A career in wildlife filmmaking

Last week’s Café Scientique speaker may well have directed students’ thoughts to the possibility of a ‘wild’ career, as one audience member explains…

Fergus Beeley is a nature documentary producer who, for many years, worked in the BBC’s Natural History Unit. After studying anthropology at Durham University, he took a gap year in Australia, where he worked closely with a native tribe. Upon returning to the UK, he applied for a job at the BBC but failed to get in. However, a year later, after much perseverance, he finally got a position as an assistant. 

 Mr Beeley’s first project was Stoats in the Priory, in which he put his boyhood experience of nature to great use, being able track the elusive stoats through the reactions of other animals – particularly moorhens. He explained that moorhens have three different calls – contentment, warning, and attack – and, by listening to them, he could tell where the stoats would be, or if they were around at all. This knowledge impressed Sir David Attenborough, who was the programme’s narrator. As a result, Mr Beeley was invited to join Attenborough on The Life of Birds, after which the two continued to work together on many other acclaimed series, including Natural World and Planet Earth: The Future.

 Mr Beeley explained to us how such projects come to fruition, and what the different members of a production team do.  An important part of being a producer is being able to communicate your ideas of how shots should look. The easiest way for him to do this is through drawings – and he showed us some of his drawings of the talons of a harpy eagle. The cameramen can then work out where to position themselves to capture these images and which lenses to use. Wildlife cameramen are a very important part of the team, spending hours waiting patiently in hides and in unusual places, such as up trees. They have to work very closely with producers to communicate what sorts of shots they are getting and how long they feel they should stay in order to get what is needed.

 Mr Beeley also told us that in order to be a great producer, you have to take risks, adapt and “read the reality on the ground,” as things rarely go to plan. For example, the documentary White Falcon, White Wolf had been presented to the commissioning editors as a story about newborn white wolf cubs.  However, whilst on location, the team discovered that the female wolf had not given birth to any cubs that year. So they continued to film, but changed the focus of the story from new cubs to the cub born the previous year, which now had a better chance of survival as its mother didn’t have a new litter to take care of.  Each project creates its own special memories and Mr Beeley said that, from this particular trip, the most memorable moment was when one of the she-wolves became playful, grabbed his jacket from the ground and ran off with it.

During Mr Beeley’s time at the BBC, the organization conducted a survey about what makes top filmmakers stand out above the rest. They found out that, above and beyond academic qualifications, creativity and artistic skills are required, to enable them to think outside of the box. These skills are very important to a producer as it is a creative science.  Mr Beeley said that he no longer thinks in words whilst producing, but in images, which enables him to enhance his projects.

 Times are changing though, and Mr Beeley told us that, although when he began his career most members of a film crew were male, today 60 percent of people who work in the BBC’s Natural History Unit are female – as were several key producers of Blue Planet II, which many of us are enjoying at the moment.  And he finished by saying to us that changing technology is making filmmaking more and more accessible, through applications such as iMovie, so why not have a go.

Katie, Upper Sixth

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