Shooting in the wild changes how videographers would normally capture events. You have to slow down, take your time… and wait… and wait some more… and wait even more. But the video is well worth the time.
With an old Hi8 video camera and a clunky underwater housing, I began my career as an outdoor filmmaker. I’d take the gear with me for fun on scuba dives off the Southern California shore. Once I felt comfortable with it, I started thinking, “What is the most unlikely thing I could make a film about? How about diving at night? Great idea! No one has done it before, so it will be unique.” As is so often the case, the idea of something and the reality of it are two entirely different things. Dive after bone-chilling, nightmare-inducing dive, I got footage of only sandy bottoms and ugly, gray fish. But then, after the tenth time out in the cold and dark, a bat ray bolted from the sand and glided over my head, glowing like an angel in my light. That magical shot gave me the boost to keep going, to keep searching for those little moments. I realized that I may only capture one quick shot like that once in a while, but that enough of those would eventually add up and, if I strung them all together, I’d have a halfway-respectable film.
Most people won’t go to such extremes just to capture video. I still have dreams of large things swimming up behind me in the dark (in fact, I did get bitten in the behind by a curious sea lion pup one night).
For my next film, I chose a very different subject: the desert. However, I was faced with some of the same challenges I encountered in the ocean. Animal sightings were fleeting and far between. By the time I’d spot something, get my camera out and set up, the critter was gone. It took me a long time to figure out the solution to this. But I’ll get to that later. The first thing I had to do was streamline my equipment. I almost always worked alone, since I usually had a zero budget and couldn’t hire anyone to help me, so it was imperative that I could carry everything I needed by myself. Based on my experience, here’s what I recommend.
The Pack: When heading out into the wild on foot, here’s how to pack. Choose a large backpack into which you can fit the camera plus a lot of other stuff. If you are hiking far, remove the head from the tripod (the heaviest part), wrap it in a sweatshirt and put it in the bottom of the pack. Put the camera in on top of that. Strap the tripod legs on the outside of the pack. Add some food and lots of water, extra batteries and videotapes, a rain cover for the camera and a cell phone.
Camera: You can spend a lot of time and effort debating the merits of one camera over another, one format versus another. In wildlife and nature videography, the type of lens or lenses you use is more important than the type of camera. It is critical that you have a long telephoto lens if you are trying to capture animal shots. The ideal type of camera is one that can accommodate removable lenses, like the Canon XL2, XL H1A or XL H1S (depending on your budget). These cameras tend to come with a lens that already has a decent zoom range. However, most people have video cameras with fixed lenses. There are screw-on telephoto and wide-angle adaptors you can purchase to help increase the range of these cameras.
Tripod: The other piece of equipment that is of equal importance (but never gets as much attention) is the tripod. You can be shooting with a $100,000 camera but, if your tripod is rickety and undersized, your shots will not look professional. For wildlife, use the biggest, heaviest tripod you can stand to carry around. If you are zoomed way in on an animal and trying to keep a steady shot, even a slight breeze can cause a jiggle in your picture. The heavier the tripod is, the less trouble you will have. Also, for professional work, the tripod has to have a fluid head with a ball-leveling base. You cannot effectively do video work using a tripod designed for still camera work. Any moves you make with the still camera tripod (also known as a friction-head tripod) will be jerky and bumpy. You don’t want to spend more than a few seconds getting the camera level (thus the importance of the ball-leveling head).
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that, for this type of work, the tripod is more important than the type of camera you choose. When I was shooting with the old Hi8 video camera, I used a big aluminum movie camera tripod that was designed to hold 30 pounds. It looked a little ridiculous with a tiny two-pound camcorder perched on top of it, but I got really smooth shots.
Sound: Sound is often an afterthought. In nature photography, the action is usually taking place far away, and you are not able to hear much of anything. In the desert, this is often the case. Most of the sounds in my finished desert film are from sound libraries, or I created them after the fact (this is known as Foley). I ran up and down a rocky hill, recording my footsteps to mimic the sound of Bighorn sheep on a slope. I recorded the sound of my hand splashing into a kiddy pool to match the sound of a heron dipping its beak into a pond. However, having a good shotgun microphone attached to your camera will make life easier when it comes time to edit. It will always pick up the background sounds, such as water rushing or birds singing. These sounds add a lot to the finished film, and the shotgun microphone will pick things up more cleanly and further away than the small built-in mic on the camera.
What to Shoot
One of the most difficult things is simply getting started. Where do I go? What do I shoot? The answers are not always clear. I went into the desert to shoot a story about tarantulas. They come out every year about the same time and roam around looking for mates. I thought this sounded kind of interesting. I never saw a single tarantula on those first trips, but I saw lots of other things while I was out there. I noticed how the light changed color across the landscape throughout the day. I found wildflowers in unexpected places. I ran into coyotes and Bighorn Sheep, as well as some extreme weather. Once I was out there, my purpose became clearer. I was no longer making a film about tarantulas; I was now taking on something much bigger: the seasons. That became my overall theme.
Choose a Theme
Once you have decided on a subject, it is important to establish early on what your theme will be. Determining this makes it a lot easier to decide what and how to shoot. In my case, the subject was a particular desert state park, and the theme was the seasons. You might decide to concentrate on animal behavior, or conservation, or research, or just the beauty of a place. Ask yourself, “How does this landscape, this flower, this animal or this person fit into my theme?” Keep your theme in mind, and the finished film will be more cohesive; all the pieces will fit together better.
Gathering the Footage
Now comes the hard part, but also the fun part: gathering the footage. Not everyone is going to enjoy making a nature film. It is not usually something you can do in an afternoon. It took me two years to make my desert film, and that was just the filming. The editing took another six months. That was extreme, but I took my time, since I had to go through a whole year of seasons. Then I tacked on another year for good measure. In reality, I spent a lot of time that first year getting to know the place. If you are already familiar with an area, a species or a conservation issue, this could be a good starting point for choosing your subject.
Patience: Patience is the Number One rule in filming animals. That solution I mentioned earlier for getting good shots of animals: patience. The more you chase after an animal, the less likely you are to get a shot of it. I was hiking up and down a trail trying to spot Bighorn Sheep. Whenever I saw them, they saw me and bolted. I got lots of shots of Bighorn rear ends running away. I finally figured out that they came to a small watering hole several times per day. I set up so I could see the water, and I waited. Eventually they came, saw me and ran away. But I stayed. The next time they came, they didn’t run away. After I went back for several days and sat there all day, the sheep got so used to me that they approached me to see what I was doing. At one point, I was surrounded by sheep. I didn’t even know which way to turn the camera.
Shoot It Now: Filming wildlife and nature is an opportunistic endeavor. You don’t always know what you are going to see when you go out, so be flexible. Nature rarely cooperates. One of my rules in shooting is “shoot it now.” If you see something good, don’t think you’ll be able to come back to it later – 99% of the time it will be gone when you get back, especially if it is an animal.
Create Sequences: Resist the temptation to just shoot the same shot of an animal for as long as it is visible. If it is walking, pan your camera ahead of it, and let it walk into frame. Pan with it for a while, and then let it leave the frame. Get wide shots of the animal as well, so you can see it in its environment; don’t shoot only closeups. You need to create a sequence that has a beginning, a middle and an end, all made up of wide, medium and closeup shots.
Follow Through: This ties in with the previous point about sequences. If you are in the middle of shooting one animal and see another, don’t abandon the first in favor of the new one until you’ve completed the shot (or even the sequence). This temptation is difficult to resist, but it’s better to end up with one good shot rather than two mediocre ones. This also ties back to the first rule of Patience.
Shoot the Landscape: Good wildlife films include lots of landscape shots. You need to tell the story not only of an animal but also of its environment. Bring those landscapes to life. I use time-lapse shots to show passage of time or seasons, often showing clouds moving, shadows going across the landscape or the sun rising or setting. These make great dramatic transitions between scenes. Shoot in the morning and late afternoon for the best light. Middle-of-the-day light is flat and boring (unless there is a storm or lots of puffy clouds). Make bad weather part of the film. Show the harshness of the land. I shot time-lapse shots of rainstorms moving across the desert, and they are some of the film’s most dramatic scenes.
And about the spider? After two years in the desert, I finally got that elusive tarantula shot. Shooting in the wild is extremely rewarding. It taught me to sit still and observe. I started noticing that small things can be just as amazing as big, exciting things. I also learned about making do with very little. I didn’t have a lot of money or equipment, but I still managed to make a professional-looking film. I built equipment I couldn’t afford to buy, I bartered for a place to stay and I borrowed the State Park airplane to shoot aerial shots. But, like the spider, that is another story…
Chris Pyle is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who is currently director of photography for Apples & Oranges Productions.