Three Secret Weapons for Better Nature and Wildlife Filmmaking

When it comes to nature and wildlife filmmaking, one of my favorite places to visit when I want to shoot some nature footage is the Indian Creek Nature Center. From tallgrass prairies and Iowa woodlands to Iowa creeks and wetlands, it’s a great place when I want to connect with nature and do some filming.

Recently the former director of the nature center contacted me to discuss some things about fundraising for their new education building.

He had recently returned from the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference. He told me that while he was there he saw several outstanding videos but none quite as good as mine.

Now I know that the OWAA has some top nature and wildlife photographers as members. I also know that many still photographers are venturing into shooting nature and wildlife video as well.

So it intrigued me as to why he thought my films were better than what some of the top photographers are doing. So, I asked him.

He responded… “I like yours because they are outstanding and very much set a mood.”

He had said that both my films and the OWAA films were outstanding, the one difference was that mine set a mood.

I looked up mood in the dictionary and it defined it as a state of mind or emotion.

How Do You Set The Mood In Nature Films?

I started to ponder how my films set a mood where others that he saw didn’t. I know one of the films he saw was an Emmy award-winning film on Aldo Leopold, the father of modern-day conservation. So to say my work rose above an Emmy award-winning film is nothing to shake a stick at.

I came up with three ways that I think my films set a mood where others may not.

They are:

Light

Color

Music

There may be other minor things that separate my films from others but I think these are the main three.

In this post I want to talk about the one that I consider my secret weapon when it comes to putting together a nature and wildlife film and that is music.

Music, in my opinion, is the greatest creator of mood there is. At least I think so.

So how do I use music as my secret weapon?

Many nature and wildlife filmmakers edit their films then either find music that fits the story they are trying to tell or hand off the edited film to a composer to write a custom score for the film.

What I do, however is a very different approach. I pick my music before I even turn on a camera. And this is where I think I pick up an edge over other filmmakers and here’s why.

Once I have an idea for a film, I start looking for music that fits the mood I want the film to have. Sometimes I find a track right away, other times it takes me days or weeks to find the music that says this is how I feel about the subject of my film.

Bird_320After licensing the track, I play it over and over and over and over. I put on a set of headphones, close my eyes and play the track as often as I can. I play it in my truck when I’m out driving around. I play the track so many times that I can “hear” every note from beginning to end solely from memory.

Now, I’m ready to roll the camera.

With the music track vividly burned into my brain I go in search of the subjects of my film. When I find something that I want to film, I compose then roll the camera while “listening” to the music track in my head. It’s like I’m editing my film to the music while I’m filming it.

When I think I have enough to finish the film, I lay down the music bed and start laying down the video clips.

People have commented before how fast I can edit video once I sit down at the computer. It’s because I’ve already “edited” the film while I was shooting it.

In the video below, I’m going to take the exact same shots but lay down two very different music tracks and you can decide for yourself how much music can create a mood.

So what do you think? Do you think finding the music before you shoot helps you make a film that works better than adding the music later?

I’d love to know what you think so place leave a comment below.

In future posts I’ll cover the other two areas I feel help give my work and edge and those are Light and color.
And as always, keep shooting the ordinary but make it extraordinary!
Kevin J Railsback is a wildlife and nature filmmaker

By | 2016-11-06T09:39:02+00:00 January 28th, 2014|Categories: Tutorials|Tags: |15 Comments

About the Author:

Award-winning filmmaker Kevin J Railsback has traveled as far as Africa to test HD cameras for Panasonic. His stunning nature and wildlife footage has appeared in productions on National Geographic, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel as well as in commercials for such corporate giants as AT&T.

15 Comments

  1. Terry March 13, 2014 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    Good advice Kevin thanks, love your site thanks for the great work you do. Finding great Music is one of the things I struggle with. Any tips on where to go for good music?

    • Kevin J Railsback March 13, 2014 at 10:03 pm - Reply

      Hey Terry,

      I’ve found some good music on Pond5.com

      The problem is that there are thousands upon thousands of tracks. So how do you find that one needle in a haystack?

      The first thing I do is to set my category. For me it’s New Age or Orchestral or Piano. Something like that.

      The next thing I do is sort by number of sales. If other people are buying the track then it should be a decent track.

      The next thing I do then is find all the tracks by that composer. That way, I know the style should be fairly similar but it might be a lesser know track with just a few sales.

      Quite often I’ve found my track by searching the composer and it turns out that the track I liked the best had much fewer sales than their popular ones.

      Another thing is to try searching for a composer you like just to see if they have anything available as a royalty free track.

      I found a great Helen Jane Long track that way. It cost me more than any track I’ve purchased before but I love her work so it was worth it. Just waiting for the perfect project to use it in.

      So many of the royalty free tracks I find are really cheesy frankly. You can tell the instruments sound very phony so when I find a composer, I tend to stick with them.

      I also use the “If you like this track, you might like this one too” feature that many royalty free music sites use as well. You stumble on some good music that way.

      It can be daunting to find the right music but I pretty much follow what I outlined above and I cane find something to use pretty quickly now.

      Hope that helps and thank you for taking the time to leave a comment! I really appreciate it!!!

      Kevin

  2. Christopher James July 22, 2014 at 1:56 am - Reply

    I really love your shots. It’s like seeing an inanimate object come to life.

  3. Antonio Ivagnes January 14, 2015 at 8:33 am - Reply

    Incredible! What camera did you use in this video?
    Have you ever used the Panasonic AJ PX270?
    Could you recommend a good custom scenes file?
    Thank you!!!

    • Kevin Railsback January 14, 2015 at 9:50 am - Reply

      Antonio,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, I truly appreciate it.

      I picked up a PX270 last summer and have been shooting with it ever since.

      I’ll have to upload some footage since most of the current footage that’s on my site was shot with the HPX250.

      I really, really love the PX270. Great camera especially for nature and wildlife filmmaking.

      A lot of people like the way I have my cameras set up so I’ve been toying with the idea to put up my scene files here for a few bucks to help pay for hosting etc.

      I’ll get to work on that and hopefully they’ll be up soon.

      Thanks again for taking the time to leave a comment!

      -Kevin

  4. Ana January 15, 2015 at 7:08 am - Reply

    Great tutorial, Kevin, thank you!
    I am the worst photographer on Earth so following your posts is a must!

    • Kevin Railsback January 15, 2015 at 10:26 am - Reply

      Ana,

      Thank you for your comment, I really appreciate you taking the time!

      Camera technology is so advances now that it’s almost impossible to take bad images.

      My rule of thumb is that if a subject makes me stop in my tracks, that’s what I want to capture.

      Two things that can help you improve your images very quickly is to not put everything right in the center and get down on your subjects level. Those are two of the biggiest mistakes I see people making.

      Give it a shot and let me low how it works for you!

      -Kevin

      • Ana January 15, 2015 at 11:35 am - Reply

        Will certainly do! 🙂

  5. Robert King June 2, 2015 at 9:03 am - Reply

    I have been shooting stills and observing nature for 40 years.

    you have brought up a good point

    I would saythat choosing the music firstwould set the tone… In fact,it would probably be a great strategy to play the music internally while one isshooting the video

    Robert King

    • Kevin J Railsback June 2, 2015 at 11:39 am - Reply

      Robert,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it.

      I think having an internal tune going in your head when you’re out photographing would work just as well as it does for me and video.

      I’ve been luck enough to have a couple composers write music for a couple films. It was really weird trying to cut shots without any music playing.
      They said just edit so that it flows and we’ll make the music fit. It worked great.

      But when using say royalty free music that you license, you have to make the shots fit the music so I go out in the field with the tune in my head and “see” the shots with the music.

      I’ll have to pay your site a visit. Love seeing the work of other nature artists!

  6. David Greaves September 25, 2015 at 7:55 am - Reply

    Hello Kevin,

    Downloaded your ebook and it’s been very helpful. I am currently using a blackmagic cinema camera to begin my journey in wildlife videography. Have you used DSLRs at all or cameras where you can swap lenses on any of your shoots? If so what challenges have you had to overcome?

  7. Trond Saetre December 31, 2015 at 7:38 am - Reply

    Thanks Kevin! Great tips you provide, as always.
    I’ll try your workflow with choosing music first. I usually do everything and then the music is the last thing I find.
    But same as you, I usually know how I want my film when I go out filming. And the editing is done pretty quickly.

    • Kevin J Railsback December 31, 2015 at 9:50 am - Reply

      Hey Trond,

      I find that music sets the mood for me and if I have that music in my head I tend to “see” things that work with that music much easier.
      I know picking the music first isn’t the “normal” way of doing things but it works for me.

      So far I haven’t run into a situation where the music didn’t work and I had to use something else in its place.

  8. Samantha
    Twitter:
    April 12, 2016 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    Useful post!
    This tutorial was amazing, thank you for sharing and keep up the great work.

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