December 1, 1997

High Tech-Low Key: The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival

A horizon lined by mountains and trees reflects into the water at the Lodge at Jackson Hole

"Bring your cowboy boots," the bro­chure urged, setting the tone for this highly unusual, six-day film festival held in September of this year. Part marketplace, part festival and all fun, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival is an industry­ gathering with a distinctive flair and has traditionally been a closely-guarded secret on the festival circuit, known only to savvy delegates, local wildlife enthusiasts and a handful of journalists.

The story began in 1991 when Wolfgang Bayer, a renowned local wildlife filmmaker, decided to stage an event that would bring together friends and colleagues to swap sto­ries and ideas and to keep up with industry trends. The decision to hold this new festival every other odd year was made to avoid a clash with the Wildscreen Festival in Bristol, England, held every even year. The first gathering at Jackson Hole attracted 350 people, and 135 films were shown in competition. Three festivals later—and without any advertising—the number of attendees has swollen to 780, the number of films in competition has risen to 500, all late registrants have been turned away, and the upstrut festival has become the world's preeminent wildlife film festival, overwhelming even its predecessor, the venerable Wildscreen.

Sponsored by some of the best in the business—including Sony, Turner, Canal Plus and National Geographic Televi­sion—the clue to Jackson Hole's success lies in its ability to blend an appropriately low-key, outdoorsey approach with a sophisticated, innovative, industry event. With the informal dress code deliberately blurring the lines between producers and programmers, Jackson Hole prides itself on providing its delegates with current information on the marketplace, the latest devel­opments in film and video technology, plus numerous opportunities to explore the new co-production alliances generated by the soaring global demand for wildlife pro­grams. According to Festival Chairman, Barry Clark, "The main goal is to bring broadcasters and producers up to speed, to understand the digital revolution. The film competition is really peripheral."

Each day, a dizzying selection saw four simultaneous workshops, discussions and screenings being offered, making it hard to choose which to attend and causing grumbling amongst some delegates about conflicting schedules. One of the major themes of this year's festival centered on Latin America. There is an inherent imbal­ance in the fact that ninety percent of wildlife programming is currently made in the U.K. and the U.S., but a large proportion of programs are actually filmed in Latin America: the festival sought to draw attention to this by staging two seminars and two screenings devoted to Latin American filmmakers. The seminar on Latin American Programming proved to be a lively affair with delegates from five Latin Amer­ican countries re­ questing increased funding to im­prove Latin American technology and to encourage more local production. An eloquent plea was also made for the use of more indigenous music and ambient sound, in place of the synthesized variety so often favored. This point was masterfully demonstrated by a live performance from two Colombian musicians, playing to images from a Colombian wildlife film: the results were strutting and powerful. The forum also raised an issue—repeated throughout the festival—of the relative merits of making conservation films as opposed to "blue chip" films (usually defined as high-end films with budgets of round $1 million per hour). Haroldo Castro of Conservation International argued forcefully in favor of more conservation and less animal behavior, while the possibilities of making mass-market, crossover programming with an environmental message were also explored.

Some of the more contentious issues swirling around the festival were aired during the panel discussions and provided a nice counterpoint to the technology seminars. These included the sometimes controversial role of scientists in natural history filmmaking, and how to make better scientific films. There was also a forum on the ethics of natural history filmmaking, Viajeros deprobing the issues of deceit and manipulation in filming, the pressures of an increasingly competitive marketplace, distortion of scientific fact and damage to wildlife and habitat.

Other popular and informative seminars included "The Art of the Script"; "The Role of the Celebrity Presenter"; "Children's Programming"; "Finding the Money"; and "Dividing the Pie," a discus­sion surrounding the key issue of owner­ship and control, which provoked a heated argument between producers, distributors and broadcasters. In keeping with the global appeal of wildlife programming and the number of international delegates present, a big emphasis was placed on the interna­tional marketplace, with seminars devoted to international television distribution and markets. Some of the more unusual semi­nars included exotic film techniques, large format filmmaking and "Production and Post-production Pathways," an examina­tion of the comparative costs of producing and post-producing wildlife programs in film, standard definition video and HDTV. A useful and instructional exercise running throughout the week involved a series entitled "Anatomy of a Production." These were screenings of selected films, followed by a discussion and analysis of the style, subject and budget, conducted by the filmmakers, broadcasters and distribu­tors. There were also workshops on camera lenses, nonlinear editing and sound design, plus motion picture camera demonstrations from Aaton and Arriflex.

Unusual for a film festival, the star of the show proved to be a camera! Sony's new HDW-700 camcorder was specially flown in from Japan for the occasion. Dur­ing the week, selected cinematographers were invited to test it out in and around the park and Sony then screened the results. Despite a few minor glitches, this 18 lb. high-definition camcorder proved to be a winner amongst the assem­bled cameramen. "It 's a shooter's dream!" enthused cinematographer Al Giddings. The film versus video debate raged, privately and publicly throughout the week, pitting the high-definition zealots against the film diehards, but the festival buzzword around the Lodge was "16:9"—the aspect ratio for high-definition television. HDTV has always been the name of the game at Jackson Hole, and la Musica there were several seminars devoted to de-mystifying and promoting this new technology. According to director Clark: "HDTV and natural history pro­gramming make the perfect marriage between technical mastery and dramatic subject matter."

With HDTV in mind, Peter Guber, Chairman of Mandalay Entertainment, and Underwater Cinematographer/Director Al Giddings, recently joined Barry Clark in launching Mandalay Media Arts, the joint venture designed to capitalize on the opportunities offered by high-definition television. Guber, Giddings and Clark are three men on a mission, unabashedly embracing the world of high-definition televi­sion programming. "What we are trying to do is bring the power of the motion picture into the world of television. We're going into the market­ Barry place with creative resources, tremendous passion and a little money, and we're going to test the water," explained Clark. "We're the first out of the chute on this: no other TV programming company has announced their intention to produce HD program­ming in any genre." With 70 inch digital TV sets, digital sound and theatrical quality programming, all three men predict a radi­cal departure in the field of entertainment, revolutionizing the dynamic between the viewer and the product. In addi­tion, high-definition is creating a whole new approach to film production. "Everybody on the set sees everything immediately," says Al Giddings. "The Between Panels enthusiasm increases... it's instant feed­ back for everybody." According to Clark and Guber, accompanying this new tech­nology will be a migration of talent into the non-fiction genre from the field of televi­sion commercials, music videos, feature films and movies-of-the week, creating a kind of international, commercial film­making hitherto unseen in tile world of documentaries.

As the week rolled on and festival fatigue took its toll, it was a welcome relief to finally sit down and view the films shortlisted in competition. This year there were 14 categories, and Alan Root of Survival Anglia Ltd., moderated a session of the finalists. The works were wide ranging: from shoe­ string—budgeted Clark shorts up to a $5 million IMAX film. Indeed, there was so much contro­versy surrounding the entries in the Best Non-broadcast Film category, which included a $100,000 film on land snails and the $5 million IMAX film on whales, that no winners were declared; however, commendations were made to all. Some of the notables included three excellent investi­gative films: Killed in Hudson Bay, Yellowstone—­America's Eden and Tiger: Lord of the Wild, which went on to win in that category. Ano­ther firm favorite at Jackson Hole was Hugh Miles' marvel, Puma: Lion of the Andes, produced by National Geographic Television and already selected as the Delegates' Choice at Wildscreen in 1996. Attracting a lot of attention was Bruce Davidson's much­ lauded film, Mountain Gorilla: A Shat­tered Kingdom. The accompanying Anatomy of a Production session, given earlier in the week, had provided valuable insight into the seven years of dangerous and painstaking filmmaking undergone to produce this intimate and moving work with an environmental message. The need for more films of this type was stressed in Hugh Miles' speech accepting, as Execu­tive Producer, the Grand Teton Award for the film People of the Sea. "Let's make more films like this," he urged the crowd, "where we bring wildlife, human and environmental issues together."

The awards cer­emony brought the festival to a triumphant close. If its success is any indication, the public's appe­tite for natural history film s seems certain to increase: "Natural history programming is here to stay," stated Adrian Caddy of Oxford Scientific Films. "There will be more festivals in the future, including one in Africa." As if to echo that sentiment, Barry Clark is looking ahead and already planning to add more events for Jackson Hole 1999.

A native Londoner and former literary agent, LINDA BAWDEN ALLEN has freelance experience as producer; production manager and researcher on documentaries. She is currently writing and producing a docu­mentary series about Brazil.