The Evolution of Natural History Footage

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Natural history, a content category including wildlife, earth science and weather footage, is home to some of the most dramatic, breathtaking and expressive images in the footage market. Advanced production technology, now accessible to both experts and non-traditional filmmakers, is having a huge impact, both on how these images are captured, as well as on the quality and quantity of clips available for reuse at all price points. And while the overall natural history licensing market remains “healthy and growing,” according to Andrew Delaney, Director of Creative Content at Getty Images, it is “definitely showing higher levels of competition from greater volumes of well shot content.”

The Impact of High Tech Capture Tools

Just a few years ago, most natural history footage was shot with a telephoto lens from a semi-fixed position such as a blind or Land Rover, and aerial footage was the domain of manned aircraft equipped with expensive Cineflex rigs. Today, the availability of relatively inexpensive high-tech production tools has opened up a wider array of creative options for capturing natural history footage, and filmmakers in the field have rapidly integrated these new capture tools into their workflows.

“The core of wildlife cinematography has always been long lens photography,” said Matt Aeberhard, a leading wildlife cinematographers with nearly three decades of experience in the field. “This is changing with the advent of drones, remote cameras and other production technologies. Any major shoot is going to include remote cameras, handheld gimbals and aerial drones in order to achieve the current style of production.”

“High quality 4K camera platforms are getting smaller and ever more capable,” said Andrew Delaney of Getty Images. “Low light capture capabilities are creating new opportunities for behavioral studies. Smaller action cameras can be put anywhere and drones are being cleverly employed, not just as a cheaper alternative to helicopters, but as completely new viewpoints with minimally invasive environmental footprints.”

These tools enable skilled shooters to capture higher resolution images under more challenging circumstances, shoot from a much wider variety of perspectives, add movement to what were formerly static shots, and get up close and personal with subject matter. The result is a very different look to the final product.

“There is an interesting return to the deep dive of high end blue chip natural history storytelling, with the new tools and technology that make it possible to capture so much more than was possible 20 years ago,” said Lisa Samford, the executive director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. “Both Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II speak to that. At the same time, with the proliferation of digital distribution and the broad accessibility of high quality imaging, without the steep barrier to entry, there is also a big uptick in personal story-driven narratives, short form and consumer-created content. I’m eager to see what unfolds as Augmented Reality is refined and Mixed Reality programming grows in importance.”

“I think new technologies offer us a different way to capture or see a scene,” said Martin Lisius, president of Prairie Picture/StormStock. “I film with a DJI Inspire 2 [aerial drone]. It’s fairly compact and I take it with me often. I filmed Hurricane Harvey here in Texas with my Sony FS7 and the drone. When I got back to my office, I noticed that even though the Sony captured some dramatic imagery, it was the aerial footage that told the story best. The drone was able to see dozens of houses, streets and cars submerged in flooding, all in one framing. It was stunning. As far as the drone camera could see, all the way to the horizon, there was city and water, together as they were not meant to be. So, perhaps technology is offering a huge leap in how we capture nature.”

The Market for Natural History Footage

Advances in production technology have had a major impact on the business of licensing natural history footage, both in terms of the quantity and quality of images available for licensing and reuse, and in how the content is priced. While end-user demand, driven by both traditional clients and online programmers, remains strong, footage suppliers have had to adjust to the realities of the current platform-driven market and offer natural history footage to meet all price points.

“We are seeing substantial growth in clips sales,” said Dan Baron, CEO of Nature Footage. “Overall, there is massive growth in the use of video, and nature is no exception. Nature and wildlife is an important message for a huge variety of productions, from educational exhibits, natural history television documentaries, web documentaries, as well as feature films and advertising.”

“There’s an increased demand overall for video, driven primarily by online consumption,” concurs Andrew Delaney. “Our clients are looking to differentiate their products or services from the visual clutter, and arresting natural history content achieves this effectively.”

User demand notwithstanding, many footage suppliers are facing increasing pricing pressure from low cost footage platforms, and, despite the unique characteristics of natural history footage, have been forced to adjust their pricing strategies.

“I don’t think there is any category of footage that has not been disrupted by microstock,” said Jessica Berman Bogdan, President and CEO of Global ImageWorks.  “I think the difficulty and skill involved in capturing amazing nature and wildlife footage is truly underestimated and misunderstood. That said, price often drives the sale and there’s a lot of royalty-free footage that fits the budget and the creative brief.” 

“It’s not the license model that is the issue here, its technology,” said Andrew Delaney. “As with stills ten years ago, the move to digital has leveled the playing field in a lot of areas and competition is fierce. The cost of capture has been greatly reduced and overall the quality and volume of content has greatly increased. Specialized areas such as animal behavior in the wild, shot to the standard of the BBC Natural History Unit, for example, are still unique and carry a premium but sweeping vistas and establishers are being videoed, with increasingly high quality, by ‘non-traditional’ filmmakers.”

“NatureFootage focuses on providing premium quality footage, the best cinematographers, and the most current formats,” said Dan Baron. “Although there is a glut of video on the market, wildlife can be very challenging to acquire and requires expertise. We always need to keep our collection current. There are novice shooters who are lucky and get the rarest wildlife behavior and will share it at low cost, not knowing about the potential opportunity of the industry. We do our best to educate shooters of the value of their footage, and we also do our best to maintain the value of their footage, while also being competitive in the industry. It can be a tough balancing act.”

So, to put a fine point on it, is there still a qualitative difference between the footage shot by the experts and the footage shot by the non-traditional filmmakers?

“In some cases yes, but not all,” said Andrew Delaney. “For example, the keen amateur ornithologist is now able to capture stunning footage at relatively low cost that can be on par with some of the best traditional broadcast coverage. However, as in any creative endeavor, there will always be true visionaries and artists whose work is way better than everyone else’s.”

Pricing

So how are providers pricing natural history footage? The answer is that, at many footage companies, it depends on the shot, with unique, higher value shots ending up in rights managed or premium pricing tiers, and other, more ordinary shots being offered at lower price points.

“While much nature content may be priced the same as other subject categories, we also provide a huge collection of exceptional and unique natural history behavior that may be priced in a higher pricing tier,” said Dan Baron. “Cinematographers choose their own pricing tier, based on the uniqueness of their footage.”

“I think the value of any footage depends on the specific shot, or at least the sub-category, rather than the broad category,” said Martin Lisius. “An average sunset is cheaper to produce than filming tornadoes and hurricanes. The latter is very time consuming and even dangerous. So, a good tornado or hurricane shot is worth more than most sunsets. That is not to say the sunset isn’t beautiful, it’s just easier to plan and acquire, and safer too.”

Who Uses Natural History Footage?

While documentary filmmakers and long-form television producers continue to make regular use of natural history footage, online programming appears to be the area of biggest growth.

“We of course have what I might call our more traditional consumers of natural history content as you outline above but we have seen massive growth in content used online for both commercial and editorial purposes,” said Andrew Delaney.

“There will always be a market for nature content in documentary television, educational exhibits, and online videos,” said Dan Baron. “We also see the huge growth potential in video décor (slow tv) for use in home and commercial settings.”

Subject Matter in Demand

Subject matter most in demand ranges from  “striking, beautiful, cinematic subjects and unique animal behavior,” as Dan Baron put it, to “an increase in demand of content that transcends the purely descriptive and embraces the conceptual,” according to Andrew Delaney. “For example, Nurturing: mothers and babies interacting; Strength: powerful animals lifting and pushing; Speed: Fast animals travelling at full tilt; Competition: animals fighting, chasing and posturing; Anthropomorphic: animals behaving like humans. And of course, anything humorous and clips of, as one colleague puts it, ‘The Fuzzies’ – cute baby animals. Additionally, there will always be a demand for footage of Mother Nature behaving badly: from storms and twisters to crashing waves and red hot magma.”

“There seems to be a higher demand for material that demonstrates global warming concerns,” said Jessica Napoli, founder of Content Brick and a former senior executive at both National Geographic and Discovery Education. “The requests that I’ve recently seen seem to be for material demonstrating thriving as well as dying environments, such as coral Reefs.  Organizations looking to demonstrate such circumstances also tend to have a greater interest in older dated materials even if the content wasn’t natively captured in HD.”

“Natural events have an effect on the need for natural history footage, of course,” said Martin Lisius. “If there’s an outbreak of West Nile virus, then there would likely be an increase in the need for mosquito footage, for example.”

“The format (4K) and new ways of shooting (drones, GoPro for instance) might drive the shifts in demand,” said Sandrine Sacarrere, Head of International Sales at INA, the Institut national de l'audiovisuel, based in Paris. “On the other hand,  current events (like Jose and Irma hurricanes for instance) may increase demand.”

4K and Older Footage

If 4K is not the current standard for natural history footage, “it soon will be,” according to Andrew Delaney. “Partly from a pure quality standpoint and partly as a way of future proofing one’s work.”

“4K has been the new standard for a few years now and many are shooting 6K and even 8K to future proof their content,” added Dan Baron. “Shooting RAW is also becoming essential.”

So where does that leave older footage collections with large volumes of HD and even SD footage? The answer seems to be that it depends on the inherent value of the shot and whether the subject matter can be easily duplicated with a higher resolution shot.

“During my time at Nat Geo, it was the shot that was of most importance, not necessarily the age unless landscapes or identifiable locations had changed significantly over time,” said Jessica Napoli. “The demand was more for the best shot that fit the client’s needs in the best format.  If the content was older but available in HD, clients were happy.”

“Natural history footage diminishes in value with every major format change, like from standard-def to HD,” said Martin Lisius. “That’s overall. But, there will still be a need for significant historical events like Hurricane Katrina, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, a major tsunami, fire, etc. Those are once in a life time occurrences…unless you are a natural history shooter, of course.”

 “There is a market for archival nature and wildlife if it covered a unique moment in time that no longer exists or is capable of being captured,” said Jessica Berman Bogdan. “If the original footage was shot on film, it might have a second life if transferred to HD.”

“It has a longer shelf life than other forms of footage that age due to changes in things like fashion and technology for sure,” said Andrew Delaney. “There are stunningly original pieces that still resonate well passed their natural sell by date (as dictated by capture format) and we are still selling arresting clips shot on film and SD. However, if clients find newer versions shot on 4K they will gravitate to them.”

“There is certainly a market for older natural history footage, especially unique content not readily available in more recent formats,” said Dan Baron. “However, clients have a strong preference for content shot with high quality cameras in 4K+. Access to RAW content is becoming increasingly important as adoption of HDR rapidly takes hold. NatureFootage always retains access to the highest quality masters to ensure long-term viability of all our content.”

Older natural history footage is especially useful in the documentation of climate change and ecological destruction.

“In order to show the ravages caused by climate change, new productions may be led to use older footage to witness the evolution of the land by showing the 'before' and 'after',” said Sandrine Sacarrere of INA. “INA holds an older collection shot by Christian Zuber (1930-2005), a filmmaker, photographer, journalist, and writer who devoted his life to protecting nature, and to showing how nature and less-developed cultures were being destroyed by the onslaught of modern civilization. French television ordered a documentary series, and Zuber pioneered on land what Commander Jaques-Yves Cousteau later did with the oceans. ‘Handheld Camera’ (over 150 episodes) was the first nature series to be broadcast on French television. This collection is a brilliant testament to how Christian Zuber, one of the first environmental advocacy filmmakers, taught us to love the earth and accept responsibility for its safekeeping. One of Zuber’s long-feature films, ‘Galapagos III’ (filmed over Zuber’s three expeditions in the Galapagos from 1958 to 1972) was screened in March 2017 at the DC Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC and it has been a great success with the public.”

“There is increased demand from non-profits and documentary film makers seeking to build awareness of the current trend of environmental degradation,” said Dan Baron. “We provide critical support to nature cinematographers to allow them to continue documenting both pristine habitats and the trends in habitat and species loss.”