I’m sure that, like me, Thursdays for many of my blog readers have meant one thing this January — Big Cats!
The BBC’s natural history programming has started 2018 on a high, with this exciting new series exploring the secret lives of wild cats. This past Tuesday viewers were treated to a rare insight into an international project that’s battling to bring the Iberian lynx back from the brink of extinction through captive breeding and improving wild habitats.
I was fortunate enough to chat to Tania Esteban (whose work can be discovered at TRE Productions) about her work behind the scenes on the series, which involved researching, setting up shoots, storyboarding, and translating for the crew (Tania credits being bilingual as major advantage in securing her role on the project).
Listen to the full interview on the SoundCloud link below.
After discovering her film A Lion’s Tale through Twitter back in 2016 (it featured on my Top 5 ways to beat Blue Monday post in January 2017), I was incredibly excited to chat to Tania about the film; her first big steps into her career in documentary-making; and the amazing work she’s done with the BBC since completing her Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking…
Kate: ‘Big Cats’ was your first project for the BBC, what did you do for the series?
Tania: It was my first foray into the BBC because it was work experience. At the time I was editing A Lion’s Tale, which was good timing, so I applied for the BBC work experience pool. I thought; “I’ll just apply and see if I get it” — it’s usually quite tricky because so many people apply and I knew I may or may not get it. I was at university when I got the call and they said: “We’d love to do a quick interview with you if you’d like to do work experience”, and of course I said; “yeah, I’d love to!”
The reason why was mainly because I could speak Spanish and they sent me to Spain to do a recce of where they were going to film the Iberian lynx for the third episode, on the conservation element of it. So I was very excited because this was my dream project — I wish I could have worked on it for longer. But I spent a month and a half working on it; doing lots of research and getting to learn the ropes of production. We’d just learnt everything on the [Masters] course, so it was fresh in our minds and a good chance to see whether I could do this in the real world of work.
What did the work experience involve?
I helped the main researcher and assistant producer — the lovely Sara [Douglas]. We went out to Spain and actually flew into my home province — which was hilarious; I told the team that I could show them all the best tapas bars. I did a little bit of filming on an Osmo [a type of handheld camera] — so that’s kind of field notes and getting a general scope of the area so that the producer can look and think ‘right, we’re going to film here and we’d like to do this…”.
I did a lot of translating; liaising with the scientist and finding out key facts that would feature heavily in the story. It was my job to work around the language barrier and make them feel comfortable with the team and ask questions about where we could place the cameras and gain their trust — which I love doing, because I love talking to people.
What did you enjoy most about working on Big Cats?
I really enjoyed finding pure science, learning how to set up shoots and the storytelling element and thinking about different camera angles and story boards to help the production.
It was very high security and we had to put protective clothes on so we didn’t spread any disease to the animals and they hosed us down, because they’re critically endangered these lynx. And they’re so beautiful; very small animals. I’d never seen them before so that was very exciting.
It was really inspiring for me actually, because I never realised how many passionate conservationists there are in Spain. I was quite blinded to that in a way because I’d grown up there, but I’d never really had the opportunity to meet any of these people, such as Miguel who features on the programme.
The conservation work is incredible and I’m very glad that — from the perspective of a half Spanish woman — the conservation work that the team is doing is now coming out and being seen. It was brilliant to see that and to start my BBC role and my work as a researcher on a programme that features big cats — as I was obsessed with big cats at that time, after working on my film ‘A Lion’s Tale’.
What’s it like behind the scenes? Did you learn things that weren’t in the final programme?
Yes. You see all these things behind the scenes and you’ve got your team there; so you find out all of this knowledge and information that embellishes a sequence. And even if that doesn’t make the final cut, you still have that knowledge with you and you still have that bond that you’ve made with these people. I think it’s very important to keep up those relationships where ever you travel in the world, because you never know.
Like the connections you made during the production of A Lion’s Tale; the likes of Ian Redmond, Virginia McKenna and Will Travers. How did that come about and where did you get the idea for the film?
I was studying the Wildlife Filmmaking MA course in Bristol after completing my Zoology course. I’d know for so many years that I wanted to do this particular MA course; since I was 14 and I saw it advertised. So I planned all my A Levels and GCSEs to get to Bristol and do this course. So when I got it I was ecstatic! And as part of our final year projects we had to choose a story we were passionate about; I wasn’t too sure what that would be — I knew I really liked big cats, but wasn’t sure what the story would be. Then Ian Redmond came in [to the university] and gave an inspiration talk — as always. He was talking about vEcotourism and he said this one sentence — that it was the 50th anniversary since the Born Free film was made and I went; “that’s the story!”
Click the image to watch A Lion’s Tale
How did you get to work on the filmmaking side?
I’d recently read how lions had declined by nearly 70% over 20 years, and it’s just terrible when you think about how their numbers have plummeted. People always think that lions are so numerous, and they’re really not anymore — so I thought that’s the connection. So I went up to Ian [Redmond] and said “I’m a huge fan and I’ve got this idea for a film I’d like to make with Born Free; could you maybe put me in touch with Will Travers and Virginia McKenna if they’d be interested. And that really got the ball rolling and I got in touch with Will. Will was absolutely incredible — and I’m such a huge fan of his, so I was terrified of meeting him — and of course Virginia has always been such a hero of mine; as I’m sure she is of yours, and many people. She’s got this incredible presence. I even did a presentation about her when I was at school; I was 10 years old and we had to talk about our biggest heroes, and I chose her.
Everyone who I’ve spoken to who’s met Virginia McKenna has said she has such a positive air about her, and she’s so passionate and she ‘does’. She’s an activist — she acts upon her word.
Virginia McKenna portrait by Tania Esteban
So once the ball was rolling, I spent six months setting up the shoot and liaising with them constantly and then doing all the storyboards, doing all the research; talking to Victor — who’s one of the rangers out in the Kenyan Born Free offices — and then crowd-funded it. It was just a bizarre, really incredible year of planning this dream shoot and I thought: “right, I’ve got 10 days to actually shoot it, just a tiny percentage of a production.”
Actually getting out there was incredible because I got to fulfil a childhood dream of filming a story about one of my absolute heroes and an animal that’s very dear to my heart.
When I started editing it, I want the piece to be very much a memoir of Born Free and of Virginia McKenna as well, because she has dedicated her whole life to conserving wildlife. And her son [Will] is one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met. He never stops. He’s seriously incredible.
What was it like going to the 2016 ivory burn in Kenya for the film — to witness the biggest ever stockpile of ivory to be destroyed?
That was something that I was unsure as to whether it would come off. A lot of people asked “what’s the connection?” and I said “well, there is a connection”, at the very end — there was a different ending that I didn’t use, it’s a personal copy that I keep — it’s Virginia McKenna saying: “it’s not just about elephants and lions; it’s about the whole eco-system; it’s about the whole of nature — protecting it. It got me really emotional actually.
Being at the ivory burn was one of the most overwhelming, powerful things I’ve ever filmed. You’re so focussed as a camerawoman, thinking: “I’ve got to get this shot, and I’ve got to get that shot — I’ve got to get the president as he comes out to light the ivory, and I’ve got to roam around with my gimbal to try and get some of the shots of the rangers and the burning flames…” and then you look up and see this 50-tonne pile of ivory going up in flames. It was the smell actually, more than anything and you could hear the ivory crackling because bits of it were hollow — it was so powerful.
That’s why in the film I used Virginia’s voice, Will’s voice and Victor’s in the film, to narrate it. I wanted them to give a voice to all those people who had been working together to reach this moment. It’s all about emotion in the storytelling. That’s what I tell a lot of people — especially in conservation — because nobody wants to be lectured anymore. You’ve got to get them emotionally or visually arresting images to try and do these amazing people justice.
Just being there was amazing and I’m so grateful to Ian and Will and Virginia for giving me that opportunity to make a dream film.
Amazing! I know you’ve become a bit of a drone specialist; how has that come about?
Drones are amazing! I got started with them about 2 years ago when I saw a video on Vimeo that someone shot in Scotland on a Phantom 2 — a very old type of drone — and I just thought “god, it really does open up a whole new world!”. It was only then that it was beginning to get more commercial and anyone from the general public could start to buy consumer drones and give it a go. So I bought a secondhand one to see if I could actually fly it before I start taking it seriously — and it was terrible, the drone was quite terrible, but if you can fly a bad drone and a smaller one, then you don’t have to worry about the bigger ones.
I remember flying a drone over my house in Spain, and the mountains there have always inspired me, so just to see it from above and being able to take pictures was incredible — a whole new perspective. And that’s where it all started really. I realised it could add a whole new perspective to my storytelling.
I was at the BBC at the time and I thought: yes, I’m going to do this. It’s quite a lot of money, it costs quite a few thousand pounds to train yourself to get the license and get qualified, but I knew that it would perhaps open up more opportunities for me to go out on location and also to enhance my own videography and film work.
The conservation element of it is quite interesting, because you can use drones for aerial surveying — such as for monitoring orang-utan nests and tree distribution and species. In the forest it was incredible to pan up the trees that just go on and on, and it gives a good indication of the health of the forest when you see ferns on the trees, etc. And I’m always concerned about the welfare of the animals I’m filming — when I filmed elephants in the forest I didn’t get anywhere near them. So it’s exciting; you’ve got small drones like the Spark, which you can fit in your hand, and because of the size of it, the motors don’t make as much noise. That’s very exciting for wildlife filmmakers.
I recently went to Iceland, which is the most drone-able country — the way the landscape changes is like turning the pages of a children’s story book — and the new series I’m working on now heavily features a lot of drone work, so I’m going off to Canada very soon to go fly my drone. My first paid internal gig with my drone.
Exciting! And it’s always important to think about the welfare of the animals. So, tell me about your work on Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. What did you do for them?
That came about two months after I finished work experience on Big Cats and I’d finished editing A Lion’s Tale. The film came out at the start of November and at the end of November the BBC got in touch and said “would you like to do digital research for Planet Earth II?” Umm, yeah!
Digital research encompasses all the online aspects: all the video clips, all the behind the scenes pictures and all the social media clips and exclusives that people see online. And I was a part of the team that did all the different additional bits to support the Blue Planet II team. Which is probably why I was very active on social media about it, saying “check this out!” and all the random .gifs you probably saw about it.
We did some digital exclusives for Snapchat for America, which was interesting. My job was to look into all the archive which wasn’t used for Planet Earth, so I got to see all this amazing footage which wasn’t used on the main episodes and edit up clips for the digital platform.
We crafted these different stories with this incredible footage that wasn’t used on the series. Some of it was breath-taking, I hope its used for something in the future.
For Blue Planet II I did the equivalent, but also got to do some additional interviews with some of the filmmakers involved and the conservationists — so that was good, as it meant I got to do some more camerawork.
I was so desperate then to move on to production — and I saw that Wild Metropolis was commissioned and so I came up with loads of story ideas and pitched it to the series producer and he said “ok, you can be one of our researchers” — which was great, as I could move on to production which was what I wanted, as it’s pure research. It’s been my favourite project to date. A lot of people don’t see these ‘mega cities’ from around the world as wildlife hotspots, but some of the stories we’ve found: wow! It’s coming out in October time, so keep an eye out for that!
What advice would you give to people who want to go into filmmaking and start a career like yours?
You have to be really passionate — and slightly crazy — about wildlife and natural history. I did the science route, zoology and I studied urban bat ecology for a year and did my dissertation on it and then I specialised in filmmaking, because that’s what I wanted to do. You don’t have to do that, I know plenty of people who didn’t, but I think it just gives you this filmic grammar if you specialise in filmmaking.
So yeah, just get out there, find your own stories — the world has opened up now, anyone can own a camera that shoots 4K now. Talk to people about their experiences, travel — it opens up a whole new perspective of your own life, as well as your career. Keep filming and get on social media. .
Networking is about 60% of everything that we do. I also believe that if you can specialise in a certain area of wildlife filmmaking: gimbal work, long lens work, drone work, time-lapse, thermal — like you saw in Big Cats, the thermal imagery — there’s so many different niches that you can specialise in, I think you should go for it and pick one that you enjoy. I also believe in developing your own style; don’t just copy.
And always remember your roots; the reason you’re doing why your doing your filmmaking work — to make a difference, to inspire people, which is especially true of wildlife work
Want to know more about wildlife filmmaking?