Confessions of a Wildlife Shooter

Posted on Mar 14, 2017 by Julian Mitchell

 To encourage the audience to engage with an animal’s story, a filmmaker can invite them to be either on its side or against it. These Hyenas were part of the 'Cities' episode of Planet Earth II.  To encourage the audience to engage with an animal’s story, a filmmaker can invite them to be either on its side or against it. These Hyenas were part of the ‘Cities’ episode of Planet Earth II.

As natural history programmes increasingly base their cinematic sequences on the narrative, what part of the moviemaking box of tricks should you be looking to use?

WORDS John Aitchison PICTURES John Aitchison/BBC

Wildlife shooting has become story based, or stories within sequences have become story based. In programmes like the BBC’s The Hunt each sequence is a strong story and usually a loose theme – maybe habitat – joins them together. The stories are rarely about generic animals, more often they are about individuals that demonstrate something specific.

From my point of view when I go somewhere almost the first decision is ‘which one are we going to film’. Usually the point of going somewhere is predetermined by someone else: producer, assistant producer, researcher. In an ideal world they have an idea of what they would like: ‘Can you film this species doing that behaviour? These are the interesting aspects, we think it might be good to do it filmically.’

This is about telling stories with moving pictures, so it’s about filming, right? Well yes it is, but first we should think about what a story is. Stories are not just accounts of events – they also have to hold the attention of their audience, which has led to storytelling becoming an art.

Show, don’t tell is a cardinal rule of storytelling. Showing the story is essential when you are filming, because the telling comes later and the narration will most likely not be your department.

Research and advice

Sometimes much of the thinking about how to tell a story will already have been done for you, by a researcher and a producer who have gathered information and written a shooting script for their programme.

As you haven’t started filming yet this is bound to be an idealised view of things. Sometimes these scripts can be very detailed, especially when you’ll have some control over the filming, for instance if you are filming plants.

If you don’t have much control, then the script may contain a lot of wishful thinking.

If you are filming a sequence for a programme that has a biological theme, say evolution, then the sequence may need to illustrate some specific behaviour or principle, in which case a detailed script will be necessary. In contrast, if your film is about what an individual animal does, there is little point writing a detailed script in advance, because the animal will shape its own story, as well as setting practical limits on what it’s possible for you to cover. Either way, you will have to make many choices about what to film, and equally importantly, what not to.

Once you’ve done all you can from home, out the door you go with your camera, into the natural world to meet your subjects, and no doubt to face quite a few trials.

 Cameraman Louis Labrom rigging a cable dolly in the main location that he and John used for filming the Hyenas at night. The hyenas came into the square to eat bones left out for them by the butchers. Cameraman Louis Labrom rigging a cable dolly in the main location that he and John used for filming the Hyenas at night. The hyenas came into the square to eat bones left out for them by the butchers.


A good story needs a protagonist who is able to react to their changing circumstances and to the other characters they meet, usually changing themselves along the way. There is usually one main character about whom we are invited to care. Our films are far more effective if we can distinguish that character from the others visually. I mean ‘characters’ in the loosest sense. A character in a wildlife film could be a bear or a bristlecone pine, or even the Earth itself. These characters will do things and things will happen to them. The audience can be invited to be on their side, or against them, or neither, or both, because interesting characters develop and evolve as the story unfolds, or at least our understanding of them does.

You probably know already whether you will be trying to film a male spider searching for something dangerous but desirable in the leaf litter, or an ancient pine tree that has been alive since the time of the Romans, but you will still have to choose which spider or tree to film. Animals are individuals, and so are plants for that matter. They each live in more or less beautiful settings, and are more or less visible and accessible too. Some animals have been habituated by other people, or are well known by them for other reasons, perhaps because they are being studied by scientists.

Sometimes choosing one comes down to such basics as whether it is hungry, young and naïve, old and confident, or even deaf. After all, in order to film an animal, you need to spend hours close to it, often day after day; so choose well. It may be hard to change later.

Identifying your character in narration should be a last resort – when the pictures alone can’t convey the information. We must do as much of this as possible without resorting to words.

Here are some ways to single out one individual visually:

•     Introduce them memorably.

•     Simplify their setting photographically, perhaps by using a long lens to reduce the depth-of-field or by using light or colour or composition to pinpoint them.

• Follow them with long lenses, or a moving camera.

• Show their distinctive markings. Do they have coat patterns, a broken tooth or distinctive horns, or quirks of behaviour? If so, then draw attention to them in the shots you take. This can be a double-edged sword: once you have drawn attention to an identifying mark you’ll have no choice but to film that individual throughout. What if it dies or you can’t find it again?

• Film them with others (a two-shot). If your hero appears in two shots with other characters, even if they are just watching from afar, the audience will feel they are really there.

 Practising what he preaches: John Aitchison filming in New York for Planet Earth II. Practising what he preaches: John Aitchison filming in New York for Planet Earth II.

What do they want? 

All heroes need a quest. Will yours need to: grow up, leave home, undertake a journey, learn to hunt, escape a predator, beat a rival, survive the winter, construct a home, find and woo a mate, reproduce or protect its own young?

Quests are not supposed to be easy – the harder they are, and the more resourceful your hero, the more the audience will like them. The narration can set these things up and explain what’s going on but it’s so much better if you can do it visually.

Building Empathy

This one really matters. Your audience will empathise with your hero or heroine if you can transport them into their world. Here are some ways you can build empathy:

• Show the world and its inhabitants from your character’s perspective, especially from their eye-level.

• Show your character from its friends’ or enemies’ point of view (their PoV): an owl’s eye view of a mouse, perhaps, from high in a tree. This may be as simple as taking the same shot you would have filmed anyway, but framed through out of focus vegetation.

• Reveal the details of your character’s behaviour with the intimacy of your filming style, by being close and wide, or with close-ups of telling detail.

Film reaction as well as action shots. These may be as subtle as a widening eye, or as blatant as a frightened squirrel dropping a nut. Show your character caring as well as hunting, being vulnerable as well as strong. Film behaviour that makes the story relevant to your audience’s lives.
Above all you need to empathise with your subject. You need to know all about its life, and not just the species but your individual too – and that takes time.


Besides the planning, producing, filming and all the rest, great sequences are made by great editors. Films almost always have to be edited. This fundamental truth had to be discovered by the first filmmakers, who started off by filming stages from a fixed point, as though they were watching a play. It didn’t take them long to realise that close-ups of actors are more interesting than wides. Then they had to cut them together. The principles behind making cuts work are often called filmic grammar.

An editor can only cut together shots that camera people provide, so you need to know what kind of shots they need before you start. As soon as you start editing you realise that some cuts work better than others.

 A New York peregrine – from Planet Earth II – Cities . A New York peregrine – from Planet Earth II – Cities .

When an edit doesn’t work

When an edit doesn’t work there can be a jump as the shot changes (a jump cut). An example might be when you cut together two similar shots of a polar bear.
In the first, the bear is standing on its hind legs, in the next it is in the same place but on all-fours. Our experience of the world tells us that jumps like this never happen in reality, so they break the illusion on which all films depend – that we are watching something real. So how do you avoid that happening?

One possible way around the polar bear jump cut is to insert a cutaway of another bear between the two shots. Cutaways can be of anything relevant to your character’s story. Perhaps you don’t want there to be two bears but you are keen on showing how cold it is then a cutaway of the fog forming over the ice would work. The presenter Tony Soper used to take his dog on shoots for exactly this reason. He called it the dog cutaway.

Change angle and shot size. The general principle behind cutaways is that cuts won’t seem to jump if adjacent shots are different from each other. They don’t need to be completely different, or you’ll end up with a montage of unrelated images, but there does need to be a sufficient difference in angle or shot size to suggest that you are seeing the same action from a different position.

To do this you will need to film the same action multiple times, or hope that it carries on happening long enough for you to reframe and/or change position. This kind of ‘continuity cutting’, when done well, makes the action flow seamlessly.

As camera people I’d advise you to study examples of this, ideally by sitting in a cutting room while an editor is working, as well as trying it yourself. The first thing you will learn is that for editors to work their magic they need a choice of shot sizes and angles. It’s your job to provide that choice.

An osprey and his quest

Imagine you are filming an osprey fishing. Here are some things it might do and that you might film:

•  It flies to the right place, it hovers, searching. It spots a fish. It dives out of frame.

• It plunges down. It hits the water. It surfaces with the fish. It flies away.

Compelling stories place obstacles in the hero or heroine’s way. How they deal with them is the meat of their story. Their struggles, and how they change as a result, will reveal much about their character. Solving these problems will often involve them interacting with others, perhaps as guides or helpers, perhaps as foes. Sometimes they will fail and be on the brink of giving up, or even of dying. They might even refuse to carry on, then be persuaded to change their mind.
You need to find ways to film these obstacles to make them clear to the audience, and you’ll need to film them being overcome. How you do this will depend on the nature of the challenges.

An osprey’s problems: 

•  Hovering. It’s hard to spot a fish and hard to hit the exact mark. Do you need shots of fish from above and below?

•  Holding onto a slippery fish.

•  Getting airborne with wet feathers, without drowning.

•  Being mobbed by crows trying to steal the fish. Have you got shots of crows waiting unnoticed in a tree, and taking off in a hurry?


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