Katie Garrett is a London-based director and producer of natural history films with a wealth of experience behind the camera. Past projects have included works for National Geographic, Science Friday, Geographical Magazine (of the Royal Geographical Society), bioGraphic, and 60 Second Docs. Although she co-founded a video production company, Garrett had no previous formal filmmaking experience but, as she tells us, there’s more than one way to make it into science filmmaking if you’re willing to take a few detours.
What do you do?
I am a science filmmaker and video journalist.
What did it take to get here?
It was definitely quite a convoluted route! I never actually studied filmmaking formally, aside from learning how to use an SLR camera at college. I studied Natural Sciences at university and went on to become a research assistant, working at the Natural History Museum. After three years working there, I got the sense that academia wasn’t for me, and then my brother suggested taking some time out to travel and film a documentary together. We raised some funds and spent a year filming in Central America and teaching ourselves how to edit. I loved it.
When we returned, we set up a video production business together in London and freelanced in every field you can imagine. We made videos for schools, theatre companies, banks, charities, bands, ice cream parlours, you name it! It really developed my creativity as a filmmaker, but eventually I felt like I really should be using my training as a scientist in my work. Plus, I really missed being in the field!
I have always loved frogs, so I decided to approach an amphibian conservation project out of the blue and offer to make a film about their work. It really opened doors for me and my career developed off the back of that. But it also gave me a fiancé – I’m now engaged to the director of that organisation!
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
I think if I approached myself as a teenager and said “hey, you can basically make films about amphibians for a living” I would’ve lost my s**t! But I would also have to explain that being a freelancer is as much about finding work as it is doing it. Much of my time and energy is spent looking for scientists with stories interesting enough to hook the media, and then trying to persuade outlets to fund them. I try as hard as I can to make films about things that are really important to me (frogs), but I have also found my skill-set applicable to a variety of scientific and environmental subjects I might never have originally considered. I’ve made films about sustainability in coffee, unisexual salamanders, the hydrology of Mexico City, even a woman making clothes out of human hair!
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
When people hear about what I do they often think of a BBC camera person spending months in a hide, watching a vole or a penguin or something. But my work is mainly online, and online media is a constantly shifting entity. My work comes from all over the place and can look very different at different times. The whims of the public and the influence of social media (not to mention pandemics) mean that outlets change what they’re looking for all the time. Sometimes I think even I don’t understand my own industry! It takes a lot of ingenuity to find your niche, and you have to be able to think outside the box and adapt.
Proudest moment on the job?
Some of the footage that I’m proudest of capturing has quite a funny story behind it. I recently worked on a series about women in science for the Science Friday Initiative, and one of my episodes focused on a woman who works with slime molds. These are unicellular organisms, bright yellow blobs, that move incredibly slowly. In order to film them you have to use time-lapse photography, and it can take up to 48 hours to get just one shot!
I only had four days with her, and I desperately wanted more footage of these amazing organisms, but then COVID-19 hit and made travel impossible. She suggested sending me one in the mail. It arrived looking a bit dishevelled, but she texted me instructions to revive it and look after it and I spent the following month tending to my little slime mold and filming it in a cupboard in my bathroom!
Memorable misstep on the job?
Misstep is definitely the word! While filming in Honduras with my partner (Jonathan Kolby) and a sound artist (Ben Mirin), we spent a lot of time hiking the trails looking for frogs. One day, as we were walking single file, we heard a shout from Jon at the back of the line. We turned around to see him pointing at something green on the trail in between us. It was a bright green pit-viper! Ben and I had both managed to step over it without noticing. Jon just had his head in his hands like “guys, we’re in the jungle watch where you tread”. It did make for some beautiful footage though.
Also, there was that time I got on a plane to Burundi with just a letter from the chief of police and a comment from my employer saying they should let you in... I made it in the end, but it was not a fun day.
What do you never leave the house without?
I suppose it’s unsurprising that I never leave for a job without my camera. I always travel light and value flexibility and accessibility over having a lot of kit, so often it is literally just me and my camera. I used to take it with me everywhere, on every hike, even in the garden. But these days I’m finding that it’s OK to occasionally just leave the camera at home. It can become a bit of an obsession trying to capture the beauty you see around you, rather than just appreciating it. I think I’m learning that sometimes it is good to leave the camera, and phone, and just enjoy being in nature.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
The first thing I always say to people is: just have a go. It sounds obvious but I get so many requests for advice from people who say they want to make documentaries but have never made more than an Instagram story. If you’re passionate about it just mess around, experiment with it and don’t be scared of making something rubbish. You can learn anything online these days and with just a phone and free software you can make a fantastic film. Remember it is ultimately an art, even the narrative aspect, and the only way to develop your style and instinct for it is to do it, again and again and again.