GETTING STARTED IN WILDLIFE FILMMAKING – what they didn’t tell you about making natural history films (A guest post by María Blanco @be_conservation) ~

18 de marzo de 2020

GETTING STARTED IN WILDLIFE FILMMAKING – what they didn’t tell you about making natural history films (A guest post by María Blanco @be_conservation)

(Lee este artículo en español)

Maria Blanco has a degree in Biology and a master's degree in Ecology and Conservation from the Imperial College of London, and a master's degree in entrepreneurship from the Complutense University. She is a keen photographer and blogger. Check out her blog (, where she writes conservation, sustainability and nature documentaries. You can contact her through LinkedIn.


Like many other Spaniards, I grew up looking up to be like Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente or David Attenborough, surrounded by nature and dreaming of a life full of adventure and discoveries. Thus, when an opportunity arose to learn about wildlife filmmaking, I didn’t think twice.

For two months, I lived in Scotland, on the tiny Isle of Mull, with the objective of producing a short, 20-minute nature video.

To be able to do it, I had to learn the production process from scratch: from setting up the tripod, to doing a pan shot (a technique where you rotate a camera horizontally from a fixed position). I was a complete newbie. I did have my single-lens reflex camera, but it could not compare to having a Sony FS7 with a Sigma 300-800mm (x2 extender) zoom lens in my hands.


Truth be told, the first time I took the camera, I was just so scared of breaking it! But, there is something special about watching nature through a lens. Not only you are able to witness wildlife and behaviors that would be difficult to observe otherwise – especially if you have a nice long-lens-, but there is an excitement that comes with recording.

Maybe it’s just my way of seeing it, but I get into a flow-like moment, where I am deeply focused on recording and that makes me bolder. By the way, this could get you in trouble if you are not careful. You need to always be aware of your surroundings. You do not want to fall, lose your way, or get too close to whatever you are filming!

However, as idyllic as it sounds, it is a lot of hard work. And, I have to admit, sometimes it may even be frustrating. One of my objectives when I was on Mull, was to film wild otters. With a little luck, I wanted to get a few different shots of different individuals and from different areas. For two weeks, we drove around key places, asked different people and worked long hours. And we kept missing them. Those days were quite long but, sometimes you are just unlucky. I would set the camera at 6-7 in the morning, usually under the rain and spend the whole day looking and looking for otters. Then, when it was beginning to get dark, we had to pick up the equipment and look for a place to set up the camp. At this point, we were a little disillusioned.

Then, one day, we were driving by the coast and I realized something moving by the rocks: “OMG! Is that an otter?” I believe that hard-work attracts luck, but sometimes, luck just comes knocking on your door:

Although certain scenes are very important, and allow you to describe a story around them, not everything we are going to film will be super exciting.

One of my happiest shooting days, was filming newts. I find newts extremely cute and interesting, and I was able to find them by coincidence, at a tiny pond by the road, while looking for a suitable place to set up the camera to record eagles.

Script writing

Another challenge that I faced was writing the script. In fact, I had to decide if I preferred to write a script before filming or, filming first as much as possible and then write a script based on the material obtained. We assume that we always need a script, as we are biased by the big blue chip documentaries (these are the large-scale, high-budget productions, like "Seven Worlds, One Planet", “Planet Earth”, or “Blue Planet”) but there are actually advantages and disadvantages of both approaches:

For example, what happens if you do not get all the necessary shots? What if you are missing one of your key shots (the otter in my case)? Then, should I just go out and record without guidance? If you opt for the latter option, you risk losing the opportunity to get an important shot, waste too much time in one place or forget certain wide shots (I have a blog post about this in my blog). In my case, I chose to write the script beforehand. And to make the necessary changes when editing. I am a fan of lists and planning, and I found that having a script allowed me to save time and to prioritize the shots I needed.


A script will also allow you to plan your sound recording. Sound is indeed very important, but it is something that, as a viewer we do not pay much attention too. Unless it is bad. And that is the key. If the sound is correctly recorded and put together with the images, nobody will comment on it. But, if the sound is poorly recorded or it does not fit well with the pictures, then EVERYBODY will notice it.

One of the difficulties that I found while sound recording was controlling my own sounds. If you make noise while walking, breathing or moving the microphone, it will affect your recording. This may sound obvious to you but, it´s hard to leave your raincoat behind when filming in an cold and rainy place.

Also, bear in mind the differences with video recording. A good zoom lens might save you a lot of trouble, but the zoom just records images. To record noise, you need a microphone, which is usually relatively close…. Let me provide you with a visual example of what I am trying to say:

Me trying to get a clean recording of a sheep bleating

And of course, you cannot think about sound without thinking about the music and the voiceover. If you check my video you will easily realize that it was my first time doing a voiceover. I indeed feel more comfortable being behind the camera than in front of it, but I realized that talking to the microphone is even more embarrassing.

I had to repeat the script so many times that I got to memorize the first 10 minutes. I found difficulty not only trying to express the right emotions, but, as a non-native English speaker, I had to put an extra effort to make myself understandable and clear. This was especially difficult at the field, where I could not control the ambient noise - the interior of a 4x4 is not exactly comparable to a soundproof room.


The real magic happens while editing. It is when everything comes together. In my case, that meant spending long hours inside the car with the generator running, -as editing in 4K rapidly uses up all the laptop battery-.

Editing allows you to transform plain footage into a nice story. Sometimes this translates into using footage you actually wanted to delete and, on other occasions, giving up on nice footage that you might be very fond of. For my time on Mulll, I had to create a 20-minute video, which is way to long for just two months and one person recording, thus, I ended up using most of my decent footage, but, still, I had to learn where to make the cuts. Long sequences, even if very exciting, will have to be cut most of times or they will become boring.


Not all the work is directly related to filming. When working on location you need to set the camp, cook, clean dishes, and enjoy the occasional and rare shower. There needs to be a balance between carrying as little stuff as possible -as space is limited-, but at the same time, getting all the necessary equipment: food, pots and kitchen utensils, cameras, batteries, computers, hard drives, warm clothes, fuel, tents, etc… In addition, all the equipment should be as organized as possible, so you will be able to quickly reach what it is needed at all times, especially the camera – you do not want to miss an exciting shot!

Final thoughts

I know I've been talking about the least pretty -or at least the least glamorous- face of wildlife filmmaking. However, I hope my words do not demoralize you. From my short experience, I can tell you that this is a very competitive field and one in which you will have to work really hard (in which one would you not?) but it is also highly rewarding.

Behind the camera, you are a spectator from which nothing is expected. This allows you to sit and enjoy. It is also a good way to observe nature and the world around us. You will start differentiating the different individuals and their territories, the best hours for recording, and even the best places to see otters!

And, although at certain times it can be frustrating, that moment, when the unexpected happens, makes everything worthwhile.

Thank you for sharing your time with me.

Useful resources when making videos

Editing programs: in my case I use Premiere, but there are free programs that offer many possibilities. To start, we can use iMovie (in case of Mac) or Movie Maker (Windows). Other options to investigate are: Lumen5 (, Wondershare Filmora ( or Final Cut Pro ( -pro/).

Music and sound: use (Royalty Free) Creative Commons music, if possible CC by - SA. This license allows you to modify and use the work for commercial purposes. Always remember to specify the author (it is not necessary in all cases, but it is a nice thing to do). If you want to read more about licenses, take a look at this post.

Where to find music and sounds

Learn more

Untamed science - They have a lot of videos, from very basic to very specific about editing, recording in the field, like setting up a studio, gimbals ... etc. - this website is a database of producers, jobs and people related to the world. In addition, you can also find books and tips to learn how to make nature videos (

Find your job here