While Filmmaking itself is a creative endeavour, Wildlife Filmmaking has the power to change the world by inspiring people to demand environmental justice just by influencing them to act for the wellbeing of our ecosystem.
Gunjan Menon, our next pathbreaker, Wildlife Filmmaker & Conservationist, travels to different parts of the world, capturing animals in their natural habitats, learning about new behaviour and telling stories that can induce a policy change to conserve species.
Gunjan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about growing up watching wildlife documentaries and reading books about nature which made her fall in love with nature and merge her two passions together to become a wildlife filmmaker.
For students, the natural world needs creative minds who can be their voice through visual and compelling stories that can help preserve our pristine environment for future generations. Take up that mission !
Gunjan, tell us about your background?
I grew up in a quiet neighbourhood in Delhi, watching wildlife documentaries and books about nature which made me fall in love with the natural world and filmmaking. As a kid, I used to rescue small birds and mammals who needed help. I started photography from an early age, but on my phone and clicked photos of urban wildlife. Eventually as I grew up, I decided to merge my two passions together and become a wildlife filmmaker. I also realised the need for interesting and engaging conservation films and decided to focus on conservation storytelling.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I had Science with Biology and Maths in my 11th and 12th grade. I struggled with most of them except for Biology and English. I was truly passionate about the natural science genre from a very early age and it showed. However, I did not choose to go for a science degree and instead pursued filmmaking. I did my Bachelors in Media and Communication with a specialisation in Audio Visual Communication which basically means, filmmaking. I worked in Pune and Mumbai after that for a bit and helped some wildlife NGOs with their campaign films. I then decided to take this a step further and pursued my Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking from the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. Since then I’ve been actively working as a wildlife filmmaker in the national and international television industry.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
My passion for wildlife and filmmaking and the need to tell more truthful wildlife stories urged me to take up this career.
I was strongly influenced by the works of Mike Pandey, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall .
My mentors Doel Trivedi and Gautam Pandey from Riverbank Studios offered me my first internship and Akanksha Sood Singh, who I did my first television series with.
Rita Banerji inspires me everyday to make meaningful films and give back to the community and Peter Venn sowed the good storytelling worm in my brain.
I remember at age of 3 when my grandfather gifted me a book about the rainforests and I read about birds of paradise every day. I knew I wanted to work in the field of wildlife.
As a teenager when I found out everything wasn’t okay with the animals and their habitats that I grew up watching, and that they were in fact threatened, that’s when I knew I wanted to focus on conservation stories rather than just pretty pictures.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I did my first internship at Goonj – as a fundraising and communication intern, where i helped with videography and collection campaigns.
My Second Internship (first year of undergrad college) was at Wildlife Trust of India as a communication intern on a “Rhino Reintegration Project + Elephant Reintroduction Project”.
My third internship was at (second year) Society for protection of women and children as a videographer
My Fourth internship (Third year) was at Riverbank studios as Assistant producer where i Assisted in production and script of 2×30 min episodes of “Earth Matters” for broadcast on DD1
MY Fifth internship (Third year) was at NDTV good times as Assistant producer .
I got my first job after my bachelors at Shotgun Media where i directed, shot and edited short form digital and TV content Produced & shot seven episodes of a travel show for MTV with an editing turnaround of 24 hours per episode.
I then decided to take this a step further and pursued my Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking from the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK.
I did my Masters Internships at Icon Films, UK where i was Production and idea development team
I also volunteered at several film festivals like Wildscreen film festival, Jackson Hole Wildlife film festival, BBC festival of nature and gained valuable experience. At Jackson Hole Wildlife film festival, i was the official festival photographer. I was part of the crew at the other festivals.
My first job after masters was Assistant Director & Researcher at The Gaia People 2018 Delhi, India where i was additional camerawoman, sound recordist on Season I of the conservation television series, ‘On the Brink’ 8×30′ episodes which was aired on Animal Planet and Discovery India
Since then, I freelance and work all around the world.
How did you get your first break?
After I made my first independent film, the Firefox Guardian, it became my visiting card. Work would come to me instead of me going and approaching people. This was a short film I made as a part of my masters programme in UK. I went and trekked 12,000 feet in the Himalayas to Nepal to film the unique bond between red pandas and the local communities there. This film was critically acclaimed and garnered over 30 awards and nominations across 15 countries. It was directly instrumental in the conservation of red pandas in the wild.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
The Wildlife film industry is tough to get into, let alone make a career in. I just wrote to a lot of people in the field for advice and assistance which paved my way through limited opportunities to a place now where I am now, as a well known director in the Wildlife film industry
Tell us about some of the work you have done?
I freelance and work all around the world.
I was the camerawoman-presenter on BBC Earth’s ‘Blue Planet II Live’ digital story, discussing community-driven conservation of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles in an Indian village. I also co-directed and edited an educational film, ‘Living with the King’, which was translated into local Indian languages to mitigate human-king cobra conflicts in sensitive rural areas. I am the author of a book on the Habitats Trust Grants which highlights the work of grassroots conservationists and frontline warriors in India.
I have been the Offline editor for 1×30′ TV episode on ‘pangolins trade’ for On the Brink Season 2.
I also volunteer as a bat rescuer and rehabilitator and actively work towards changing the human perception of bats and put an end to the vilification of bats. I also spend time teaching children and youth about endangered species of India. Currently i am directing a digital series on human- wildlife coexistence.
My job is all about changing people’s perception about wildlife and the environment and making them fall in love with the natural world.
What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?
- good storytelling
- Strong research
- Strong science background
What is a typical day like?
It can range from trekking endlessly for 12 hours to sitting in a hide waiting for an animal to show up for days. Anything from living in tents to following elephant herds and tigers. From reading hundreds of research papers in a day to sitting in a dark edit suite for months. It’s not always so glorious but in the end, when a 4 year old gets inspired to be a conservationist after watching a film you made, everything feels like it’s worth it.
What is it you love about this job?
The power to change the world. Filmmaking is the most powerful medium today and we can truly inspire people to act and demand environmental justice just by making films that move people. I absolutely love that about my job. And of course, travelling to different parts of the world and watching animals closely, learning about new behaviour and being a part of the jungle is a privilege that comes with the job.
How does your work benefit society?
From contributing to conservation by inducing a behavioural change to influencing policy change, conservation films have been changing the world since eons. We’re just extremely lucky to be able to use our art to benefit the well being of our entire ecosystem.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
We worked on a film called ‘Living with the King’ which was a film about king cobras, the longest venomous snakes in the world. In the Eastern Ghats, King cobras were being killed at sight because of their sheer size that would scare people. In reality, they’re very gentle and beautiful snakes who love to stay away from us so they would never intentionally bite anyone. We showed people there that in a small village in Karnataka, King cobras and people were peacefully coexisting. This beautiful film was able to show people how they too can live alongside these snakes and what they can do in case they see one near them. This encouraged people to call a rescuer instead of killing these vulnerable species and was a majorly successful project. There are many such stories that continue us to keep working
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Don’t be shy and write to as many people as you can, apply for positions, despite rejections! Even if you choose a niche like mine, be passionate about it and you’ll eventually excel at it. Research a lot, A LOT…about people in your field, possible sub genres of the field you’re interested in, scope of your field. Don’t write to people and ask about things you could have found on google. Ask personal questions related to their field or your doubts which they could guide you with. Most people in our industry would be happy to help guide to carve the best path out for you.
To make wildlife films mainstream in India and around the world where every kid and adult is watching at least some form of wildlife content.
I want to shift the limelight to lesser-known species and habitats and practice a cross-genre approach to produce action-driven content for the masses. I am also the Founder-CEO of ‘Beyond Premieres’, an organisation that supports filmmakers to create tangible impact through their art.