How I got started in Wildlife Filmmaking
by Rob Nelson
One of my favorite things to ask other nature and conservation filmmakers is how they got involved in what they’re doing. What surprises me is how similar many of their responses are. Mine will follow a similar path as others: I got a science degree and then fell in love with telling stories. The knowledge that a video I could change more people’s mind than any research project could is addicting. However, I suppose the exact way I came into the industry is unique and might be worth sharing.
Let me start quickly with my background. I grew up in Dallas, TX. We had a small lake house that served as my wild fix and made me want to become a biologist. At the time I had dreams of becoming a marine biologist, I think in large part to the Adventures of Jacques Coustau. I wanted to be just like him, studying the marine world. I had a split life though. I loved being in front of the camera and as my dad was an avid home video-maker, I had access to cameras for my movie creations as long as I can remember. Most of my free time involved me writing scripts for my next James Bond reenactment.
Eight years of schooling later, and a masters degree in Marine Biology under my belt, something finally clicked. I liked making videos more than I liked doing the nitty gritty field research. In fact, I had purchased a camera with grant money several years back and instead of using it 100 percent of the time for my research, I’d take it underwater to film all my colleagues research. I enjoyed helping them make their presentations come to life. After awhile I felt that I had a unique talent to tell their stories … more so than I had a talent for writing up my research. I had to follow my true calling.
When I finally realized that Jacques Coustau was really a professional storyteller instead of actually a marine biologist, I felt it was ok for me to leave my lifelong goal of doing research and take on a new one. My new goal was to use the videos that I produce as ways to make science come to life. I wanted to make videos that inspired people as much as Jacques Coustau did for me. To do this I decided to make videos that teachers could use in the classroom.
I realized from the teaching I did in graduate school, that there weren’t very many good videos that were short and concise enough to use in the classroom to accompany my lessons. So, I started making them. Every video I made, I put on my website and wrote short pages to go with them. I got addicted to putting everything I learned up so that others could read it.
Then I started organizing expeditions. If Jacques Coustau could do it, so could I. My first trip was to Mexico where I organized 6 specialists to help me document biodiversity. Then I did a bike trip from Seattle to Anchorage, then a trip sailing across the Hawaiian Islands. The next year I started a more academic pursuit to filmmaking.
In 2005 I started graduate school at Montana State University’s Department of Science and Natural History Filmmaking. In one intensive year I learned more about filmmaking than I could have in a decade of doing it on my own. I learned the theories behind why I was doing certain things. It was a great learning experience that set me up to finish pursuing filmmaking on the web.
I stared www.explorebiodiversity.com and then www.thewildclassroom.com. These sites then lead to www.untamedscience.com, each site a modification of its predecessor.
I don’t think I chose my path to become a filmmaker. I think it chose me. I made an agreement to myself in school to do what I love when I felt like it. I only do stuff on the web because I love doing it. If it wasn’t for this simple love I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m not rich and don’t have many possessions but I feel rewarded being around a whole team of other biologists and filmmakers that also love what we’re doing.
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