Producer from Untamed Americas Shares Wildlife Filmmaking Tips

“As a filmmaker I’ve been from one end of the earth to the other trying to get the perfect shot and trying to capture animal behavior never seen before.”—Karen Bass, Untamed Americas Series Producer

Untamed Americas, a four-hour high-definition miniseries event explores the Americas like we’ve never seen them before, giving us an intimate look at some of the greatest wildlife spectacles and against-the-odds fights for survival ever captured on camera. It airs Monday 17 September at 8:00PM on NatGeo UK Channel. To celebrate the premiere in the UK, the series producer, Karen Bass shares some of her tips for wildlife filmmaking.

1. Production Planning Process
When we first begin research on a series, we look for new, exciting, fresh stories that haven’t been captured before on film. This involves meeting and talking with scientists, locals, and National Park rangers. When we’ve decided upon the stories we want to cover, we begin scheduling crews so they are deployed in the right place, and at the right time. This master filming schedule maps our plans for the coming seasons.  Before traveling into the field, we also work on the editorial content—the story and the visuals we hope to capture—which determines the type of equipment that we will need to bring. As well as preparing all these equipment logistics, we do a risk assessment for the crew of all our activities for the series.  Some of the places we work are very remote, and some of the things we do could be dangerous if we didn’t prepare for them properly. We want to return with great footage, and with everyone home safe.

2. Your Team/The Crew
The first person you need is your cameraman, who should be an expert in wildlife photography. Ideally this person would have spent months and months filming the particular species you need to capture. If not, then you need to partner them up with a scientist or local expert.

We also sometimes need production staff to perform extra duties. These days with file based data it’s often necessary to have someone backing up the material onto drives. Downloading organizing and assessing the media every night from the cameras to different storage drives is an essential task.

If it’s a complex shoot with specialist equipment then we will need more people. For example if aerials are involved, or remote cameras. Recording specialist sound and taking stills are some of additional aspects of filed shoots.

3. Capturing the Action
Despite all the modern technology we have now, being in the right place at the right time requires patience, and sometimes ingenuity.  While filming in Punta San Juan, Peru, we needed a solution to get through half a million nesting sea birds to film the sea lions beyond them on the beach. We didn’t want to disturb the birds or cause any of their nests to be destroyed, so we created a wooden box to conceal ourselves. This is an example of good, old-fashioned craftiness that we often rely on in the field.

4. Ambient Sounds
When sound recording, make sure you capture the audio from all different times of day. Sounds are completely different in the morning versus dusk. We try and capture audio every two to three hours in key locations. You’d be amazed at how different frog calls are at different times of day.

5. Camera Equipment
Again it depends on the shot that you are trying to take. We used variouscamerasequipment, and techniques to get some of the shots in Untamed Americas:

When filming the volcanoes of Nicaragua, we were in a helicopter, using a gyro stabilized camera. It’s wonderful because it’s like having a flying dolly, tripod, and crane all rolled into one!

Slow Motion
Slow motion cameras can capture fast moving animals. For example, to film the tube-lipped nectar bat we cut a tiny little hole in the bottom of the flower and used a camera that could slow the action down from 40 times to 1000 frames per second. You could not see this detail any other way.

This speeds up the action and is a great way to show landscapes changing through the day in just one shot. We used this technique to film the stars in the high Andes of South America. At 15,000 feet—because the atmosphere is so thin—these are some of the most stunning star lapses I have ever seen. You can see the heavens moving across the sky.

See the stars from the Andes:

6. What to Wear
I recommend green and khaki colors, try to be as camouflaged as possible. In Africa, I learned that the Tsetse fly is attracted to blue, so I never wear blue there. In the evenings, I  wear long sleeves and pants to prevent mosquito bites. If you are going to Patagonia, then you need lots of layers. They will help you respond to different conditions that can change quickly. Also make sure to bring waterproof clothing, good walking shoes,(I always bring my favorite hiking boots.)and socks that won’t give you blisters.

7. Packing Essential

These are just a few things I make sure to include in my suitcase when I am leaving for a big shoot.

  • My camera
  • A notepad and several pens (I keep a diary.)
  • Sunglasses
  • A map (I like to know where I am, and where I am going.)
  • A rubber doorstop. Fro additional security in certain places a door stop can prevent someone from coming into your room.
  • Money belt/travel wallet for cash and documents like passports.
  • First aid kit
  • Insect repellent is a MUST.
  • Satellite phone when filming
  • A hat

Most importantly keep in mind that whatever you think your plan is—be prepared for it to change


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.