research, Planning and the Script

One of the biggest problems with having an interest in natural history and wildlife is that some people consider themselves experts and others are too keen to foist this expectation on those of us who know a little bit more than they do. It's not an accolade and in the wrong person can be a real burden. What is essential is to realise that even after a lifetime of study we only know a little of what there is to learn and that to continue to keep learning is the most important goal of any serious naturalist.

As an aside, the best bit of my job is probably not being able to meet all the species that my work so generously affords me, but actually to be able to quiz people who know more about these things than I do. Thus I am extremely fortunate to be able to keep learning about the subjects I enjoy most. I am not an expert, I am an enthusiast and I still have lots to learn. Let me prove this to any 'experts' reading this; choose the creature at the focus of your 'expertise' and then sit down and start to write a book about it. See how far you get before you need to check something you can't remember or have to research something you don't actually know. It won't be long before you accept that the most important skill your knowledge affords you is how to efficiently target your research; you may know who to ask or where to go, rather than the information itself. And when it comes to preparing a project as ambitious as a wildlife film, research and not expertise is the key element to success.

Nine Tenths Preparation

That's right, its no different than painting a door - the more you do before the final coat, the better the finish will be and the more you will ultimately save in time, and perhaps in money too. So get used to going back to school, sharpen your pencils and unpack your paper. Firstly you need to know your subject intimately, so go to the library and/or log on and start to read everything you can lay your eyes on. Keep notes because you will undoubtedly discover things which you might want to include in your story and if you don't write them down you will equally undoubtedly forget them. Organise some headings to keep these notes ordered; 'Life style', 'Breeding', 'Calendar of Behaviour', 'Quirks', etc, depending on your subject. Make sure you also work hard to discover the most up-to-date information as many authors are lazy plagiarists and really do little more than recycle the work of previous authors. After a few years of this process, the facts are inevitably dated. Missing out on the latest science will date your work as soon as someone bothers to trawl through the web and uncover what's new - so make sure that's you! Remember, novelty is always nice and it won't all be visual, a few good, juicy and new facts for your commentary will always attract the viewer's attention and if you are aware of these at the outset there may be a chance that you can actually illustrate them as well. Knowing when to stop this sort of research is also important as you could so easily go on and on forever - some people go on and on until they or the project dies. Thus get a feel for what you've got, what you realistically need, and remember that once you actually start more questions will arise unpredictably and need to be answered accordingly.

So you've got a dossier, you are feeling confident that you know your subject well enough to work with it and devise an interesting story, so now its time to create a plan for your project. This is possibly the single most important task you need to perform and without it disaster will loom.

Planning - The Key

No one is above a well laid plan so draw one and continually review and revise it. Perhaps the most important item will be a calendar for shooting and an order of what happens when. For many projects there will be only one chance in a season to record an event and if you miss it... it will mean a re-think or a long delay. Birds have nesting patterns, mammals generally give birth at specific times, migration won't wait for you and you can't make a summer evening out of a winter morning. Your story may not unfold in chronological order so organising a target sequence of shooting objectives is absolutely essential. Do it, even if your story seems too simple to need it, I promise it will pay dividends as we all get wrapped up in things and distracted by others. If Julie is getting married it will complicate your summer and if the big day is when the Military orchids flower and the reserve has its open day then you will need a Plan B. Or skip the wedding - you've got to keep your priorities in mind! I have a calendar into which I scribble notes so that I can order my still photo' objectives and I religiously tick them off and redraw new lists of those which I am in danger of missing. As I write I need to shoot a dragonfly pretty urgently, not something I could do on a boring Boxing Day. It's now marked in red ink!

Bear in mind that when it comes to cutting your film you will have holes, some horrible holes. It's just a fact of life, not worth fretting about, but certainly worth preparing for. So if I were you I would always shoot a 'Season Sequence', pick a nice Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn day and go out to your location and shoot some wides, tights and details of that environment. Pick up a few other things, other species which may apparently have nothing to do with your story at all because this will cost you little and could get you out of a script hiatus or give you a nice breather or a chance to change direction more comfortably. And as I've already said you can't have what you haven't got. Sorry, it's obvious but true. But more of this when we deal with shooting.

The Script

I know what you're thinking: "I'm only making a little wildlife film, not a Hollywood Blockbuster! I don't need a script; I can keep it all in my head or make it up at the time." Well, maybe, but unlikely and anyway you should be trying to emulate the heady heights of Hollywood and even the simplest script will help you consolidate your ideas and give you a document to tinker with and perfect. And of course the type of scripts we are talking about here have nothing to do with dialogue, they are content driven, but they should certainly have some commentary attached to each section - your story line should be clear throughout. And even if you think this is 'overkill', then a Shooting Script should be drawn up to accompany your calendar/diary. Frankly, I would go the whole hog. Prepare several lengthy documents with as much information and direction as possible. Something along these lines:

  1. Show on a Sheet - several paragraphs outlining the whole story. No detail, just the premise, the beginning, the middle and the end - and the flavour or feel of the whole film. This is your raison d'etre so it's good to keep it in mind.
  2. The Calendar/Shooting Script - as much as is required, laid out in chronological order with detail regarding what is needed in terms of pictures and sequences perhaps with each sequence numbered for cross referencing in the script proper. Complete with locations, notes and any pertinent research details such as contacts, names and telephone numbers. This will thus be the core document for the shooting period, always to hand and ready for some satisfying ticking off!
  3. The Script Proper - a linear list of sequences, each of the visuals briefly described and accompanied with the loose but complete written commentary. As long as is required to prevent forgetting anything.

Now, we are dealing with wildlife subjects here so these documents will often be somewhat fanciful. Your 'cast' cannot be directed so concentrating on precise detail will be largely a waste of time. 'Squirrel exits left at a trot, smiling, with disconsolate Wood Pigeons in background' will be a short route to disappointment or a nervous breakdown. More useful will be, 'Squirrel caching nuts on lawn', simple, flexible and do-able. The accompanying commentary will have some new science on the behaviour. You need to always be mindful that your script is a dynamic document, it is not set in stone, and it should continually enjoy updating and revision in response to what is actually recorded. I've had the misfortune to have worked with directors who have stuck so rigidly to their script, their original idea, that the finished product wasn't only a mess but a pack of lies to boot. This is the result of horrible levels of insecurity and incompetence and the process and product are in reality an ugliness best avoided. See what you get and reshape what lies either side of it if the difference is minor or if it's major then rethink the whole sequence or even the entire story if needs be. Cramming achieved pegs into your predetermined holes will lead to chaos. Your script should be evolving until the final cut so go with the flow, don't get stressed or perceive your inability to satisfy your original plans as a failure. In many cases what you get can be better than what you imagined, so be brave and recognise this.

Thus revision will be a full time and worthwhile job. Be sure to add shooting notes as you build your sequences/story. For instance; 'Squirrel caching nuts in lawn - overcast-ish, light rain, 3/4 backlit from right, dead leaves prominent in frame, animal finally exits left'. This will help when you go to shoot the sequence which comes before and after the one you've bagged. Clearly it 'won't cut' if you shoot it in dry front-lit sunshine on tarmac. So, if the caching shots are good and you want to keep them you will need to orchestrate conditions to best match those which feature if the story requires a direct flow at this point. If 'Squidgy' is set to run straight from the lawn and up a tree to his drey, you will need to match the weather, make sure he enters from the right and you may want to throw a few dead leaves around the base of the tree to match the previous pictures. This type of continuity, this degree of detail is what will add a real professional gloss to your film. It may go un-remarked but some of us will see it directly and others subconsciously, so it's worth it and you won't remember to do it unless you make notes in your Shooting Script.

Right then, now you have a story which you have chosen to be accessible and within your grasp, you have researched its stars and subjects, drawn up plans and produced a series of documents which collectively amount to a script. It's time to get the camera out and make a start. Well, almost. Unfortunately it's not just a question of pointing and pressing the record button, as you'll find out in my next instalment, Part Three - Getting the Shots...