Exploring the “no handbook” realities of becoming a conservation filmmaker; an interview with Christine Lin, National Geographic Explorer

Christine Lin is a filmmaker and environmentalist with a focus on Indigenous storytelling, bird habitats, and water conservation.

As a Senior Producer at the National Audubon Society, she currently leads video and various media projects surrounding the conservation of birds and the ecosystems they rely on.

She is also a 2021 National Geographic Explorer, having recently wrapped filming her latest documentary this past summer.

What initially sparked your interest in conservation work?

I’ve been interested in conservation and protecting the environment for as long as I can remember. In middle school, we had to write these reports on magazines, so I chose National Geographic, of course. It was always the documentaries on Animal Planet and Discovery Channel that showed me what the natural world was like outside my home.

Even locally, my visits to state parks and parks around my neighbourhood helped me build that connection. In Texas there’s a lot of fossils and rocks, so I became obsessed with dinosaurs and learning about fossils. It was a combination of a lot of things.

What draws you to the intersection of filmmaking and conservation?

Both of these passions have been with me for a long time, but it wasn’t until way later that I realized that I could combine filmmaking and conservation into a career. At first they were really just interests of mine.

Again, when I was in middle school, I saw this old camera in my parents’ house when I was home alone as a 10 year old. I remember picking it up in my hand; it was old and dusty, but for some reason even just picking it up in my hand sparked all these possibilities and stories; from that day on, I said, “Okay, I’m going to make videos”.

I didn’t know it was even going to turn into a job, but I just kept making videos. I started with my dog Coco, a favourite subject, and just went from there. Then at school I started an environmental club, and have been interested in conservation and filmmaking ever since.

I minored in documentary when I was at New York University, and it was cool seeing women as successful documentary filmmakers; that’s when it first occurred to me that I could do this as a career, taking those classes and learning how to take my little video projects and turn them into actual documentaries. After I graduated, my first job was at Audubon as their social media fellow, where I emphasized my interest in videos and created a lot of different projects for them.

That turned into my full time job, and I’m now the Senior Producer of Visual Storytelling, where videos are the main part of my job.

What did you study at university?

I actually majored in business, with a concentration in marketing. A lot of the electives I took were entertainment or film related, like creative producing, so it taught me the art of pitching and thinking creatively.

Credit: Wyn Wiley.

What does a typical day as Senior Producer of Visual Storytelling at National Audubon Society look like?

There are two “typical” types of days, so I can walk you through both. There’s the attention-grabbing one and the more mellow one, though both are equally important.

The mellow one is like today, where I’m sitting in front of my computer. For the video projects I work on, my job spans through the pre-production to the post production, so my typical day could involve anything in that process.

I could wake up and draft a video script, and I would send it off for review, then I go to meetings where I plan other videos, or maybe I would make a TikTok in the middle of the day, and spend the rest of my day editing a longer video project.

Then there’s the other side where I’m shooting in the field. In January I spent a week filming the short documentary “Flight of the Wood Stork” in the Everglades, which was featuring the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary staff, and what they were doing to protect the Wood Storks and their habitats.

Those days, I would wake up in my cabin, in the sanctuary, bring out all my camera equipment – I have two different cameras, one for birds, and one with a wider lens for people – and I just followed people around.

One very exciting day I started off at 7 a.m., went on the smallest plane I’ve ever been on in my life, a small fixed wing plane, and we went up to monitor Wood Storks. Right after we landed, I had to document a prescribed fire conducted by Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary staff as part of their habitat restoration plan.

Just two examples of what a typical day could look like!

Can you walk me through the stages of a typical project? Do all the projects have similar processes?

In general I do follow a similar structure; pitching and development is so important. Pitching is so exciting to me, because I start with an idea – big picture, what’s the goal – but, regardless of the type of project, I always make sure to put together a treatment document.

Then I find all the people that will need to be involved, either through interviewing or producing, then I draft scripts. So putting ideas onto paper. I always think about release early on too, and that varies depending on the platform.

In 2021, you became a National Geographic Explorer. Congratulations! Could you explain the process of how that came into fruition?

I did a deep dive into pitching when I was a 2020 Jackson Wild Media Lab fellow. That was during the height of the pandemic, so when I became a fellow it was the first time the media lab was ever held in a virtual setting. So instead of learning how to shoot videos in the field, the topic became how to pitch, which was very helpful for me.

I turned the project that I was working on during this fellowship into a grant application for National Geographic, which is how it evolved into the project I’m working on now.

Christine with a non-releasable American Kestrel named Coral at an Audubon video shoot with the Wild Bird Fund at the YouTube Space. Watch the full video here. Credit: Preeti Desai.

How difficult is it to retain creativity when translating complex, scientific concepts and issues?

I think it helps that I don’t come from a science background. When I’m making a video, I keep in mind what would help someone like me understand.

For example, with “Flight of the Wood Stork” there were a lot of scientific components, talking about their habitats and what it means for Wood Storks to come back and how to monitor them; before I worked on the video, I had no understanding of that.

I give myself background info, but then I really let the scientists do the talking when I’m interviewing them. I ask questions from the point of view of someone who is a complete outsider to those topics, because I normally am.

Also, visuals are super important, so I keep the technical terms to a minimum and use visuals to explain topics.

Congratulations on wrapping your latest documentary following Thaidene Nëné (“Land of the Ancestors”) and the people that protect it. Why this story, and why now?

I’ve been interested in conservation stories with Indigenous peoples at the forefront for some time now. At first, it started with me wanting to learn more about my own background and my own family; my grandmother is from an indigenous tribe in Taiwan called the Amis.

I remember a few years ago when I had the chance to visit, I interviewed a few Amis people in the community, as well as my own family members, including my grandmother. That’s when I started seeking out stories of Indigenous peoples protecting their land, since they’re the ones who know the land the most.

And why now? This is a crucial time, climate change is happening a lot faster than we can handle, and we really need more examples as to how we can protect our environments; Indigenous peoples have so much ancestral and sacred knowledge that a large part of the world has ignored for so long. We need to listen to them, and see them as leaders.

To what extent does your cultural heritage influence your work?

It impacts it a lot. Coming from immigrant parents, I think I’m organically prone to be more aware of who’s behind the camera and who’s in front of it. I try to always be intentional regarding who’s creating the content, and who’s being featured in the content.

Would you agree that there is no handbook when it comes to becoming a documentary filmmaker, and if so, what advice would you offer someone who wants to inspire conservation through film?

Hands down, there is no handbook. There is no linear path that exists where you can do “a”, “b”, and “c” and finally land at the destination with the title of “documentary filmmaker”. I’m still figuring it out as I go.

But as for advice, I say be open to different options. I think there’s very few places in the corporate or non-profit world where you purely just make documentary films. If you follow what you’re passionate about, it shows. You never know who you’ll meet through what opportunity. So don’t be afraid to apply!

Credit: Renee Wilson.

What are you most optimistic about in terms of the impact of your work?

What makes me excited is the community of people I’ve been able to surround myself with. I’ve always been interested in environmental conservation and environmental justice, but in the early days it felt somewhat pessimistic for me to feel as though I was the only one who cared. Once I was surrounded by people who shared the same goals and we got to work on projects together, that gave me so much hope. Seeing the drive so many young people have, and how many people do care, it makes me excited to continue making visual content that revolves around protecting our environment, together.

You can see Christine’s work through her website, or follow National Audubon Society on Instagram @audubonsociety.


Author Profile | Nicole Van Zutphen

Nicole is a creative and communications professional with a focus in storytelling through media. Inspired by photo and film as visual mediums to educate, inform, and challenge current narratives, she aims to combine conservation efforts with documentary work. She studied Creative Industries with a speciality in film at Ryerson University in Toronto. After working in multimedia at an NGO in the Peruvian Amazon for 6 months, focusing on the biodiversity of the Manu Biosphere Reserve, Nicole is now the Multimedia Coordinator at the Toronto Wildlife Centre. You can find her at www.nicolevanzutphen.com and on Instagram @nicolevan.zutphen.


Main image credit: Wyn Wiley.


Interviews, Communicator