IAmA wildlife cameraman who has worked on Human Planet, Planet Earth and Life and worked with David Attenborough on 12 of his series
Greetings Reddit! I am Gavin Thurston and have been working as a freelance cameraman, predominately in wildlife, for over 20 years. Feel free to ask me anything!
If interested, here's what I've done over the last 10 years.
Edit: Thank you all for the amazing response so far. When possible on location I 'Tweet' so if you are interested in following what I'm up to then please follow me there
In an attempt to answer the common question: How did I get started?
I took my first photo aged 10 with a very simple box camera. Oddly, it was of an Orca in captivity at Windsor Safari Park (now Legoland) in the UK whilst on a school trip. I found it magical that by one press of a button you could capture a moment in time and share it for years to come. My passion for photography grew over the years at school where I taught myself to process and print my black and white photographic efforts.
I left school at 18 with the idea of going to University in London to study 'Film and Photographic Science' (yawn, thank goodness I didn't!). I needed a holiday job for 9 weeks before Uni to get some beer money so on the day I left school I literally walked into a small film company called Oxford Scientific Films near where my parents lived. I managed to show them my photographic portfolio and they gave me an interview there and then! They offered me a temporary job but said they couldn't pay me but they would pay my bus fare and give me lunch. I loved the place, work and people so much that I asked for a permanent job and skipped University. I learnt sooo much over the next 4 years working with wildlife and on commercials, feature films and IMAX (as a tea boy mostly). Sweeping, tidying up, holding lights, cleaning lenses etc. etc. I learnt by watching the masters of their crafts.
The pay was appalling and so I had all sorts of evening jobs like selling loft insulation, Betterware door to door and as a cocktail barman at a Harvester restaurant.
Finally after 4 years I knew it all and needed to move on to greater things and more pay so applied for jobs with the BBC. I got several interviews and finally got a job as assistant cameraman at BBC Bristol. I worked there for another 4 years alongside some of the greats including Alan Heyward, Andrew Dunn, Martin Saunders, Hugh Maynard etc. (IMDB or Google them). At the BBC I realised I didn't know diddly-squat about the job and so stepped onto an even steeper learning curve that I have never got off.
After another 4 years the pay was again not enough to support me, my wife and child on the way. The advice I was given with the reputation I had been building was to go freelance. Amazingly, word spread and in the space of 2 weeks I had been offered 2 year contracts with NHK, Partridge Films and the BBC NHU as a freelancer!! They were all offering interest free loans so that I could buy a camera kit and then work to pay off the loan. I was gobsmacked and took the BBC offer as it was where I was based and new the producers etc. The BBC leant me £18,000 ($30,000) and I bought a second hand ARRI HSR 16mm film camera and lens. On the strength of a 2 year contract in my hand the bank lent me a further amount (which I am still paying off until 2022! as part of my mortgage even though the camera was superseded 10 years ago).
I remember my first big job as a freelancer was filming Terns (birds) on the Farne Islands off the north east coast of UK. The producer Neil Lucas accompanied me up there and helped me into the tiniest of fishing trawlers (think miniature Deadliest Catch) with my newly purchased camera kit. I didn't have insurance and pictured loosing the lot to the sea. The sequence turned out fine for a David Attenborough series called 'The Trials of Life'. The rest as they say is (Natural) history.
After 30 years in this career I am still married with two sons (who put me up to doing this Reddit IAmA). I am still working full time.
Some brief advice on how you can get started
My advice to anyone wanting a career in Wildlife film making: Firstly, get out there with any camera you can get your hands on. Get photographing or videoing. Build a portfolio and hone your skills, use the internet and books for advice on technique and find out for yourself whether this really is your passion. Could and would you sit in a hide for 4 weeks, 15 hours a day on the off chance of capturing a unique piece of behaviour? If you find yourself complaining at all then I suggest you try something else. If you love it and want more, then go for it.
I am a great believer that you make your own luck and opportunities in this life. Don't just follow the normal path, think outside the box to make your luck change. Any employer in any business will only employ you if you are going to bring some skill to their company. You need to build your skills so that you can offer something to the wildlife film making industry rather than just saying 'I always wanted to do this'. If you have a talent or skill or knowledge to offer then someone will want you to work for them.
If any of you want feedback on video or photographic efforts then I will be keeping a check on this IAmA thread over the next few months or perhaps longer if there is still interest. Remember we all have to start somewhere.