Ways to find inspiration for making a natural history documentary
Making a natural history documentary should be easy – pick a place, go film it, become stars of the industry.
OK. No. It’s not that easy in reality! And sometimes even having the idea in the first place can be the biggest hurdle.
So, how do you find inspiration? What if you have too many ideas?
Finding inspiration for making a natural history documentary is probably the easiest part of the exercise…
Or it might not be if you ideas are overflowing, but your tie and resources call for a laser sharp focus on one thing at a time. Let’s face it, that’s most of us in the film industry as a whole, and particularly so for wildlife filmmaking that comprise independent film teams and businesses – even some of the biggest ones in this industry.
After all, isn’t focus the most important element in any wildlife filmmaker’s toolkit?
In either case, we’ve provided some tips for both predicaments: when you can come up with any ideas, and when you have too many!
Making a natural history documentary? Go Local
Ask yourself the following questions before making a natural history documentary, and the answers together should help form your treatment for you right away.
- What wildlife is closest to your doorstep?
- Are there any local conservation organisations or refuges that you can work with?
- Can you explore the process of making a local film which will enable you keep your carbon footprint down?
- …and how exactly will you represent this throughout your production?
- What will telling the story of this local wildlife help you to document as a wider theme in your film?
- What do people know – and not know – about your chosen subject matter? Can you be balanced or will you be focused on an agenda?
- How will you get access? Can you get access?
- How will you work with staff, access and the local community to make the film work for all involved in your production?
Handy checklist, huh? Feel free to steal it.
No ideas for your wildlife film? Choose the type of story you’d like to tell
There are lots of themes to chosen from which are the kinds of stories that most wildlife documentaries fall into. For the most part, you might find that your treatment and initial outlines will include a number of these themes rather than one – but there is usually one overarching idea that will shine through.
You might decide on any of these beforehand – or it will become apparent during your production process. Such is the beauty of filmmaking – trust it.
Themes and types of stories to tell in natural history programming (most typical):
- Survival of Species (like Virunga)
- Awareness of Species (like our own feature The Tigers of Scotland)
- Humans in Nature (like River Monsters from Discovery)
- Wider Ecosystem
- Educational (children’s, informal, formal or academic)
- Behavioural Witness, aka ‘Saga Of…’ (BBC house style)
- Life and Times Of Species – with some historical references (or shorter “day in the life of” featurettes strung together into one story or journey)
- Conservation group or org-focused (similar to Survival theme), should include science and anthropology but can lean towards an agenda
- Personality/lifestyle crossover (such as The Supervet, or Man vs. Wild), usually serialised
It’s only when you open up your perspective to the sheer amount of types of natural history programming that the world really opens up to you in wildlife filmmaking, especially where genre crossovers might not have occurred before as a theme for you to take a look at in your own pre-prod planning.
By thinking about the kind of story that you’d like to tell when it comes to your natural history documentary, you can also start to inform almost every other element of your production, because suddenly you have got a step closer to, or you have chosen your format.
This then informs the lot, from research, to staffing, kit hire, production, budgets, pitches and distribution. (Although not necessarily in that order!). And what if you’re struggling with the kind of story to tell? Then start with your audience.
Who are you talking to with your chosen film?
Short of holding a captive or hostage paying audience – it’s only your audience that will make you successful in the end, and that has to be respected. Sometimes, that might be the only thing which needs to inform how you shape your idea.
Sometimes, you might have too many ideas at the same time – which is a luxurious position to be in! You might have 1,000 pitches in your head at any one time, all rolling around and waiting to be put on paper or turned into something substantial. How do you focus? If this is you, we also have some tips (and this is something we suffer from on the daily, to be quite frank)!
When you have too many ideas, write them all down. In full – or as far your ideas are taking you. Sometimes that alone can help you to truly understand where your focuses and ideas are being generated from, with what might actually be a lot of the same idea and only a few refined ones. This sounds harsh – but it’s often true! We tend to think in patterns as humans – and our ideas can often ‘formulate’ the same way.
Too many ideas for your wildlife film? Know your limitations
The creative mind despises this way of thinking, but the business mind often forces it. Occasionally we might flit from one idea to the next. While this helps to our brains highly-tuned to new ideas and opportunists, it can be nightmare in terms of trying to get anything done.
One sure-fire way of testing any of your ideas for their full potential (and your own sticking power to it) is to write every single one down, block out your time to ensure completion of documenting all of these ideas, and see where they actually take you.
Some projects that might seem like a great idea when you’re thinking about them might seem great in first light, but can soon reveal themselves to be either subject to limitations based on your budget, or simply that after writing it all down – you may no longer be interested in the subject matter than you imagined. It happens!
Happily, though – the most compelling stories have a habit of being the ones which stick out and naturally make you smile as you realise how achievable and how good an idea this is – sounds a little fluffy, but this can often be the case.
When it – or they – stand out as you’re writing them down, and they seem to naturally inspire more refinement, that can be a hint enough for an idea to emerge as one worth pursuing.