Marine biologist turned wildlife filmmaker | An interview with Inka Cresswell
Marine biologist Inka Cresswell talks about why she went down the filmmaking route of marine biology, how she chose particular courses and universities for her studies and her advice for others.
What is your current job?
My background is in marine biology but I am working as a researcher in the wildlife filmmaking industry, with Wildspace Productions.
Filmmaking is a different approach to marine biology but I use all of my marine biology contacts and skills because a big part of my role is communicating with scientists and reading recent scientific papers in order to gain a full understanding of the state of our oceans. We then break that information down and find ways to incorporate it into a bigger narrative to create a film.
Why did you decide to go down the filmmaking route of marine biology?
I’ve always been fascinated by our oceans and I started out thinking I just wanted to be a marine biologist. During my studies I became frustrated at the fact you can see the damage being done to our ocean ecosystems, and the science detailing these issues and potential solutions is there but there wasn’t any action, which made me feel helpless.
So I went down more of a science communication path in order to educate others about those issues. And I realised that it is easier to do that by sharing photos of our incredible world and documenting my research through photography.
After working with the Watermen project, where we vlogged our expeditions to give people insight into our ocean conservation work, I decided I wanted to be doing filmmaking full-time.
What key steps have you taken in your career?
Deciding where to do my undergraduate degree was an important step. I studied Marine Biology at San Diego State University in the US. I chose this course partly because it’s on one of the most biodiverse coastlines in the world so was very much the dream location to study marine biology. The facilities were also incredible (we could also take surfing as a class!) and it allowed me to get stuck in with research throughout my entire degree which was really important to me, rather than waiting until my final year to undertake a research project, like with most UK courses.
I started marketing myself as a camera operator as well as a marine biologist and got very lucky on a work experience project where a camera operator called in sick for a shark shoot and I volunteered to step in after showing the crew my portfolio. And so my work filming blue sharks ended up on the BBC! I then started picking up more and more small gigs whilst still working on my own projects.
I spent a year or two working as an underwater photographer before doing a Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking at the University of the West of England. Here I had my first experience of taking on a bigger production whilst making my own film, because up until then I was doing photography and just a few bits of video work for dive companies.
I did my masters in Bristol because it’s the hub of wildlife filmmaking – about 30% globally of wildlife films are made there. It runs in cooperation with the BBC Natural History Unit so you gain access to some of the world’s leading professionals in wildlife filmmaking. The course is geared towards taking people from scientific backgrounds and teaching them how to apply their scientific knowledge within a film-setting and helping them develop a creative skillset.
The film I made during my masters went on to be included in a few different film festivals and then I started working as a researcher full-time for Wildspace Productions, where I am still working now.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The worst part is the logistics. We often think of conservation and filmmaking jobs as very exciting but the reality is that you need to do the due diligence with the research – the worst thing to do would be to spend a fortune on sending an entire crew out and realising you’ve got the wrong information about the animals’ behaviour or location. It can be hard sitting in an office to do research when you’re not necessarily designed for an office job, but it’s always worth it in the end.
The best part is being in the water. It’s a privilege to see your work come to fruition in the field and watching something play out in front of you which you have researched for months. I also really love working with a huge variety of people, from all different fields and nationalities, who are so passionate about what they do. I feed off their enthusiasm and get to dip my foot into all the things that fascinate me.
What are you most proud of so far?
That’s a hard one! My first film just made the selection at Wildscreen Festival which is awesome. Sharing your first film, which you’ve put so much work into, is the most terrifying thing. There are many things which I feel could be better about it, but I have to take a step back and acknowledge when I’ve done well.
What would your advice to others be?
Networking is really important, and don’t be afraid to reach out to people who inspire you. Send them an email to introduce yourself and ask if there is any way you can help them.
Building a network is especially important as a researcher where your contacts are your currency. But in order to get those contacts in the first place, you need to do things like volunteering and internships. I did a lot of volunteer work for organisations as well as helping people make promotional videos and providing photography for journals, which has gone a long way in helping my career progress. Using social media to network, collaborate with others and communicate science has also opened up some fantastic opportunities over the years.
It can be a difficult industry to get into but we are all working towards a common goal so I’ve found that people are unbelievably helpful and supportive. Set out with the right intentions, show you are genuinely passionate and not afraid of hard work and you’ll be amazed by what doors open up.