Wildlife Filmmaking: What You Need to Film Wildlife Outdoors

Are you squirreling on possible career options and cannot make up your mind? Do you love being in nature? If you've answered yes, then keep reading... this article may contain the answer for you. We will discuss Wildlife Filmmakers, Wildlife Films, Wildlife documentaries, and the Wildlife Filmmaking Industry.
wildlife filmmaking - man photographing longhorn sheep

Obtain a Proper Understanding and Education in Wildlife Filmmaking

If you are set on getting into production but are an outdoorsy nature buff, there may be a perfect career out there waiting for you. The art of filmmaking is an acquired skill, of that there is no doubt. In addition to being passionate about film, you have to put the work in and learn the skills necessary to play a vital part in the process if you want to make a living at it. That being said, if you are keen on becoming a filmmaker and you thrive outdoors in nature, then you should consider a wildlife filmmaking career.

Prior to the turn of the 21st century, attending school in order to become a science filmmaker was unheard of, but today, there are a few different schools that offer classes to help people get started in the industry. As each of these offers a unique perspective, it is worth considering the strengths and weaknesses of each in terms of their strengths and weaknesses.

Below are 3 schools that have excellent programs that you should consider, because, take it from me, no matter how enthusiastic or talented you are, if you haven’t developed the skills, you will struggle to make your filmmaking dream come true. You will need technical skills and practical skills to become a master maker of nature videos.

wildlife filmmaking - birds and landscape in Montana

Montana State University: Science and Wildlife Filmmaking Program

A highly rigorous science and wildlife program is offered by the Science and Natural History Filmmaking Department at Montana State University, which is one of the leading filmmaking programs in the country. It is a three-year terminal degree program in the fine arts, resulting in a MFA after successful completion of this program. In addition to pursuing filmmaking careers, graduates are also qualified to teach filmmaking at the university level.

Every time a new group of students is accepted into the program, they form a “cohort,” a group of 12-15 people who will work together through all the courses, projects and other assignments together. In order to complete the program, the first two years are spent studying in Bozeman, creating tight bonds among the students because they know each other’s work and progress intimately during the first two years. As part of the second year of the course, a film project is required to be completed. In the third year of the program, a thesis film and a written master’s thesis paper are required to complete the program.

It is the mission of Montana State University’s MFA program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking (SNHF) to provide a formal education to students in the science, engineering, and technology of professional filmmaking. It is the goal of the SNHF program to educate future generations of filmmakers who will be able to create accurate, innovative, and memorable programs and media that contribute to public understanding of science in all its forms.

SNHF students are unlikely to share the same educational background as students in a typical graduate program. The diversity of previous training makes for a thriving and organic interdisciplinary environment. Through intensive training, original experiences, and an understanding of perspectives, students master the ability to capture nature in its most accurate format.

Learn more about all the specifics of the MSU program at naturefilm.montana.edu.

The Pros

A perfect way to jump-start a career in science filmmaking is to start living and breathing science filmmaking with people who are just as passionate about this as you are. As a student, you will be interacting on a daily basis with filmmaking colleagues and professors, with whom you will be developing relationships that will last your whole career in the arts. Secondly, this is a program that is extremely academically demanding. By doing so, students are able to see filmmaking from a different perspective and develop their own ideas about it. The question “Why do we make these films?” and “What is nature really like?” are common philosophical questions in the program. I feel that too many filmmakers today make their films without paying attention to these larger questions when it comes to making their films. Additionally, students from the MSU Film and Media program have consistently proven the value of an MSU degree by making some quality films. NASA, Smithsonian TV, and National Geographic have all recognized the quality of the MSU student population in the past. It is a good thing that there seems to be so much competition in a small field such as science and wildlife filmmaking.

The Cons

Students who are looking to enroll in a program such as this need to be aware of the downsides as well. This program, unlike other academic fields, is not subsidized by grants from professors in order to be able to operate. In addition to tuition, students also have to pay other expenses over the course of their time there, which may amount to somewhere in the range of 70K to 100K over the duration of their time there. In most cases, students apply for and receive student loans as part of their education. It is common for young filmmakers to have a heavy financial burden after they have graduated from college. Tuition costs for in-state students are lower than those for out-of-state students. It is also important for students to remember that they will not have a job for most of those three years, so there won’t be much money coming in to offset the costs of attending college. Fortunately, some tuition waivers and financial assistance have been implemented by the program as a way of assisting graduate teachers. The good news is that this is a career move, which means it can boost one’s chances of landing a job at a later date.

In terms of filmmaking, the primary goal of the program is to train producers and directors in all aspects of filmmaking. In the event that your interest lies in becoming a cameraman, sound recordist, or host, there may be better options available to you. It has to be said though, that some of the best cameramen, sound recordists and hosts I know have come out of the program. The reason for this may be partly due to the fact that specializing in a program like this can make you a valuable asset in the case of all the student projects going on. You become the go-to person and are in a great position to network with a lot of people.

Montana State University is also a long way away from almost everything else in the state. As flights into and out of Bozeman tend to be expensive, it is hard for students to travel on a budget. It is also worth noting that Bozeman has a higher cost-of-living than the average US city. Moreover, Bozeman is a small town saturated with science filmmakers due to its small size. The majority of graduates will have to leave Bozeman in order to be able to get a job after graduation.

Example Films from the Program

Angels of the Forest: Silky Sifaka Lemursby Sharon Pieczenik

Malice in Wonderland: The Red Queen Theory

Untamed Science Video SeriesRob Nelson created the series for his 3rd year film requirement.

A full list of awards and accolades from the MSU program here.

wildlife filmmaking - environmental films - hands cupping water over stream

American University

Compared to the Montana program, American University is a good competitor. The school is headquartered in Washington, DC, and it is led by the highly-skilled marketer, Chris Palmer. One of the major selling points for this school is the fact that it is located in the same city as National Geographic, Discovery, and the Smithsonian channel. In my opinion, it is a great way to get in touch with some of these production houses and start making films on your own.

It is widely acknowledged that the Center for Environmental Filmmaking (CEF) is one of the best programs in the world for environmental, wildlife and conservation filmmaking. As a vital catalyst for raising awareness, promoting solutions, and mobilizing movements, it aims to advance filmmaking, photography, and new forms of media. It is possible to inspire and empower people to engage in the critical environmental challenges of today by telling compelling stories. The CEF is committed to diversifying the field, addressing inequality, and engaging new audiences in the field. A wide range of courses, experimental learning opportunities, creative media labs, film and speaker series, and internship opportunities are offered by the center. To create and innovate high-impact storytelling that makes a meaningful impact, CEF partners with conservation and advocacy organizations, media companies, and a wide network of experts, scholars, and policymakers.

Maggie Burnette Stogner, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and professor in the area of film and media arts, brings a wealth of experience and energy to the center’s important work. She is expanding the Center’s focus on climate and environmental issues as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion. Since its founding in 2005, the Center has fostered meaningful collaborations with NGOs, government agencies, broadcasters, and others. There have been discussions on a variety of topics, including air pollution and regulatory enforcement disparities, tourism in the Galapagos Islands, the impact of private development on forests, and plastic pollution and ocean sustainability. Several of these projects have received awards, including a Student Academy Award for best documentary, Student Emmys, and CINE Golden Eagles, and have screened at the Environmental Film Festival of the Nation’s Capital, Chesapeake Film Festival, Blue Ocean Film Festival, and others. Our students and alumni have been selected for the prestigious Jackson Wild Media Lab, internships at National Geographic, fellowships at the National Park Service, NASA, and NOAH, among other prestigious opportunities.

wildlife filmmaking - sheep landscape and coast of New Zealand

University of Otago

Besides offering a one-year postgraduate diploma in Natural History Filmmaking and Communication, the University of Otago also offers a two-year Master of Science Communication degree program. The program is based in Dunedin, New Zealand, and has a close partnership with Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ), one of the largest producers of factual television in the world.

These classes are taught by a combination of academics and professionals in the field, and they are designed to cover both theory and hands-on practice in the field of film and communication. The first year of the program involves five classes, or papers, ranging from storytelling to editing and camera techniques, over the course of the year. During the second year of the program, the student is required to produce a commercial-length film in addition to writing a thesis. If the student elects to enroll in the one-year program, a short film will be created in lieu of a commercial-length film, and the thesis will not be required.

A maximum of 12 students can take part in the classes during the course of a year, which creates a fun and intimate atmosphere. There is a great deal of benefit to students from the relationship they have with NHNZ, as they get an insider’s view of the industry.

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