Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Filming Wildlife: Producers Discuss the Challenges

Michael Kelly searching for a snow leopard.

Michael Kelly, Searching for the Snow Leopard.

Nature films allow us, as viewers, to witness marvels of nature that we might not ordinarily see — or even know of. But achieving that is no simple task. A nature producer’s work can be arduous. Working in remote, unforgiving environments, contending with weather that doesn’t often cooperate, filming subjects that are shy and elusive, nature filmmakers are put to the task to share their privileged viewpoint with audiences.

Nature asked some of its top filmmakers to reveal how they manage to get the shot — in a field in which there are no retakes.

What specialized equipment is necessary for natural history filmmaking?

What you need depends hugely on the subject matter: filming small creatures requires macro lenses and perhaps even more specialized probe lenses; filming distant subjects requires long lenses; filming light-sensitive animals at night needs infra red lighting and IR sensitive cameras or starlight cameras; filming arctic wildlife requires cold adapted equipment (special oils in film cameras, extra batteries etc); underwater subjects need underwater cameras or at least a pole cam (a camera in housing on one end of pole, monitored from above the water). The equipment needed also reflects the “look” required (if you want lots of cinematic moves, you may need to take a jib of some kind — usually a 33lb portable minijib mountable on a tripod for wildlife), or a dolly (maybe a little trolley that can run on a ladder for wildlife) or even a rope dolly to run between trees. The camera you use and the shooting format depends on what the commissioners require technically.

Can a new filmmaker with a miniDV camera shoot wildlife? What are the absolute essentials in terms of equipment?

DAVE ALLEN, Deep Jungle
Mini DV has changed all documentary filmmaking — what was once the preserve of well-funded professionals is now open to anyone with a video (and a great deal of time and dedication). Observational documentaries on people are particularly open to an amateur who can often provide access to a subject that professionals could not get to. Wildlife can be the same, and I have seen some ingenious back garden amateur wildlife films that use remote cameras, infrared lights and all kinds of clever ideas to capture nature in and around someone’s home. But obviously some of our more far-flung projects provide more of a challenge. Often the animals are in out of the way places. And then distant subjects can involve very long lenses, these can be ten times the power of any handy cam. As soon as you get to this kind of magnification, you need a very large tripod to smooth out the wobble.

What makes a good wildlife cameraperson?

NICK UPTON, Triumph of Life
They need to be able to get close enough (but not so close that they or the animal are endangered), to be aware what is about to happen, to have the patience of a saint when nothing happens for days, to react fast — and in the right way — to get editable footage when things do kick off, to be in position ready to film as the sun is rising, to still be there when it sets, to put up with heat, cold, dust, rain, snow, mosquitoes, bat droppings, whatever it might be to get the shots.

What’s the longest amount of time you’ve waited for a specific shot or sequence?

DAVE ALLEN, Deep Jungle
I spent four weeks in Iceland waiting for a duck to jump out of a hole. It was summer, and so 24-hour daylight meant we had to keep all day vigil and The World Cup was on.

In most types of filmmaking, storyboarding is often used to preplan a shoot. Can you “plan” shoots and stories with these films?

MITCHELL KELLY, Searching for the Snow Leopard
You can storyboard as precisely as you like and then you get out and you throw away 50% of what you shot. With every film that I’ve done, I’ve had a plan, but that doesn’t mean we stuck to it. There was one film I started about how animals adapt to living in a rainforest — how they cope with the amount of rainfall. But there was a terrible drought when I was there so my film turned into a great film on drought in the rainforest and how organisms cope with drought conditions.

ALLISON ARGO, Wisdom of the Wild, The Urban Elephant
You try to pick your moments but most often the moments pick you. I was in the middle of a different show when Carol from The Elephant Sanctuary called and said she had a good story for me but I would have to come out next week. I went to The Elephant Sanctuary website and read about Shirley and I realized that she was the perfect elephant for the story — she had lived in a zoo, been part of a circus, she had an injured leg. I knew I had to get a crew together and get out there. When we got out to the zoo, I met Solomon (Shirley’s keeper at the zoo). He was so shy I wondered if he would ever feel comfortable on camera. But he ended up being so articulate and such an incredible character. And then Solomon came out with the line about Shirley’s chains, and we all started to cry. I just felt the gods conspired for that scene. It became the ending scene of the show — and it was the first thing we shot.

Do you always get the shot you came for? What are some of the best unexpected shots you’ve captured?

NICK UPTON, Triumph of Life
No — and anyone who claims they do is lying! It’s a real bonus when you’re there to film one thing and something else happens unexpectedly. (We were) on the Galapagos Islands once, filming marine iguanas fighting and courting on a small rocky sea cliff. A sea lion suddenly surfaced about 50 feet away with a huge green parrotfish in its jaws that he started shaking and tearing chunks off. Then about 20 frigate birds started swooping down right over our heads to collect scraps. We spun the camera around, changed lenses and shot some fabulous high-speed material, which appeared in the closing scenes for Triumph of Life. We could have waited weeks for that shot and never seen it — but we just happened to be there. Mind you, we never really got the mating shots we wanted as the iguana mating season was running late after a recent El Nino event — so the good luck/bad luck equation often seems to balance out.

Do you often have to condense natural events or streamline what you shot over several days or months and make it seem as if it happened at one time?

NICK UPTON, Triumph of Life
Yes, many wildlife sequences that last two to three minutes when edited and appear as if it all is happening in real time are actually shot over a few days to a few weeks or, exceptionally, months. Quite often, the main action did happen within a concentrated period of a few minutes, but the extra shots that allow the story to be set up and some cutaways (shots used to cover up edits) are often shot at another time. Some would say that makes the scenes less authentic, but I’d argue that if done well it allows a genuine story (the main action is real!) to be told more clearly and more entertainingly — and everyone wins. Of course it could be done badly. Shots can be taken at different times of day, or in different seasons etc, but some viewers would notice and others might lose the sense of continuity that a well shot and edited sequence brings. I’ve always tried to achieve the latter!

Have you ever felt compelled to intervene on behalf of a suffering creature?

NICK UPTON, Triumph of Life
I once rescued a large toad from an advancing army of safari ants, removed all the ants whose jaws were clamped onto it (I knew from personal experience what that can fee like) and released it well away from the raid. Admittedly, we took a few shots of it first to document what we saw and how the ants attack anything in their path. So I did the professional thing first, then the humane thing. Otherwise, no, there is usually nothing one can realistically do. And even if you could, by helping one animal you could be depriving another and upsetting the natural order you are there to document — not to change. That doesn’t mean it isn’t distressing at times. The nastiest thing I ever saw was a group of Galapagos mockingbirds pecking at a seabird chick to drink its blood. We filmed the behavior for Triumph of Life. But l’ve never felt so much like shooing away a creature that we were trying to film. If I had, though, (the mockingbirds) would have been back again and again until the chick died.

Is it hard to remain neutral when representing a controversial topic?

ALLISON ARGO, Wisdom of the Wild, The Urban Elephant
It’s very hard. You try to achieve the highest degree of objectivity as you can but, ultimately, filming is not an objective endeavor. You are deciding when to turn the camera on and off, or which characters to include. I try to let the creatures be the leading characters, to let them lead the story. I don’t comment on them. When you hear of Shirley’s story, the details of her life are enough to let you draw your own conclusions about the treatment of elephants.

How much do you learn about a species, habitat, place before you set out to film it?

MITCHELL KELLY, Searching for the Snow Leopard
I research pretty heavily before I start a film. The more you know about an animal’s behavior, the more you can interpret what you’re seeing in the wild. The flick of the ears. The behavior of the animals in the surrounding. You can use all of this to see how your animal is communicating.

How much does the environment you’re filming in affect how and what you shoot?

NICK UPTON, Triumph of Life
Enormously, for all the obvious logistical reasons such as: How do you reach the place the animals are with the equipment you need to film them (they might be out in a desert, deep in a rainforest, out on an ice floe, on a remote island etc)? Where can you stay nearby for the duration of the shoot? Do you need to camp? Is there a field station somewhere close? Can you walk to the filming location or do you need a 4WD, a skidoo, a boat, cross-country skis, a local guide so you don’t get lost, a GPS? If you can’t get the logistics right, you can’t even attempt to film the wildlife you want to. And even if you can be there, is there enough light to film with (maybe not if in a dense rainforest….) or will the camera still operate at -40°C or after a violent dust storm?

What are some of the most challenging environments you’ve filmed in?

DAVE ALLEN, Deep Jungle
They are all very tough except the African Savannah, that’s all done from a car. And is an absolute breeze.

NICK UPTON, Triumph of Life
Far more challenging was shooting in Peruvian Amazonia, where we slept in mosquito net tents on open platforms under thatched roofs. It rained torrentially from noon to 4pm every day and was so humid that our lenses kept steaming up and took the first 2 hours of sunlight from 8-10 am every day to dry out, leaving about 2 hours filming time before the rain came again. All of my clothes developed a white fungal growth on them and most became so rotten that I had to junk them later in the trip. Rainforests generally are tough places. They are hot and sweaty for carrying equipment around in. There are usually masses of biting insects, risk of poisonous snakes, various tropical diseases etc… and they’re not called “rain” forests for nothing. But they’re so stacked with wildlife that I keep getting drawn back to them.

I’ve done a lot of cave work also, mostly filming bats. (Caves) can be tough environments — very dirty, smelly and disease-ridden with a risk of rock-falls, or of falling down shafts. Working at altitude can be hard work. I’ve done some shoots above 13,000 feet in the Andes and many at almost that height in Taiwan. With such thin air, simply walking up hills carrying equipment is twice as hard as at lower altitudes – but you get used to it after a while.

Has your life ever been in danger due to shooting?

DAVE ALLEN, Deep Jungle
Yes, from a great white shark. A truck full of pygmies on a hill with no brakes. An angry elephant in a desert. A small plane with a broken GPS and not much fuel.

NICK UPTON, Triumph of Life
My worst affliction was a fly grub that tried to bore into my skull. But I managed to convince a surgeon to remove it (no-one believed I had what I knew I had!) before it got through. Other than that I’ve NEARLY trodden on a number of dangerous snakes such as rattlesnakes in Arizona and bushmasters in South America (but I might have got anti-venom in time). I nearly got washed off some rocks in violent surf in the Galapagos (but I might have swum to safety). Nearly got crushed by a rock fall in a Trinidadian bat cave and once slipped down a small waterfall in a Trinidadian mountain stream. It wasn’t far. I managed not to bang my head, and it was quite funny at the time. But it could have ended badly. Generally, though, the risks are far less than people imagine, especially from animals. We take a lot of care to work safely around them and to avoid upsetting them!

Why do you enjoy filming wildlife and nature?

NICK UPTON, Triumph of Life
I guess I have a genuine passion for watching wildlife and seeing amazing behavior unfold. I started out as a scientist and back then I could only share my findings through talks and papers (which I only expected a few hundred people would ever read!). Working on nature documentaries allowed me to share what I managed to witness with millions. I’ve also had the chance to travel to all kinds of amazing places and work with some great people.

MITCHELL KELLY, Searching for the Snow Leopard
It’s good when you can bring a place or an animal to people- especially one that they never heard about. People tend to act if they know about the problem. I think the best way to get people to care about something is to get them to love it.

Share your best wildlife filmmaking moment.

MITCHELL KELLY, Searching for the Snow Leopard
I took my first film on wolves back to the village where they had been persecuting wolves pretty heavily. The villagers watched the whole film. And when I asked them what they liked the most in the film they said they loved the wolves because of their family relationships. The film showed a wolf and its den- the mother was teaching the pup how to live. Since the villagers were very family oriented, seeing the wolves bringing up their young appealed to them. They had never thought of the wolves as having needs. It was one of the more fulfilling moments.

Share your worst wildlife filmmaking moment.

NICK UPTON, Triumph of Life
The worst moments have usually come at airports trying to get past difficult customs or immigration officials even when you have the right documents. Or when equipment or worse still exposed film stick goes astray in transit. The very worst moment was maybe arriving back in the UK after a tough trip to Kenya and a box with 50 rolls of exposed footage failed to arrive. Or when all our equipment was stuck in a cargo warehouse in Taiwan for 10 days as the customs documents were lost in transit by the cargo firm and copies were not accepted.



PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.