As we here at Earth Touch know well, one of the best ways to connect people with wildlife is through moving pictures. Wildlife documentaries are a staple, with some of the best examples of the genre being watched over and over again in living rooms and classrooms around the world. Many believe that the only way to inspire people to care about wildlife is to show it to them. Not everybody can afford to go on an African safari, to dive the Great Barrier Reef, or to brave the frigid polar ice in hopes of spotting a polar bear or watching killer whales on the hunt. And perhaps not everybody should; if these spots were overrun with tourists, they would cease to be truly natural.
In some ways, wildlife filmmakers are modern-day explorers, ambassadors for our species setting out to photograph the natural world and bring it into our homes and onto our screens. More and more, they're not just filming animals and ecosystems, but documenting the myriad ways in which those animals and ecosystems are changing on this human-dominated planet. "Africa is changing rapidly," says Craig Sholley, vice president of philanthropy and marketing for the African Wildlife Foundation. “We need these [filmmakers] to capture and convey to viewers around the world how precious and fragile our natural world is and how important it is to keep protecting it."
That's why Nat Geo WILD teamed up with the Sun Valley Film Festival and the African Wildlife Foundation to create the Wild to Inspire film festival, now in its second year. In the first year, the festival received more than 300 short films (no more than five minutes long) with topics ranging from grizzly bear conservation, the life of a beekeeper and even a skunk rescue operation. This year, participants are being asked to create their own five-minute version of Nat Geo WILD's Sunday night programme Destination Wild. "Submissions should feature wildlife stories and moments from the entrants’ own lives, whether on their travels or in their own backyards. The ultimate goal is to turn footage into something that will captivate viewers and inspire them to let the wild in every day." The winner will receive a National Geographic expedition to experience and document the wilderness of Africa.
Last year, filmmakers Dan Duran, Sam Price-Waldman and Brendan Nahmias won for their short film, 'Wolf Mountain', and Duran was selected to participate in the expedition to AWF's Maasai Steppe landscape in northern Tanzania last November. There, he learned from wildlife filmmaker and Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Bob Poole, while the two worked to document Tanzania’s dynamic Manyara–Tarangire ecosystem, which includes Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks and the AWF-managed Manyara Ranch Conservancy.
We caught up with Duran after his Tanzanian expedition. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our interview. You can read more about Duran's time in Africa in his field diary.
Why did you decide to focus on wolves for your Wild to Inspire submission video?
I entered the contest last year with my two friends and colleagues, Brendan Nahmias and Sam Price-Waldman, who are also co-directors of the film. Brendan, Sam and myself went to film school together at Chapman University and we decided to make a short about wolves for an assignment in our wildlife filmmaking class. We actually found Wolf Mountain Sanctuary on Yelp and thought it might be cool to do a piece about Tonya Littlewolf [the sanctuary owner]. Plus, how could we not get A's if we made a film about wolves?
After coming across the Wild to Inspire contest a year and half after we graduated, we thought it might be worth a shot to submit the film. We didn’t necessarily create the film with the intention of winning or focusing solely on wolves. It was sort of a coincidence and Wolf Mountain seemed to be a perfect fit for the contest since Tonya literally lets the 'wild' into her everyday life. Tonya’s devotion and spiritual connection with the wolves is uncanny and we were fascinated by her story’s complicated nature: Should the wolves be reintroduced to the wild or remain in captivity? We never thought anything would become of Wolf Mountain and all the success we have achieved with the film has been very humbling for us.
What went into your thought process as the story came together?
We knew we wanted to tell a compelling story within a short amount of time, but our biggest challenge was deciding what angle we would take. The juxtaposition of wild versus captive was always a theme we wanted to explore. For the competition, we knew we had to submit a piece that was short and sweet, but how do you effectively create a story that involves a complex subject within a short amount of time? For Wolf Mountain, that involved Tonya’s work at the wolf sanctuary and whether it was right to keep the wolves captive or reintroduce them into the wild. We personally struggled with this dilemma in the beginning, but we ultimately wanted to show, not tell. Our film contains a lot of grey area because while Tonya’s practices are controversial, she does provide safe haven for these wolves that were born in captivity. Exploring the spiritual and emotional seemed like a more nuanced approach than focusing on the scientific [aspects], with a bunch of talking heads. The issue and her story are clearly complicated, and leaving the film open-ended ultimately allows for the audience to decide as opposed to inflicting our own views.
What were the biggest differences between shooting at the wolf sanctuary in California and shooting in the national park in Tanzania?
When I shot Wolf Mountain, the wolf sanctuary was a contained environment where the wolves were either caged or 'socialized' and able to interact with humans. Shooting in the National Parks in Tanzania, I dealt with wild animals that were unpredictable and harder to access. When you’re in a contained and controlled environment like the sanctuary, it’s easier to film animals because you’re not spending all day trying to scout game, and the animals are on your schedule as opposed to you being on their schedule.
Let’s not forget I was shooting from a Land Rover most of the time because I could very well be a lion’s supper. When you’re out shooting in the wild, I found you always have to be prepared because anything can happen at a moment’s notice. I can’t tell you how many times I missed the shot because my camera wasn’t turned on, or I had the wrong lens on or I forgot to hit 'record'. The best advice I can give for shooting in the wild is to expect the unexpected. If you’re not prepared, you can miss something absolutely magical. Nothing beats shooting in the wild because that bond you share when you film a wild animal is priceless. I filmed a pride of lions from four feet away in Ngorongoro and it changed my life.
What was it like working with Bob Poole? Did you learn any tips or tricks that surprised you?
I’ve never met anyone with so much joy, energy and true dedication to their craft. Bob’s lifestyle, mentality and background are what make him such a great wildlife filmmaker. Bob grew up in East Africa with a strong upbringing in conservation. He has witnessed how the wildlife and wild lands of Africa have changed throughout the years and was able to give me great insight about how conservation is crucial now more than ever. When it came to shooting in the field, I felt at home with Bob. It was awesome to shoot with someone who speaks the same filmmaking language as you.
Bob is a man of many traits and I was surprised how much he assisted me with access to individuals. I did a majority of my wildlife filmmaking the two weeks prior to Bob’s arrival, so when he arrived we actually shot more people together than animals. Bob is great with the camera, but he can also speak Swahili, effectively coordinate a successful shooting day and charm any Tanzanian with the infamous 'Bobmobile' – that’s Bob’s custom-designed car fully equipped for shooting wildlife, enduring the harsh East African terrain and storing just about everything you need in life. While he is a distinguished filmmaker, Bob has a true devotion to the nonfiction filmmaking medium. Unlike other [Directors of Photography] I’ve worked with in the past, wildlife cinematography is not a job to him, but a way of effectively conveying imperative conservation issues on screen. Not only does he genuinely care about the issues, but Bob understands the issues, which is what surprised and impressed me the most about him.
What’s the biggest misconception about wildlife filmmaking? Did you wind up busting some of your own misconceptions while out in Tanzania?
I think the biggest misconception about wildlife filmmaking is that you can film wildlife without understanding what’s at stake for these animals. I don’t think the biggest misconception about wildlife filmmaking is that it’s easy, because I believe most people know there are challenges when dealing with unpredictable [wildlife] and weather. As I mentioned before, you could spend all day, or months or even years, just trying to scout the right animal, film the perfect scene, or discover the most ideal location for your story. However, what exactly is your story? Do you know your story, understand the conservation issues at stake and have a clear sense of why it needs to be told?
I think the biggest misconception I ended up busting while out in Tanzania was the fact that I didn’t fully understand the conservation issues within the Maasai Steppe landscape [until] I met with people working at the grassroots level and learned about the struggles these conservationists face on a daily basis. It’s one thing to film magnificent wildlife, but it’s another thing to understand why you are filming.
The International Documentary Association (IDA) recently argued that wildlife filmmakers need a code of ethical conduct. Do you agree? Where do you see the trade-off between good storytelling and accuracy? What are the responsibilities of wildlife filmmakers when it comes to animal welfare?
I can understand why the IDA would argue that wildlife filmmakers need a code of ethical conduct because filming wildlife can be incredibly time consuming and requires a ton of patience. One can see how filmmakers could be tempted to provoke wildlife in order to get a reaction or create a dramatic scene. However, I think what’s most important, as I mentioned before, is for wildlife filmmakers to truly understand what conservation stories need to be told.
I think the responsibilities of wildlife filmmakers should be creating content to enact change, to highlight a crucial conservation issue or because you ultimately care about the wild lands and wildlife you are profiling. Otherwise, why even be a wildlife filmmaker in the first place? I think every filmmaker, wildlife or not, should always contemplate their true objective when telling a story because at the end of the day you’re not only a storyteller but also an influential platform.
If you'd like to participate in this year's competition, you have until February 9 to submit your entry. Details and instructions can be found here.
Top header image: Nat Geo WILD, used with permission.