If you love wildlife films and are dreaming of shooting films for the BBC and National Geographic, here are 6 tips that will put you on the right track.
THE GENERAL STUFF
1.Be a good wildlife photographer
It all begins here. Even though cinematography requires a completely different skill set, photography and filming follow the same track till at one point when they diverge. Fundamentals like exposure, depth of field and all the other stuff you need to know about creating great looking images remain the same.
I was a full time stills photographer for nearly 5 years before i crossed over to cinematography, and i think this made the transition really easy. Besides the fact that video cameras are completely different in design and i had to learn a whole bunch of new terms, the process of image making was pretty much the same.
Tip: Spend time learning theory. Its all too easy to just start clicking with a digital camera. Being an international cameraperson is hardcore stuff and your theory has to be sound.
2. Stop being a photographer
Yes! once you step behind the camera with the intention of being a cinematographer, stop thinking like a stills photographer. This is the biggest stumbling block for most aspiring cameramen. Stills photography is all about creating that single perfect image. Cinematography is not about one great shot at all. It is about many many shots that combine together to make a meaningful sequence.
A lot of people aspire to become wildlife cinematographers after watching inspiring films like in the BBC mega series (Frozen planet, Life , Africa etc etc). So almost inevitably the first shot they want to take is ` like in the BBC films”!!!. Unfortunately they don’t go beyond that single shot and forget to even try to get anything else. End result: hundreds of takes that try and imitate the BBC shot and nothing else that can help tell the story.
Tip : the BBC spends millions of pounds and many years to produce these stunning films. I am sure with all your handwork you will get there eventually. But maybe its not your best starting point. Start simple and build on it.
3.Be a keen naturalist
Field craft and animal watching are skills that are as important to you as your photography skills. Make no mistake, just the ability to take great pictures will not make you a successful wildlife cameraman. You need to have the ability to find your subjects, follow them, out-think them and be sure you are always at the right place to get the shot. This is the tense and at the same time exciting part of being on the field. To be able to anticipate and capture that important moment everytime is what a wildlife cameraman gets paid for.
Naturalist skills come from a deep love for wildlife watching and a little bit of scientific thinking. There is so much you can learn about animal behaviour from watching wildlife films. But spending time on the field with experienced naturalist helps a lot. Remember the goal is to think ahead of the animal and anticipate what it's going to do. No one ever shares their little secrets in this department, You will have to learn this by yourself.
THE HARDCORE STUFF
4. Think story , think story , Think story
Filmmaking is all about story telling. As a wildlife cameraman, your job is to record the story on the field so that an editor can put it together as a proper film. I come back to my point about trying to get one great shot and forgetting to finish the sequence. To tell the story you will need a bunch of shots with different angles and magnifications, a start and and end shot and some clean establishers of where the sequence is happening . You have to work as quickly as possible to get this done since lighting can change and the footage might look like it has been shot at different times. Be ready to get into a frenzy of activity when the action happens.
Tip : next time you watch a wildlife film, look keenly at how a sequence has been built. How it begins and how it ends. You will observe that there is a pattern!
5. Be like sports-person or a musician : Practice regularly!
Cinematography is many times more difficult than wildlife photography. You have to do so many things and do them right to get the shot. And within seconds you have to reset and do another shot. this cycle keeps going on and on throughout the day. To be able to perform at this level you have to practice on a regular basis. Develop a set of procedures, go through them time and again till the fundamentals become second nature. Shoot anywhere; in your garden, a park or somewhere you can set up easily. Remember that while in the jungle and if you have a tiger stalking to make a kill, you only get one chance at it.. you better get it right. And you can get it right only if you have spent time practicing.
6. Its a long hard journey ; get prepared for it
Breaking into the international circuit is never going to be easy. Even though lots of wildlife programs are made about India, there are just a handful of Indians who have actually shot consistently for International assignments. In India, we really don’t have a culture of documentary television, which means there is hardly any chance for new talent to get trained. Basically upcoming cinematographers have to find their way to the top with little or no help and then hope they will get spotted. very unfair isn’t it !!!!
The best way to approach this is to start small, shoot your own little films with whatever camera you can get hold of, slowly build some basic equipment like a good film tripod and some long lenses. Over time your skill set will grow and you will also have a good showreel. Thats a starting point.
Good luck and please join me on my mission to make India fall in love with it's wildlife. You can do that by making great films about our wonderful biodiversity and making people see it.
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