Of all the short documentaries that I produced for the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center this is perhaps my favorite piece.
When I first began making documentaries at Point Reyes National Seashore I was asked to make a piece on elephant seals. Point Reyes has long been a destination for elephant seals who like to breed and molt on its shores. They don’t do these things just anywhere, so it’s a special characteristic of the park. Also, elephant seals are the very definition of charismatic mega-fauna, so they make excellent video subjects. The only problem I foresaw was collecting footage: I began working at Point Reyes in the summer and elephant seals only breed there in winter.
The solution was to use the park’s own footage of the seals for my documentary. Park Rangers and park biologists had been collecting elephant seal footage for years, and I had access to all of it. However, their expertise was not in shooting video but rather in studying these animals, so the footage was rough. I began culling the copious amounts of seal footage for usable tidbits. This process took a long time.
Once I had enough elephant seal footage I began writing a script for the documentary based on the selected footage. Then I interviewed the park’s elephant seal experts using questions gleaned from my script. Using this interview footage I wrote a voice over narration script to fill-in the missing pieces of the elephant seals’ story. I then pulled all these pieces together into a rough cut of the documentary. This rough cut was reviewed by my superiors who absolutely loved it. Except for one thing: they thought that the elephant seal footage was lacking a professional touch.
So they invited me to come back to the park in the winter to shoot the elephant seals myself. I could then use my footage in the fine cut of the elephant seal documentary. No problem. Except for one thing: the entire script had been written around the original footage which had been shot by the park’s biologists.
To work around this I had to recreate the same shots I used in the rough cut. Not an altogether easy task when working with wild animals, unpredictable weather, and a very limited amount of production days. But in the end I got my footage, I supplanted it into my final draft of the documentary, and I do believe that it turned out well. But you just never know where a video production is going to take you once you start in on it… and beginnings matter.
Caution: elephant seals are a territorial and unpredicable species, especially during their breeding season when they are hulled out on shore. It may be tempting to approach them for pictures or video but please keep your distance. Not only could you endanger yourself but you could also threaten their natural breeding behavior. Their species is still recovering from near extinction due to human interference. They need all the peace and protection that they can get.
The science videos I made for Point Reyes National Seashore (available on their Media Webpage) needed voice-over narration for their final cuts. Unfortunately, the Park Service did not have a sound studio to produce audio recordings. I had recorded “place holder” narrations using a consumer-grade microphone plugged into the Park’s old Canon GL2 camcorder. This worked fine for rough cuts but would not suffice for the final product.
Luckily, with the help of Professor David Sheerer and Timothy O’Malley, we were able to record the voice-over narration in a professional sound studio on the campus of Humboldt State University. We used Pro Tools to digitally capture the audio from our voice actor. We used a Sennheiser 416 microphone to give the audio an in-the-field documentary feel. The sound booth was acoustically dampened with fabrics and baffling. It was quite an experience and the narration turned out excellent.
Tip: use a “pop filter” in front of your microphone to dampen any hard p’s in your narration. If you can’t afford to purchase a pop filter then you can easily construct one from common materials. Check out this DIY link here