Piers Warren on his Wildeye Journey By Jason Peters
17 December 2018
So, I think that Piers Warren is amazing. He deserves lots of recognition for all of the great things that he has done in the service of the wildlife film-making community. He has just stood down as principal of Wildeye - International School of Wildlife Film-making and so I asked him a few questions:
Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up? What did you do before the birth of Wildeye? How did you end up in Norfolk?
I grew up in Bristol then worked all over the UK before ending up in Norfolk about 30 years ago where I’ve stayed since. My first proper job was as a science teacher and most of my work has been connected with education and media.
Where did your passions for all things wild come from? Who/what have been your biggest influencers in life?
I just loved being outside as a kid, looking for creatures in the countryside. Much of my knowledge came from reading books and also watching any natural history programme that was broadcast. Gerald Durrell was an early influence.
When did you first get the idea for Wildeye? Was there a particular moment, event or person that sowed the seed?
In the late 1990s, bearing in mind it was fairly early days for websites, I realised that there was no source of information for people wanting to become wildlife film-makers. So I created wildlife-film.com. I clearly remember the idea popping into my head on a drive from Norwich to Newark. By the time I got there it was all planned!
Did Wildeye and Wildlife-film.com / Wildlife Film News (WFN) start at the same time or was one born out of another?
At the same time – Wildeye being the educational organisation of which wildlife-film.com was the initial project.
How well received was Wildlife-film.com / WFN in the industry upon launch? Did you have much support?
Like all new things it took a while for people to realise its value, but the late Jean Hartley (Viewfinders) got the idea straight away and was of great support at the start.
What were the early Wildeye days like? Who joined you as tutors at the start?
The first courses were careers workshops I ran on my own, often connected to wildlife film festivals, then in 2003 we ran the first Introduction to Wildlife Film-making course with myself, the late Nick Gordon, and Madelaine Westwood.
In 2002 I wrote the book Careers in Wildlife Film-making and, as I understood the wildlife film market better than any other publisher, I created Wildeye Publishing to produce a series of educational books about wildlife filmmaking.
When did you do your first overseas trip? Where in the world have you been with Wildeye?
In 2003 I ran our first Big Cat Film Safari in the Masai Mara, Kenya. It was so successful we ran it a dozen times, but we have also run many other trips to Tanzania, Uganda, India, Ecuador, Scotland, The Bahamas, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and more!
You were one of the founders of Filmmakers For Conservation (FFC), tell us how that came about? What did you hope to achieve with the organisation?
In the 1990s it was clear that film-makers wanted to make conservation-focussed films but the broadcasters weren’t interested. So a group of us got together to form an organisation that would lobby broadcasters to make changes and support conservation film-makers.
What is your opinion on conservation in wildlife films? How have you seen this change over the years?
For too many years wildlife films have been giving the public the idea that all is well and bountiful in the natural world. This is dangerous as it makes it harder for conservation organisations to raise support and change laws, and harder to persuade the general public to make changes to their own lives. This is changing a little more recently but progress has been painfully slow compared to the rapid degradation of nature. We are in a desperate situation now, especially due to climate change, and it’s becoming irresponsible to ignore it when making documentaries.
Madelaine Westwood and I produced this book to show readers not only how to make conservation films, but also how to get them seen by the most relevant audiences and how to monitor whether they do actually make a difference.
You were the driving force behind setting up the Films That Make A Difference database. An online library of conservation film which aimed to help prove that film-making can make a real and tangible difference to important conservation
issues around the world. The proving that films can or have made a difference has proven difficult. What do you think? Can they? Do they?
They certainly can make a difference and the whole point of the database is to give examples of this. The difficulty is in providing proof. It’s clear when some films (like Shores of Silence) lead to a law being changed/made, but many others make a more subtle difference that is difficult to measure, yet still being valuable.
You’ve never been chasing money when it comes to Wildeye courses, course fees always being charged at the lowest possible amount to the student, pretty philanthropic really. Why was this the case? What motivated you?
I didn’t start Wildeye to get rich! It was clear that if course costs went too high, then some of the less well-off students couldn’t afford to go. This didn’t sit well as I wanted the courses to be available to as wide a range of people as possible. So I always aimed to keep costs low, by not expanding too fast or getting fancy offices, for example.
Do you think students changed much over the years?
One of the main (and welcome) changes over the last few years has been the increase in women taking the courses. The last few Introduction courses we have run have been 80% female!
How do you think wildlife film-making has changed over the past twenty years? Back in 2011 you produced the book Wildlife Film-making: Looking to the Future, which asked many leading figures in the industry where we’d be in ten years time … How well are those projections playing out?
Many of the projections have played out, though some, like 3D wildlife films, have not gained the traction the film-makers hoped for. I think the main thing that was overlooked back then (and still is, by many) is the speed at which wildlife is being lost around the world, and the dire projections related to climate change. Making films about wildlife carrying on as if nothing was changing is getting increasingly bizarre and unjustifiable.
In terms of pure wildlife my favourite was Life in the Undergrowth as it showed me things I hadn’t seen before. When you’ve seen as many wildlife movies as I have you do get bored when lions, penguins or chimpanzees are chosen yet again without really showing us anything new. The world is full of amazing wildlife that has never been filmed – let’s see it!
How did you keep up with all the technological advances over the past twenty years?
Partly through reading magazines, blogs etc, but largely by employing clever (and younger!) tutors who have their fingers on the tech pulse.
What was your favourite thing about being Principal of Wildeye: International School of Wildlife Film-making?
Meeting the amazing students, some of whom have become lifelong friends.
How do you feel about leaving Wildeye after twenty years? Why did you decide to pass the baton to Simon Beer now? Will you miss it?
I’ll miss the fun of the courses themselves, but after twenty years it felt time to handover to someone with fresh energy and enthusiasm to take the school in new directions.
I became vegan a few years ago when it became increasingly clear that it was hypocritical to consider myself an environmentalist and yet still eat dairy (I gave up meat decades ago). The book, The Vegan Cook & Gardener, is our attempt to explain that vegan meals are not only delicious and planet-saving, but that growing your own food in your garden in the first place adds dramatically to a low carbon and healthy lifestyle.
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
I’ll do a bit of freelance tutoring and seem set to do more public speaking as I am increasingly called upon to talk about climate change and how to live in a planet-friendly way. I also want to experiment in aiming for a zero carbon off-grid life and helping others achieve the same.
A 2003 film by Jane Atkins and Rachel Curran, largely made on a Wildeye Film-making course, discussing the state of conservation content on television. Those giving views include Piers Warren, Jane Goodall, Richard Brock, Jeffrey Boswall, Sarah Cunliffe and Ben Please.
Piers's last stint as Principal was played out on the weekend of the 30th November to 2nd December 2018 on the enduring Introduction to Wildlife Film-making course, Wildeye's longest-running and most popular course to date.
In a Facebook Post afterwards, Piers said "After 20 years and 2,000 students, last weekend's wildlife film-making course was my final one as Principal of Wildeye. Good luck to Simon Beer who is taking over, and a huge thanks to all the Wildeye tutors and students over the years for making it such a blast!"
After 20 years and 2,000 students, last weekend's wildlife film-making course was my final one as Principal of Wildeye....
I wanted to extend a very personal thanks to Piers, for not only being such a fantastic mentor and colleague over the past years working together at Wildeye, Wildlife-film.com and on other projects, but most importantly for being a kind, generous, loyal and true friend. I am sure that many others would say the same and that Wildeye, tutors and future students, will miss him as the driving force behind the school. I wish him every success and happiness in whatever he decides to do going forward. I am sure that he will do many great and worthy things, so watch out!
Piers appearing in a 2014 Wildscreen Festival film:
Richard Hughes on current work and his journey as a wildlife film-maker coming late to the industry By Jason Peters
4 December 2018
Richard Hughes is a Freelance Wildlife Cameraman and Location Director with four years experience as a CAA commercial drone operator. He has been a member of the site for five years and so we thought we'd ask him a few questions just ahead of his latest film project being broadcast on the BBC.
What do you do?
Currently I work as a wildlife cameraman and location director, as well as guest lecturing at a broadcasting university.
What projects have you worked on in the past few years?
I shot a number of sequences across the ‘Wild Great Britain’ series for Channel 5 with Plimsoll Productions and then went on to work on Steve Backshaw’s Deadly Dinosaurs, BBC Bristol One Show inserts, ‘Meet the Penguins’ for Animal Planet, European Carnivores series for Smithsonian and then made a film about St Mary’s Lighthouse for Springwatch in 2018. It’s been a really busy couple of years.
What was it like changing your career in your mid-thirties?
I did not move into natural history film-making until I was 34. Making a career in this genre was always going to be a huge challenge. There are many very talented people looking for projects, who have more flexibility and more resources than myself.
Being older was problematic, as you can’t really get your foot in the door as a runner or assistant, and work your way up. Time was just not on my side. My idea was to contact Producers once I had built a portfolio of work, and that could come with something unique to offer. Before focusing on Nat History I spent 14 years as an editor, cutting tv documentaries and even features. Bringing this strong sense of what is needed in the edit along and a brain full of technical jargon could be a great asset on location.
As many will know, you don’t get the break if you have not got the experience!
I knew there was no point trying to meet with the people at the top of wildlife filmmaking game without something to offer. From my experience that first meeting is how people remember you from then on so I needed to be careful about who I met with and when.
I did however, and still do, go to as many events, festivals and screening as I could, to get my face known.
My approach; To make high production value films for wildlife / conservation charities, which I did for four years. Over that period, I made over 50 films and had the opportunity to travel to remote locations, work closely with ‘talent’, and film animals. Working voluntarily with the occasional ‘small budget’ makes you extremely innovative and resourceful! At the same time I was also trying to pay a mortgage and support 2 children, that is where the university lecturing came in to help pay the bills.
Making these films was an amazing opportunity to develop my field craft and use both camera and editing skills. As part of my own training I also become an early adopter of camera drones. Over that period I must have made 20 films about bears and as a result someone noted the bear footage on my reel and then I got a paid job filming wild bears.
How did you get you first break?
For me it was about sheer persistence. I am dyslexic and always struggled slightly in verbalising my ideas at meetings with producers. I knew however that if I was given the opportunity to actually do the job I was more than capable and I am in my element on location.
My skills lied in composition, narrative and problems solving. When I added my background as an editor and technical knowledge it becomes quite a useful package in this era of decreasing budgets. I applied for a position as a shooting PD and in my application, I was very clear about where my strengths and weaknesses lied. The series Producer invited me in for an interview at Channel 5. It turned out he was also dyslexic and recognised my skillset and eye for detail. I went on to produce, director and shoot 2 x 1 hours for a presenter lead series.
I have just finished a 3 part BBC series called ‘Secret Life of Farm Animals’ for Oxford Scientific Films. I was DoP as well as location directing whilst the SP was in the edit.
I met with one of the Exec Producers at OSF some six years earlier and kept in contact over that time. I would send them my film ideas for comment and eventually got invited in to edit the OSF reel. Finally, I got that call, and spent 50 days in 2018 filming the ‘Secret Life of Farm Animals’. It was an absolute joy to work on and I really appreciated the opportunity presented by the exec.
It sounds like you have been working in the UK a lot this past year or so?
It is not very often that I get to spend so long in the UK and I am always in awe of the people I meet trying to restore and conserve our fragile landscape. The UK has such a diverse range of environments but it could support more wildlife. There are pockets of amazing species but they is also a lot missing, nature itself feels depleted. Having just filmed a farm series taking me across the UK, it was really interesting to talk to farmers about their responsible farming practice, and hear how they are always looking to improve farmland and hedgerows to increase the wildlife populations.
What is coming up next?
I am currently working on a baby animal series for a Bristol based indie, and in 2019 I am producing my own series which I hope to get distributed later in the year.
I still have ambitions to get into more ‘blue chip’ productions as I want to develop a better understanding of specific animal behaviour. Someone that can only be done by spending a great deal of time with one animal.
I remember a Producer once saying to me they have a folder for editors, a folder for camera people a folder for sound recordists, and so on. With my knowledge of editing, technology, cameras and directing the Producer made another folder called ‘other’, which is where I went. Obviously, they would never look in the ‘other’ box for any of these roles.
You have to work out what it is that you are best at and what you most enjoy doing. Work on these skills and try to meet with Producers whose work you like. Make sure to bring something with you to the meeting, not a reel (although useful) but an idea, access. You might not get work at the beginning but you can start to build a relationship.
People also move on in this industry. You can spend a lot of time developing relationships with a couple of people and then, suddenly, their email bounces back. The phase ‘…eggs in one basket’ comes to mind. Go to events and festivals. Don’t be a pain, come with ideas, be useful, be on hand. I would never mention that I got up at ‘silly o’clock’ to travel from London to Bristol for a ‘coffee’ meeting! Show that you are interested in their work, bring something useful. They will more likely hire someone they know well, or who they have worked with before. I remember a Nat History exec, whom I respect, saying to me ‘why should I give you the keys to my Ferrari?’ and I can see their point. Why should they trust you with their budget?
Excel, be excellent at what you do, be committed and slowly build relationships. It will happen, but it might not be overnight.
Susan Scott - 2017 Rhino film calendar still available - STROOP
By Jason Peters
1 January 2017
Between finishing filming and editing what promises to be the definitive film on the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa, the award winning STROOP filmmakers, Bonné de Bod and Susan Scott announced their 2017 STROOP calendar in December last year and they still have stock available.
We sat down with STROOP's director to find out more about the calendar and of course when the film will be released!
The calendar looks great with images from the crisis throughout but thankfully none of them are graphic, and it looks like each month is themed. Why did you feel you had to go to this effort to put a calendar out there?
Yes, good question! Well, our film is publicly funded. And because of that, both Bonné and I feel all the time that the public needs to be part of the film's progress every step of the way. Which is why we have such a strong social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram where we connect with those that the film belongs to... the public. Obviously when we're filming a bust or an arrest with the rangers in Kruger or we're with the state prosecutors in court, we can't live tweet about that! The absolute last thing we want to do is jeopardize a case or an arrest. But the calendars seemed like a great way to give back to the public... our partner on the printing, Burblepix really came to the party and they lowered the price dramatically so that we could get it out there for a really good price of R199 within South Africa or $19 on international orders… oh and two or more orders are couriered for free on all South African orders. You can't beat that price and the quality is exceptional!
Indeed, some spectacular images, are they all from the film?
Every image is from the filming of STROOP. And while we have filmed some absolutely heartbreaking scenes, I think the biggest thing that has surprised me while filming STROOP for the past two years has been the human element. Wow, we have some amazing people out there doing incredible things. And to be able to document that and show that in a positive way has been a priviledge. And I think we both felt that we had to put out a calendar where its owner through the year is reminded of the terrible plight of our rhinos, but not through graphic images of death, blood and horrendous pain but through seeing the work being done on the ground. The vets are saving so many lives doing groundbreaking treatments and surgeries and that has to be seen, let alone what the rangers, state prosecutors, investigating officers, pilots, rhino owners, activists and so many others are doing. So this is a calendar of hope.
When is the film going to be done and why is it taking so long!?
We are hoping for release mid-2017 and I cannot tell you how frustrating it has been feeling this huge pressure not only from everyone expecting so much from STROOP but of course we feel the pressure to get the film done because of the ongoing death of rhinos. We feel that, we really do... But, there actually have been quite a few documentary films and countless in-depth news reports about the crisis and they largely go unnoticed. Why is that? And a large majority of those working on the ground have told us that it is because a majority of them bounce in for a few days and aren't able to grapple the huge dynamics of the issue. We certainly didn't understand that and we thought we'd film for a few months and be able to document the crisis. Heck no! We had no idea what we were getting into and if we're battling to figure out the issue and get to the bottom of all the backstories, how can we expect the public who owns this film to understand these complexities if we don't unpack it wholly for them. As Bonné always says, "we have one chance to get this right, only one chance and everyone is expecting so much from this film... we have to get it right for the rhinos."
So, a huge aspect of that is the cost. Obviously the longer it has taken us the more it has cost us. As you know, we have sold our houses, moved in with our mothers (!) and poured our investments into STROOP... we could not ask the public to believe in us if we didn't do so first. So an ongoing funding option for us has been pre-ordering digital downloads of the film which is a great idea because instead of buying the film after it is made, one buys the film BEFORE it is made, thereby helping the filmmakers make the film. And while that has been great, we really felt the calendars were a great way to give back and actually some members of the public gave us the idea by asking for some of the images from our social media posts from the field to be put in to a book or a calendar.
Chris Palmer - Author of Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings Are King By Jason Peters
31 March 2015
An interview with member Chris Palmer, author of Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom and a new book, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings Are King.
What inspired you to write this second book, following on from your controversial first book Shooting in the Wild?
The quality of wildlife programming is in decline. In 2010 (when I wrote my first book, Shooting in the Wild) only a handful of shows committed the offenses of animal abuse, audience deception and disinterest in (or harm to) conservation.
Today in 2015 there are dozens of these productions exploiting nature in the pursuit of profits. Something has to be done about it. My new book, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings Are King, is an effort to raise awareness of the problem.
As we enter the sixth major extinction event in the earth’s history, broadcasters like Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, History Channel, and National Geographic should be leading the way in calling attention to humanity’s impact on the planet, not exacerbating the problem. Confessions is an indictment of the networks and a call for them to produce better programming.
Tom Mustill - Director of The Bat Man of Mexico By Jason Peters
13 June 2014
An interview with member, Tom Mustill, the director of The Bat Man of Mexico, a Natural World Special, first showing on BBC Two at 9pm on Friday the 13th of June 2014.
What's the story of your latest film?
It's about a man called Rodrigo Medellin, who is a Mexican conservationist. His great passion is bats, and the film charts the end of his twenty year effort to pull a species called the Lesser Long-Nosed Bat back from extinction, and follows his journey alongside the bats on their migration, which takes them 1500 miles across Mexico from giant underground volcanoes to desert islands. What's rather special about the film is that it is a pretty audacious success story - Rodrigo and his team have brought the bats back from a very precarious level, and now their populations are thriving.
Steven, you are originally from the UK, when did you move to Asia and what prompted the move?
I moved to Hong Kong 5 years ago, there were a number of factors that lead to this decision but primarily it came down to life style. I love Asia and have spent over ten years exploring, working and experiencing as much as Asia as possible – from the Jungles of Papua New Guinea to the Deserts of China and Mongolia to the foot hills of Tibet and India – My personal adventures and remote location production logistics work have and continue to take me across this amazing continent, so moving to Asia was always on the cards.
I grew up in the Orkney Islands and have always been interested in wildlife. I started recording the things I was seeing and bought my first camera from Boots when I was eight years old! Everything was hopelessly far away and out of focus but I had great fun trying. I studied Biology at University but went freelance as a photographer in Aberdeen straight after graduating. I had fairly basic kit but worked hard and was later offered a post at a big regional newspaper where I covered national stories and sporting events.
During this time I started filming wildlife in my own time with my ultimate goal to become a wildlife cameraman. I love both disciplines and they share common themes e.g. I compose the pictures as I would stills but with film you are always thinking about the next shot as essentially no matter how short your film is you are telling a story.
Making short films like those for the BWPA Wildlife in HD award where it is limited to 90 seconds is a great way to learn to be more succinct. This can be difficult, but you have to be ruthless!
Winning this award is a fantastic way to raise your profile. I have always just tried to focus on my own career and work hard but in reality there are an awful lot of people out there trying to get into wildlife film making. So awards like this help in terms of exposing your work to a massive audience and getting your name out there.
Into The Wild loves to speak to people with inspiring and envy-inducing jobs linked to wildlife or travel. As a filmmaker for the BBC Natural History Unit, Elizabeth White certainly fits the bill. Having worked on the incredible Frozen Planet, we thought it would be nice to speak to her and ask her all about it...
When did you first become interested in animals and photography?
I have always been interested in animals - I was an avid rock-pooler as a kid and loved summers holidays for it! I did a lot of art growing up and studied art at A-level. I remember having a 'happy snap' camera in my teens, but my first proper camera was a 21st birthday present. I signed up to a City & Guilds course at the same time and never looked back - I really love the way a picture can tell a story, capture a moment or bring back memories in an instant.
How did this lead you to the BBC?
I studied zoology at Bristol University and joined the SCUBA diving club where I first learned to dive. Friends in the club new people who worked for the BBC Natural History Unit...
Cameraman Doug Allan has provided some of the most remarkable wildlife and natural history footage to have appeared on our screens, including many of the unforgettable sequences seen in hugely popular series' such as The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Life, Human Planet, and Frozen Planet. We ask Doug about his amazing career, from his favourite wildlife encounter to what it takes to be a cameraman. A truly fascinating interview well worth a read...
You graduated with honours in marine biology. How did you end up becoming a cameraman?
My first passion was diving, which I started at school. That led to a marine biology degree, but on graduating in 1973 I decided I didn’t want to be in what I termed ‘science at the sharp end’ so I cut loose and simply looked for excuses to dive. Two years later I read an article in a fdive mag written by someone who’d just been a scientific diver in the Antarctic. I applied to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and in 1976 was heading south to one of their research bases on a year’s contract as Diver. Best move I ever made. The job involved some stills photography, over the course of several more winters with them I took up movie, sold some to the BBC for s series on birds, realised that full time wildlife filming encapsulated so much of what turned me on so slipped away from BAS and onto the open seas of being a freelance cameraman.
Sophie Vartan on her exit from NHU Africa, plus ventures old and new! By Jason Peters
Sophie Vartan has founded several successful initiatives, including NHU Africa, the Wildlife Film Academy & Wild Talk Africa. She executive produced over 150 hours of wildlife programming before leaving the NHU Africa family at the start of this year, citing a wish to take some time out and then move on to pastures new... This has actually meant re-launching her old production company, DewClaw Productions, but with a fresh outlook and a new take on a film school...
It was exactly the right time for me to leave NHU Africa. I had been the CEO of NHU Africa since its inception in 2007 and I believe it is never good to stagnate in the same job for too long. Of course it is wonderful to see your ideas become fully-fledged and sustainable in their own right as it means you have done something right. I guess similar to when your children grow up and leave home... if they are independent and don’t need you anymore, then you have been a successful parent! The teams at NHU Africa, Wild Talk Africa and Wildlife Film Academy had been with me for a very long time, most of them back in the DewClaw days, so I know they were more than capable to carry on with the good work. I have a lot of new ideas that I would like to see through which would have never worked under the NHU Africa banner so I was excited to move on to pursue those. Change is often a very good thing!
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