Kamchatka on camera
Текст: Dinar Khayrutdinov | 2018-12-06 | Фото: | 3628
Modern wild nature documentaries captivate us by their breathtaking photography, interesting and complex stories and amazing scenery. But even more impressive is the fact that these programs are usually filmed by small companies consisting of only several people. One of such documentaries was the subject of our talk with a remarkable German director, Emmy award winner Christian Baumeister, who also told us about his experience of working with wild nature.

– Could you please tell us about your company, Light & Shadow. What distinguishes your company from other similar companies in this industry?

Our company has been in the business for 15 years now. It’s a very small company, but in spite of that we try to do fine quality, blue-chip filming. We do our films all around the world but our particular emphasis is Latin America: for instance, we spent 8 years filming in Brazil. We worked quite a bit in Russia too, which started with a film about Kamchatka that was released in 2008.

– Were you the initiator of the idea for that film or was it the TV broadcaster?

It was mostly my own idea. I had always been fascinated by the Far East of Russia. It’s a very unique place with very distinctive wild nature. But the access to that area was a bit difficult, as it hadn’t been well exploited. However, it was unbelievably exciting.

The original idea was doing a separate movie about Kamchatka, but by coincidence several other companies were planning to do a whole series on Russia at that moment, which was called ‘Wild Russia’, so we ended up joining this project, and we did the Kamchatka episode. So, it was a happy accident: I had wanted to make a film about Kamchatka anyway, and now an opportunity came up to do it as a part of a large project.

© Light and Shadow


– How do filmmakers usually get the funding for such projects? Do you usually get the money from TV broadcasters or are there any investors involved?

This particular project was produced by NDR, a German TV channel. The series was successful and became widely known. But normally it happens in a different manner: we propose an idea first, then we start selling it. Of course, it requires quite a bit of investment because you have to go around the world and spend a long time in the field to film wild nature documentaries. We usually spend 100 to 200 days filming. As a general rule, that means that to make a good film we need to conclude contracts with not one but several channels. Very often these channels include the National Geographic Channel but basically we work with all major broadcasters that air wild nature documentaries. But even after so many years of experience I can tell you that in this sphere it is still very difficult to find partners and investors, it always takes a lot of effort. This is a highly competitive market, and there are always people who don’t want to do anything for less than a certain amount. So you really have to be able to sell things in our line of business, it’s a big part of the job.  

– When making this program about Kamchatka, did you want to specifically show certain animals that live there or in general to film the whole fauna of this area?

Probably the latter. The idea was to tell some kind of natural history of Kamchatka, so we tried to film the animals that are unique to this area, particularly the volcanic regions. Kamchatka is a very interesting area geologically because it’s constantly moving, and there are lots of active volcanoes. And following the animals’ interactions with the volcanoes is very interesting. For example, we filmed grizzly bears coming down from the valley to feed on grass in early winter because the steam of volcanoes and geysers melted the snow, or a little bird that used the volcano heat to make its nest. So, we basically wanted to show all the majestic fauna of Kamchatka with all its variety but we also had certain «main characters». These were, of course, the grizzly bears – people are always interested in them. Also the stellar sea eagles – amazingly beautiful birds that are one of the largest species in the Accipitridae family.

© Light and Shadow

© Light and Shadow

Kamchatka Brown Bears

– Did you have to do any research before starting the project?

Yes, we did a lot of research on it, we collected a lot of materials about this area, and later on we were happy to have some Russian friends who were working as photographers and provided a lot of information. It’s always very important to make connections to people who live in the area, because when you have someone who knows where to go and where to look for anything, it’s much easier. Kamchatka is about the size of France, I think, so when you arrive there you really have to be precise logistically and know for sure where to go. Also, due to the fact that there are next to no roads in Kamchatka we had to use helicopters, which meant that the pilots also had to know exactly where to fly them. So we always try to build relations with local people, and we are always happy to meet someone who knows the location we are heading for and is ready to help. In fact, having sufficient information is winning half the battle. If you have the accurate information, you will get a high quality film. If you don’t, you won’t be able to get it done.

We spent about 120 days on Kamchatka, and it was pretty effective. Thankfully, we were very precise and went for the right track at once.

© Light and Shadow

Filming on Kamchatka

– When you film this much material, apparently not all of it gets into the final version of the film. There is probably always a lot of material that ends up on the cutting-room floor. How do you feel about that? Do you regret having to destroy the footage that you have worked a lot on, being aware that nobody is going to see it?

When I work I mostly think about the end result, I kind of see the ready film in my head. And I am really willing to put only the best sequences into the final film. These days it’s not much of a problem, as everything you film is digital now. But years ago you had to shoot on actual film, and you had to be very precise about what you were shooting because the film was very expensive. On the other hand, the editing was easier back then. Today you end up with hours and hours of material and you don’t know what to do with all of it. This happens especially often with younger, less experienced cameramen who film everything they can. But I’m really happy with this, because I’m completely focused on the final result, on getting the film as good as possible.

– How large was your team in the Kamchatka project? How many people?

It was very small actually – only three people: there was me, my assistant (cameraman) and a Russian producer who was accompanying us. Sometimes we also had some locals to help us in the field (we sometimes hired guides), but the core team was only the three of us. The key isn’t having many people but to spend as much time as possible in the field, wait for the perfect light, and wait for the animals to do some interesting stuff. This in turn leads to teams being quite small, mostly for cost reasons. Also, the smaller the team, the easier you can move and the less noticeable you are for the animals, which is useful with Kamchatka bears.

© Light and Shadow

© Light and Shadow

Filming on Kamchatka

– Sometimes I’m really amazed when I watch wildlife documentaries, seeing animals look and act naturally, like real actors in a feature film...

Normally it’s about two things. The first is to have good knowledge of the given species of animals and the second is to try to be at the right place at the right time. Of course, many things happen in the editing room: you can emphasize certain things or show them slightly differently by carefully editing them. There are quite a few tricks here. But the most important part is still being there, in the wild. It’s about waiting for the right moment, then catching that moment and filming it. To film small animals, you can even work on set. For example, for certain animals like butterflies you have to have controlled conditions (certain temperature, humidity, certain types of flowers, etc.). But we very rarely go as far as creating artificial conditions for animals, and that is only possible with some species. It wasn’t the case for Kamchatka but in tropical countries sometimes you have to do that for the insects that inhabit them.

The only thing we used for Kamchatka occasionally was having some bait for animals, which is especially useful in wintertime. It attracts the animals and makes them stay at the filming location for a while. In a huge area like Kamchatka you could spend a whole year sitting in the bushes and not see anything, especially if you haven’t found the right place. So having some food for the animals often helps.

– Wildlife documentaries often feel like they are pre-scripted. How much of what you film is pre-planned? Do you write the script before filming?

Yes, of course we do. Actually we do it much more these days, we pay more attention to it than we used to. Because the market is changing, and television requires dramatic writing now. It attracts more audience because people want to see good storytelling. We live in a world filled with visuals – YouTube, TV shows, all kinds of videos on the Internet. Because of all that, the competition is very high. So to make people want to watch an entire film you have to amp up the drama, make it interesting. We try to grab our audience, captivate them by the story and make them want to see how it is going to end. Or otherwise they will watch our film for five minutes and then they’ll be like: “OK, this is great and all but let’s see what’s on the other channel.” And click the remote control. A lot has changed even since the time when we did this Kamchatka program (which was about 10 years ago). Now we try to pay even more attention to story – all for the purpose of really grabbing the audience’s attention. These are the challenges of our time.

But on location we also try to find exciting stories with animals. For example, we film some bears when they feed on salmon in the river and we suddenly discover a strong male behaving very actively and aggressively and trying to dominate the territory. This bear immediately becomes the main hero of this story, and we try to get as intimate as we can. Surprises on set tend to happen quite often, and whenever something completely different and unscripted happens, we try to adjust to that as we go and we often end up getting stories that are even more interesting than what was scripted. And then other times there are days or even weeks when we don’t get anything. This is when you start to get desperate. But that’s nature, you cannot predict it.

© Light and Shadow

Steller's sea eagles

– What were the biggest difficulties you have ever come across?

Probably our most difficult project is a three-part series on the Andes in South America that we have recently finished filming. The Andes are a mountain range that stretches for about 7000 km from north to south. It’s about the same distance as from Moscow to New York, and so we were shooting this film in six different South American countries. And the biggest issue was selecting the right stories and being at the right time at the right place, because it takes really good research and it’s not easy to get reliable information. We always joke that we have more problems with people than we do with animals. But looks like that is true: with animals you just have to wait long enough, and they’ll eventually do what you want from them. With people it’s much trickier. We have a ton of equipment that we frequently have customs issues with, there’s lots of bureaucracy, there are difficulties with filming permits, finding the right place to film, etc. And all this work around the project is often more worrying and stressful for me than the actual work with animals.

– What qualities do you think are necessary for a director (or producer) of wildlife documentaries?

I think you basically need to have a good understanding of animals and have enough sensitivity to foresee how they might react or behave in this or that situation. And also to have an understanding of how film generally works. Our films are actually much closer to other documentaries or even fiction films than you’d expect:  all the basic techniques are the same, the buildup of stories is similar, and the way you build sequences, work with the camera or edit is the same, too. So I think it really takes good filming background, a sufficient understanding of the natural world and also a lot of tolerance for frustrations, because you come across problems and obstacles all the time in our line of work.

– You have been working with wild nature for years. What personal discoveries did you get from this experience? What did you learn from this job?

Wild nature is a wonderful world, but, of course, wherever you go around the globe you see environmental problems. Russia is one of the exceptions, by the way, because it is a very large country with vast spaces and a lot of wild nature with no signs of civilization. But anywhere else I feel more and more isolated and I see nature being destroyed by civilization, human presence, agriculture, industry. For instance, we’ve been working on a three-part series about the fauna of the Amazon, and the ecosystem of that area has been destroyed by 30-40% by now. And wherever you go, the space for wild nature is getting narrower and narrower, not to mention other problems. So anytime I film something I get the feeling that I am on one of the last islands of wild nature in the world.

© Light and Shadow

© Light and Shadow

© Light and Shadow

Wildlife of Amazonia

– If you were asked why you make wildlife films, what would you say?

It all started back when I was just a kid: when I was 9 or 10 years old I already dreamed of filming nature. Of course, it is a very satisfying job and a huge privilege that is tremendously satisfying: you travel to beautiful places around the world, you see something that you don’t normally see with your own eyes and at the same time get a chance to do something creatively. Of course we also try to create certain environmental awareness, but that’s not easy because when people watch wildlife documentaries they don’t want to see problems. But anyway, even if it’s just an ordinary wildlife film like the one about Kamchatka it’s still important to show the beauty of wild nature. Most people live in cities today, and it’s great to give these people some emotional connection to the world outside the big cities. It could influence them to treat nature differently in the long term. Sometimes I feel like it’s my mission, my main task: to try and show the beauty of the world. But my work is also a fun personal adventure. So I’m very happy to do what I do.

– Does the income from distributing a film affect you in any way when you come up with an idea?

Of course, you wouldn’t try an idea that you know the channels wouldn’t take. But I will push my own ideas anyway, while the commercial side is ultimately up to the channels to decide. There are quite a lot of them, they are running under a lot of pressure and competition, and of course they need high ratings. And there are certain obvious things here: for instance, if you have a film with dramatic events like fights between large predatory animals or anything in the similar vein, it will sell much better and have a better chance of coming to the international market than if you a make a documentary on, say, butterflies. But actually you never know for sure what project is going to be a success. So we do butterflies as well. I generally try to go as broad as I can in terms of subject matter. I have always admired people who can take a seemingly boring subject like river fish and make something very interesting and fascinating out of that. Because if you film grizzly bears and especially if you show their little babies, everyone will like them anyway. But try and show something less spectacular in an exciting way! That’s what I call true art.

© Light and Shadow

The Wild Andes: eruption of the Calbuco volcano

– Animals are probably very much scared of humans. How do you deal with that problem? Do you film them from distance or use other techniques of approaching them and not scaring them away?

That depends on where you go and what animals you film. Sometimes you just sit in the blind for ages, and sometimes you find places like where the animals are not scared of humans at all because they are not being hunted there. One of such places is the Kurile Lake on Kamchatka where you can basically walk among animals. But of course you have to be careful too, because some of them are dangerous animals.

– You have experience working as both a director and a director of photography. Which of these two functions is more difficult and which is more interesting?

Usually I do everything by myself: writing, filming, editing, directing, producing, talking to people, motivating investors and film staff, getting the team together, etc. It is a ton of work and a very complex process, and it involves a lot of different challenges. But I like it a lot due to it being so exciting and ultimately very rewarding.

And yes, sometimes I am invited to other people’s projects as a director of photography, which is very relaxing for me: it’s not that difficult, you just follow the director’s orders and only occasionally making creative decisions. It’s more routine, more comfortable, so of course being my own boss is much more interesting to me.

– You’re also an Emmy award winner and you’ve been an Emmy award nominee multiple times. How valuable is this sort of recognition for you?

Of course, winning awards is always great. But for me just seeing my film traveling around the globe and being shown on festivals is already a sufficient reward. Besides, it’s a chance to get a little personal with the audience and ask them what is it that they particularly like or dislike about the film. So I think for me the biggest honor is winning some kind of an audience choice award because the audience is who we do this for, in the end. And business-wise it’s also very good to have wins like that on your tracklist.

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