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Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, August 2004

By Tom White

Dear Readers,

For many of us, our first experiences with documentaries were of the nature, wildlife, science or environment variety—in schools, often as early as elementary school, when the science teacher would gingerly thread the film through the rickety projector, and we'd subject ourselves to a stentorian narrator intoning about everything from dinosaurs to Martians. Then we'd go home and our parents would let us watch National Geographic programs, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and, later, NOVA and Nature.

In the decades that followed, the nature/environment/wildlife/science film genre evolved into a veritable industry, with technology expanding and transforming how we document and exhibit the world around us—and even beyond us and within us. In the 1970s, the large format genre was launched, and the IMAX Corporation led the way in setting up giant screens at science and wildlife centers around the country. As more filmmakers took their work to veldts and volcanoes, and into ventricles and vortices, more channels were launched to accommodate this work, and festivals such as Wildscreen and Jackson Hole International Wildlife Film Festival were created as convocations for filmmakers, commissioning editors and distributors alike.

This month we look at a few strands of this vital genre. First, the large format industry, which is undergoing a transformation in all areas, from filmmaking to presentation to economics. Dianna Costello attended the 2004 Large Format Cinema Association Conference, and she shares her findings with us on the state of this particular industry and how its key players—filmmakers, commercial and institutional exhibitors, and distributors and funders—are strategizing to survive. Meanwhile, Ray Zone looks at some of the key large format films that have impressed the cognoscenti this year.

Conferences, like festival and markets, serve to not only showcase the latest works, but also to bring a given industry together—to make deals, share insights about trends and directions, introduce new technologies and ruminate on what the future holds. Wildscreen and Jackson Hole may be the Romulus and Remus of the nature and wildlife festival circuit, but Laura Almo has uncovered many more, some of which specialize in nature and wildlife, others in science, others still in environmental issues.

And many filmmakers have been setting their sites on worlds way beyond Planet Earth—specifically on Mars, that mythical red planet that caught the imagination of everyone from Jules Verne to H.G. Wells to Orson Welles. With various space programs gearing up for missions to Mars, production entities like NOVA, Discovery Canada and NHK are getting into the act as well, with the help of the National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA) and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the latter of which boasts its own media division, headed by documentary filmmaker Blaine Baggett. Tamara Krinsky talks to various filmmakers about their respective Mars projects.


Yours in actuality,

Thomas White