You’d better have nerves of steel – advice from AfriScreen Producers Mike Holding and Tania ‘TJ” Jenkins.
So you want to be a wildlife film producer. Why on earth would you want to do that?
Why would you want to get into a field of endeavour that requires monumental amounts of thankless work, 16 hour days, no weekends, rare holidays, endless haggling with boneheaded customs officials in seedy third-world border posts, inordinate amounts of trivial paperwork, bombardments of mosquitoes, hundreds of consecutive four o’clock wakeup calls, cold, heat, dust, rain, flies, snakes, mud, broken equipment, nights spent wedged in thorn trees surrounded by lions, waiting on deserted bush airstrips for rickety planes that don’t arrive? There seems to be no comfortable answer, and yet if you ask us to swap what we do for anything else, the retort would be a resounding “NO!”
We, that is Mike Holding and myself, formed AfriScreen Films in 1996, with the specific intention of trying to break into the world of “blue chip natural history”. An ambitious dream indeed. In retrospect, we were lucky, because before seriously getting into the wildlife game, we both had a dozen years under our belts in other challenging areas of the film industry.
Mike's filming career began in a manner reminiscent of a Graham Greene novel. Drowning his sorrows one evening over a cold beer at the infamous Norfolk Hotel bar in Nairobi, he chanced into conversation with a “famous” BBC Television News reporter, who was looking somewhat shell-shocked. Ten minutes later he had a new job – off-road driver of an antique, bullet-ridden Land Cruiser, instant camera assistant, apprentice sound recordist, Swahili translator - for a mission into the war zones of Uganda, leaving the next morning! Looking back, perhaps his only qualification for such an abrupt entry into this insane escapade (they filmed the war and dodged bullets sporadically for months at a time) was an insatiable appetite to learn, patient resilience in the face of adversity, a tolerance for extreme discomfort, thirst for adventure, and an intimate knowledge of Africa. Twelve months later, unwilling to further witness more misery and death than he cares to recall, he resigned.
Several years later, after trying his hand with moderate success at aerial photography, marine research, magazine editing and writing, he rejoined the film world, this time producing corporate films. Once again his qualifications for the job were somewhat threadbare, but enthusiasm and persistence paid off, and within a year, he was writing, producing, filming, editing and sound mixing corporate films for the likes of Coca Cola, BMW, and other blue chip companies. He gave himself ten years to really hone his skills in the corporate film world, and he wouldn’t swap those years for anything. They not only allowed him to practice every detail of the craft of filmmaking, but equally important, taught him invaluable lessons about selling ideas, budgeting, storyboarding, scheduling and the intricacies of post production.
My background is equally diverse, yet perceived to be more "glamorous". From my first job as a humble production runner on a television drama, I rose rapidly through the ranks of ‘production’ in feature films and television to become, and at the age of 26, became Line Producer on one of the biggest feature films ever to come out of Africa. Commanding crews of 250 people and 5000 extras through re-enactments of the Soweto riots, in Soweto and during the actual crisis was a huge learning curve. These skills were learned somewhat in the same manner as Mike's. Staggering hours of work, humility in the face of tyrannical bosses, huge attention to detail, un-complaining assumption of heavy responsibility, near-clairvoyant forward planning and preparation, checking and double- checking and triple-checking every aspect of every production every minute of the day. Diversity and adaptability were the keys – sharing laughs and coffee with the likes of Whoopie Goldberg, Holly Hunter, Brandon Lee, Ernest Borgnine and Oliver Reed one moment, and dealing with the wounds of a crew member violently stabbed over lunch the next. Throughout these experiences, I learned the art of fastidious planning, anticipation, meticulous budgeting, storyboarding, schedules, bookings, location finding, money management, people management and cool-headed crisis management. I also learnt humility!
The point of this long potted history is simple. Wildlife filmmaking is changing fast, and the name of the new game is “multi-tasking”. Mike's function in our partnership is primarily as cameraman, creative director and editor, but he can undertake all the multiple facets of the business. I function as a Producer in the feature-film sense of the word. I handle budgets, logistics, politics, crew, scheduling, distribution, legal matters and finances. Together, we cover every aspect of filmmaking, with a wealth of diverse experience behind us.
The fickle demands of commissioners and broadcasters become more complex daily, and the successful Producer will not only have an intimate understanding of wildlife, ecology, animal behaviour, conservation, wildlife ethics, indigenous people issues and plain old ‘film-craft’, but will need to be comfortable with the rules of drama and feature films, factual programming, historical dramatisation and all the other genres of film. Beyond all that, the wildlife film producer needs the same skills as a ‘Producer’, ‘Line Producer’ and ‘Director’ in the Hollywood sense of the word. Wildlife filmmaking is a complex business, no less so that any other form of filmmaking. In fact, the demands are often greater – usually one or two people have to fulfill roles that would be met by dozens of individuals in other film genres.
From a ‘Producers’ perspective, I will be the first to assert that making wildlife films is harder than all my time spent producing feature films and TV drama. Where once I had a team of production managers and assistants, I now handle an equal number of production and logistical complexities by myself. Where big city production could be handled with call sheets, cell phones, and production runners, now I have to deal with a crew in the middle of the African bush, hours from the nearest hospital, the only communications once a day on a crackly short-wave radio. Where once I could intricately plan, minute by minute, the lives of actors, directors, cameramen, grips and dozens of crew members, now I have to foresee and anticipate the vagaries of wild animal behaviour, the inconsistencies of weather, interminable broken-down vehicles, and deal with the worry of remote cameramen being bitten by cobras too far from a hospital to save their lives. Bottom line is that if you want to get into this business, you had better have nerves of steel!
So, our ground-level advice would be this. Gain as much experience as you can, in as many aspects of the film business as possible, in the shortest possible time. Never, ever, pass up an opportunity to learn, to gain new experience, however menial the task may seem. (We’ve done our time sweeping stage-set floors, making midnight coffee for cantankerous crews, washing cars, fetching pizza, you name it!)
Don’t ever believe that wildlife filmmaking will be glamorous – it’s not. Don’t wait for lucky breaks – create them! If in doubt-just do it! Do anything legal to get yourself into a position where you can gather new skills. Work harder than everyone else – simple maths says that if you are prepared to work 16 hours a day, you will learn twice as much as those that settle back after an eight-hour shift. Diligence, patience, attention to detail, respect for experienced people, unquenchable enthusiasm, good humour, good manners and a passion for film are essential too. Learn skills outside the ambit of wildlife filmmaking – the gap between wildlife documentary and feature film narrows every day. Study fine art and literature and mythology and poetry and great movies – they will enrich your films. And perhaps most important – learn to love stories, story telling, and storytellers. It’s what you want to be.