An Inside Look Into Wildlife Filmmaking From The Women Behind Yellowstone Live

Yellowstone Park’s 3,500 square miles of wilderness is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, including an estimated 690 grizzly bears and 528 wolves. It’s also home to an active supervolcano that would wipe out all life within a 60-mile radius in minutes if it erupts. Most humans who visit the park observe nature’s dangers with a sense of awe from afar, but National Geographic’s Yellowstone Live filmmaking team is dedicated to capturing incredible close up shots, despite the inherent risks.
Back for a second season after its debut garnered 13 million live viewers, National Geographic’s four-night Yellowstone Live simulcast gives an exclusive look at the national park’s most revered animals. The award-winning production team is stacked with experts in wildlife filmmaking, including revered cinematographer Sue Gibson (Planet Earth II, Big Cats) and executive producer Martha Holmes (Hostile Planet, Blue Planet). Both women are breaking antiquated gender barriers in wildlife filmmaking and trailblazing animal storytelling to highlight important themes around conservation.
Advertisement
Refinery29 caught up with Gibson and Holmes in between their tracking grizzlies to hear more about their unique careers.
National Geographic
Refinery29: How did you both start your careers in wildlife filmmaking?
Sue Gibson: “I knew I wanted to work in wildlife as early as 6 years old. Growing up, my house was filled with exotic worldly artifacts that inspired my love of travel. I received my university degree in camera work in Bristol UK, which is the home of wildlife filmmaking. After graduating I worked in camera assisting at BBC, and when the opportunity to get behind came along in 2008 I jumped on it.”
Martha Holmes: “I went to school for zoology and marine biology and realized that I wasn’t happy with my day-o-day in academia. I asked myself, how could I work outside with animals? From a young age I knew in my bones that’s what I wanted to do, that’s what made my heart sing. After a host gig for BBC, I shifted to a role behind the camera where I felt most comfortable, and continued a career in producing from there. I found myself really happy with the production workflow, and when you’re happy you excel.”
What kinds of challenges do you run into in shooting and producing wildlife? What elements are most important to the success of filming something like National Geographic’s Yellowstone Live?
SG: “The thing about animals is that they’re not always where you want them to be. You could have filmed a herd of buffalo at 5 a.m. doing something incredible, but when the live show comes in at 8 p.m. they’re nowhere to be found. So that’s why you have to bring in the intel from local people, even tourists on the road asking what they’ve recently seen, and try to be in a spot where you have the best possibility to capture something.”
Advertisement
MH:: “As an executive producer, getting the right team is absolutely critical. It’s about getting the right people in the right place to do the best job they can, despite the elements and unpredictability of animals. They need to be adaptable and have strong communication skills since all of the action is happening in real time.”
Martha, with 25 camera feeds and a tremendous amount of footage how do you spot pivotal moments and piece together a story in real time for the audience?
MH: “You go into the broadcast with a plan, but because it’s live you’re always standing by for something amazing to come in. There’s a whole team of people watching the feeds, talking to the hosts in the field. The whole production is meticulously planned out to the second, but you have to be incredibly nimble to adapt and change, and you see some of those surprises play out on the show.”
Susan, what kind of skills does one need to have to be a successful wildlife cinematographer?
SG: “It’s having the ability to be in a location for days, weeks, months on end waiting for something to happen. It’s a tough job in terms of the physicality of it, and that can take its toll. I’m running on minimal sleep right now! You have to make sure that you’re as physically and mentally fit as possible, especially for condensed live productions when there’s no time for rest.”
Martha, how do you prepare the crew for the potential dangers?
Advertisement
MH:“Very early days we do risk assessment for people out in the field. We walk through the day in our head and spot out dangers with weather and animals. In Yellowstone we’ve had a lot of electrical storms, so there are paramedics on standby trained for lightning strike injuries.”
What’s the most exciting thing you’ve gotten to experience on the job?
MH: “How much time do you have? I have been nearly run down by a humpback whale that was in a fight with our boat. I had an up close encounter with a female polar bear and cubs that was pretty incredible. One time I also nearly walked into a female lion in long grass, which was my mistake for having not scoped out the area thoroughly. She gave me quite a fright! But it’s just another day on the job.”
In 2018 only 2% of top films had female cinematographers. Do you see a gender parity shift happening on nature productions? What advice would you give young women graduating who want to start their career in wildlife filmmaking?
SG:: “Don’t be put off by any of those stereotypically male traits that we keep getting told about. You have to be really really strong, you have to be aggressive. You need physical strength, but women can easily achieve that. I never thought that I couldn’t do it, so I just plowed ahead and never really saw my gender as being an obstruction. I’ve seen men in my field typically get ahead quicker because they will often say they can do things when they haven’t tried it before. Believe that you can do it and don’t sell yourself short with hesitation.”
Advertisement
MH:: “On the Yellowstone National Geographic team, there are equal men to women. I think women are smarter at a younger age so you actually see more women taking junior jobs in this wildlife film industry out of university. My advice is to be curious about everything and to be resilient and determined, because it’s quite a competitive field, so you have to really want it.”
What are you most excited to capture from Yellowstone Live?
SG: “We’ve just been filming stuff that I’ve never seen before, which is incredible. We filmed a mama bear with two cubs who were born this year and she’s been trying to hunt elk — incredible behavior.”
MH: We were able to insert a tiny infrared camera into a beaver den with four tiny babies, which is really beautiful to watch. We got a fantastic shot of a black bear running up a tree like a squirrel, I’d never seen that before! We shot grizzlies, a male chasing down a female, but she wanted none of it. They end up mating and snuggling together.”
National Geographic’s Yellowstone Live Finale Premieres Wednesday June 26th at 9/8c.
National Geographic
Advertisement

More from Entertainment

R29 Original Series