‘Living the dream’ is a well–worn phrase these days but we don’t think that’s the case with 30–year–old, Mark McClean.
He’s got one of the coolest jobs in the world – working as part of a team to make wildlife documentaries in some of the most unique natural environments in the world.
While most people spend their working day typing, talking or doing something else relatively normal, Mark could be flying through the air with a camera or diving deep into the sea in pursuit of pictures like this…
A native of Lisburn in County Down, Mark, now lives in Bristol but spends a lot of time working on different projects in far flung parts of the world and across the UK and Ireland.
Q First of all, Mark, thanks for taking the time to do this. Where in the world are you at the minute?
At present I am stuck in Muscat international airport Oman in the Middle East, as we have arrived for our flight home (after a five week shoot) rather early!
Q What brings you there?
I was working on BBC1 ‘The One Show’, when a cameraman friend contacted me to ask what I was up to at the minute and if I would be interested working on a shoot filming the wildlife of the coral reefs around the Dimaniyat Islands just off the coast of Oman.
The programme is 10 × 1 hour episodes on the wildlife around the Arabian Peninsula, with 3 or 4 of the episodes based around the marine life.
Working in TV can bring a lot different and exciting opportunities, so when an opportunity like this comes along I had to go for it.
Q It’s not the most obvious of careers. Is it something that you have always dreamed of doing?
It’s something I always thought about but had no idea how to pursue it.
I graduated from university for the first time in 2007, then travelled for a couple of years, doing a ski season in Canada along the way.
After that, reality hit and I knew I had to grow up a bit and pay off some debts. I began working in my family’s soft furnishing business but I knew that in the long term it wasn’t for me.
I wanted to do something involving adventure, travel and wildlife. I found a new Masters course run by the University of Salford on Wildlife Documentary Production.
The more I read about it, the more I wanted to apply for it even though I had no real relevant experience beforehand and it was fairly specific…I think a few friends looked at me and thought ‘what the hell is he doing!?’
So off I headed to Manchester, determined to do a better job at university this time around. Most of the class either had a biology, zoology or media background – I didn’t!
(Here’s a film Mark made about Strangford Lough as part of his studies – it’s very cool)
After handing in my final piece I managed to get a job in Manchester working in post–production on very little money, but I needed a job straight away to start paying off my masters loan so I had to take it.
We were taught that any foot in the media door is good, even though post–production was never an area that I had much of an interest in. Eight months of ingesting cards and checking edits are all ok but can be soul destroying, especially after you’ve just completed a masters in wildlife documentary production with the belief that you were soon going to be off travelling the world filming.
During that time I kept applying for jobs in Bristol, where all the big wildlife documentaries are produced. After many rejections a series producer on the programme ‘Coast’ called to ask me if I would be interested in interviewing for a job as a runner on the programme.
I jumped on the bus and made the 5–hour journey down to Bristol for the 30 minute chat (as they are never interviews in tv, just ‘chats’) and then the 5–hour journey straight back up. That’s how I managed to get my first production job!
Since then I’ve been lucky to work on some great programmes based in the UK, from Coast to Countryfile and then on to The One Show and it’s been amazing.
I’ve filmed everything from Viking fire festivals in deep winter up in Shetlands to trying to attract blue sharks using ‘heavy metal’ music off Newquay.
Q Was it difficult to get in to?
It still is a difficult industry to crack. I have only really made steps in to it over the past few years and it has taken a lot of rejections and constant emailing to meet the right people. In terms of qualifications I guess it varies depending on the programme and the series producers’ requirements.
I don’t have a formal biology qualification but have been working on wildlife programmes! It’s all about working really hard and meeting people, you are always out to make new connections and friends. It relies so heavily on networking, especially in Bristol as everyone knows everyone!
Q What are the best and worst parts of the job?
Best part of the job – seeing the wildlife in their natural habitat displaying the behaviour that you set out to capture on film! As well as not knowing where your work will take you.
Worst part of the job – writing risk assessments, getting the kit through airports and the insecurity of the industry. You are always looking for your next job. This aspect keeps you on your toes and makes you fight for what you want to achieve.
I miss living back home as most of my good fiends have stayed locally, but if I want to do this job then Bristol is the best place to be for me right now.
Q What’s been the most memorable moment of your career so far?
The past 5 weeks have been pretty memorable, diving on pristine coral reefs with hardly anyone else around. There was such an abundance of wildlife; from whale sharks to sea snakes, it was incredible. We had the time to watch them and understand their behaviour and it is something that I won’t forget anytime soon!
A couple of years ago I also got the chance to travel around Malaysia for a programme on different styles of Malaysian cuisine. We got to meet an Orang Asli tribe who showed us their local cooking style and what they use from the jungle.
It was amazing sitting on the side of the river eating a meal prepared by the tribe, seeing them feel so at home in the jungle. It was completely different form anything I had ever experienced before.
Q And your favourite place?
That is quite tough to answer, every place you get to visit whether it is home or abroad is pretty special as they have their own stories and characters.
Q Finally, what advice would you give to someone wanting to become break into the world of wildlife documentary making?
There is no right or wrong way to get in to the industry. Having some sort of related qualification is useful and it is really important to know who is who. It is all about making connections and trying to meet with people so keep contacting them asking for opportunities. If you want to do camera work then have some sort of show reel that you can send out or put online.
You have to be persistent and keep at it; if you want it enough you will make steps, but be patient because it can be tough.
Thanks Mark, sound advice!
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