Making your own Wildlife Films - part 3

In the final part of a three part guide, wildlife film maker Chris Packham guides us through sequencing and making sure you have all the shorts you need before you head home. See Part 1 – Introduction and Ideas, and Part 2 – Research, Planning and the Script.

Getting the Shots

Okay lets be honest about it, all the stuff we’ve dealt with up to now has been essential but it’s been a bit boring too. What we really want to do is get out there and start shooting the wildlife for our films. This is the glamorous bit, the most difficult bit, the bit which we aspire to most succeed in. It’s where we travel and prepare ourselves and our equipment, where we stalk or wait for our subject and then capture some aspect of reality never seen before, we immortalise it so that many others can marvel at its beauty or interest. We hunt and we triumph and we are euphoric. Well, maybe not quite that, but its clearly the part many people romanticise about. Just one thing… not yet! You are not allowed out of the classroom quite yet.

You see having done all the intellectual preparation and planning with regard to story, script and research it’s now time to make sure that you understand how to collect shots that will fit into these plans and that will meld together to produce a slick piece of film making. And I’m sorry but there is no choice about the latter because we are not in anyway forgiving in this department; we are all used to watching movies, TV programmes and advertisements which are produced by the best to high standards, so we have no choice but to be seen to try to emulate this. YouTube has some fascinating and funny clips which we watch once and forget, but it also has a lot of very high quality work too – and a slick film needs good shots. My advice is simple, go back to your favourite movie and choose your favourite sequence. Get a stopwatch and a note book and re-run and re-run it until you have completely dissected it. Count the number of shots, how long they last and how quickly they change. I totally guarantee that you will be astonished by your results.

One of my personal favourite films is Aliens 2 and within it I love the chaotic sequence when the newly arrived marines enter the dormant aliens nest and it all “kicks off big-time”. The action begins initially with the soldiers in the tunnels but as things get rapidly worse it transfers to the control centre where the ‘actuality’ is seen second hand on monitors fed by mini cameras on the unfortunates helmets. This disconnection highlights their remote/helplessness and the limited scope to see what is really going on dramatically increases the fear/shock/chaos. It’s a very simple filmic device. Further analysis with the stop watch reveals that the duration of each shot decreases and the speed of cutting increases until at the peak of the mayhem we are shown four or five fragments per second. That’s five images in one second. And we can actually visually cope with this and mentally use it so we can see what is going on. Our capacity to receive such bursts of information is highly developed so if you are thinking of a high tension action sequence you will need to be gathering lots of short sharp shots or else your cat/squirrel chase will be ponderous. Of course an emotional response doesn’t only come from helter skelter editing; long lingering shots can be equally dramatic but until you know how long “long” is, you wont know when to push the button on your camera. It’s also worth saying that if you really want to tug at the heart strings then its not pictures alone you’ll need to gather, because in the movies it’s music that makes us cry. In wildlife films music seems to be a constant source of ire – so we’ll deal with that later! Unfortunately there are many other visual parameters which are used to design both shots and sequences and you will need to observe certain rules to get proper results. Lets consider three of the more obvious and critical examples.

Size of shot

Size of shot is a major consideration. The ‘big wide’ has a subject very small in the frame which also shows the entire landscape and therefore the subjects context. The ‘wide’ has the subject bigger in the frame, perhaps to the degree where it can be recognised as an individual. The ‘full frame’ has the subject comfortably framed from head to toe. The ‘mid-shot’ has half the subject filling the frame, say in human terms from the waist up. The ‘head-shot’ is self explanatory and the ‘close-up’ is somewhere between a frame filling face or maybe just the eyes or eye. Ask yourself some stupidly easy questions such as, “which type of shot would I use to introduce a new character?”, “which would be most appropriate for revealing an emotional moment?” or, “which size would I choose to end a sequence with?” You see, in an ideal world you might go home with all of them. But in the real world of wildlife you are not going to have this option so you will need to have prioritised your needs in advance, hence, thinking about your sequence/story in advance will pay dividends. Look at the movie footage again and see how these different sized shots are cut together to produce different moods/feels. Cutting from a massive wide to an eye shot is pretty startling for the viewer but you’ll see it in Spaghetti Westerns where such camp drama almost reaches a comic book style – nothing wrong with it, so long as it’s what your after to achieve a specific effect. But doing it clumsily all the time will have Aunty Mavis squinting from behind the sofa.

Letting your subject go

Next up, letting your subject go… so you can get it back somewhere else. It’s basic stuff, subjects must be allowed to leave the frame to enable you to cut a sequence together. Thus if, as all too often, you stick with the subject, panning, following, reframing and never letting it ‘clear the frame’, how will you cut down your shots into a shorter sequence without it being an ugly jarring mess? Imagine Squidgy Squirrel on the lawn finding and burying acorns. Ideally you want him to arrive in the frame rather than… BLAM. You’re straight on to him, and this is very easy to achieve. All you do is follow him, see which way he’s moving and then pan off just ahead of him so you can’t see him in the picture. Then you wait until as predicted (but not always in practice) he wanders into your shot and you have a nice neat way of starting your sequence – because in the shot before he could have been anywhere. Okay, now the next thing is to follow him about quickly picking up a range of shot sizes whilst the weather/background/action remain pretty constant and then you have to pick a point to let him go, leave your frame. Then when you start your next sequence he can arrive cleanly once again, and obviously it will be visually nicer if he leaves on the same side of the frame as where he appears next time – something it’s worth remembering/noting.

Lift sequence

Lastly the lift sequence; this is an exercise in telling stories with pictures. Imagine a human subject is on the street, entering a skyscraper and you want a sequence that shows him using an elevator to get to his thirtieth floor apartment. Here is a list of shots you might think about collecting in the order in which you would edit them together to tell this part of the story;

  • Exterior wide of subject and building
  • Shot of shoes walking across pavement
  • Subject opens door and steps in (exterior)
  • Subject opens door and steps in (interior)
  • Shot of him walking across foyer
  • Wide of subject approaching elevator area
  • Reverse of subjects face looking up at floor numerals
  • Close up of floor numerals
  • Side shot of subject pushing call button
  • Close up of finger pushing call button
  • Shot of subject checking watch/waiting for lift to arrive
  • Exterior of subject entering lift
  • Interior of subject entering lift
  • Close up of subject looking around the lift
  • Close up of finger pressing Floor Thirty button
  • Mid shot of subject waiting as lift rises
  • Exterior shot of doors opening as subject exits

I’ve kept it quite simple here with seventeen shots; there could be more to set the mood, cut-aways of details which would give the building/sequence context and I suppose when its all cut together it may last forty five seconds to a minute depending on the mood.

A minute just to get a man up thirty floors! Are you mad?!

How about;

  • Wide shot of man walking toward tall building
  • (Ding dong sound effect of lift reaching floor)
  • Full length shot of man exiting lift.

Job done. In less than five seconds. Golden rule: Keep the padding, however necessary to maintain the plot, to an absolute minimum. Concentrate on the real quality. And this applies when you are in the field too, so Golden rule #2; once you’ve got it, stop and move on. Don’t endlessly repeat the same objective, you don’t need 79 shots of Squidgy starting to climb the tree, you need one that works. In the so-called “old days” when we were shooting film, this was economically essential because film and processing cost real money. It was a good discipline to learn under, whereas now, when tape/disc/drive is virtually free, there is a real temptation to just run endlessly, reeling in reams of material, just because you can. Bear in mind however that at some stage you will have to sit and sort through it all, in a dark room, far from the glamour of the hide or hot sun. Boring beyond belief if all you are doing is watching the same thing over and over again.

Lastly, remember that good cameramen/women are not hatched and nor does the quality of the gear have any bearing on their ability. Like so many tasks it’s a case of practice and experience bringing you a bit closer to perfection. For this reason it’s always wise not to shoot your film chronologically, as during the course of its production you will improve and it’s wise to be able to ‘lose’ some of your less good material in the body of the film. In fact even when we are making films for TV it’s fairly common practice to re-shoot the beginning at the end, when everyone has warmed up and knows what they are doing.

Lastly, and I’ve already made this point as firmly as possible, don’t get hung up on equipment. As long as you have kit which is in anyway respectable you can get the results. If your films are good then no-one will be nit-picking over the pixels. A genius could make Gone With The Wind on a mobile phone so there is no reason why you can’t make 101 Badgers, Apocalypse Newt or One Flew over the Dunnocks Nest on a handy cam.