Travel Bum to the BBC: How to start in Wildlife Filmmaking (with no clue how to!)

‘I’ve got it! I want to present and make Wildlife Films!’… It came to me, as I was lying in a hammock in Brazil in 2012, whilst pondering that omnipresent and looming question commonly asked by most nomadic 25-year olds- ‘what on earth am I going to do with my life?’

So, I had the idea, which seemed fantastic in that hammock, with hummingbirds swirling around the nectar feeders hanging above me, dreaming of being the next David Attenborough- but where do I start? My passion for nature was a given. It had taken me to the far flung corners of the earth for seven years, never spending longer than 3 months in the UK since I was 18, always searching for the next adventure. But, by no means academic (in the slightest!) and not even owning a camera- let alone knowing how to use one, perhaps it wasn’t my best life plan……………………………………..

Yet, 4 years later I have completed a degree in Zoology, won awards for my work, written a dissertation being considered for publication, and have been offered an unconditional place on the Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking in Bristol affiliated with the BBC! How on earth did I manage that? A question I still ask myself everyday.

I’m writing this article for people similar to myself back then, and are completely clueless about how to start to make their dreams a reality. It of course has taken a lot of hard work, but if you have the passion ANYTHING is possible! It can be a rather daunting prospect going back to education as a mature student, particularly when you weren’t that great at it the first time round! But if you don’t try, you’ll never know.

My journey started when I came back to the UK, and whilst ploughing through courses online I found The Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking at Bristol UWE-perfect I thought! One problem- I didn’t have a degree, and at the time I had no idea how I’d get one. A little disheartened I then came across Cornwall College in Newquay, which ran a foundation degree in Wildlife Education & Media- it ticked all the boxes! I was, of course, concerned. Being a mature student with not the best GCSE’s in the world and no access course under my belt I wasn’t even sure if I’d get a place. However, I was honest in the interview, but also told them about my many travels, and luckily I already had done quite a lot of volunteering overseas. They asked me to write a short nature related essay, and my zoological passion must have shone through, as 3 weeks later I received a letter- I was in!

For anybody wanting a career in natural history interpretation, I would highly recommend the course. Awarded by Plymouth University it gives you a broad yet comprehensive base on straight biology, filmmaking, through to educating others. Part of the syllabus involves holding after school nature workshops and organising a weeklong event for national science week, and by far a long way off from being Sir David, they say the best way to learn is by teaching others, which is, of course, what he does in every show! The 2-year foundation degree helps you develop your zoological skills, on screen and paper, with the variety of subjects giving each student a real sense of learning about science and nature through interaction. It also gives you the option within most assignments to make films or media pieces rather than straight written work, allowing students to work on their preferred format, dependent on the route they want to take.

Feeding time for the common Marmosets in Gibraltar
Feeding time for the common Marmosets in Gibraltar

Throughout the two years I volunteered at Newquay Zoo within the educational outreach sector, and also found my own 2-week placement in Gibraltar. Volunteer experience is VITAL within this field, and in my opinion is even more important than end of term grades. The college is also home to SINNG, a student invasive non-native group, which gives students the opportunity to gain real time volunteering experience whilst studying. I myself asked if I could make a film about their work. Of course, the sound was off with extremely dodgy editing, and rather suspect camera work to say the least! However the opportunity to take what you’ve learnt in the workshops and run with an idea, whatever the end product may be, enables you to learn from your mistakes with no expense of splashing out on fancy filmmaking equipment! From this the college went on to employ me to make shorts and become part of a research team devising a new online course for BSc students regarding invasive species. A proper paid filming job just after my second year- I couldn’t quite believe it! The job involved organising film interviews, editing to ‘spec’, and even filming an entire cetacean autopsy, which I nearly passed out in- but acting like a ‘pro’, persevered! My films for the job are also now on the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project national website.

Invasive species film for SINNG, the student invasive non-native group based in Cornwall
Invasive species film for SINNG, the student invasive non-native group based in Cornwall

I continued on at Cornwall College to the BSc one-year top up in Applied Zoology, which with my previous two years would give me a full degree. I have to admit, the final year was tough, and for the life of me statistics will never be my strong point! But, if you want to be part of conservation it’s not all about flying off to some remote exotic jungle to save some rare species or running 1000 miles for charity! In fact, it’s those statistics and knowing how to use them that will play one of the most IMPORTANT roles in saving that rare species (however- that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy them!).

I had sent off my application for the Wildlife Filmmaking Masters early, which requires you to send off academic achievements (at long last I had some!), and an idea for a one hour long wildlife documentary. If you want to get into filmmaking- story is KEY! More so than camera work, tech, or quality- if you want to show your passion, think of story. It doesn’t matter if the subjects been done before- find a new twist which could work. Get a notebook and start writing down your ideas. Throughout my travelling I kept journals, and now have a world of stories that could be used for wildlife film!

Come March I thought I hadn’t even been considered. The prestigious course is highly competitive, boasting a 90% to 100% employment rate in filmmaking- why would they consider me? Yet finally the email came, I had an interview, and was more than ecstatic! The interview was 2-weeks later at the UWE

Bower Aston Campus in Bristol and I was completely terrified. However, I came out thinking to myself it had gone well, but had resided to the fact I wouldn’t be getting a place, convincing myself to be happy with the ‘experience’ alone. So I went back to Cornwall, final dissertation hand in and exams round the corner thinking maybe I should start thinking of a back up plan, as up until then- I hadn’t had one. Then 10 days later I got the email- ‘unconditional offer’- I was on the Masters! The past 3 years of being glued to the computer, making low quality films at every opportunity, and volunteering whenever I could have finally paid off!

I am, of course, still very much an amateur and couldn’t tell you much about the latest tech, sound or camera equipment. However, the Masters teaches you how to use state of art kit, being taught by industry professionals, and what better way to start than being taught by the best!

So, from daydreaming in a hammock to getting a place on my dream course knowing absolutely nothing about filmmaking, it’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it. For anybody wanting a start off point, very much like myself, I cannot recommend the foundation degree in Wildlife Education & Media in Cornwall enough. It gave me the knowledge and most importantly the confidence to believe that with perseverance I could achieve what seemed totally unrealistic not that long ago. If you’re reading this thinking ‘that’s exactly what I want to do’ my advice to you is DO IT! It doesn’t matter where you’re from, your age, your knowledge, if you love wildlife and want to share it with the world the only thing that’s stopping you is your own self-doubt. Pick up any camera, get a story notebook, don’t be scared of criticism and check out the foundation degree in Cornwall- you never know what could happen!

Photos of the Harbour Porpoise autopsy- the guts are where I had a bit of a rough time!Photos of the Harbour Porpoise autopsy- the guts are where I had a bit of a rough time! 2

Photos of the Harbour Porpoise autopsy- the guts are where I had a bit of a rough time!
Photos of the Harbour Porpoise autopsy- the guts are where I had a bit of a rough time!
Hannah Stitfall
About Hannah Stitfall 1 Article
Hannah is a budding natural history presenter/filmmaker, recently graduating from Cornwall College with a BSc Hons in Applied Zoology. She travelled for many years prior to coming back to the UK to study, trips taking her to track Mountain Gorillas in Uganda to volunteering with Turtles in Panama and Jaguars in Brazil! She will be starting the MA in Wildlife Filmmaking at UWE starting September 2016, where she hopes to combine her zoological knowledge, traveling experience, and passion for adventure to make inspirational film and TV to educate all about the wonders of the natural world. She is currently looking for opportunities to enhance her natural history filmmaking/presenting skills further, but is open to other conservation projects to get involved with!
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