I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love a great film. At one time or another, I’d wager that just about everyone has fantasized about playing a starring role in a blockbuster movie. While the odds of that actually occurring are pretty slim, advances in technology have made it possible for you to star in a film of your own making and do so for a cause that is, in my opinion, much more worthwhile than the pursuit of fame or fortune.
Like many of you who are reading this, there was a time when I fell into the category of someone who “doesn’t have time to learn how to shoot and edit video.” Truth be told, I was really comfortable living in my still photography bubble and feeling insecure about putting myself out there all over again. I might not have been the best photographer on earth, but I was comfortable within that space. Shooting video felt like, well, starting over.
However, my curiosity began to pique around 2010 when I watched a short video produced by my friend and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Sandesh Kadur, which documented an expedition that he and colleagues undertook to northeastern India’s Talle Valley. Sandesh has gone on to contribute to a lot of great documentaries over the years, but what impressed me so much about this piece at the time was that it not only showcased interesting wildlife but also gave a real look at what goes on behind the scenes of an expedition, and it did so in a way that was both beautiful and humorous. And it was self-produced on a very low budget! Soon other colleagues began to experiment on projects of their own, and I knew that it wouldn’t be long before I would also take the plunge.
I’m going guide you through the development process for a film that I co-produced in 2016 called “Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee” and some of the most important lessons that I learned during production. This process allowed my team and I to transform a simple idea into an award-winning film that may have been just the right catalyst to make life better for one beautiful little bee in need of some serious help.
Don’t Fear The Learning Curve
Your first baby steps into videography may seem like that fabled walk to school that your parents love to talk about: uphill, both ways, in the snow, without shoes, with a smattering of roadside bandits. Initially, the terminology alone may be very confusing. Take a deep breath and think back to the early days of your photographic pursuits, when the mere mention of apertures and shutter speeds sent shivers down your spine. Isn’t it a breeze today? With patience, the same will happen with videography, too.
There are already a lot of great online resources that cover the basics of shooting video, so I don’t want to rehash that here. One of my favorite sites for beginners is Vimeo’s Video School, which gives a great primer on everything from DSLR shooting tips to screenwriting. However, a few concepts that you might want to look into first if you’re just getting started are frame rate versus shutter speed, image resolution, lighting for interviews and how to frame a shot for video.
Boy Meets Bee
In 2014 I launched a project with the goal of documenting and telling the life-stories of many of North America’s native bees. North America is home to nearly 4,000 species of native bees, and many of those species have never been studied or photographed in detail.
As a conservation photographer who often focuses on smaller, underappreciated wildlife, this project had immediate appeal, but first I needed to get my eyes on as many native bees as possible, so in the summer of 2014 I paid a visit the insect collection at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I arrived at GSMNP’s Twin Creeks Science and Education Center on a Saturday morning in July with one thing on my mind: bright, sparkly sweat bees with a metallic green sheen. However, while I was photographing the species that I’d come to see, Becky Nichols, the park entomologist, showed me a few faded specimens of a bee that I had never heard of before. It was called the rusty-patched bumble bee, and it hadn’t been seen in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since 2003. Range-wide, it had disappeared from 87 percent of its historic habitat.
In that moment, I decided that I had to see a living, breathing rusty-patched bumble bee in the wild for myself. I believed that if I could publicly share my search for the bee, and illustrate what we stood to lose if it disappeared, then maybe I would actually make a worthwhile contribution in the fight to save it from the grip of extinction. I was convinced that a film would be the best way to tell the its story, so I reached out to my friend, filmmaker Neil Losin of Day’s Edge Productions, and the process was on its way.
Planning It All Out
Producing a film doesn’t have to be very expensive, and by Hollywood standards nothing that I’ve ever worked on has been very pricey. However, the travel fees, additional equipment rental and other logistical requirements will add up quickly. In other words, trust me: You’re going to want some funding for a project of this scope!
There are a lot of different ways to raise funds to produce a film. You can pay for it out of your own pocket, raise money via an online platform such as Kickstarter or go the traditional route of seeking out sponsors who are willing to support your project. In my conservation-focused career, I always strive to work with partner organizations because I’ve realized that if I have the backing of organizations that also believe in my cause, then the chances of a project’s success increases exponentially. Your partner organization will share your film widely within its networks, and its supporters will likely pay closer attention because it has been brought to them by a source they already trust.
Carefully selecting the right partner before you begin the pitch project is important, so do your homework. Has the organization supported films in the past? Does it have a cause that needs more coverage in the media? These are important questions to ask. In addition, the larger the organization, the more likely it will be that its staff is regularly approached with concepts for various projects. In other words, the easier it will be for your pitch to get rejected. While it doesn’t hurt to dream big, I often prefer to work with smaller to mid-sized organizations that will be excited about working with me, because chances are, they don’t receive film proposals every day. Although you may not gain as much financial support on this route, I find the process of working with a small, dedicated non-profit to be very satisfying, and it is often easier to see the impact of your work in the end.
Preparing For The Shoot
Any shoot, if done well, requires a lot of preparation. While unexpected variables will always arise, your goal should be to eliminate as many pitfalls ahead of time as possible. When you’re producing a natural history film, the planning stage becomes even more granular in its focus due to the unpredictability of your subject matter. “Ghost in the Making” would document my journey across five states where I’d come face-to-face with the rusty-patched bumble bee in the wild and connect with leading scientists. And, of course, even if everything else worked out, if we failed to successfully film the rusty-patched bumble—a small, super-rare species—we wouldn’t have much of a film. No pressure at all!
Our view crew consisted of three videographers—Neil, Morgan Heim (both from Day’s Edge Productions), and myself, when I was not in front of the camera. At a minimum, I’d recommend at least two shooters for any serious production. This isn’t a necessity, of course, but it means that you’ll have someone there to film a wide-angle view of a scene, while someone else focuses on a detailed shot. Also, another really important reason to have two cameras is because, well, even on the most professional shoot memory cards corrupt, footage is accidentally erased, a camera operator might miss a very rare behavior, and sometimes one might even forget to press record.
Lights, Cameras & Bumble Bee Wings
In my opinion, there are three key components to any great film: a well-thought-out storyline, beautiful lighting and cleanly recorded audio. When you’re working on a film about an insect, you better get all three right since you’re already covering a subject that some people instinctually find a little creepy. You’re going to need all of the help you can get.
Do yourself a huge favor and plan out your key story points and shot list well in advance. When you skip this step, you run the risk of getting lost in the process of documenting a behavior that is really cool but a minor footnote in the arc of the entire film. Continuously remind yourself that the story is king. It’s also really important to build in some cushion in your shooting schedule in case the weather or your subjects don’t cooperate. Any extra time that’s left over can be used to capture more B-roll (supporting footage), which will definitely come in handy when you’re editing.
As with photography, lighting in video is everything. In some ways, video can be more forgiving than a still photo when it comes to lighting because your subject is animated. Always make your best effort to ensure that the lighting is impeccable, no matter what you’re filming. Granted, you certainly wouldn’t miss a filming opportunity just because the lighting isn’t perfect. Sometimes lighting conditions that aren’t great still produce useable results.
Sound is the final key ingredient that can make or break a film. If you have beautiful footage but terrible audio, your viewer may lose interest. Great audio binds all of the elements into one package, completing the seduction. If your characters are difficult to hear or if there is distracting background noise such as too much wind or passing cars, the spell will be broken, and your viewer will be taken out of the moment.
While some people record sound directly into the camera, I prefer to use a relatively inexpensive device called a field recorder to capture the main sound that will be used in my film. This is in addition to what’s known as a “scratch track” on the camera. The scratch track serves a very valuable purpose: It allows you to seamlessly sync the sound from your separately recorded audio track with your footage. Editing programs such as Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro can do this automatically, but I’d highly recommend a third-party program such as Red Giant’s PluralEyes to handle this before you get into the editing process.
Slice & Dice
While it feels great to wrap up a shoot, the celebration doesn’t last for long. You then have to make sense of all of the hours of material you’ve produced. The entire filming process for “Ghost in the Making” lasted approximately three weeks. The next and most arduous step—the editing process—would fall on Neil’s shoulders.
After carefully reviewing and organizing all of the footage, Neil put together what is known as a “radio edit.” This is a step that revolutionized my own editing workflow. A radio edit is a cut of the film that is only comprised of the film’s narrative clips. By taking the time to carefully edit down your interviews and any connecting voice overs, you will build a firm foundation for your film. Once you have a solid narration in place, the fun really begins. This is the point where you overlay your beautiful and intriguing footage of scenery, action, B-roll and music. Suddenly the film that has been running in your mind for months materializes in the real world. It is an immensely satisfying experience. The entire editing process for “Ghost in the Making” took approximately two months.
Putting Your Film To Work
All films have a purpose, whether that is to entertain, provoke conversation or initiate an important action. The mission of “Ghost in the Making” was to increase public awareness of the plight of the rusty-patched bumble bee, rally support for its protection, and ultimately convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide protection for the species under the Endangered Species Act. In hopes of reaching these goals, we followed some important steps.
First, we developed a website just for the film. While this might seem like an unnecessary step, a site that has been built specifically to bring attention to a film and its related cause works really well. When a visitor arrives at the site, there is no confusion about where to go, and once they watch the film, you can easily prompt them to take action.
Next we arranged as many high-profile talks and presentations as possible. I spoke at several venues across throughout the bee’s historic range, including a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present the film and speak on behalf of the rusty-patched bumble bee on Capitol Hill.
The third key thing that we developed in partnership with The Xerces Society was an online petition on Change.org that allowed people to voice their support for listing the species under the Endangered Species Act. By the time the petition was ready to submit, we delivered an amazing 180,000 signatures of support to the USFWS.
Incredibly, in September 2016, the agency recommended the rusty-patched bumble bee for protection under ESA. Once the listing is finalized, this will be the first federally protected native North American bee. Without a doubt, this has been the highlight of my career so far.
While producing a film can be very time-consuming, difficult work, in the end it can be incredibly rewarding. Don’t be discouraged by all of the initial technical hurdles. If I can do this, so can you!