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For those who long to get away from the confines of the concrete jungle and into the lap of mother nature, wildlife film-making is an exciting career option.
Engineer turned wild-life film-maker, Vinay Datla, shares insights from his experience and also provides tips and advice for those who want to build a career in the field.
Can you tell us about your background?
The state that I grew up in India has the most number of engineering colleges in the country and it was a default choice for many because of a guaranteed job and safe lifestyle. However, I knew that I wanted to do something creative and not engineering but didn’t’ have the maturity and knowledge to make a choice.
I resisted a lot with my parents for taking a gap year to figure out what I wanted to do but was pressured /sweet talked myself into engineering due to their own societal, financial pressures and social stature.
What triggered my interest in film-making?
I used to be very attentive in my lectures and was not able to concentrate at all during my engineering. I always wanted to be the best in whatever I do and hated being a loser. I wasn’t happy with engineering and was in the third year when I restarted watching a lot of wildlife and environmental documentaries.
During my childhood, I used to watch ‘The Crocodile Wrangler’ by Steve Irwin and other Discovery, National Geographic documentaries daily. I also used to play cricket daily and was good in studies too. I wanted to be a snake wrangler or a cricket player then.
From 9th grade until the end of my intermediate, as the competition is so fierce to secure a seat in a good school and then the engineering seat that would land us in a corporate job, I had to stop watching TV and playing cricket completely. My studies didn’t improve, though.
In my third year, I enjoyed watching documentaries but wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a wildlife film-maker after looking at how hard it has been to the few (less than 5 from a country with 1.3 billion people) full-time wildlife film-makers from India. I was also preparing for GRE and dreaming about the life in the United States. I couldn’t make my mind.
I had an accident in my final year of engineering and was on bed for a month. For the first time in many years, I had all the time in the world to think about something completely other than studies.
We had BBC Entertainment airing in India back then. They packaged the best English documentaries, reality shows and few soaps with minimal ads. I have never seen anything like this in Indian television before. The documentaries, reality shows were so good.
I immediately downloaded my favourite ones from the internet and also used watch the future episodes ahead of time. Of them all, I loved the wildlife and travel documentaries the most. This, however, didn’t help me make my mind.
I searched for ‘Earth’ on torrents one day and ‘An inconvenient Truth’, and ‘Planet Earth’ were seeing the most. I downloaded both of them and as I watched them through, I made up my mind. whenever I had a doubt in my decision, I watched them again and again, and a lot more throughout my final year.
How I got into an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career such as wildlife film-making?
I had been involved with wildlife conservation, social projects from my childhood. BBC Natural History Unit, the oldest and the top wildlife film-making house had announced a degree in Wildlife Film Making for the first time ever. I had applied for it with my portfolio of animal photos, statement of purpose and had an interview. To my surprise, I was selected!
Then I broke the news to my parents that I don’t want to join the corporate job that I was selected for in campus. But it wasn’t that easy. I had to join the corporate job which I resigned in no time and worked for one of India’s largest animal NGO as their communication officer and photographer for a year. The year after, I took my deferred seat and a loan to realise my dream.
I love animals and had been more fascinated by animals than people, engineering and science marvels. I always used to wonder why cats are more successful in catching rats than dogs catching cats and where did monkeys get their amazing leaping ability? How is it that fish live underwater and what lies beyond the mountains and the sky?
Questions like these haunted me and I didn’t want a simple answer. I wanted to find the answers to many questions like these myself.
I am also an adrenaline junkie and wildlife film-making in no easy job. You can’t guarantee anything in this profession and will keep one well out of their comfort zone. I was also going through a rough patch during my engineering and loved animals more than people.
Your experiences as a film-maker?
I have been part of various filmmaking projects but yet to be part of a big wildlife documentary project.
My film #Tiger Selfie that I made in collaboration with Wildlife Institute of India and India’s premier tiger scientists is the most interesting film project that I worked on till date. It was my first film and was self-funded.
The logistics, permissions, handling crew, contributors, and the whole process of film-making was an engrossing experience. The best part, of course, was spending time in Kanha national park. Although for few days, I was lucky to see the elusive wild dog!
The funniest experience so far has happened during the first few weeks on my wildlife filmmaking course. I booked a lot of camera gear for a weekend and my friend and I planned to shoot timelapse of sunrise over a suspension bridge. It’s was a cold morning in the UK and the sunrise was supposed to be at 6:50 AM.
We were well prepared for the day and reached the shooting place in time. We set our camera up quickly, choose the shooting spot, and framing. As the sunrise would be quick, we envisioned the sun to move from the bottom of the bridge and go over it.
We did a lot of math about the movement of the sun and our framing. Finally, all was set and we waited in vain until noon for the sunrise. The sun was well above the bridge then, for just a few minutes. We learnt about the British weather in a hard way!
I am yet to have a scary or sad experience as a filmmaker but had lots of them on my previous job working for the animal NGO. We had an SOS call to our office in Agra from forest department about a black looking animal in a storm drain. It was peak summer in India and the place was about two hours from our rescue centre. Just the logistics and planning of reaching the place to rescue the animal was a big enough task.
We reached the place and sure enough, the black animal in the storm drain was a sloth bear. Sloth bears are endemic to India and are the fiercest animals in the jungle. They would launch a deadly attack on anything that comes in their way, including a tiger.
This sloth bear presence though was an unusual case as there was no sloth bear habitat nearby. It would have at least travelled 100 kilometers in search of food or a mate.
The storm drain was surrounded by hundreds of people that have come from nearby villages to see the animal. These villagers clearly outnumber the rescue team and forest officers. They are notorious for attacking both the animal for the fear of it and the rescue team, forest officers in case they fail to capture the animal.
The worst part for the rescue team is that they could be attacked both by the animal and the villagers. The situation was very tense and the bear was tranquilized but in the events to follow, the bear escaped our trap and let himself loose onto the villagers and us.
A few villagers chased the bear with bamboo sticks and one of them got bitten by the bear on his bum. We had to chase the bear which ran almost 4 kilometers in no time before the dart started working again. We had to dart the bear couple more times (small doses each time) and finally were able to capture the bear after few hours.
Once the bear was caught, the villagers in hundreds surrounded us, few to watch, few to touch the bear. It was the most chaotic experience I have ever had in my life with people especially mobbing me, as I was the guy with the camera. We eventually took the bear to our rescue centre and release it back into the wild with a radio collar.
There is more time spent by wildlife filmmakers in their house or office cum house to break into a project. There is a lot of research, planning and logistics that goes into any field project. More established filmmakers might be able to spend a little more time in the field.
Although few in number, in the UK and the USA, there are proper wildlife production companies and one has more defined roles and spend time according to their role. In general, any filmmakers wildlife filmmakers spend more working hours than any corporate employee.
Career advice and tips on film-making careers?
Film making career is a broad one. There are ample opportunities and money in this field. One needs to establish themselves before having a steady career. This takes time compared to other careers. One thing for sure, after one film, a filmmaker would be back to square one pitching for another. If that’s your passion, just go for it.
IMHO, there are no pre-requisites to become a film-maker. Passion is everything. Obviously like in any other field creativity, attention to detail, biology degree, storytelling skills can help and there is nothing that we can’t learn!
How to break into the field?
One can join a filmmaking course or teach oneself through books, online courses or by working on a project. There is no hard and fast rule, especially with wildlife filmmaking. Although, I agree and admit that breaking into wildlife films in India is a lot tougher and would like to mention that I am still trying too.
Another important part of breaking into this field is to take up any job that comes one way. In the UK, most people start as fixers, unpaid and end up being producers in 5-10 years.
The best way of breaking into this field is by creating a niche for oneself. If one can offer a service that is not offered by anyone else, people would obviously have to hire them for that job. If someone is so good with macro photography or big cats or whales or has a starlight camera or some kind of magic, they have a job!
It can be years before one can make any money in this field and the equipment used are hardly affordable to most. It’s best to have as much of savings as possible to sustain, to travel and to have these wild experiences before jumping in. If one can afford a decent enough camera, why not do a film of one’s own?
Typical Career Paths?
IMHO, unfortunately in India, there is no career path for wildlife filmmakers as we don’t have a market of our own. Although India has 800 TV channels, most won’t produce wildlife content. And those who produce anything aren’t par with international broadcasters like Discovery, National Geographic or BBC.
So, Indian wildlife filmmakers make money mainly by working for international broadcasters. BBC has the rule to pay the same amount as they would pay to anyone being employed in the UK for the same role. This obviously is a good money when converted to Indian currency.
Also, many wildlife filmmakers both in India and abroad do a variety of films, projects like corporate films, weddings, etc.. to fund their work. Most of the wildlife jobs aren’t full time.
There are pros and cons of being a freelancer.
Pros: Obviously, you would be chosen for the role that you like to do. All the money that one makes would be for themselves.
Cons: Getting a job, negotiations, work hours, money.
What’s good and what’s not so good about being a film-maker?
Well, the hottest job in wildlife filmmaking is to be a cameraman. Everyone wants that role. In wildlife filmmaking, it’s a classic case of basic economics where supply is more than demand.
The good thing is one can get paid to spend time in most beautiful places on the planet. The bad thing is sometimes the beautiful places are painstakingly tough to commute to, live by, and work in.
The other side of the coin in this is the struggle to get that dream role.
How can you decide whether it’s the right career for you?
This is one’s own decision. It’s best to have knowledge on various topics and do a thorough research before coming to a decision. I agree it’s tough to decide what one’s passion is. I went through a lot of struggle to discover what I am passionate about. I can only say that I discovered myself more by travelling to places than sitting in a classroom.
I struggled to understand why India with over 800 channels isn’t interested in producing any factual content on par with international broadcasters. If only we had our channels producing this kind of content, our societies would be more informed and educated. And we have more than enough talented documentary filmmakers short of opportunities and trillion stories to explore.
IMHO, here are a few reasons that I observed:
First and foremost is our economy. Countries that mostly produce factual content are developed countries with literate people that want to hear about their societal and global problems in depth. They value facts and science more.
Our revenue models for most channels is flawed. Most channels in India are funded by ad’s and paid endorsements. In the UK, BBC is funded by the license fee and don’t have any ads on their channel. Indian media companies have never seen anything like this.
I have also observed that the online space in India is much different to television. It’s more democratic, liberal and there is more quality content. People online also seem to be more educated, well informed and are hungry for better content. The way Indian youth using this space gives me hope that we are moving in the right direction and a ray of hope for passionate factual content producers is born!
I was born in a middle-class family whose only aim was to educate me well and hope for me to land in a corporate job that would give me a ticket to fly to the United States. The story isn’t much different until the corporate job and the paradigm shift that followed thereafter.