Mary Melville has helped produce some iconic wildlife documentaries in recent years, including Natural World and Dynasties. In other words, she does what many would consider a dream job. We spoke with her to learn more about life behind the scenes.
Mary, what is your job, in a nutshell?
I’m an Assistant Producer / Field Director at BBC Studios Natural History Unit in Bristol, England that makes wildlife documentaries such as Planet Earth II, Seven Worlds One Planet and The Year Earth Changed. I’m involved in researching wildlife stories, setting up shoots, directing on location and selecting footage for the edit.
Your work on nature documentaries probably sounds like a dream job to many. Maybe it was to you too! But are there any aspects of it that have surprised you, or may surprise others?
When I realised I was interested in working in wildlife TV, I made a few short web videos for conservation charities. These were (understandably) on a minimal budget, so I had to do everything from filming to editing (and I quickly realised I wasn’t very good at some aspects).
Now working in the industry I realise how many people - all with their own unique skill set - need to come together at different stages to make a wildlife TV series. This is also what I love about it. If you want to do a sequence about a primate that lives at the top of a tree, you’ll need to gather the right team: a lawyer to draw up the location-access agreement, a rope-access specialist, a scientist to tell you about the behaviour, a camera operator who is an expert in the filming equipment, risk-assessment advisors to help sign it off, production coordinators to manage the logistics … and that’s just the shoot, let alone all the people involved when it gets to the editing phase.
The wildlife cinematographers are therefore just one cog in the system, but we do choose them carefully. We need those who are good at getting the shots and reading the wildlife behaviour, but also working in whatever conditions that shoot is in, whether -5-degree snow or 40-degree tropical forest.
My job is really getting the right people to the right place at the right time. Everyone else does the tricky stuff!
'The wildlife cinematographers are therefore just one cog in the system, but we do choose them carefully. We need those who are good at getting the shots and reading the wildlife behaviour, but also working in whatever conditions that shoot is in, whether -5-degree snow or 40-degree tropical forest.'
Shooting in the field is a big part of working on nature docs. In broad terms what does a typical shoot period look like? (E.g. How long is it? Are there particular stages or tasks? Are you working with certain people? Staying in certain places? Or does everything just depend on the shoot?)
I’ve done shoots varying from one day (filming bees in the UK) to five weeks (in the middle of Amazon, where it took three days to get there). The most important stage is the preparation: getting everything double checked before leaving. If you do that right then the shoot normally runs quite smoothly, as this is often done with the help of local fixers.
The shoots, even if in very different places, often go through a similar pattern.
First you set up the kit and trace the area. For the first few days you’re finding your feet and working out the best things to do, then you get into your stride. This is usually in collaboration with the local scientist or conservationist who has been studying a particular species or habitat. The NHU has a huge network of scientists around the world.
There is normally a lull in the middle, when the sixteen-hour days get the better of me. This is also a good time to look at what footage you have and assess what you still need before a last big push through to the finish.
Then, once filming is complete, it’s time to safely transfer the footage stored on LOTS of hard drives. As an example, from one shoot alone we can gather 40TB of footage that needs to be backed up. So over a production we might accumulate over 600TB of footage.
Staying in a remote area for weeks or months doesn’t sound easy. What can the more challenging elements look like?
Many animals are active at dawn and dusk, which can mean long days with lots of either sitting around (or hiking) interspersed with a few moments of adrenaline! Even though technically my role on location is ‘field director’, the animals don’t take direction very well, so I’m mainly just making sure our wildlife cinematographers have everything they need to be in the right place at the right time to get the shots. For me, the hardest element is probably missing out on events, such as weddings or family moments, back home. You can’t pick when a certain wildlife event is going to happen - nature doesn’t plan around human diaries and things like Christmas!
'For me, the hardest element is probably missing out on events, such as weddings or family moments, back home. You can’t pick when a certain wildlife event is going to happen - nature doesn’t plan around human diaries and things like Christmas!'
That said, I imagine shoots are speckled with moments of magic. Do any in particular come to mind?
I’ve been very lucky. The magic moments for me are when the animals accept your presence and go about their business without giving you a second thought. I love otters - they’re amazing and inquisitive. Floating down a river in Florida next to some habituated otters, who were fishing and going about their business, was pretty amazing. Or walking on foot while filming a mother puma, who completely ignored our presence as she cared for her four young cubs.
The production process must mean learning a lot about conservation issues and working with a range of groups. Are there any issues or debates you’ve engaged with that you find particularly important or fascinating?
Yes - it’s my favourite thing about the job and also difficult, as often the issue is so complex it’s hard to do it justice in a short TV segment.
More and more climate change is affecting all wildlife, so any species we go to film is probably in some way facing a change to its habitat or food source.
I love getting to collaborate with researchers or other conservationists who are protecting species. For example I filmed at a wildlife rehabilitation sanctuary in America called Wild Instincts. They take in every injured animal brought in and, whenever possible, strive to release them back into the wild in a suitable habitat, while also informing local residents about effects of things like lead poisoning on local populations. They have rehabilitated and released thousands of animals, and it was a privilege to film with them.
'Floating down a river in Florida next to some habituated otters, who were fishing and going about their business, was pretty amazing. Or walking on foot while filming a mother puma, who completely ignored our presence as she cared for her four young cubs.'
Do you see any particular exciting ways in which nature docs are evolving at the moment?
One way it’s changing that I find exciting is that we are doing more remote shoots - including training up local camera operators to shoot stories in their home countries and then sending the footage back to the UK. Although this isn’t always possible, one effect of the last year is we have become better at this and I think this would be a great way to reduce the carbon footprint of wildlife filming and give opportunities to international filming talent.
It's also exciting that more content is conservation focused, with broadcasters keen to focus on the whole picture - including stories of human impact on nature.
Has working on nature docs changed the way you engage with the outdoors closer to home?
My walking boots are really well worn! I definitely seek out wild places in the UK and often choose to use my holiday to walk in amazing parks and coastal paths we have here - although sometimes when hiking in the rain it does feel a bit like a busman’s holiday.
What would be your absolute dream shoot??
I’ve never done a shoot in the Arctic and would love the opportunity to film polar bears. However more and more I’m interested in covering conservation stories - so I’d love to do a shoot focusing on some of the amazing conservation heroes who are working tirelessly right now.