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Wildlife filmmaking career guide

Wildlife Filmmaking [Essential Career Guide]

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Wildlife filmmaking is a great career for anyone interested in natural history. So, if you love animals, the outdoors, wildlife documentaries and filmmaking 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 can also be physically demanding and require 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 OK 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 cinematography filming elephants

A wildlife documentary is when you make a film that focuses on animals or natural history. When making a documentary, you follow the basic three stage filmmaking process.

First is pre-production, this is when a producer pitches ideas to production companies. If they get the go ahead they will then hire a director and DOP. They might also hire a fixer during wildlife documentary pre-production. This is the term for a local expert who can help solve problems. For example, they will speak the local language and gather film permits. 

During production, the producer, director and camera team will shoot the film. This process can be very long in wildlife filmmaking. Sometimes it takes months to get a shot and years to gather all of the footage. So, patience is a good skill if you want to work within the camera team.

Lastly, post-production is where the editor and their assistants will edit the film. Depending on the type of documentary, you might also need a narrator.

Key Job roles in wildlife filmmaking:

ProducerDirectorResearchers
Camera team EditorRunners

What To Expect as a Wildlife Filmmaker 

Underwater filming scuba diving

Wildlife filmmakers get to 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 will need to 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 
✔ Driving 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. Such as this one at NFTS Film School or Bristol’s MA in wildlife filmmaking. 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 travelling.

You can also get experience by helping out on film productions of any type. It’s important to understand the whole filmmaking process from script to screen. The entry-level 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 your own 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 CV).

Here are a few helpful resources for wildlife filmmakers:

Career Progression

Wildlife documentary camera operator

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

It will become easier to find consistent 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. Also, 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

If you’re a freelance filmmaker in the UK, BECTU will help guide you on working rates. In addition to this, the IAWF (International Association of Wildlife Filmmakers) has also approved the following terms. 

The IAWF recommends that filmmakers charge a full day’s wage (as well as the working rates below) for all travel days on location. This is because, in wildlife filmmaking, travel is a lot more physically demanding. 

Job RoleWeekly Rate (0-5 years experience)
Runner£11.40 per hour
Researcher£605 – £930
Production Coordinator£670 – £995
Production Manager£860 – £1185
Assistant Producer£800 – £1125
Producer£1140 – £1465
Producer/Director£1380 – £1715
Series Producer£1760 – £2085
BECTU 2022 Rates for Unscripted Crew

As with all production crew rates, you can raise your wage every year you work. When you have over 5 years of experience, you’re in a much stronger position to negotiate rates. Also, if you provide equipment for the shoot you can also charge an additional fee. 

Wrapping Up – Wildlife Filmmaking

In short, 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.

However, if you can handle the long workdays and living outside, this can be a very rewarding career. Also, the skills you learn can transfer to other film and TV work. 

So, does a career in wildlife documentaries sound like a good fit for you? Weigh up those pros/cons and if you have any questions then let us know in the comments section below.

Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
I blog about Careers in the Film Industry. Former Script Supervisor.
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