What Exactly is Run & Gun Conservation Filmmaking?
I’ve made a career out of run and gun filmmaking for conservation. But what exactly does that term mean? What’s different about a run and gun technique?
Well, let’s look at what a typical professional filmmaker doing general video work might use for equipment. They might show up to the commercial filming gig with a large box-shaped camera called a RED. It costs anywhere from $7000 to $30,000+. The tripod might be a $2,000 rig. Don’t forget the big boom pole with a big microphone on the end. And then there are the extra large cinema lenses and light stands with giant softbox lighting setups.
OK, I’m sure you get the picture. It’s a lot of big, heavy gear. It takes time to set it up, and take down. Imagine having to follow a biologist in the field and set up, take down, and set up all this equipment for filming clips in different habitats during an afternoon? If you’re the client you’d better have a large budget for the video project. Because all that setup and takedown work is very time consuming.
Another feature of run and gun filmmaking is efficiency. It’s typically more organic in nature too. Because I pack lighter and more compact, I can maneuver swiftly and adjust fast to the field work that I’m filming. That’s a bonus for you being captured in a way that’s more real and authentic.
I don’t use a $30,000 box-shaped camera. I don’t use a big, heavy $2000 tripod either. Both are not practical for me in the field. But make no mistake, my gear is all high-end and professional. It’s just that it comes in a smaller more agile form factor for field use.
Run and gun filmmaking is a technique that emphasizes portability and flexibility. For me, it’s also about blending in so I can capture footage of people genuinely going about their field work. For every film shoot, the equipment needed may change. But being nimble is always the goal. I choose my equipment based on each field situation. This shouldn’t be confused with being bare-bones. There are no cutting corners where quality may suffer. The purpose is always to select the right equipment that meets the reality of running and gunning with a camera. Still, professional high-end footage is always paramount.
When I’m in the field filming biologists and field technicians doing their work, we’re all moving at a brisk pace, in a limited time window. Often, we’re capturing footage that is designed to show the reality of the work unscripted and unchoreographed. There are few chances to perform multiple retakes of the shots you’re trying to acquire (unless it is a static interview scene).
Sometimes I use my largest rig setup for run and gun filmmaking (see the main photo at top). It’s not something I use in every situation. But I’m showing you this photo to prove a point. What I’m holding looks professional and expensive. It is. Gear by its very definition is not an indicator of run and gun capability or expertise. Someone with a rig like this could film and produce amazing content, or poor content. Someone with a smaller setup could do the same.
Here’s what I know as a conservation filmmaker: I usually have a very limited window. Filming days are often fast moving, and done in physically demanding environments. There are usually no scripts, no context as to how these movements will translate or unfold ahead of time. It’s field work. You can’t stage a migrating bird flying into a mist net, or a critically endangered Acadian Flycatcher appearing in a dense forest on que. Often I am physically running after the subject matter. Sometimes I don’t uncover all the hidden gems of unscripted dialogue and action until I’m in the editing studio. This is the very nature of what run and gun filmmaking is all about.
Using a run and gun technique, I still film documentaries, multi-episode series, short films, promotional videos and social media videos. Is a tripod sometimes setup for in-field interviews? Absolutely. If the situation calls for it. But that doesn’t have to be the case every time. Ultimately, I must be able to grab it and go.
No matter what technique you use for anything, experience means you will refine it, and become better and better at it.
In the early stages of a young career, run and gun filmmaking may have the perception of being sloppy, low budget or inferior to other filmmakers who show up on sets with big budget, fancy Hollywood gear. But make no mistake about seasoned run and gun filmmakers. The investment in gear is big too. Except it’s for the right kind of gear for the terrains and environments we traverse daily. And the skill of being a professional run and gun filmmaker is hard won.
Here’s to more slogging in mud, wading in boggy ponds, fending off clouds of biting insects, and navigating the way with map and compass apps.
I look forward to seeing you in the woods and wetlands. With my run and gun filming setup. Of course.