Wildlife Filmmaking With The Gaia People

First thing’s first, who are Akanksha Sood and Praveen Singh? What do you guys do?

We are a specialist factual husband-wife duo who works under our company – The Gaia People. We produce wildlife, conservation and human-interest films and also content or brands for social media. It’s been over 2 decades of producing some of the biggest natural history films in India. From blue chip to drama to conservation – we have done it all.  Both of us are driven by our passion, dedication, commitment and joy of the natural world. The natural world inspires us, motivates us and we hope to share with audiences not only our love for it, but hopefully move them in some small way to connect with the natural world, thereby igniting a spark in them so they may do their bit to aid in protecting and conserving it.

Together in Akanksha and Praveen one can find a Producer, Director, Researcher, Writer, Camera Person, Editor and what not. They are driven by passion, dedication, commitment and joy of the natural world.

Tell us a bit about your production company.

The Gaia People (TGP) is an independent production house in Delhi. We produce content that defines our contemporary times and entertainment that inspires and compels change. We have been shepherding ideas from development to production and post as well, collaborating with the some of the best producers, cinematographers and directors worldwide, and we specialize in using latest cutting-edge equipment as a means of story telling.

TGP defines contemporary times and entertainment that inspires and compels change

TGP is just the two of us, but we take on people on project basis, depending on the requirements. Akanksha is a producer, director, researcher, writer, edit producer and also looks after the business side of things. Praveen is a highly specialized director – cameraman, working on all the filming and also on the post production side.

We both brainstorm to conceptualize proposals to pitch and then to final delivery.

How different is wildlife filmmaking as compared to other types of filmmaking?

While the basics of filmmaking apply to wildlife filmmaking as well – telling a good story, using the tools correctly to film, editing, etc., wildlife filmmaking requires a different aptitude, knowledge and skills that go well beyond conventional filmmaking.

First up, a sound knowledge and understanding of the natural world, your subject that you want to film – whether it’s a tiger or a spider, are essential. You have no control over your subjects so knowing your subject will enable you to know what to film, where to film, when to film and the equipment you need to film the subject.

Second, you need to have oodles of patience but have to be always alert, because you don’t know when your subject is going to make the dramatic move, or hunt. Things happen in the natural world, within split seconds, so if you are not ready for it, you’ll miss the action, the moment. And these moments are incredibly important to tell your story, when in a film you are trying to tell the story of the subject or the landscape or the habitat.

Wildlife filmmaking requires a different aptitude, knowledge and skills that go well beyond conventional filmmaking, says the duo

Third, the turn-around time for a film can be very long, from conceptualization to filming to post-production. And this is often at odds with broadcasters, media platforms demand for short timelines and audiences habit of instant gratification. A big challenge is that content commissioners want to know a clear story line before putting down the money, but in the natural world, you can’t really predict where the story will lead to, what will be the climax.

So as wildlife filmmakers, raising funds for it is very difficult, influenced by perceptions of what sells as that’s what attracts funding. You can possibly get money for making a film on tigers, but try getting funding for a film on spiders or butterflies!! And then how many films on tigers can you make that have a different plot, story arc? 

How do you choose a subject and location for filming? How much time it typically takes to produce a film?

There are various factors that go into choosing a subject or location for filming. Sometimes there is a good story to be told about the natural history of a subject animal or a landscape, sometimes driven by our own interest in what we view as important species or landscapes to be highlighted for conservation. For example, ‘India’s Wandering Lions’ had an amazing story about how lions survive beyond the protected area; the series, ‘On the Brink’ we really wanted to bring attention to species in India that are endangered, vulnerable, and virtually on the brink. The concept then allowed us to highlight species and people working to protect or conserve them, species that are rarely seen on television – the Great Indian Bustard, Wolves, Bats, Black Bear, Red Panda, Gharials, Pangolin to name just a few.

‘On the Brink’ brings attention to species in India that are endangered, vulnerable, and virtually on the brink.

The time a wildlife documentary takes to film depends on whether it is blue-chip natural history (typically without people in it and focused on animal behavior) or whether it’s more conservation-oriented and featuring people. So India’s Wandering Lions took more than a year just in production (we had been pitching it for many years!), while for On the Brink each episode was only 8-10 days of filming and about 3 weeks of post-production.

Wildlife filmmaking is an expensive profession what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?  

We think the only advice we can give aspiring filmmakers is that if you are passionate about nature, wildlife and wish to be in this profession, you need to just keep at it, persevere and you will need patience. You must love the outdoors, have some element of adventure in you and it helps if you have some financial security, a plan B, as let’s be honest, there will be times of uncertainty and don’t look at this as a career if you want to make pots of money!! We do it because we love doing, we love being out in the wilderness and gives us peace and satisfaction.

As a filmmaker, one must love the outdoors, should have element of adventure and of course patience is the key

Does The Gaia People offer internship, diploma or certifications in wildlife filmmaking?

We do offer internships, as and when there is a project. We are always willing to share our knowledge, experience and insights with anyone who wants to explore wildlife filmmaking as a possible career choice.

You have worked on several species and at many locations, what kind of challenges you guys face. Which was the rarest encounter?

Every wildlife film projects comes with a different set of challenges. Some may need special access, permissions to use a certain technology, in some, logistics to filming location may be a challenge, in others the subject itself maybe a challenge to find, or the landscape to film maybe a challenge due to natural elements.

Challenges in filming films may vary from getting special permissions to logistics to natural elements OR finding the subject itself in it’s habitat

Not clear about what you mean by a rarest encounter, as for us filming any subject we have not filmed before or in a different landscape is a privilege, gives us satisfaction, brings us joy and happiness. But if you were to ask a special moment from the natural world that stands out, for Akanksha one such moment was seeing a caracal with a hare in its mouth some fifteen years ago and getting a photograph of it. For Praveen it was filming a jungle cat kill a snake at night and filmed with a thermal camera!

Which project of yours was the most memorable for you? And why?

For us each and every project is memorable, however the last few have been really memorable for use of pioneering technology, challenging ourselves and filming species we hadn’t filmed earlier. These films include India’s Wandering Lions, Manas – Return of the Giants and the series, ‘On The Brink’.

What is it like working with media giants like Discovery, NatGeo or BBC?

To meet the expectations of broadcasters, it takes real hard work, it’s very competitive, challenging and one has to prove, every time, that they can deliver.

We think every filmmaker would like their films to reach a global audience. By virtue of working with broadcasters like BBC, Arte, NDR, NHK, Nat Geo and Discovery, who have been the torch bearers for natural history content over decades, audiences have both a trust and expectation that the content is well researched, has great production values and is both informative and entertaining. So to have your films on these platforms is an honor but it takes real hard work, it’s very competitive, challenging and one has to prove, every time, that they can deliver and meet the standards that the broadcasters expect.

What kind of stories you would wish to film but haven’t got a chance yet.

There are lots of stories – habitats, species that one would like to film, but for various reasons it has not been possible to bring them to audiences – finances, interest or risk taking from broadcaster / streaming media platform, logistics and challenges of being able to actually film the species in the wild. For example, Whale Sharks. The investment, in terms of time and money, is very high to be able to film Whale Sharks in Indian waters and then hope to capture amazing natural history behavior and moments, after all audiences expect those. Amidst the plethora of visual content available, they have to make a choice and they will only if the content meets their expectations.

Where do you see wildlife filmmaking heading towards in next 5 years in India?

This is a tough one…While there are a lot of young people now making films on wildlife, environment, conservation, the media landscape is changing very rapidly. While today it is relatively easier to make a film using cheaper DSLR cameras, (but lenses are expensive, especially long focal length zooms that you need) and one can put the films online, getting funding for the films or revenue generation for the filmmaker is very difficult. Today the only kind of wildlife films that seem to find a big online streaming player (where consumers tend to flock to) are blue chip natural history series, that use latest and expensive technology for incredible production values and thus are expensive to make. A lot of small independent production companies making one off documentaries appear to have disappeared. However, there has been growth in non-profits working in wildlife making their own content and that opens some avenues for people wanting to break into this profession. It’s a kind of paradox…over the two decades we have seen that while many more people are wanting to make films and join this profession and there are more options for distributing films, the funding for making these kind of films from broadcasters within India hasn’t really grown much. So it is a very, very competitive industry and we don’t see that changing very much.

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