Behind the Camera with Chris Johnson of


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Wildlife Filmmaking & Photography - Research your subject and talk to the scientists who study them...

The Making of Southern Right Whales of Argentina : Part 2

Before filming or taking pictures of wildlife, it is important to do your research thoroughly, know the right seasons to go, and talk to the right people who are the experts in the field.

In 2005, Genevieve and I went to Argentina for the first time as tourists to see southern right whales. After spending some time there, this gave us the idea of doing film. Luckily, we met the some of the researcher studying the whales in the area and spent time observing different types of behaviors we could document. Over the next few months, we spent time figuring out how we could actually do it. Many films have been made about the unique wildlife of Peninsula Valdes, but we wanted to do something different - focus on the next generation Argentine researchers working to make a difference.
Peninsula Valdes, Argentina is a unique place. Southern right whales return each year to give birth, mate and rest in Golfo San Jose and Golfo Nuevo, before making the long migration back to feeding areas in the Southern Ocean. This occurs between the months of July and November. We chose to return the following year from early September to the end of October - the peak season for whale abundance.

When the tide is just right, in some places on the Peninsula, right whales come very close to shore with their calves.
This allows you to view, photograph and film whales sometimes only 10 meters away while standing on the beach. Also, filming and photographing from high above on the cliffs offers a truly spectacular view of the animals and their habitat, while spending time on the local whale watch boats affords its own brand of wonderfully diverse encounters - (see Genevieve's
account of whale watching in Peninsula Valdes).

However, there is a downside to filming outdoors. As there is in all environments, Patagonia is exceptionally windy, dry and dusty. Sometimes the wind picks up and will not let up for days on end. Then, without warning, there is a window of opportunity when the wind unexpectedly shifts, and drops. What is predictable about the weather in Peninsula Valdes is that it is unpredictable. You have to be prepared to wait and be ready for just the right moment to film.

When you are trying to film whales in such challenging conditions, you have to wait for the right weather, but also the right light - all of this while hoping that you will be in the right place at the right time. A lot of it is luck. But, I believe you make you own luck by being out with the animals in their environment for as much time as possible - all without disturbing them.

From our previous experiences in Patagonia, and many long conversations with researchers, we created a shot list of behaviors that we wanted to capture from different perspectives. Because we were producing an educational documentary film about the ecology of southern right whales, we wanted to try to film as many behaviors as possible while documenting the scientific research being conducted.

In our list, we identified four areas from where we could obtain footage of southern right whales.

  • film from the cliffs - where researchers would observe them from.
  • film from the beach - outside of the research camp.
  • film with the researchers from a zodiac
  • film underwater

From this we created a plan. We had many meetings with researchers to try to work with their schedule to film in these areas, and to talk about the shots we needed to put together a great documentary.

When working with scientists while they are researching, it can be difficult to achieve a balance. Scientist are funded for a different purpose than what you are funded for. They have to conduct their research, and get results. That is what they are 'in the field' to do and often they are working in very challenging conditions themselves.
So while being patient with the animals is important, communicating with researchers is key to making things work for everyone while sometimes just not getting in the way. Planning, is essential, and an acceptance that you may not get everything you need when you want it, and to be ready when the opportunity arises, is vital. Patience is the key to making wildlife documentaries. A sense of humor also helps make it enjoyable for everyone around!

When it actually came time to film, we spent many, many hours in our rental car, driving 45 minutes back and forth between the research camp and where we stayed in the tiny town of Puerto Piramides. Often we saw the weather change in an hour, dropping to an acceptable sea state that meant we could go out on a zodiac to film, but then the light would be wrong, or it would be overcast with gray clouds, or the whales would be lying inactive at the surface resting. Peninsula Valdes is an important place for southern right whales to rest, so we filmed hours and hours of footage of resting whales!

In the next 'behind the camera', I will write more about the tools we used to document and capture the whales from different perspectives and why.

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A little bit of history....

How did we do it? The Making of Southern Right Whales of Argentina : Part 1

Having finished the documentary, I often wonder that myself!

The most important issue, with producing wildlife and science productions, before any money is raised, before any plane tickets are booked, before any equipment is rented or purchased, and sometimes before a script is even written, is to gain access to the subject. In our case, it was gaining access to film southern right whales. Without the access to whales, we could not even begin to think about producing a film like this.

Because so many people are involved in the research, the conservation, obtaining the permits to do the research, and the administration and organization of specific geographical areas, filming whales requires the ability to create numerous partnerships. We were initially invited by an NGO, Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (, to film and produce a video for a new education initiative in Argentina. They received funding from the government of the province of Chubut – it was called “Bringing Whales to Your School” ("Trayendo las ballenas a tu escuela").

With the help of ICB, we obtained the necessary permits from the provincial government to film whales within the reserve, and underwater. ICB also acted our translators and 'fixers', arranging accommodation, a rental car, additional permits and generally helped out with other administrative tasks along the way. Since we are absolutely hopeless at speaking Spanish, this partnership was crucial in making the process work.

In exchange for all of their effort, we produced a 5-minute piece about their organization with the footage shot for the documentary program, which co-wrote. We also gave ICB footage and photographs for future press releases and educational initiatives. The lesson we learned through the years is that, it is always beneficial to form good partnerships with a local NGO.

From the beginning of the project, we all agreed that the documentary would be produced in both Spanish and English, as stipulated by the grant we received to make the film – and that it would be distributed for free to students in Argentina as part of the education program they were developing, while we would host the online versions.

When documenting local issues in another country, we feel it is crucial to share experiences, especially with students. So often people do not know about the issues surrounding whales that inhabit their coastal waters. Those who come in to film too often leave little for the local community in return. This was an occurrence we often witnessed in countries we worked in on a former project - the Voyage of the Odyssey.

The Voyage of the Odyssey was our epic project. For 5 and a half years, Genevieve and I were part of a team that traveled around the world on a whale research sailboat, documenting the work, the science, the research, local issues, the nature and wildlife, all while producing environmental stories for a web series hosted by PBS –

It was very unique, in that PBS funded a program that would only be on the internet. We produced stories on the boat, called Odyssey logs, that we published via satellite directly to the PBS website.

We had incredible power to publish 'live'- when we posted a story via our laptop connected to the marine satellite setup, it was up on the servers in Washington – from anywhere on the planet. It was a unique experience to create and upload stories while being at sea surrounded by hundreds of miles of ocean and no land in sight.

This was before the popularity of blogs took off, or even podcasting. We relied on creating audio reports in Real Audio format, but found that most people just read the transcripts of the stories - sometimes educational, sometimes anecdotal and people liked seeing the photos from the day. Periodically, we would upload short video documentaries anywhere from 3-5 minutes in length to bring people along on our journey.

While finding and producing these stories for the 5 and a half-year, we always had to do it on a tiny budget, with minimal equipment - most of which we had to purchase ourselves. We learned to be very creative using 'off the shelf' tools and equipment.

In 2001, one year into the expedition, we started earthOCEAN media as a way to manage our money and be creative with tools. We purchased cameras, film, developed the film, bought a video camera, laptops and even got the software to build everything with. The boat had a couple of computers, but they were used mostly for research. So while we had great access, and a pipeline directly to PBS, that was it - that was where we learned how to produce materials on a limited budget.

Part experiment, part groundbreaking, partly insane, the site is still online, even though our last report was published when the Voyage finished in August 2005. It has since turned into a unique education resource ( believe it or not, our most popular story is on the giant squid – more about that another day! )

When the Odyssey departed in March 2000 from San Diego, we had a DV camera (Canon XL-1), a G4 Mac desktop running final cut pro (version 1) with a 80 gig hard drive, notepad (to create HTML pages – I coded everything by hand, due to PBS online production policies), and Photoshop. We had a 1 megapixel Nikon coolpix that would only work for 10 minutes at a time (due to problems with the batteries). Often, I would take 'screen shots' from the video shot with the XL1 to help with imagery for the website. As time progressed, we purchased one of the first G4 notebooks to come out, a few external 60 gig hard drives (which would only last a few months in the hot, salty conditions of the boat), an external DVD burner and a copy of DVD studio pro version 1.

For the documentary, Southern Right Whales of Argentina, we applied a similar model. We would film with digital cameras, edit on a faster G4 notebook computer, an external hard drive (this time holding 500 gig), but bring lights, an underwater housing, and a few important audio tools for interviews.

Most important, we would bring two video cameras – one for only filming underwater (Sony HDV Z1), which we already owned, and another for filming interviews, and the majority of ‘topside’ footage (Canon XL H1). We purchased the Canon XL H1 before we left, after much research and much debate for a variety of reasons I will outline later.

Why two cameras with a limited budget? Well, I once flooded a Sony FX1 in a GATES housing while filming humpback whales in Western Australia. Luckily it happened on the second to last day filming, so all was not lost. From that point on, I did not want to spend so much money, time, and effort getting to a location without having a backup just in case the worst happened again. No matter how careful you can be, you are taking a huge risk by putting a camera in the water - especially if it the only one you have!

For us, we had to be creative with all of these factors in the production of this documentary. However, the biggest issue was budget. This type of project this was made on a very small budget - produced, written and filmed in Argentina and while traveling back to the USA, and doing all of the post-production in hotel rooms and sleeping on couches along the way.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Behind the Camera-An Introduction

Well we finally did it! After a torrid pace of writing, filming, and editing, we finished editing our wildlife documentary program "Southern Right Whales of Argentina" in December, and we have put it up on our website for people to view for free.

There are a number of reasons why we are publishing these types of stories on our website -

Part of it, is to share the incredible experiences of being in remote places around the world, another is the importance of educating people about issues related to the environment, while exploration of our natural world is still very necessary and motivating on a number of levels.

The excitement one gets when capturing an experience on camera to share with others is very special. It offers the viewer the opportunity to perhaps discover a previously unknown aspect of their world.

My wife, Genevieve and I, have been very lucky to be involved in producing a program on PBS called The Voyage of the Odyssey - website:

From 2000-2005, we circumnavigated the globe on a whale research boat as part of a scientific expedition led by whale biologist Dr. Roger Payne. From the start, we were given a very broad mission. Along with the researchers and the crew on the boat, we were to document the experience, the highs and the lows, the research conducted onboard, interview the people we met, capture the places we worked, the challenges along the way, and of course, the 'unexpected'.

Over the 5 and a half years, sailing over 87,000 miles, working in 22 countries and visiting 180 ports, we produced over 500 reports called Odyssey Logs and over 50 short video documentaries. To say that we learned a lot along the way - is a vast understatement. One thing we never had time for, was to go behind the scenes and explain in detail how we actually did it - how we found the stories, how we put them together, or shared the sometimes incredibly difficult situations we found ourselves in. Sometimes we felt, we never truly answered the most common people asked us - what was it REALLY like?

The web is an incredible resource for information. Many sites I regularly visit are wonderful sources of information on topics relating to digital media. Because of the fast changing environment we live in, magazines and books on the topics of production, camera gear, trends in the industry, even 'how-to' articles, are often out of date in books and in magazines. The web has become the defacto source of the most current technical and creative information.

However, I have never come across a detailed resource in the production of wildlife, science or environmental media. So, over the coming months, I will go in depth about a number of issues I personally experience, related to wildlife filmmaking and photography - sometimes technical, sometimes anecdotal.

What is exciting about producing stories about the natural world is that you are always learning. No matter what country you are working in, what environmental challenges you face, what camera you shoot with, or any piece of software you use to put together the piece, the concept, the idea, and the message that is built with the tools you use, should always be the main focus of the story. I find that you will always learn, on every project no matter if it is producing a website, a documentary film, a DVD, or even just designing and writing a proposal in the very early stages of production.

To produce an engaging documentary or capture inspiring photographs that focuses on science or the environment can be tough. You have to be a good writer, an excellent communicator, a thorough researcher, someone who takes risks, but most of all an explorer who can see the fine details and step back to view the bigger picture.

So, in future Behind the Camera articles, I will write in depth about creating a documentary like "Southern Right Whales of Argentina" - from start to finish, as well as the challenges involved in doing so on a small budget with a very mobile studio. Because of the work we do, it often involves a lot of traveling, which means that to produce this type of media, we have to be able to carry all of our equipment with us and have to come up with creative ways to help tell a story.

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