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Spring 2014 Update: A New Idea for a New Year

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I know it’s been a while since I posted anything on here, and that’s partly due to me not having anything worthwhile to post and partly due to my own laziness. But, I have decided to make a conscious effort to change my ways and become a much more regular blogger so be ready for much more frequent updates (I’m planning to at least do one every week from now on) on what I’m doing in order to begin a career in natural history film-making.

Since my last post from China, the one thing worth mentioning that I did do to contribute to my career is that I did sort of try and make a film. I say “sort of”, because I didn’t actually get around to filming, but that wasn’t really my fault. I’ll explain. While I was training Kung Fu, I came to learn that a lot of the different moves, particularly in the more traditional styles, have names that are more often than not related to specific animal behaviours. While performing “chicken stands on one leg” and “the tiger flicks its tail” I thought about the specific animal styles of Kung Fu that are fairly well known in contemporary Western culture, having been popularised by films such as Kung Fu Panda. What was it that the old masters created the styles from? Was it observation of genuine agressive behaviours in animals that inspired these styles? Or did they create styles based on symbolism and personification of the animals?

And so I set about researching some of the animal styles and comparing them to the way the real animals fight, which is the premise for my idea. I discovered that some of the styles – for example Praying Mantis – copied the body mechanics of their natural counterparts, whereas others appear more to capture the “spirit” of the animal, for example the fierceness of the Tiger. I decided that my film should be presenter-led, and should include interviews with masters about their styles, performances of those styles, as well as footage of the animals themselves fighting – perhaps even showing some if this footage to the masters and asking them to talk about which elements of what they see are reflected in the Kung Fu.

While researching which animals were available to me I was told that Praying Mantis come out around September in Fujian province. Having just started to learn some Praying Mantis style myself, I thought this would be the perfect place to start – I would have access to the expert as well as the animal, so filming should be relatively straightforward. Unfortunately, due to some unforeseen circumstances, both of my current teachers at the school left in early September before I had seen any real Praying Mantises. And if that wasn’t enough, I had some visa troubles which meant that I couldn’t stay in China long after anyway. I took it as a sign, so after months of hard training I decided I had earnt a holiday and went to volunteer with the Giant Pandas in Bifengxia, near Chengdu, Sichuan province (see Photos page).

Anyway, although I had to leave the idea is still there, so hopefully one day I’ll go back to China and see the idea through. In the meantime, I have something else to focus on: on 25th April I have an interview for a place at UWE to study for a Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking, which if I manage to secure a place would be an incredible opportunity. Run in partnership with the BBC NHU in Bristol, the degree should not only equip me with the skills I need to make my own film, but also provide me with a few networking opportunities and allow me to slip a few CVs on a few people’s desks! Right, I’m off to do some more preparation for my interview. Heres a short video from UWE about the course and the wildlife filmmaking industry…

Bring Sally Up Pushup Challenge

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Ok, so I havn’t managed to film any wildlife in China yet… BUT, I did film and edit this video for the martial arts school where I’m training (www.RisingDragonSchool.com)

Wildscreen Festival 2012

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So it’s been 8 months since last October when I attended Wildscreen Festival in Bristol, with friend and fellow aspiring wildlife film-maker Nick Barrington Haynes, and I have been pretty slow in writing about it, but to be fair I have been pretty busy training Kung Fu in China. Anyway, I’ve now found some time so here is my (belated) experience of Wildscreen…

The festival is based around the Wildscreen Panda Awards (some of the most prestigious awards in the industry) and lasted from Sunday 14th up until the Awards ceremony on Thursday 18th October. The week was filled with talks from a variety of speakers, both those within natural history film-making as well as some incredible human beings from other related walks of life, including the inspirational conservationist Jane Goodall and the great explorer Ranulph Fiennes. Apart from being a wonderful opportunity to listen – awe-inspired – to people who have really succeeded in their respective fields, these lectures were an invaluable opportunity for aspiring film-makers like myself to listen to advice, ask questions, and gain an insight into the future of the industry that I will hopefully be spending my life working in.

One lecture in particular that I found particularly relevant was titled “Producing with Asia”, given by managing director Liu Wen of CCTV 9 (China’s documentary channel); executive producer of NHK (Japan’s main broadcasting corporation) Shin Murata; and Pierre Cheung, general manager of BBC Worldwide China. Although quite a lot of the session came across as a business presentation rather than a lecture, some of the figures were staggering: it appears from the impressive charts displayed by the speakers that the market for natural history programmes on Asian TV channels is growing rapidly. In China there are 400 million recorded TV sets compared to 30.5 million in the UK, and (according to Pierre Cheung) the first episode of Frozen Planet was watched by over 20 million viewers in China, compared to a mere 7.9 million back home.

As well as talks at the festival there were also workshops, for those who were willing to pay a little extra for some more personal and job specific advice on what to do to get into the industry. I chose 2 of these (which would have been 3 if the underwater filming workshop hadn’t sold out so quickly), the first of which was entitled “What Makes a Great Researcher in Natural History TV?”. This was given by Gemma Greene and Jasper Montana, researchers who have both worked for the BBC on, among other notable documentaries, the Secrets of our Living Planet series presented by Chris Packham. This I found particularly interesting, as I’d remembered watching a particular episode on grassland ecology (which described an interwoven web of symbioses all based on the lack of nitrogen in a grassland habitat) thinking “I wonder how they found (and researched) such a great story”. As it turned out, Jasper Montana was the researcher who conceived the story for that episode, and so the workshop provided me with a fascinating insight into the stages of researching such a complex natural plot, from being told the series premise, to contacting scientists, developing ideas from relevant research findings, to putting together the whole story. The workshop really got me thinking about how I can apply my own knowledge of animal behaviour to create stories of my own, and I already have a few ideas that I hope to develop while here in China.

The other workshop that I attended was “Wanna Be a Presenter? Wildscreen’s Got Talent Competition!”. I didn’t really know what to expect of this session, and actually as it got closer I got quite nervous. There were 16 delegates signed up to the workshop, which we were told would be the first round of “Wildscreen’s Got Talent”: a presenting competition resulting in a winner who would be awarded a screen test with Tigress Productions. The first round would involve selling ourselves to a camera for 60 seconds, and then the final 8 would compete in a live show that – rumour had it – would involve live animals. The workshop was run by 4 presenters: TV veterinarian Steve Leonard, Great Barrier Reef presenter Monty Halls, Coast presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff and cameraman-turned-presenter Richard Terry, and after watching their showreels and getting some general advice on presenting, we split into groups of 4 for some personal tutelage. My tutor was Miranda Krestovnikoff, and she started with asking me a bit about myself. When I told her I was about to go to China for a year to learn Kung Fu, she told me to use that as a unique selling point (something which I found surprising as I didn’t think it was entirely relevant to wildlife presenting), as well as telling all of us to be ourselves as presenting is all about letting the audience see your emotions in order to experience what you yourself are experiencing. Even with this advice I felt quite daunted by being probably one of the youngest there – as well as one of the few it seemed who didn’t already have presenting experience in one form or another – and so I tried to treat the experience as more about the learning than the competition. As I expected I didn’t get through to the live final, but I did get a lot of good advice about presenting skills, so I’ll have lots to practice until next time. Both Steve Leonard and Jo Sarsby (talent agent) said that if we wanted to send them showreels to look over, they would be happy to go through them and give us some feedback, so all in all the workshop was well worth it.

The evenings were taken up by screenings and entertainment for delegates, with a range of events from a screening of the latest Disney Nature film Chimpanzee, to a party night at Oceana, and for those who bought tickets (this time I didn’t) the Panda Awards ceremony. I found the evening sessions to be good opportunities for informal chatting and getting to know other delegates without so much of the “I must network” mindset, which allowed for more relaxed enjoyment of the entertainment provided. That being said, some of the best advice I got from the whole festival was from Dean Burman at the Awards after party, when he told me to find a niche in the industry that others can’t or won’t do, and exploit it. His is getting into freezing cold lakes, and after chatting to him about me going to China he suggested that maybe speaking Chinese could be mine (as long as my Mandarin gets good enough by the time I get back in 2014).

So, where do I go from here? Well, I’m now in China studying Kung Fu for a year, and while I’m here I plan to make at least one short film. So far I’ve been concentrating more on my training, and although I have got a little bit of practice in making training videos I haven’t really found anything wildlife-wise that I’ve been both interested in and able to film, mostly because its been the rainy season for most of the time I’ve been here. This month however, it seems like the rain is finally starting to clear up, so I look forward to being able to get out and about without the risk of getting equipment soaking wet, and maybe find something worth filming that the local villagers havn’t eaten…

The next Wildscreen Festival will be in 2014, details can be found at www.wildscreenfestival.org

Wildeye Slow Motion Video…

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My favourite one of the videos that came out of a weekend on the Wildeye Wildlife Camera Operator Course, filmed using a Photron SA3 High Speed Camera. The other student-made videos can be found at http://youtu.be/7t8bhc-E6oo and https://vimeo.com/50516678

Wildeye Camera Operator Course Weekend

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This weekend I had an opportunity to learn from some of the extremely talented professionals in the industry (as well as play with their extremely expensive equipment), at the Wildeye Camera Operator course in Norfolk.

Wildeye, or the Wildeye International School of Wildlife Film-making, is a small school that runs short specialist courses in Norfolk on the main roles within the wildlife film industry. People come from all over the world to learn from tutors that include cameramen, producers, researchers and production equipment experts who are all at the top of their field, and more than willing to share some of their knowledge with others aspiring to achieve the Emmys and Panda awards that many of them themselves have won.

Having arrived late on the Friday night (I had come straight from my Grandfather’s funeral in Devon), by the morning I was eager to get started and learn some new things. Everyone was very friendly at breakfast, and after briefly introducing myself to everyone we got an introduction to the cameras that we would be using over the course of the weekend, as well as a few others on the market. We then watched some film clips to demonstrate the abilities of some of the cameras, and then set off on smaller groups to learn some of the specific skills. Without going into too much detail, the rest of the weekend consisted of five workshops in: slow motion, time-lapse, macro and set building, basic camera skills, and an equipment workshop comparing different cameras, combining to give a pretty well rounded instruction in how to be a good camera operator. The skills I learnt, together with the advice I gained from chatting to the tutors between classes, meant that the course was worth a lot more than the £300 or so cost that I paid, and I would highly recommend it to anyone else trying to get into wildlife film-making.

Wildeye run courses throughout the year, details can be found at http://wildeye.co.uk/index.html

A Brief Introduction

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My name is Tom Richards and I am an aspiring wildlife filmmaker.

This year I graduated with a 2:1 in BSc Animal Behaviour from the University of Exeter, into the masses of unemployed and hopeful graduates that are drifting about in this currently fairly depressing economic climate. A few of my friends who graduated with more respected degrees have managed to land themselves in graduate schemes with banks or law firms, or gone on to further their education and do postgraduate study; however the vast majority of people I know at this stage have opted either to work in part-time jobs while they search for something better, or go travelling in the hope that the job market will be better when they return. And despite this low success rate amongst people who got ‘real degrees’ and are applying to ‘proper jobs’, I have decided to try and climb the ladder from being an unemployed graduate to making a living in the notoriously competitive wildlife film industry, with nothing but a camcorder, a passion for natural history, and “with Proficiency in Mandarin Chinese” added to my degree certificate for good measure.

In spite of the rather daunting task I have ahead of me, the overriding feeling that I have about my future is excitement: all of the people I have talked to or read advice from so far have said what an incredibly rewarding industry this is to work in, and well worth the amount of effort it usually requires to break into. I have lots of ideas and plans to develop my skill set and try to make a name for myself, in particular trying to produce my own films which I will post on this page. I am currently in the process of editing some footage I shot last summer while volunteering at the Pandrillus Foundation Afi Mountain Drill Ranch in Nigeria (check out their website here) so watch this space for the first of (hopefully) many films by yours truly!