Recently, I auditioned to be a presenter for a wildlife television series.
More than an audition, Jonathan Scott, the well-known presenter of The Big Cat Diaries, gave me a master class. At the end of the first day of trials, he advised, “Don’t look so serious. Smile.” “Relax. Move your hands.” “Show enthusiasm.” How do you talk animatedly to the unresponsive black hole of a lens?
I asked myself, “How does Rom do this?”
I’ve always been impressed with his ability to say something sensible when the camera focusses on him without warning. The large eye of the lens doesn’t influence the way he handles snakes and crocs. He’s always calm around animals, and that was one of the first lessons he taught me.
Many of our presenter friends have Dr. Sensible and Mr. Drama Queen personalities. They are nice people, devoted to animals, in real life. But in front of the camera, they transform into feverishly excited caricatures. They prance around, snapping snake-catching tongs at a hapless cornered snake. When it strikes, their voices rise in pitch as they shout, “That’s a dangerous snake.” Obviously, shy snakes become jumpy and dangerous when bothered. But audiences lap up their histrionics.
Rom’s career in front of the camera evolved over four decades. Television crews loved the exotic combination of a white guy working with venomous snakes and dangerous crocodiles in India. He made an effortless transition from short films to hosting hour-long shows. While he grew into the career, I was jumping off the deep end.
Before leaving for the audition, I asked Rom for advice. He replied, “You are a natural. Just be yourself.”
Being myself wasn’t working. I knew Jonathan was not going to be happy even as I was talking to camera. I wondered dispiritedly if I had to ham it up and become a blathering drama queen.
As a film maker, I had spent almost a year in one forest for a film, getting to know its seasons, rhythms, and animals. Since becoming a writer, I haven’t been able to spend more than a week on assignment at a wild spot. I wanted this job so I could be forest-bound for a few weeks at least. But was I willing to pay the cost?
Rom walked, jumped, ran, and dove after reptiles. I was trapped between the steering wheel and the door of the jeep, forbidden to get out of the vehicle within the National Park. So when the camera looked at me, I had to create drama with words, gestures, and facial expressions.
The big challenge was conjuring up something intelligent to say when the camera pointed at me unexpectedly. Exclaiming “Isn't it gorgeous!” is the lamest thing to say, and I’m guilty of that crime.
“The trick is to never let the camera pressurise you. You have to be in control of the situation,” said Jonathan. He gave me examples, and he made it seem so easy.
During downtime, I came up with lines for imaginary situations. I tried different ways of saying those lines to the camera and seeing the results on screen helped me crack part of the challenge.
Then I focussed on my next problem: my hands. Having spent long hours over many years around king cobras and crocodiles that are sensitive to the slightest movement, I don’t wave my hands about while talking. For the audition, when I consciously stressed my words with hand gestures, I felt like a caricature of a gesticulating Italian and fluffed my lines.
After many takes of one shot, I grumbled exasperatedly, “I need to practise moving my hands.”
That evening, Jonathan asked, “Before you came up here, what did your husband advise?”
“He said to be myself.”
Jonathan said with a wry smile, “Husbands should never teach their wives to be presenters. Just as they should never teach their wives to drive.”