Wildlife Filmmaking [Everything You Need To Know]

Wildlife filmmaking
Wildlife filmmaking

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Wildlife filmmaking is a great career for anyone interested in nature. So, if you love animals, the outdoors, and wildlife documentaries then this might be the perfect job for you.

However, it’s worth keeping in mind that this work does come with a few challenges. Such as that wildlife filmmakers are always going to be freelance so work can be hard to find.

The role is also physically demanding and requires strong teamwork. After all, you might have to carry equipment up a mountain and live in a shared tent without a shower for several months.

So, if you’re fine with being uncomfortable, working long hours, and chasing work, then read on. This article looks at how to start a career as a wildlife filmmaker including advice on job roles, education, work experience, and salary.

What is Wildlife Filmmaking?

wildlife cinematographer filming elephants

Wildlife filmmaking is any film that focuses on animals or natural history. Like any other film project, when you make a documentary, you start with research before you shoot and edit.

First is pre-production, during this stage, the producer pitches ideas for funding. If they get the go-ahead, they will hire a director and DOP. They might also hire a fixer during this stage who is a local expert with good knowledge and who can help solve problems. For example, they will speak the local language and gather film permits. 

In production, the producer, director, and camera team will shoot the film. This process is typically very long in wildlife filmmaking. It can take months to get a shot and years to gather the footage. So, patience is a good skill when working on a documentary

Lastly, post-production is where the editor and their assistants edit the footage. Some documentaries hire narrators, while others have presenters or use a fly-on-the-wall approach. So, as you can see, documentary filmmaking is a creative and collaborative process.

What To Expect as a Wildlife Filmmaker

Underwater filming scuba diving

Wildlife filmmakers witness some of the most interesting and exciting natural events. However, there are some downsides to this dream job role that might not suit everyone. 

First, the work itself is hard to find. Producers hire experienced filmmakers before newcomers, so it will take many years to build up a portfolio and gain trust.

As well as the competition, you have to work very closely with team members. There is no guarantee that you will know or get along well with your team. As such, strong teamwork skills are important.

Regardless of your job role, you must learn to use certain equipment and cameras. Wildlife filmmaking requires working in various locations, from jungles to deserts, so it’s helpful to know what equipment is best for each job. 

Both men and women make great wildlife documentary filmmakers but what’s important is that you love natural history. Also, you will need the strength to carry equipment, work with little sleep, and do so for long periods. It can also help to build up practical skills such as:

  • Knowledge of animals & nature
  • Knowledge of camera equipment 
  • Physical health and strength 
  • Strong teamwork skills 
  • Drivers license
  • Outdoors expertise

Education and Work Experience

You don’t need a course to be a wildlife filmmaker, but it can help. First, consider taking a degree in zoology or animal conservation.

In addition, you can take a practical film production course. We have a section on education where you can find a list of some of the top film schools. Obviously, a course won’t guarantee work, but it will create a strong start to your career. 

Most importantly, you need to build up a portfolio of work experience and skills. To stand out, you will need to show that you have practical filmmaking skills and experience working outside. So, build up your work experience on film sets and take part in activities such as wildlife photography, team sports, hiking, and traveling.

You can also get experience by helping out with film projects of any type. It’s important to understand the whole filmmaking process from script to screen. The entry-level film jobs in filmmaking are runner, production assistant, and trainee. Then, after gaining entry-level work experience, you can choose a documentary job role.  

In addition, you can make a short wildlife documentary. You can add your short films to your online portfolio and even enter them into film festivals (this all helps add to your resume).

Here are a few helpful resources for wildlife filmmakers:

US 🇺🇸UK 🇬🇧
World Wild LifeScreenSkills
National GeographicWildscreen Network
American UniversityBBC Natural History unit
Wildlife Film networkFilmmakers For Future

Career Progression

Wildlife documentary camera operator

When you have work experience, you can start to find work in wildlife filmmaking. First, keep an eye out for documentary jobs. Also, film companies will advertise work on their career websites. 

It will become easier to find regular paid work after you have a few wildlife documentary work credits. Producers, directors, and camera operators all love to work with the same people. So, it might take a few years to make those first contacts but they will hire you again and again. 

When you have more experience, you can then advance from one role to another. For example, there is a clear route from camera assistant to camera operator and DOP. Likewise, producer and director roles often cross over in wildlife filmmaking. Researcher to producer is also a good route. 

Finally, it isn’t easy to have a career in wildlife. So as mentioned before you can also work on other types of film and TV productions. Your work can cross over to all documentary, unscripted, and scripted films.

Salary Expectations

Your crew rates depend on various factors, such as your experience and the project budget. Plus, after five years of experience, you’re in a much stronger position to negotiate. You can also charge an additional fee if you provide equipment for the shoot. Below, we have examples of rates for both US and UK filmmakers. 

US 🇺🇸

In the US, your wage will depend on your union. Every film union and guild will have recommendations for wages, so the rates will vary greatly. However, the rates below are examples from the IATSE rate sheet, key roles are subject to negotiation. 

Job RoleDay Rate (10 hours)
Production Assistant$170
Production Coordinator$433
Production Manager$430
Assistant Producer$550
IATSE Rate Sheet 2023 Low Budget, Key * = Negotiable

UK 🇬🇧

If you’re in the UK, then the BECTU and IAWF will help guide you on working rates. The IAWF recommends that filmmakers charge a full day’s wage for all travel days because wildlife filmmaking is more physically demanding than other film work.

Job RoleWeekly Rate (0-5 years experience)
Runner£11.40 per hour
Production Coordinator£670-995
Production Manager£860-1185
Assistant Producer£800-1125
BECTU 2022-2023 Rates for Unscripted Crew

Wrapping Up

To sum up, if you love animals and natural history, then you should consider a career in wildlife filmmaking. There’s no doubt it’s a tough job and nothing like your typical 9-5.

If you can handle the long workdays and living outside, this is a very rewarding career. Also, the skills you learn can transfer to many other film and TV job roles.

Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
Amy is a content writer at the Video Collective. She is a former script supervisor and writes about careers in the film industry. Follow her on Facebook.
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