Conservationists Connecting with Filmmakers

On July 17, 2012 scientists and filmmakers convened at a special workshop sponsored by the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation during the North America Congress of the Society of Conservation Biology to share their expertise in communicating conservation stories through film.

The workshop, “How Filmmakers and Conservationists Connect People, Nature, and Climate”, featured a diverse group of participants, including ecologists, scriptwriters,  directors and producers. The goal of the workshop was to bring together a broad spectrum of people to share knowledge of how to use film effectively for communicating conservation and environmental messages. The resources below were compiled from presentations and panel discussions.

Advice for Scientists Interested in Filmmaking

Telling Your Story

– Avoiding Gloom and Doom in Conservation Films

– Technical Film Basics

– Resources


The workshop was supported by grants from the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation and the Society for Conservation Biology.

Advice for Scientists Interested in Filmmaking

These suggestions were compiled from the workshop “How Filmmakers and Conservationists Connect People, Nature, and Climate”, held during the North America Congress of the Society of Conservation Biology on July 17, 2012.

General advice to scientists for approaching a film project

Cut the fat. Get to the point and don’t waste time. What you think might be really important (and it might be for your PhD) might drag your story down and not be as important as you think it is for the given audience. That thing you think is amazing might bore a lay to tears or be a red herring that spins the story off on a tangent. Take your story and cut in half. Now cut that half. You don’t always have to be so drastic but you get the point. Keep it tight, on point and don’t waste time in the weeds.

2-10 minutes is shorter than you think when you start putting a video together. Keep it under 4 minutes if it is for an online audience. Keep focused on the main, important details to tell the story and don’t try to throw in the kitchen sink or you will weaken your message, not strengthen it. If you must discuss everything, make either a longer video or a series of shorter ones on the topic. Again, if for an online audience, go with the shorter series of videos.

Have a story in mind. And tell that STORY. Just giving information is not going to get views. Ask yourself: What is the problem? Who are the protagonists and antagonists? What is the conflict and resolution? What marks the beginning, middle and end?

You don’t have to be a professional filmmaker but that doesn’t mean you can make a lousy product. Make it good. Nothing beats good quality and nothing turns people off more if that quality is bad. The audience might not fully understand why but they know good and bad.

For distribution, the internet offers alternative platforms for sharing film products. Be creative and explore some crazy ideas and connections. Just don’t give away your valuable asset for free.

Look at the winners of film festivals pertaining to your topic, and of course, the Academy Awards. The International Wildlife Film Festival, Banff Mountain Film Festival, and Educational Film Festival, are other good film festivals.

Most major cities have a guide to video production for that area. San Francisco has the “Reel Directory”, San Diego has the “San Diego Film & Video Resource Guide”, LA has “LA411”, England/Europe has “Kemps”. They are chock-full of good info and a good starting resource.

Advice for scientists who wish to work with filmmakers

Have your 2 minute “elevator pitch” dialed in when you are talking to a filmmaker or journalist. What would you say if you find yourself sitting next to them on an airplane? What would you say if you were cold-calling them? Have that short and sweet. And again, it starts with STORY and then quickly moves to “Why would your grandmother or kid care?”

Be honest and direct. Let them know your story and your affiliations. Email a query to them first, but then follow up with a phone call, if possible. If they are interested, they probably will call you back. Make sure to tell them why your idea is so different/spectacular/visual/necessary/compelling, etc, and what you have as well as what you lack to tell the story. Keep initial contact to a few paragraphs – or no longer than one typed page.

Scientists need to let filmmakers/journalists in. Filmmakers and journalists will ask for the world. “Can I get on the restricted area? Can I have all your research to read or see? Can I use that? Do you have footage of ______?” Give them your time and give them access to new knowledge and science breakthroughs. On the other side, filmmakers need to respect scientists and the work they are doing. If scientists let you into their world, don’t trample it.

Scientists should do their homework and know who they are working with. What kind of stories do those filmmakers make? Do you share the same or at least similar point of view? Make sure the filmmaker is going to respect and project the facts and story properly. Certain filmmakers are topic specialists, much like scientists. Finding a good fit can be mutually beneficial.

Take your time. Journalists are often on deadline but you can say “Hold on, let me get back to you.” Hang up, find out more about the person calling you, collect your thoughts and then get back to them as promptly as possible.

Be mindful of a range of opportunities for collaboration. For example, scientist may have access to funds and resources for film that filmmaker would not have, and vice versa.

For more resources:
COMPASS (hyperlink =
KQED / QUEST (hyperlink =
National Geographic Mission Programs Media Guidelines (hyperlink =

Telling Your Story

These suggestions were compiled from the breakout session “Telling your story”, organized during the workshop “How Filmmakers and Conservationists Connect People, Nature, and Climate”, held during the North America Congress of the Society of Conservation Biology on July 17, 2012. The session was led by April Chabries Makgoeng of the National Geographic Society and was recorded by Naomi Fraga of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.

Choosing a format:
There are several outlets to tell your story, think about ways to use multiple outlets and connect them. Also think of the most appropriate medium for the story you want to tell:
• Film
• Television Series
• Public Programs
• Websites
• Interactive games as a way to educate and engage people
• Shorts of trailers (for example, on YouTube)

The film format expands our frame of reference (for example, deep sea vents may become fascinating to the everyday person when featured in a film). Making a film is shining a spotlight on something.

For some stories multiple formats may be appropriate. An example is the “The Cove”, a long format documentary film, which was complimentary with shorts on YouTube. In many cases, multiple forms of media may help to engage your audience.

Find communities of interested to promote the film (i.e. Facebook or Kickstarter). Create a community for your work, and have a place to post sequels and ongoing production.

The scientist needs to find a way to use his or her interest and passion to help convey the story. In this regard, data can be used to tell the story, especially if they are animated to facilitate visualization of important concepts. The scientist may also play the role of a character (for example, as a detective in a mystery story).

The use of metaphors may be helpful to make the story have impact to a broader audience. The idea is to engage people with ideas of things they are familiar with. For example:
• A spinning ballerina may help explain the rotation of the planets.
• A hang glider could help explain about condor flight. Think about using 3D rendering of landscapes, and digitally insert flight paths.
• Rock climbers may help to explain mechanisms that geckos or plants that are “cliff hangers” use to grow in the crevices of steep cliffs.

How do you tell a story about a place? A place is not just a place: you need to find the interesting relationships. Consider the example of a forest in the southern Sierra Nevada of California. This place may be brought to life through depiction of the relationship of flying squirrels to their environment and all the other connections. You need to find a way to dramatize the relationships and interactions of organisms.

Film can be an important platform for outreach. It is important to connect the film to action. For example, the film may feature inspiring stories showing people taking action, and may conclude with information about a website where audience members can get involved. Both positive and negative stories can motivate people to act, but negative stories run substantial risk of leaving audiences resigned. For example, some people reported feeling hopeless after watching the movie “Gasland”.

Avoiding Doom and Gloom in Conservation Films

These suggestions were compiled from the breakout session “How to minimize the gloom and doom in conservation films”, organized during the workshop “How Filmmakers and Conservationists Connect People, Nature, and Climate”, held during the North America Congress of the Society of Conservation Biology on July 17, 2012. Moderators and participants included Tara Cornelisse (University of California, Santa Cruz), Kevin White (Filmmakers Collaborative), and Terry Root (Stanford University). The breakout session served to discuss the risks of negative messages in conservation films, as well as the ways in which filmmakers can address this issue. Highlights of the session are provided below.

Kevin White (KW): It’s helpful to look for stories that aren’t just doom. Doom stories are important for certain audiences, but we need to show insight and inspiration as well.

Terry Root (TR): After I give presentations, people sometimes ask me: “If this is true then why aren’t you screaming?” But if I try to present a positive aspect, I get accused of candy coating it. And when I do the opposite, I get accused of being too gloomy.

KW: It also greatly depends on your audience and the medium, be it TV, a filmfest or a movie.

Also, scientists will never say with 100 percent certainty that things are getting destroyed, but when you ask them about their kid’s future, they start crying. Scientists need to be the people that stand up because they have credibility.

TR: We also need to maintain our integrity.

KW: In film, it is good to use big name scientists who are willing to state things with certainty or at least use words like “majority”. Advocacy is a scientist’s responsibility.

With regards to the take away message, it’s important to think about what you want your audience to do after they see the film. Ideally, they would take some sort of conservation action. For example, when community partners participate in a screening, they can also be there after the film ends to show people how they can get involved. Conservation films can be like a religious convergence – they are powerful, shared experiences. Once people experience that, you need to give them a church and a way to share it and a way to preach it.

You can also show a film to the right viewer, like a congressman who can actually turn around and create a bill or sign a bill to make change.

TR: Not all scientists can deliver a positive message. Many are just not charismatic at all and so they only act gloomy – they just don’t get excited.

KW: But you have to really look for what excites scientists about a topic. Ask them what their project means to them – not their results, but the emotional connection to it. A lot of times, they break down. Scientists need to portray their dedication to the work because it is really remarkable and non-scientists take it for granted.

It’s still an unanswered question: What do we do about climate? How do we get “nonbelievers” to see the films? How do we stop preaching to the choir? By showing local actions in film, we can inspire others to take action too. The Web has become a valuable platform for broadcasting messages in a short and effective way.

There is a difference between the “factual entertainment business” and the “education business”. Science sometimes doesn’t sell to people and it’s important to recognize that.

Technical Film Basics

These recommendations were compiled from the breakout session “Technical Film Basics”, organized during the workshop “How Filmmakers and Conservationists Connect People, Nature, and Climate”, held during the North America Congress of the Society of Conservation Biology on July 17, 2012. The discussion was led by Scott Stender of Digit Productions and Post and Greg Marshall of the National Geographic Society, and the notes below were prepared by Sarah Reed of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

A proposal is a really important step to introduce your film idea to a producer, but you don’t have to go that route.

For a one-hour documentary film, a budget of $2.5 million is typical, $0.5 million is the minimum. Need to include funding for editing as well as filming in your budget.

As scientists, you are seeing things that no one else sees. Consider carrying a high-quality digital SLR (DSLR) camera to capture still and video images in the field. Natural history is impossible to storyboard, and films can take years to make. Shoot whatever is happening and edit as you go. The more you can storyboard (with footage in the can), the better. Consider working with a scriptwriter.

For a DSLR, purchase as nice of a camera as you can afford. Recommend a DSLR over a Flip, because of the value of still as well as video images. Some higher-end recommendations include a Canon 5D or 7D or a Nikon D800. Benefits of a DSLR are that it allows you to combine still and video images. Limitations of a DSLR include: it’s hard to get good sound, they don’t come with useful ports for hooking up other equipment (e.g., professional microphones), and you can capture a maximum of a 10 minute video clip. Be careful with a DSLR camera—it’s easy to have things out of focus which leads to bad video. Take a class or two, and then experiment. Will also need a tripod as you get more serious, but at least learn how to stabilize the camera.

Other cameras to consider include a Hero 2 with a GoPro helmet mount. Can capture sound and video, can be used underwater or left in situ in the field. It’s a good idea to purchase various mounts, an LCD monitor, an extra battery or two.

Also consider camera traps for field footage: Reconyx Black Flash or Bushnell Black Flash (black flash is not IR but invisible). Many of these can also do video.

Technology becomes obsolete within 2-3 years, but many of these cameras will last for 10 years.

Shoot the best-quality footage you can afford; broadcast quality is the true limitation of whether your film will be seen. Approximately 15-20% of production for TV can have a decreased level of resolution. Low-resolution footage is great for pitches or web applications, but it’s not going to make it into a full-length film. Some DSLR cameras are approaching a resolution that will be acceptable. For example, the camera used in the workshop (Sony EX1; $5k) or the camera that Greg uses (Epic; $35-60k) cost a lot more, you have to know how to use them, and the quality is still not good enough for use by National Geographic.

Audio is also a very important function to consider, it helps to carry the story you are trying to tell. Look at a Zoom H4M, a handheld audio recorder. It can record double-system sound and allows you to use a professional microphone. Also allows you to synch with audio from your video device.

Account for the time you will need to download and store data. Consider portable hard drives that have readers built in. Final Cut Pro X is a great, inexpensive tool for video editing. It can merge and mix different file formats.

Caring for equipment: Be careful when moving cameras from moist to dry environments (keep them in a plastic bag or inside your jacket). Keep equipment as warm as possible, as continuously as possible. Travel with enough batteries to shoot for the entire day, plus one more.

Consult with experts before you start.


The following links identify a variety of online resources that may assist conservation scientists interested in developing film projects.

Filmmakers for Conservation
“Filmmakers For Conservation is a global community of passionate people who work in, or have an association with, the global film and television industry. The organization was born almost a decade ago out of a growing sense of frustration among many producers and directors that there was very little funding and airtime being made available for films that dealt with conservation and the environment.”
– Opportunity to exchange with a network of professionals through events, an online forum, and other media.
– A news feed, including information on upcoming film festivals and other events of interest to conservation filmmakers.
– Guides and online manuals, including a advice for beginning filmmakers, a code of ethics, and sustainability guidelines.

Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University
The CEF “trains students to produce films and new media that focus attention on the need to conserve the environment in a way that is effective as well as ethically sound, educationally powerful, and entertaining.”
– Training through courses, including the Classroom in the Wild, which is a hands-on field course that covers the range of skills that filmmakers draw upon in the production of a conservation film.
– Numerous publications, including “Shooting in the Wild”.

Science and Natural History Filmmaking program at Montana State University
The program works to “train students with formal education and experience in science, engineering, or technology to become professional filmmakers.” The program also organizes the Element Film Festival.
– Training through numerous graduate-level courses.

Wildeye International School of Wildlife Film-making
Wildeye offers a range of “educational opportunities in the form of short specialist courses in Norfolk, UK, and longer overseas opportunities.”
– Numerous courses on technical filmmaking skills, as well as production.
– A bulletin on film events, career opportunities, and other news.
– Several publications, including “Go Wild with Your Camcorder”.

The website is a clearinghouse of news, resources, and information of interest to filmmakers and others in the filmmaking industry.
– Wildlife Film News, a monthly newsletter.
– Networking opportunities for members.
– Resources for employers and job-seekers through the website’s “Freelancer” section.

Greening the Screen
“The Greening the Screen sustainability toolkit is full of ideas and examples intended to encourage the screen production industry to use its creativity to seek win-win solutions that deliver both screen success and protection of New Zealand’s natural, historical and cultural heritage.” While the toolkit focuses on New Zealand, many guidelines are broadly applicable.
– Extensive examples and ideas for environmentally-friendly practices in the film production industry.

American Conservation Film Festival

American Conservation Film Festival

“The American Conservation Film Festival is an annual event held in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, a vibrant arts community 70 miles west of the nation’s capital. The ACFF features films from a diverse group of conservation filmmakers from around the world.”
– Opportunities to network with a variety of professionals involved in conservation films.
– Workshops on general production as well as technical aspects of filmmaking.

“At ScienceFilm, our mission is to train scientists, conservationists, NGO’s, and nature enthusiasts to communicate science and natural history by telling compelling stories and creating professional-quality videos. We offer short immersion workshops in science and natural history filmmaking. We can teach you the storytelling and technical skills you need to craft visual narratives, no experience necessary.”
– Intensive one week trainings for hands on learning of filming, editing and production
– Learn philosophy behind documentary film making

National Geographic
“Our Explorers are the heart of National Geographic, and we are eager to help you tell your story to the world. Explore this site for both technical tips and content guidelines that will improve your media and outreach.”
– Web resource with many tips and examples videos.
– Covers broad range of communication techniques from one the largest outlets of nature television in the world.

One Comment

  1. We are Peace for conservation, we are looking a photographer or wildlife film maker to cooperate in Tanzania

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