What are your favorite nature documentaries

Young documentary filmmaker from Aachen: You can only protect what you know!

The young documentary filmmaker Gamander López captures Aachen's forest life in impressive, award-winning pictures.

Interview: Peter Hermann, photos: Gamander López / Andreas Blauth

The Aachen forest is a green lung only a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the city center, which has to offer excursion destinations and familiar walking paths that many citizens love. The 18-year-old Gamander López should know some places there that remain hidden from most eyes. The young man, who is currently still attending the Abitur class at the Free Waldorf School on Hangeweiher, lives in the Bildchen nature reserve and has been making nature films in the immediate vicinity for almost half his life. The son of a German mother and a Spanish father took one of them, “The forest behind the trees”, to the “German Youth Film Award 2020” as part of the “bundes.festival.film” from the group of 16 to 20-year-olds emerged as a shining winner. The stars of his technically professionally implemented work and rewarded with 1,000 euros: animals, plants and landscapes in the Aachen forest. With a lot of talent, caution and infinite patience, the young director has captured wonderful, interesting or funny scenes with foxes, badgers, mice and birds doing their everyday tasks over a year - with the help of all kinds of equipment such as an action camera, a camera for night shots, one Camera drone and a telescopic arm and partially hidden under camouflage equipment. He filmed, viewed, edited and finally added music and his own narrative voice to the film for fifty hours until the film was “complete”. In the interview he told KingKalli about himself and his passion for animal films.

How did you get into making nature documentaries?
I always enjoyed going for walks with my mother and sister in nature, and I also loved observing animals. Even as a small child, I often leafed through a nature photo book and thought it would be cool to do something like this one day, and when it comes to nature documentaries on DVD, I was not only very interested in the actual films, but also in the making-ofs. When I was ten, I was given my first camera and started photographing animals, and later also filming them - and that never left me. I taught myself the technical aspects myself using YouTube videos and books from the city library, and I am always and happily learning new things.

What makes good animal films for you and how do you get ideas for your own works?
I'm open, it can be a purely documentary film, but also a film with a story or one in which the animals are given human traits or names. The main thing is that it is fun to look at or that you learn something from it. When it comes to my own films, I usually only have a rough idea of ​​what I want to shoot at the beginning. I only develop the story and the statement while editing. Sometimes I first choose the music for a certain film passage - there are databases on the Internet with paid pieces for different moods - and then cut the scene to match.

How do you choose the locations?
Usually I am surprised if I meet “someone”, but I also look up what time of the day and what time of the year which animals are active and where - most of the time it is best in the morning. In the case of birds, I now recognize their calls and know where to turn. When I discover something, such as a great spotted woodpecker nest, I think about how I can best approach it without disturbing the animal or whether I need my camouflage net.

What is the hardest part of documentary filmmaking?
Editing is less fun and more strenuous than filming, especially at the beginning: I have to select the material on the PC and weigh up the endless possibilities of how to string it together to tell a story. Waiting is the most annoying when filming, because it can happen that I lose motivation if no animal shows up for weeks. At the same time, that's exactly what makes it so attractive when you finally get to see one.

How often are you in the forest to film and do you have time for school and private life?
Especially in spring, I'm actually outside every day before school and after dinner. Then the birds breed, the foxes grow up and there are many beautiful things to see. Now in autumn it is usually less busy, for example the birds are very cautious because they are moulting and therefore cannot fly. But I still have time to meet friends and study for school.
How do you keep the animals from noticing you?
You can't actually make animals ignore you and there are always a lot of unsuccessful attempts. It is important that you pay attention to their body language, that they do not perceive you as human and that you do not move quickly. Then they are only interested for a short time, and if they don't sense any danger, they continue what they are doing. But it also depends on the individual animal: some don't care about anything, others are very shy. When shooting the foxhole for “The Forest Behind the Trees”, I first set up my hiding place fifty meters away and then moved it closer and closer until I was only five meters away. The male didn't notice me and fed his young as normal.

What do you do while you wait for the animals and what are the problems?
I can't listen to music or play games on my cell phone because it would drive away animals or miss something. That's why I usually dream to myself, but have never fallen asleep while doing it. My record was ten hours at a star's nest without food or drink. I had been watching the nest for a long time and that day I thought: Today the young will be kicked out. Which then didn't happen while I was there - and the next day they were all gone. It was a bit frustrating, of course, but that's just the way it is. The worst are ticks, at least one bites me every day. And mosquito bites are of course also annoying, but sprays against the beasts smell too strong and clapping them is too loud - both would draw other animals' attention to me.

Do you ever take someone with you to a shoot?
Most of the time I am traveling alone, but sometimes I also take other nature photographers with me or accompany them. I get to know them mainly on Instagram, and friendships have already developed through this. I would like to work with other people from the area, but as far as I know there is no one my age in Aachen who does the same thing as me.

What were the most impressive scenes that you have filmed so far?
The cute fox cubs fascinated me very much. And once I lured a buzzard to a wooden photo hut that I built with my father for two months. It's a pretty big bird of prey and it was only ten feet away from me, which was extremely impressive.

Have you ever got into a dangerous situation?
Only in the form that I might have climbed a tree stupidly. An animal has never become aggressive towards me. Wild boars are probably the only animals in our region that could be dangerous to humans, but they too were always relaxed when I met them.

And what was the funniest situation?
You can see them in “The forest behind the trees”. The little foxes played with each other until most of them went back to the den. A youngster sat down outside and wanted to be careful. Then it would doze off briefly - and at some point fell over from tiredness.

If you could choose one species to make a documentary about, what would it be?
Definitely hippos, that would be my dream, even though I know that these animals are not harmless. I loved them very much as a little kid and had loads of them in every form. A drawn hippopotamus is also the logo animal that I have chosen for my production forge “Nil Nature Productions”.

Can you name a few particularly recommendable animal documentaries?
David Attenborough's “Planet Erde II”, “White Wolves” by Oliver Goetzl about wolves in Northern Alaska and “The Ivory Game”, Richard Ladkanis and Kief Davidson's investigative documentary about the illegal ivory trade are great.

For “The forest behind the trees” you have been awarded the “German Youth Film Prize 2020”. Have you already won other prizes?
“The forest behind the trees” won me the “Heinz Sielmann Youth Film Prize” at the “Green Screen Nature Film Festival” last year. In the years before, I had taken second and third places there with films about birds such as wrens and cranes. I also took a first and two second place at the children's and youth film festival “DEinblick in der Natur”, among other things with films about long-eared owls and starlings. I think it's particularly cool to be invited to nature film festivals like this, because the professional directors are often also present there and you can then come into contact with them.

What are your next projects and what do you want to do after graduating from high school?
I'm currently working on a film about animals that live next to our house, so I've filmed everything so far and now I'm editing the material. The main actress is a gray wagtail, but there are also hedgehogs, tits and mice. In the near future I would like to do a project exclusively about foxes and the professional wildlife filmmaker Oliver Goetzl has offered me to film birds of paradise in Indonesia with him. Otherwise, I'm considering applying to study at a film school. You can't study “nature film” alone, but you can study documentary film or, in general, directing. I have also made music videos and films with people, but my heart beats for animal films and it would really be my dream to make some full-time money with it.

What does your environment say about your work?
My family supports me a lot and my friends and classmates also like what I do, there are no envious people. There are no problems with the teachers, even when I'm tired from filming. The Waldorf school system helped me insofar as I have more free time for self-realization than at a grammar school. In addition, there were annual assignments in the 8th and 12th grades, for which I naturally decided on animal film projects, the deadlines of which were an additional motivation to complete them.

What are your favorite school subjects and what do you like to do when you are not making films or photos?
My favorite subjects are sports, geography, and history. And privately I also like to play board games with friends, go running, watch movies or read. And I also love to travel.

What would you advise KingKalli readers who would also like to make nature films?
Go out! Many are not even aware of what there is to see almost directly on the doorstep. If you just keep your eyes open or sit quietly in the forest for an hour, loads of beautiful animals will come by. And if you want to film them, a cell phone camera or a small camcorder with a large zoom range are sufficient to start with.

What do nature and nature films mean to you?
There is something primordial about nature, something that has always been there before cities existed. The preservation of nature is very important to me and I want to make films that bring the viewer closer to the importance of nature and animal protection. Because not all people have the opportunity to do what I do - and you can only protect what you know.

Search term on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok: Gamander Lopez

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