A primary goal of any YouTube channel is to give something to audiences they can’t get anywhere else. For Coyote Peterson, this meant filling the gap in educational wildlife shows once filled by icons like Steve Irwin and Jack Hanna. The result is one of YouTube’s fastest-growing channels.
Despite the channel’s incredible success, Brave Wilderness host and founder, Nathaniel “Coyote” Peterson, remains humble and enthusiastic about what the future holds. During my lengthy chat with the wildlife host, he detailed how Brave Wilderness came about, crazy encounters, the production process involved and how he hopes his passion can inspire the next generation.
Wild Since Birth
Tracking down and dealing with wild, often deadly, animals isn’t a career path someone falls into. Coyote’s love of wildlife began at birth when he was, literally, born on a horse farm where his mother raised horses. Coyote explained, “the first animal encounter I ever had was with a basic American toad when I was four years old. I caught my first toad [and] my mom let me keep it in a shoebox for a couple of days…I admired it and loved that little toad for the couple days it was with me [before letting] it go back in the wild.
“Really, it just started from there. Snapping turtles were a big part of my childhood because my summers were spent hiking in the woods and exploring ponds trying to catch big turtles…If Steve Irwin had crocodiles, Coyote Peterson had the common snapping turtle! It’s one of the most ferocious, aggressive and predatory reptiles on the planet…and the environment you have to go in to find and catch these turtles is brutal.”
This childhood fascination with animals is also where his nickname originates. Not merely a moniker crafted for the show, it stems from catching lizards as a kid, “My Mom used to take my sister and I traveling across the country every summer. We had an old Chevy Suburban and she would pull a tiny trailer behind it and we would camp across the United States.
“We’d always end up in Arizona and there’s a lizard species called the regal horned lizard, which was my favorite lizard to catch. They’re incredibly well camouflaged and really hard to find, but roadrunners are excellent at finding, and eating, them. So I would follow roadrunners around hoping they’d lead me to the horned lizards. My Mom started calling me Coyote…like the old Warner Bros. cartoon, because I was always chasing roadrunners around!”
The Journey to YouTube
Even with this love of wildlife, Coyote Peterson didn’t think it’d turn into a career. Having graduated with a film degree from Ohio State University in 2004, Coyote seemed on track for a more traditional filmmaking route, rather than as a YouTube sensation.
It was a long and winding road to where he is now, but he walked me through the abridged version: “Right out of college I went down the road of trying to get funding for an independent film…The deal fell apart in contractual stages, which was pretty heartbreaking [since] I nearly secured $5 million for an independent picture. Being a kid from Columbus, Ohio when you’re that close to making your first big picture…It’s tough!”
Recovering from the fallout of that deal was rough and he struggled to get “back on the horse” creatively. Purely by chance, however, his childhood passion provided the answer going forward, “I just so happened to have caught this really large, common snapping turtle… I showed pictures of this turtle to [the] producers I was working with and their first reaction was, ‘Whoa, wait a minute! We didn’t know these things were in Ohio and what the heck are you doing catching whatever this is?!’
Coyote Peterson told them more about his self-taught knowledge of animals, along with his childhood spent catching those turtles, and the producers saw the potential in it. Initially, they were hoping to produce an animal series for television.
“You know,” Coyote explained, “Steve Irwin had passed away and [most] of the animal content out there was ‘Planet Earth.’ There was nobody doing content where they would actually host in front of the camera and give you animals. ‘Man vs. Wild’ was very popular at the time on Discovery [Channel]. We looked at that and thought: how do we create a version of that where we’re not… eating the animals to survive, but promoting conservation and education?”
Getting off the ground proved rocky. After being turned away from nearly every TV network and production house they met with, Coyote and his team found themselves teaming with Discovery Communications to flesh out their digital space, but they still had a lot of work ahead of them, “Before we launched the YouTube channel, we had an angel investment of around $35,000…We were producing it for Discovery Digital network, but they didn’t have a budget for us… They said we’ll help you guys distribute and help you create a YouTube channel. We produced 52 episodes with that [initial] funding and from there the YouTube channel kept growing.
Despite being one of YouTube’s fastest-growing channels, with nearly 13 million subscribers in only four years, Brave Wilderness wasn’t an overnight success. Coyote Peterson has faced plenty of challenges to make the channel what it is today, “Mark [Vins] and I actually had day jobs for the first two years of our YouTube channel. We were working two jobs, using all of our vacation time, and all of our own personal money to fund these trips to keep it going until the point where the YouTube channel started generating revenue itself.”
Coyote Peterson had never expected to see such success with YouTube, and admitted his early inexperience with the platform. Among the major differences between the traditional filmmaking model he’d studied, he was surprised most by one thing: “The audience reach… When we released that episode about the cow killer — the Velvet Ant — one of our first Sting videos, we had something like 362,000 new subscribers in a single day! That’s more [people] than fit in a football stadium… Being able to reach that many people with animal adventure content is probably the thing that most surprised us about YouTube.”
Coyote attributes much of the channel’s success with the amount of preparation that went into making it a reality, “Most people don’t realize how much work goes into the pre-production aspect of what we do. I think it’s one of the reasons our YouTube channel grew the way it did.
“We spent a solid, almost five years of development with the animal show concept before we launched the YouTube channel. That photograph of the snapping turtle I mentioned was shown to my producing team in the spring of 2009. So between 2009 and 2014, there was a lot of work done to develop the concept…
“We did practice shoots. We created sizzle reels… Did all sorts of stuff that never saw the light of day, but certainly helped us hone our skills for creating animal and adventure content. Sure enough, here we are, the number one animal and adventure brand in the world. Certainly in the digital space and, arguably, in every space at this point.”
Keeping the Wheels in Motion
YouTube channels of this nature are different beasts than something made on a soundstage, or even in the comfort of one’s own home.
Between travelling and research, I asked Coyote to help walk me through the production process for a typical episode:
“For every location we go to, we batch produce. That means, we’ll go [to a location] for two-four weeks — depending on how far we have to travel — and we will target maybe 60 different animal species.
“[We’re] not going to find all of them, but we have to be prepared to know facts about all 60 animals. We may encounter 15 of those throughout the course of the trip, [but] we just have to be ready at the spur of the moment, if I can make a catch to be able to speak intellectually, with proper facts and excitement for that animal species.”
This prep work becomes invaluable when unexpected encounters present themselves, like the giant snail they came across during their recent South Africa trip. “We went intending to film things like lions and elephants… and here we find this giant land snail. People were fascinated by that.”
Aside from the random nature of animal encounters and treacherous locations, the overall operation is similar to other productions, “When we’re in the field we get as much content as we can, then we bring it back into post-production. We lay out a schedule as to when content will release while we’re already planning for the next trip. That’s how we’ve kept it going, and we’ve released two to three pieces of content [per week] on our channel consistently for over four years now.”
Brave Wilderness isn’t a one-man show. Coyote is quick to point out the efforts of his crew and how the channel’s success hinged on that teamwork, “Mark Vins is my business partner, director, and one of the producers on our shows. Mario Aldecoa is our wildlife biologist, but we have a full time team of twelve employees (including myself) at this point, and that’s probably one of the smartest things I think we did.
“When we started the YouTube channel it was really just myself, Mark and Mario. I was actually editing all the episodes. So I was starring in the episodes and also editing them — from bringing the footage into the computer to final cut. Now we’re in a position where we’re able to hire editors.
“I’m still very heavily involved when it comes to creating the storyline the editors follow. I write all the voice over scripts that drive the ‘story’ forward. All of our content at this point has turned into these episodic bits of narrative… Some of the bigger episodes, like elephants or lions, have more narrative that runs through them.”
The four-person field team (including a location specialist) is responsible for bringing content back to the home team. Delivering “the goods” is a daunting task for four people, but Coyote emphasized everything on their channel is the real deal, “There are no scripts in the field. Everything is improv. We don’t…even [have] a shot list. Everything happens spur of the moment, and everything I say on camera are memorized facts that my wildlife biologist Mario and I have researched in pre-production.
“There are rumors that some wildlife shows ‘can’ their animals… Literally taking captive animals and placing them in the environment. We do none of that. Everything we do on camera is 100% genuine. When we get into post, I’m able to sculpt those stories to really be accurate to what we capture in the field, but also giving it that little extra cinematic pizzazz.”
When asked about his wildest animal encounter, Coyote explained each location has its own unique story, but a recent trip to South Africa saw them run across a rogue band of elephant males, “It’s not often you see a group of males traveling together and we [found] ourselves right in the middle of this encounter where they sized up against us. Literally feet from our open-topped vehicle.
“They could have crushed [it], but they ended up getting in a battle between themselves! We found ourselves right in the middle of this epic battle; we’re talking miles and miles away from civilization. If anything had gone wrong, that’s endgame right there … To have captured it all on camera, compose that story in post-production and have it released to the audience was pretty exciting.”
Advice For Others
Garnering such a following and growing the brand to the point where mainstream media (like the talk show host Conan) takes notice, is the dream of many YouTubers. As such, I asked Coyote Peterson if he had any words of advice to offer up.
He explained there are three components he uses to move Brave Wilderness forward. Before getting to those, however, he emphasized one crucial aspect, “You have to have a good idea… An idea that somebody else hasn’t done, and [something] you are extremely passionate about because it’s going to become your life… If you’re going to turn this into your career, you have to really stick with it…Imagine yourself doing it on a weekly basis, 52 weeks a year, for year after year. It’s not an easy thing.
“The three most important things are: Consistency, quantity and quality. Those three things combine together to make you a really successful YouTube channel. What I think most people don’t realize is that uploading a couple videos on YouTube isn’t going to turn your [channel] into a successful enterprise.
“Every style of production has its challenges; whether you’re vlogger or creating the episodic content we’re creating. The toughest thing has been keeping consistency…Releasing at least two pieces of content a week, every week no matter what. Doesn’t matter if we’re sick, tired or just feel like skipping a week.”
Making an Impact and Looking Ahead
Most may have heard about Brave Wilderness through the channel’s “extreme” videos where Coyote subjects himself to painful bites and stings from various species, which he admits are great for bringing in new viewers. Even with those videos, however, the goal of the channel remains the same: education.
“The educational standpoint of our content is first and foremost. That was heavily pre-meditated before we started our channel… It’s about the education, it’s about conservation, but in the YouTube space, how do you make that engaging and grip your audience? Some of the more dangerous things that I’ve done — the bites, the stings — we realized was a great way to bring education to people in a very unique form.
“Even those intense moments of my getting stung and being in pain are still laced with a takeaway that is [the audience] knows something about tarantula hawks, or bullet ants, snapping turtles… Or even what to do in a worst case scenario if you are stung.”
While he’s done plenty of fun things in the last four years, Coyote told me the educational aspect is still his favorite part of the experience, “The ultimate reward is getting an episode… on YouTube and seeing the audiences’ reaction… Recognizing that we are providing the world with a fast-paced and fun piece of educational, and sometimes conservation-based, content.”
Brave Wilderness now encompasses multiple shows, merchandise and books, Coyote’s second book launched this Holiday season detailing his “King of Sting” encounters, and a third book is on the way in September 2019. Even with all this going on, Coyote and his team aren’t slowing down.
They’re currently working with Universal Pictures on Jurassic World Explorers to craft digital content for fans — a partnership that will continue through the release of Jurassic World 3 — but the most recent announcement may be the most exciting, “We will be producing the tentpole series for Animal Planet in 2019. I’m now getting the chance to have that coveted role within Discovery Communications that Steve Irwin once had… the chance to have a show that will make myself and my team… the face of Animal Planet.”
Being able to take their brand onto a traditional network space is something Coyote was clearly excited about for the team. He was quick to point out that YouTube subscribers shouldn’t worry, “We’re not leaving YouTube behind by any means. It’s just a matter of now producing content that fits in two verticals; digital and linear television.”
It’ll be a tough balance, but Brave Wilderness is always ready for a challenge. Coyote’s love of animals and enthusiasm is infectious. It’s no surprise he’s been able to capture the interest of a new generation with his educational wildlife content. That passion is something other YouTubers should take into account when deciding to make their own channel.
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