Wildlife Filmmaking - Research your subjects and location throughly

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.