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Capturing Wildlife: Natural History Filmmakers Bag Big Game at Jackson Hole

By Dianna Costello

From 'Kalahari: The Great Thirstland.' Courtesy of LVM Group

Any accidental tourists strolling through the lobby of Wyoming's Lake Lodge sometime during the last week of September might have thought they had wandered into a mecca of devout followers on their customary pilgrimage. All they had to do was overhear any of these devotees wax poetic about the value of this film festival to understand why it is a "must attend" for natural history filmmakers and broadcasters.

Although the Wild Screen Film Festival, held in alternating years in Bristol, England, shares the "must attend" status, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival (JHWFF) remains the sentimental favorite because it's held in one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the United States—the Grand Tetons.

Launched in 1991 by Wolfgang Bayer and Barry Clark, the JHWFF began with 125 attendees, but now commands more than 600 faithful followers. "[The festival] has always provided a wonderful and casual setting for filmmakers and producers to consummate deals with commissioning organizations, and for people to gather to exchange ideas, renew or establish relationships and simply have a good time," says Lisa Samford, the festival's executive director.

With a heavy emphasis on conservation this year, the festival pulled in the most respected leaders of the field, including George Schaller, Jane Goodall and Michael Fay. Just to see the heads of Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund together on a panel was remarkable. A delegation of 23 government and private organizations from the Congo Basin Forest Partnership also participated in the event. And, in celebration of its 50th year in TV broadcasting, Japan's NHK delivered a live, high-definition satellite link from its Antarctica station to the festival's awards gala dinner.

Aside from the spectacular mountain vistas, the main attraction was the crowd, nearly two-thirds of which included representatives from networks, distributors and production companies, as well as independent filmmakers. The remaining one-third was a mix of representatives from high-tech equipment companies, wildlife foundations, conservation organizations, universities, museums, zoos and the usual contingent of emerging filmmakers hoping to make a meaningful connection during the festival.

For Neil Nightingale, head of the BBC's Natural History Unit, Jackson Hole offers the opportunity to catch up with independent producers from around the world. "Events like this, when you bring people from all around the world together in one place—to share ideas, to do business, to watch other people's films—is incredibly valuable."

This year's awards competition had more than 550 films entered into 18 different categories, ranging from People and Animals to Environmental. The BBC walked off with 10 out of 18 awards for programs produced in-house and commissioned or acquired from independent producers. National Geographic won the Best Animal Behavior award for Snake Hunters of the Kalahari, produced by David and Carol Hughes. Keenan Smart, head of National Geographic's Natural History Unit, was impressed with the range of programming styles represented at the awards ceremony. He cited everything from "classic animal behavior studies that require an incredible amount of time in the field to shows that were heavily driven by a correspondent or presenter; and also the expensive, high-end CG [computer-generated] productions that not everybody can afford."

Another award recipient was Harry Marshall, filmmaker and owner of the UK-based Icon Films. Marshall won the Best Writing award for his film The Temple of Tigers: India's Bandhavgarh Wilderness, part of PBS' The Living Edens series. The film's location—a splendid ruin that was once a magnificent fortress of the Maharaji's—inspired "an epic storytelling theme—the rise and fall of great civilizations and the rise and fall of individual tigers that roamed this wilderness," says Marshall.

Marshall sees the trend in natural history shifting towards big-budgeted series like The Blue Planet. "The little baubles—the beautiful 'one-off' place films—are being replaced by landmark films that make an impact in a multi-channel environment."

Nightingale agrees. He and fellow commissioning editors are seeking "the same kind of factors that they're looking for in other factual programs. Probably the most important criteria are, 'Is it big idea? Is it ambitious? Is it the best thing that's ever been done in that area?' "

As Green Umbrella's Nigel Ashcroft sees it, what broadcasters want boils down to the usual thing—"sort of the same, but different. When it comes down to it, if you suggest some animal that's hardly ever been filmed, such as earthworms, slugs or snails, it's unlikely to be commissioned. They probably still want the charismatic animals. But again, they want a new way of looking at lions; some new angle, like putting cameras on them or with them in the den."

Smart indicates that National Geographic is looking for "a mixture of shows and [is] very interested in doing films with a very big behavioral component that you can describe as 'blue chip'." Smart notes that such programs "still work with an audience, but the real pressure on those shows are the budgets, and finding those budgets at the moment is not the easiest thing, given the general state of the television market."

Ashcroft agrees that audiences have a big appetite for those shows and more traditional natural history, but so much of the programming is being "dumbed down to make it fast and exciting and dramatic [that they are] losing a lot of facts from it." Though he believes that programming can be entertaining and educational, he fears there is a dangerous trend toward more sensational programming, alluding to Discovery Channel's Anatomy of a Shark Bite, where 50 seconds of a shark bite was turned into a two-hour program.

Ashcroft, who produced the Earth Sciences award-winning Journey to the Center of the Earth for Discovery Channel, believes that the natural history genre travels well internationally. But he points out that the trend toward making more "faster and cheaper" programming, using presenters and animal wranglers to introduce "more action, excitement and drama," has its drawbacks. "Then you start getting dialogue in the show, and that's normally in English," he says. "That can cause problems in the international markets."

One of the keynote presenters, Keith Scholey, BBC's controller for specialist factual, believes there is a worrying trend that natural history is on the decline. "If we fail to reach large audiences, then we're not serving natural history," he maintains. He suggests that producers throw out the rule book, "forget all the categories and mix all the ingredients in fresh, new ways."

Scholey also notes the explosion in the understanding of animal behavior as well as the technique for visualization to capture more surprising behavior. National Geographic's Smart agrees, pointing out that major advances have been made in camera and lens technology. "New techniques for micro-photography and remote imaging are allowing wonderful work both with camera systems that are carried by animals and with remotely placed cameras." Smart cites Hornets from Hell, the National Geographic film screened at the festival, as "a good example of extraordinary endoscopic work" inside the hornet colonies. "The details that the producers were able to get by using these features was fantastic."

"The great advances in low-light cameras and infrared cameras," says Nightingale, "have allowed us to show nocturnal wildlife in ways that it hasn't been seen before. We're now using cameras the size of the fingernail of your little finger, putting them on animals to allow you to get a unique perspective. That's the really exciting drive of technology, rather than formats you use for capture." As for high definition (HD), Nightingale explains it's a "business thing" in the UK. "It's a creative thing in America, where the television system is not very good. But it's not a creative issue for us, other than it allows us to consider theatrical releases because of the quality."

From the filmmaker's point of view, HD is the ideal way to capture natural history. According to Tim Liversedge's producer, Katya Shirokow, their two Kalahari films (The Great Thirstland and Flooded Desert) are "a visual history of the development of HD." They began shooting in the earliest form of HD, Uni-Hi, then later 1080i and 24p. Shirokow admits that combining three different HD formats was costly and complicated. As for the origination of future projects, "Tim loves 1080i and thinks it's the ideal way to capture natural history. The camera is not as expensive, you can roll for longer periods of time, and have all the advantages that come with using tape."

Pierre de Lespinois, filmmaker and owner of Evergreen Films and co-owner with Discovery of the Canadian-based visual effects firm Meteor Studios, believes that with budgets cut back dramatically, digital technology "allows you to maybe say 'Yes' to a film that you think would be risky to do in 35mm or 16mm." However, he also fears that "mom and pop" businesses won't survive—and that will only hurt everyone. Such a loss, he says, "doesn't serve networks. They need the programming to air. But we can't have these filmmakers go out and do stuff for $2 and starve to death trying to make money."

De Lespinois points out that the cable networks don't have to follow the same FCC-mandated rules for broadcast networks that require broadcasters to pay residuals to producers after airing their program twice. Instead, the cable networks want to own "not only your film but every piece of your film, and if you bought a book for the property, 'I want that too.' At the end of the day, all your creativity and hard work is owned by somebody else."

There is one development/production/distribution company bucking that trend—Devillier Donegan Enterprises (DDE). According to Carol Fleisher of Fleisherfilm, who has worked with DDE for more than ten years, "You get a fair deal, 'outs' and a participation at the back end." But even DDE has been forced to adapt to the changing economic climate and, Fleisher adds, "now prefers to have an international co-production partner set upfront before they commit to commissioning something."

Carole Tomko, vice president of production and development for Animal Planet, sees a return to more co-productions as people are forced to become more creative and aware of the bottom liner. "The creative business model has had to change a little bit. We're finding really unusual partnerships that would've never happened before."

Fleisher also loves doing fully commissioned shows such as Animal Planet's Poppa Bear because "All the money is in one place, you get a quick decision and you can just start working." Yet she's faced with producing programs that have 40 percent of the funds she used to have for one-hour specials. Finding creative ways to keep within budget forces her to wear several hats. "I end up staying later and later because I can afford fewer people to help," she says.

"There's no magic process that can substitute for the diligent fieldwork that an extraordinary caliber of people bring to the subject," says National Geographic's Smart. "But it requires time in the field, and time in the field has to be paid for. If we can't find a way to support crews for periods in the field, there is a danger of losing some shows, which is why we want to try and work with co-production partners to overcome that problem."

Smart is upbeat overall about the future, however, sensing a sea change happening at this year's festival. "There's been a positive atmosphere here despite the fact that at this moment, there are a lot of very good wildlife cinematographers and producers who are not working. There is a sense here that things are beginning to organize themselves, and outside the US, there has been a real sense that many foreign broadcasters are looking for a considerable quantity and quality of natural history programming." As for compromising quality because of shrinking budgets, Smart admits that those pressures still exist. "But there's a lot of effort being put into finding ways to overcome that limitation, and it's got to resolve itself in more dynamic partnerships."


Dianna Costello is a Los Angeles-based writer and producer who received an Academy Award nomination for her film Graffiti. She is currently developing a science drama film project.