Cool job: Documentary film producer
by Greta Brewster | February 5, 2013
Daniel Lyons has worked on five continents. He pet a cheetah in South Africa, touched a gray whale in Baja and came face to face with a bear on a remote island in Alaska. He has filmed avalanches from helicopters, ridden on small boats through icebergs and flown to parts of the world only scientists have seen.
For Lyons, a documentary film producer, it's all part of the job.
For more than 15 years, Lyons has worked in documentary film production and cinematography, and has built a reputation as a one-man show. Unlike many others in his profession who specialize in either the technical or the production side, Lyons can do it all: the cameras, sound and lighting; the story-telling; and the production, which involves managing the details behind the scenes.
This niche has earned him an impressive list of clients that includes National Geographic, PBS, Discovery Channel, TLC, the History Channel, Showtime and the Sundance Channel, and also earned him a New England Emmy award for the Vermont Public Television special Headline Vermont.
A formative college experience
Lyons cut his teeth on film production nearly 20 years ago, when he was a student at Trinity University in San Antonio. When given the opportunity to work on a film through his communication studies program, he chose to document a local tragedy: An off-duty San Antonio police officer was shot a block away from his home, while his wife awaited his return. The police officer had seen a robbery in progress. Rather than call in another officer, he blocked the offender's car, and was shot and killed as a result.
For Lyons, making a film about this tragedy was pivotal.
"It was an incredibly intense experience," he says. "I was amazed that the officer's wife and family allowed me into their lives during their mourning period because I was telling their story. I saw what a powerful thing it was to be able to tell someone's story through film."
The experience cemented his passion for filmmaking. After graduating with a communications major from Trinity, he landed a job for a local production company, which mainly produced commercials and PSAs.
"The focus of that job was very technical," Lyons recalls. "It was completely different from college, where I studied media theory and analyzed documentaries. In some ways, I got the best of both worlds -- the liberal arts degree and great hands-on technical experience with shooting."
Lyons' real passion, however, was for scientific and nature documentaries. That interest drove him to Boston, which was one of the documentary centers in the U.S. and where many of the broadcast science shows originated.
Lyons eventually landed a job with Scientific American Frontiers.
The dream job
"I want to film lions," Lyons had told his parents when he was a child. Lyons had been captivated by scientific documentaries during his childhood, particularly those produced by National Geographic and Nova. At one point, while working for Scientific American Frontiers in his 20s, Lyons found himself on his own in the field, taking close-up footage of chestnut-sided warblers in Western Massachusetts.
"At that moment, I realized that I was doing exactly what I had wanted to do when I was 9 years old," he says. "I had clinched my dream job."
Making the leap to freelancing
As Lyons' experience grew, so did his reputation. Finally, in 2004, he took the major leap of going out on his own as a freelancer.
"It was scary," he recalls. "But I immediately started calling people I knew to get my name on their radar, and within a couple of months, the calls began to come in."
Lyons hasn't had a lull in his work since that time. Even so, to help protect himself from possible down times, Lyons joined forces with another film producer, Tim Wessel, and formed Vermont Films two years ago. The business enables him to share space and insurance, and to share creative ideas with another filmmaker. The two now frequently travel as a team on shoots.
Behind the velvet rope
When asked what the best part of his job is, Lyons can answer with one word: "access."
"We get to go behind the velvet rope -- to all of those places that are restricted, or that are very difficult to get to, and that most people can't ever visit," he explains.
In fact, one of Lyons' favorite jobs was when he traveled to the Greenland ice cap -- where only scientists are allowed -- to follow two glaciologists from the University of Maine.
"The aesthetics were amazing," he recalls. "We visited gorgeous little Inuit villages painted like Danish resorts and went into alpine fields that had extraordinary lighting all of the time. It was spectacular."
There's another important perk of the job, which Lyons refers to as its "dirty little secret:"
"The fact of the matter is that in addition to the job being rewarding and cool, it pays pretty well," he says. According to Lyons, the salary range is roughly between $75,000 and $100,000 per year.
Still, Lyons' days are long -- typically 10 hours -- and physically strenuous. Because the lighting is best in the morning and evening, the days are usually bracketed with intense periods of filming.
Keeping skills current
Because technology is an important component of Lyons' work -- primarily camera, sound and lighting equipment as well as various types of software -- Lyons avails himself of many online resources, both for product reviews and information and ideas. While online education did not play a role in his own education, Lyons frequents online forums for filmmakers, in which professionals can post questions and get quick responses.
"I've used those sites for help with all kinds of problems, often while I'm on location," he says. "You can find the answer to anything there."
Words of advice
Lyons has several pieces of advice for people who aspire to become documentary filmmakers.
"Get a liberal arts degree," he advises. "Learn about everything you can in college -- you can get the technical experience on the job."
Lyons also emphasizes the importance of remembering that filmmaking is not a 9-to-5 job.
"Never say no," he says. "Don't ever turn down a job, even if it means flying across the world the next day. If you always say yes and you're competent and nice to work with, you'll get called again."
More about Daniel Lyons
1. What did you eat for breakfast? Blueberry pancakes
2. Which day of the week is your favorite? Monday
3. Which day of the week is your least favorite? Saturday
4. What was the first job you ever had? Paperboy
5. What makes you angry? Inequality
6. What makes you joyful? Intimate animal encounters
7. If you could have any job, other than your own, what would it be? Veterinarian
8. If you had the time and the money to study anything at all, what would you choose? Mysticism
9. What did you want to be when you grew up? NBA player
10. Can money bring you happiness? Yes
About the Author
Margaret Brewster is a freelance writer and non-profit consultant.