How to get myself employed in NGC, Discovery, BBC documentary crews
June 7, 2007 7:07 AM   Subscribe

How can a Indian software engineer join documentary/photography crew of National Geographic, Discovery, BBC, PBS or other similar production houses? What kind of jobs are available in these organizations? Are there similar jobs (outside of the documentary business) that can take me to such places and pay for it? Low salary not an issue.

(work colleagues read MeFi, hence anonymous, hence a bit lengthy, so pls bear with me).
I am a 29 year old Computer Engineer working in software development for the past 7 years (underutilised from my perspective because I am hardly motivated -- just going thru the motions, but on par for my firm), and over the last 4-5 years I have gradually come to a firm conclusion that I don't want to continue any corporate job that requires me to sit in front of a computer for 8+ hours, enclosed in a dull cell and work for the man. Currently I am dragging along in a VeryBigDeal MNC Computer Inc. in India with good pay, have absolutely no desire to continue in it or in this industry, married, no kids (no plans for the next 3-4 years), no debt, no mortgage, no long-term commitments. Only wife and old parents (without retirals) to support. I've already secured a small house in India, and our daily survival expenses are v.moderate, just about 3 meals (touchwood, no big medicals). I also have some small savings that I can fall back on to go without a steady pay for a year or so. But other than that I am not flu$h in any way. I don't have any other investments, stocks etc. Wifey is a Science graduate, can work something on the side based on where I land up.

The challenge :
The ideal place where I envision myself giving my 250% is in documentaries. Outdoors, in the lap-of-nature, with a filming-crew, under the ocean, on the Arctic ice-sheet, in the midst of Amazon rainforest, on the Tibetan plains, anywhere in Africa et al. I actually cried watching the absolutely stunning beauty of the March of the Penguins. Documentaries are the only thing I care to watch on TV and everytime I wonder, well, these guys must be needing some porters/helpers/assistants to carry their equipment around, take care of trip details, to pitch the tent while they are busy shooting that billion-dollar pic? Can I be that man? I am an amateur photographer myself, and have basic knowledge of film-making from the interwebs, but I don't fancy any chances against the professionals who've been at this game for far too long (atleast not right away, maybe 10-15 years from now). But I think I can be a good assistant and a valuable crew member to teams who do these jobs. Do these people need a tripod-carrying-assistants with a thing for photography ? Is there any forum of professionals who are looking to work in India and need help in researching a particular topic/region before they visit here so that I can get my feet wet while I am at my desk job and gain some street-cred?

And I am not just a couch-happy viewer. I am an adventure freak as well, as far as they go in India. I like to trek, hike, take long walks, have bungee-jumped, skydived (in US), slept overnight out in the open on Goa's beach etc. This is not to boast but just to show that I have that streak in me. I guess for most MeFiites this is just normal, but really in India I am called a nature-wilderness guy, and I am happy with it. Infact I am not even looking at just jobs in geo-societies. Any of those wild-dangerous jobs (working the North-Sea, bridge construction crews, anything that they show on MegaStructures and Frontlines of Construction and similar)..the whacky jobs. Anything outdoors, requiring a fair bit of travel that takes me to stunning places... I am game.

I have already looked into things like WWOOF (visa restriction, short-term, age < 30 years) and other backpacking options, but i get a feeling that most of them really look like short-term odd jobs for single college students, while couchsurfing that country. also, my republic of india passport is not very embassy friendly in many places. in that respect i envy you europeans. however, i am open to even that route (get visa etc.), provided i see a way of stringing together a series of such odd jobs and come out top with some cash at the end of the month to send home to my parents. i don't mind doing short bursts of high-paying jobs mixed with long gaps of minimum or no wage. i guess i'd love it./small>

A real problem I face is that there are v.few people doing such things in India and none that I know of to approach and seek guidance. It's even difficult to google the credits of a "Wild India" Discovery documentary(Aamir Bashir, Samara Chopra, Jasdeep Punna, Avinash Singh, I am looking at you). I guess the NGC office in India is mainly an admin office that takes care of mktg & mag. distribution. There is no one in my circle with a arts/film/social-sciences background. We are all bloody engineers and doctors here.

In order to 'get there from here', I am ready to 'pay my dues' doing low-end menial jobs at these organizations, short-term unpaid-internships, side-assignments, stipends-while-training, etc. to prove to them that though I don't have the academic background, I am willing to put whatever it takes. Infact I think I’d enjoy even that, if it happens to be NGC, Discovery. Do they need people to watch their archives, for hours on endlessly, and....I don’t know like take notes, categorise, place/mark them for specific target audiences etc ?? Do their sales/marketing dept. needs people who can place the right content, customize it across their many media properties? I guess that could be a good first step to take.

I don’t know how the production side of it goes? Sometimes I see a single person appearing in many titles of credits (eg:John Paul Davidson - Himalaya with Palin). Do they first secure a grant from BBC or whoever and then go filming, or is it just that they do the complete thing on their own and then try to sell the rights? I am asking as it may probably impact whether I should be looking at jobs in telecast channels or with individual documentary makers and photographers like Mr.Davidson. Then sometimes I see credits ending with "produced by i stylus for Discovery"(unGoogleable btw) , which suggest presence of small production companies who might be later selling their work to BBC, NGC. Again, I want to know such individuals and companies, who are preferably working in India, or any country where I can just show up and 'take it from there'. If it helps, I have my own film & digital SLR camera(Nikon N80, D70s), let's say if a BigDeal photographer/documentarian requires an assistant with some pay for 6 months with no upfront costs -- maybe I can fit in there?

I’ve thought about joining one of the wilderness tour operators, but again, I don’t have any experience whatsoever as a guide or such high-end places, and I don’t know what is the best way to proceed here.

I even have an idea or two on topics for documentaries right here in India, which NGC and the likes haven't tackled yet. I can work alongside someone (grad film-students who want to shoot their final project?) who have heir own budgets/grants, and be a host to them in India. But I guess without any experience or 'portfolio' nobody is going to take me seriously on this one

Also related: If you know of any jobs in India similar to show-up on the deck for crab-fishing, I might be interested in them.

As far as other skills go: I was a straight 'A' student, good at maths/logic/languages, good communication and team skills, a fairly decent knowledge of various cultures, basic photography skills, can survive on most kind of outside food, no allergies, any water that the locals drink(no Misty Blue ColdMineral for me), have been to US a couple of times, so I have a good feel of US-culture, a good sense of humour, and good presentation skills.

Basically help me chart my way out of the office environs and out in the open, under the vast blue sky.

Any help, any info, any contacts for networking or further guidance, no matter how small or irrelevant you think, please post it. It will only help me. You can reach me at if you have any queries.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Try contacting Witness in NYC. They make documentary films in all countries for the purpose of advancing human rights issues and their work is very exciting. They often look for someone with your skill set. I don't know if you would get to travel but it would begin to build your resume in the field of documentary work so as to qualify yourself for future travel-related projects.
posted by jeanmari at 10:58 AM on June 7, 2007

You might look into working for someone like Lonely Planet or Fodor's if you want to travel and write about it. Unfortunately I've heard that you don't really get to enjoy your travels if you work for these groups or similar ones (See this NY Times article for more info). I'm sure you can find a good compromise though, and the above might be good options.
posted by Aanidaani at 11:37 AM on June 7, 2007

I don't know how it would work for an Indian citizen, but the US Antarctic bases, especially McMurdo, are often hiring. They might need a computer specialist (and they always need laborers). The work is usually seasonal, during Northern hemisphere winter/Southern hemisphere summer, but you might be able to make connections with researchers that would lead to more work.
posted by ilyanassa at 11:53 AM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

OK, so you cried at "March of the Penguins". The guys working on it cried from the freaking cold while filming it. Not quite the same thing... ;)

I would say that the quickest way in would be for you to acquire film-making skills, and maybe acquire some equipment. For example, become a skilled camera-operator, or a sound man. You can do this by reading some books, and seeking every opportunity to work on films. Maybe start by buying a small but decent DV camera and making your own films.

Googling "documentary India" brought up many links, including Moving images India, and they apparently offer internships.

I also found this Wiki entry about Indian filmmakers. Often, these people can be surprisingly approachable. Try to ask them for advice by email, or offer to take them for lunch sometime, and maybe you can strike up a relationship that will lead to opportunities.

In general, movie-making is a tough business, but once you get known as a competent cameraman/soundman/etc, you will be able to find work more easily.
posted by Artful Codger at 12:49 PM on June 7, 2007

Try getting a degree in Film arts (perhaps at one that specializes in nature film making like this one). Artful Codger is right. Movie making is hard to get into, especially something as specialized as nature film making.
posted by special-k at 1:13 PM on June 7, 2007

I took a trip with these people recently, and there were a number of staff members with National Geographic experience and similar. Perhaps getting a staff job with one of these "adventure holiday" companies would be a gateway to what you want. Or making the contacts.
posted by jamesonandwater at 1:44 PM on June 7, 2007

I thought of one other thing. One way to make contacts in this area and find out how to get into this? Find names of people already working doing what you want to do. Contact them and ask them if you can interview them about their lifestyle and their careers. Tell them you are researching the on-the-ground, real experiences of people with careers in documentary film making...because that is what you are doing. Ask them how THEY got into the business of doing what they do. Try to find out everything about them...what do they like about the work, what don't they like about the work. What would they have done differently.

Don't mention you are looking for a job unless they ask you specifically, "So what do you want to do with your life?" Trust in Cialdini's Rule of Reciprocity. Once you've asked them to talk all about themselves (which many people love to do), they will be more likely to ask you about yourself. At that point, you can confess to an interest in what they are doing.

Bonus: This technique also works at cocktail parties.
posted by jeanmari at 2:42 PM on June 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

Sorry, distracted here. Let me clarify a few points above.

because that is what you are doing-- doing that research, not currently working in documentary media

The communications equivalent of Cialdini's Rule is that, in certain situations, you can have someone talk about themselves until they feel compelled to ask you about yourself. Use this judiciously since you don't want to grill everyone that you meet.
posted by jeanmari at 4:36 PM on June 7, 2007

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