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Preserving Nature on Film: National Geographic Digital Motion

By Bob Fisher

Photo courtesy of National Geographic Digital Motion

Jocelyn Shearer, vice president of worldwide sales at National Geographic Digital Motion,has fond girlhood memories of spending weekends and summers fishing, boating and collecting “weird” rocks and other artifacts. Photography was also part of her world. Her parents took Ektachrome slides of wildlife and nature during their travels. She also looked forward to perusing pictures in National Geographic magazine.

Maybe it was destiny calling. Shearer is now responsible for overseeing worldwide sales of National Geographic’s motion picture archives. The moving images date back to 1903, when the National Geographic Society produced its first motion pictures documenting the wonders of nature on black-and-white film. Shearer accepting  the 2007 International Documentary Association Preservation and Scholarship Award on behalf of National Geographic Digital Motion in recognition of the Society’s commitment to preserving historic films for posterity and for its dedication to making the wonders of nature depicted in those documentaries accessible for study and repurposing.

The National Geographic Society traces its roots to January 13, 1888, when 33 explorers and scientists met at the Cosmos Club across the street from the White House in Washington, DC. They met to discuss the feasibility of organizing a society for the purpose of gathering geographical information and to make the public more aware of the natural wonders of the planet. They founded the National Geographic Society, which was destined to become one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world.

The new society was composed of geologists who explored the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone to measure the altitudes of mountains. In other ventures, they traced the windings of rivers and seashores, marked the paths of storms and floods and studied subjects ranging from flora and fauna to the customs of the Aborigines. The National Geographic Society documented those endeavors with photographs. The still pictures they took graced the pages of National Geographic magazine in its third issue in 1889 (the magazine debuted in 1888).

The society produced its first nonfiction motion pictures in 1908 for the purpose of visually augmenting lectures. That was just 19 years after Thomas Edison opened Black Maria Studio in New Jersey for the purpose of inventing technologies needed to produce motion pictures. The films were silent, and the cameras were hand-cranked.

National Geographic films and filmstrips have been used by teachers to enhance the educations of generations of school children. The first National Geographic television documentary, Americans on Everest, was produced in 1963. It documented a group of Americans climbing Mount Everest and was narrated by Orson Welles.

“That was the first of many National Geographic documentaries, which originally ran on mainstream television networks,” Shearer says. “They were produced by amazingly talented filmmakers who were committed to telling stories about nature.”

Shearer followed an indirect path to her current role at National Geographic. She was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and majored in English literature. Her first job was in an administrative role for a telecommunications company. Shearer soon decided that she was on the wrong track, and grasped an opportunity to work as a photo researcher for a Toronto company. She subsequently worked for several other companies that were in the business of repurposing still and motion picture images.

“By pure serendipity I heard there was an opening with National Geographic in 2002,” Shearer says. “It was like a dream come true. Photography and filmmaking about nature and the environment has been a lifelong passion for me. I’m not directly responsible for the still photo archives, but they are a rich and magnificent resource. Our motion picture archives date back to 1903. They are an incomparable resource.”

National Geographic archives its Emmy Award-winning motion picture footage at the organization’s headquarters in Washington, DC. However, the bulk of its films are in environmentally maintained, underground vaults at Iron Mountain, Pennsylvania. In addition to archiving the original films to maintain them for posterity, the entire collection is being digitized to make them accessible wherever there is a file server and someone with a password.

“We are working our way through the entire collection, including outtakes, and are discovering many wonderful things,” Shearer says. “Our archives are used in many ways. They are accessible to producers of new National Geographic television programs, and content is also licensed to other filmmakers. We have been doing that since the 1970s. It is a source of revenue and an additional way to get the message out.”

She adds that the archives are a vital resource for producing instructional materials for schools at all levels of education. Much of the content is also accessible through a password-protected website at Shearer explains how that resource is used for multiple purposes––including television news organizations around the world, historians, researchers, educators, students and geologists––and is licensed to producers, advertising agencies, corporations and filmmakers.

It’s an ongoing process. In addition to archiving historic films in its 100-year-old library, the organization produced around 150 hours of new television programs for the National Geographic Channel in 2007. All of those programs, including hundreds of hours of outtakes, are being archived.

“Our mission today to inspire people to care about the planet is consistent with the goals of the founders,” Shearer says. “We remain committed to facilitating public knowledge about nature and the environment in the world around us. Many things have changed dramatically over the years. That makes it especially important for us to preserve visual records of the way things were. There are more animals becoming extinct all the time, and the biospheres are changing. We are dedicated to preserving that visual history and keeping it accessible.”

She notes that the National Geographic Society has a relationship with the National Film Board of Canada and various other organizations around the world, which enables them to use one another’s archives for new projects.

“We all share a pretty small planet with a limited number of resources,” Shearer says. “I believe that it is important to preserve our images from the past to ensure that future generations will be able to look back and see where we’ve been. There is a general increasing awareness about the environment and the importance of preserving this history. Technological advances allow us to use our website to collect video from amateur filmmakers who have captured interesting and sometimes important images. We review them and sometimes purchase those moving images for our archives.”

She concludes, “The National Geographic Society has millions of members today. The mission defined by our founders continues with an increasing sense of urgency to enlighten the public about the need to appreciate and protect the planet’s natural resources and the environment. When we received an award from the National Park Service, we produced a film consisting of clips from the 1920s and subsequent decades. It was an eye-opening experience for everyone to see how the parks have changed.”


Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, with a main focus on cinematography.