Thumbnail image: Gerrit Vyn
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: Okay, we’re at about 50 participants. Hi everybody! I think we’re going to get this
show on the road. Welcome to Natural History Filmmaking, via the first virtual Migration Celebration. My name is Chelsea DeMott Wildey, I’m the Production Assistant for the Lab’s Center of Conservation Media.
We are so excited to be here doing this and to tell you who we are and what we do. In this workshop we’re going to be talking to you about how we develop and make natural history films for bird and habitat conservation. We’ll talk briefly about our group and then watch one of our latest films. The film is 17 minutes long and has some of the most incredibly stunning images that I’ve ever seen. We’ll be streaming the film — again for those just coming in — we’ll be streaming via Facebook or Zoom, but for best play-back quality look in Chat for the Vimeo link.
After the film, we’ll be moving to our panel discussion with our Story Editor Dr. Irene Liu, our Cinematographer and Associate Producer Andy Johnson, and our Producer and Editor Daniel Sheire. They’ll be giving a behind-the-scenes look into what goes into making a film like this. We’ll open up the floor for questions afterwards, and we’ll send you off with a free downloadable PDF that has a further breakdown into the filmmaking process and has tips from our team on you how you and your family can make a natural history film at home.
So first, what is the center for Conservation Media? Here is our Story Editor, Dr. Irene Liu, to give you a little more context.
>> [Irene Liu]: Hi my name is Irene Liu, I’m the story researcher slash story editor for the Center for Conservation Media. But before I start, I actually also wanted to give Andy and Daniel room to make introductions as well. You guys want to say anything first?
>> [Daniel Sheire]: Sure, thanks Irene. My name is Daniel Sheire, I’m a multimedia producer here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I’ve only been here for two years. Prior to that I had about a 20 year career in Washington DC area, working on natural history films and other genres of film, for places like National Geographic, PBS, Nature, PBS Nova, Frontline and other outputs.
>> [Andy Johnson]: My name is Andy Johnson, I’m associate producer with the team here. I’ve been a birder since I was a little kid and always wanted to come to the Cornell Lab and study birds, work with birds. My background was coming here as a student a number of years ago, studying birds, and then sort of pivoting into this visual storytelling media production role. So it has been a blast to be part of this team.
>> [Irene Liu]: Chelsea, you want to introduce yourself too?
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: Yeah. I’m Chelsea DeMott Wildey, I’m the team’s production assistant. I do some typical PA work such as filing, but I also do some assistant editing work and graphics for our team.
>> [Irene Liu]: Awesome, great. So I’m going to say that my background is actually in science. Out of the four of these fine panelists I actually came to the team the most recently, and with the least experience in filmmaking. And so, you know, when I came here thinking about the phrase “natural history filmmaking,” for me it meant a lot of National Geographic documentaries, certainly David Attenborough, Planet Earth, you know. Those clips that you guys tuning in might remember, the baby iguana running for its life from snakes. And so for a long time natural history filmmaking, for me, meant this visually stunning imagery of rare or endangered species doing amazing things.
And certainly that is a definition of natural history filmmaking, and it is one that our team does really well too. We have professional film makers who will get us those images. But at the same time I actually like to think of our group having an additional mission. We use the power of film in a targeted way, to help conservation partners we work with advance their specific campaigns. So what I mean by this is that we’re a service oriented institution. The way we work is that we will work with partners, or partners will find us, from across the US and the world, who are working on the ground for a specific conservation mission. And they maybe need or want media, communications tools, that could help their conservation campaign be even more successful. So we work with them to design very customized media for the target audience they need to reach, and to achieve the target outcomes that they need to achieve to move the conservation mission forward. And so we deliver these tailored pieces to them for them to use in their campaigns.
So I kind of think of us as a Venn diagram of three circles. The first one, like I said, is that documentary quality, stunning imagery. A second one might be the research, the evidence, you know, all of the science that makes our products factually accurate, that we can show into the world with
confidence because we are a science-based institution. And the third one would be operating in this conservation sphere, so focusing on services and solutions for the conservation community. So I think of Conservation Media as sitting in the intersection of these three domains.
So for example a couple products that we’ve worked on include working with the Fish and Wildlife Service on a piece that talks about the threats of illegal pet trade to African Grey Parrots. We’ve worked with a local conservation leader in India, to help her save an endangered stork species that she is working with. And we have also worked with a US-China think tank, to identify which regions along China’s east coast need the most protection in order to benefit the migratory shorebirds that pass through that area.
So it’s really varied, there’s a lot of breadth to the projects that we do. And that’s one reason that I really like working here, because you’re always learning something new. And you kind of pick up on all the conservation issues around the world, and in the States. And another reason is that, I really like working with a team full of people who are good at a lot of different things. So if you guys heard the intro, you’ll know that Daniel has done things like PBS Frontline documentaries. Chelsea is an animation genius, she makes amazing graphics, and her last job — she came to us from Sesame Street. And Andy has a biology degree, is a birder’s birder [LAUGHTER], and he is an incredible camera person in addition, you know, who has brought us back incredible footage. Including the stuff that you’re going to see in the film we are going to watch.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: Thank you so much Irene for that. So the film we are going to be watching today is a short piece that focuses on Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. It’s a place that very few people have had an opportunity to visit, and isn’t very well known. The goals of this film were to raise awareness of the refuge, to highlight some of the stunning biodiversity it offers, and to emphasize it as a vital location for the world’s largest congregation of Pacific Black Brant. Again, we will be streaming it via Facebook and Zoom, but for the best video quality please click in the chat for the Vimeo link that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is going to be sharing. All right. After the film we will come back and do a panel.
[Narrator]: The Unangax people of the Alaskan peninsula have described the creatures they live with for thousand of years. Today, languages are diverse, but the people and creatures remain, living in and around the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a protected area on the traditional territories of the Unangax people.
The abundance of life spans across a beautiful and rich landscape. The refuge sits along a string of dormant and active volcanoes, some towering thousands of feet above the sea. At the their base, tundra valleys criss-crossed by a never-ending flow of streams are where some of Alaska’s most iconic creatures thrive. And Izembek’s vast lagoon, a massive source of nutrients, is critical to both year-round residents and some of the planet’s great long-distance travelers.
Although the smallest national wildlife refuge in Alaska, it’s home to an abundance of biodiversity that’s unique even in this wild corner of the world. Located at the western tip of the Alaskan peninsula, the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge spreads across 310,00 acres of diverse lands. Established in 1960, its eastern border follows the ridge-line across a semi-circle of mountains. From there, the refuge extends west to encompass the 150-square mile Izembek Lagoon, rolling tundra and windswept coastline. In 1972, the state of Alaska created Izembek State Game Refuge to encompass the National Refuge and beyond. The area is managed by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
It’s August, and the refuge basks in long Alaskan summer days. The lagoon teems with life. River otters are often found in groups. Families are made up of a female and her pups, with or without an adult male. Izembek is home to the world’s only population of non-migrating Tundra Swans. Eating a variety of underwater plants and small arthropods. Nearby, curious harbor seals patrol the water. Other bigger sea mammals have arrived at the lagoon.
Growing up to 12 feet long and weighing nearly two tons, a giant male walrus pulls itself out of the water to haul out on a sand bank. Pacific walrus are the largest marine mammals with flippers in Alaska. They gather in large herds. Both males and females grow long, distinctive tusks. They also both sport the highly sensitive whiskers that they use to search the sea floor for their food. But bulls stand out by their bigger size and the many large bumps on their neck and shoulders called bosses. Walrus haul out on land when they can’t find sea ice to rest on. This herd could be here as late as November, when sea ice begins to form farther north.
The lagoon’s bounty sustains many creatures. Bald Eagles seek out the fish here. They scan the water, looking for easy prey. Izembek is home to four of the five species of Pacific salmon, and from July to September, they return to the refuge to spawn. Arriving from the Bering Sea and North Pacific, hundreds of thousands of salmon make their way up the rivers and streams into the Joshua Green River watershed. These chum salmon fight the currents to reproduce in the very same places they were born. They bring a bounty of nutrients with them. Once the journey is complete, their decaying bodies help fertilize the streams and surrounding land.
But not all will be successful in their reproductive mission. For brown bears, feeding on the salmon is vital to their long-term survival. A male brown bear in Izembek can grow to 1,500 pounds, and needs to raise its fat stores for the long winter. The refuge supports a large bear population, and during the salmon run, bear densities can reach as many as six per mile along some streams.
This female still cares for and protects her twin cubs. They’ll depend on Mom for two to three years. When they separate, female cubs tend to stay close to where they were raised, while male cubs leave the area. Bears have relatively small home ranges here. Habitat in the Joshua Green River Watershed is ideal, a combination of abundant food and little human disturbance.
But what makes Izembek unique in the world is the unparalleled habitat that it provides for the birds that seek refuge here. The close proximity of Izembek Lagoon, coastal wetlands and Kinzarof Lagoon play an important role in the life of millions of birds. Tides, ice and sea conditions can vary dramatically between these areas. Birds can select the most beneficial habitat and resting sites available as conditions deteriorate or improve.
In when 1986, Izembek refuge was recognized as critical to the health of international bird migrations and was the first wetland of international importance designated in the U.S. Protected by a line of barrier islands, the lagoon contains of the largest eelgrass beds in the world. It’s a long, lush and nutritious water plant that forms vast underwater meadows. The size and health of these underwater grasslands are the basis of a far-reaching, dynamic ecosystem. Eelgrass creates the building blocks of a food chain that supports creatures in the water, land, and in the air.
The lagoon is a key stopover for migrating birds. Long valued by Alaska natives for its subsistence importance, Emperor Geese migrate through here by the tens of thousands. They nest primarily in western Alaska will winter here along the Alaska peninsula, Kodiak Island and the Aleutian islands.
But of all the world’s travelers, Izembek may be most important to the Pacific Black Brant. It’s a smaller, darker relative of the Canada Goose. It’s now October, and around 150,000 Brant feed and rest here each fall. Virtually the entire population of the species. They will spend up to eight weeks fueling up on the eelgrass, most preparing for a non-stop trip to wintering areas in Mexico and protected bays along the Pacific coast of the U.S. It’s around a 3,300-mile flight, during which they lose more than 30% of their body weight.
But an increasing portion of the population is now staying put at Izembek. Warmer Alaska winters are leading to more ice-free eelgrass lagoons. Scientists are monitoring what impacts this trend will have on the Brant and their eelgrass habitat.
Like the other 15 national wildlife refuse refuges in Alaska, Izembek maintains and protects intact ecosystems that have been around for millennia. The cycle ofs of life remain. By mid-November, brown bears move towards their upland dens. Most hibernate, while some remain active all winter. A pack of wolves sounds off across the tundra. They may be following the caribou, their favorite prey, in lower-lying areas.
Winter is arriving, bringing its own beauty to the refuge. As one year gives way to another, for the descendents of the Unangax and for visitors to the area, Izembek has again provided the essence to support life near and far. It remains a refuge, conserving and protecting land and wildlife and also the traditions of the people here, both now and in the future.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: All right. I hope everyone enjoyed that. We’re going to give people a few minutes, with the knowledge that sometimes the video lags a little. But as we’re coming back, just as a reminder, we’re going to be doing a panel really quick with some members of the Center of Conservation Media at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’re going to be starting off with just a little bit more insight into what goes into the making of a film like this. And we’re going to be starting with Dr. Irene Liu, our Story Editor.
>> [Irene Liu]: Awesome, thank you Chelsea. Wow that was, I haven’t seen it in a while and it is just so amazing just to see the work that went into this. So full disclosure, I actually joined the team after the filming and planning stage for this specific piece was completed, so I wasn’t involved directly in this piece. But what I can do is tell you a little bit about the Story Editor’s jobs, and how they go into the “before and after” of going into the field and getting those images, with some specifics about the piece that you just saw.
So, you know, as Story Editor my job is really to read very widely, and to keep my eyes and ears open in the conservation landscape for potential story ideas. And I should say I’m not the only person who does this on our team, we have a small team full of experts in different kind of topics. So really a lot of my colleagues and I are working together to keep our antennae open and scanning for stories. But it is a lot of subscribing to scientific journals, newsletters from conservation organizations, just a lot of keeping our finger on the pulse of what is going on.
And, you know, once we have potential story ideas, we do go through a review process where we decide where to dedicate our resources, because of course we have limited budget like any team. So a lot of the conversation is with partners and within our team, to decide where can our work have the biggest impact. And we’re defining impact in many different ways that varies by each project. Sometimes it is views, if it is a public audience-oriented piece. But other times we are making pieces for a very small audience, of a full dozen or a few hundred people. But if it the few dozen people who see it are the few dozen policymakers who are about to do a vote to protect species or habitat, then we will consider that the successful kind of impact of this piece.
So as Story Editor, once I’m on a project and we’ve picked something, then I research as much of it as I can. And I become the local subject matter expert of the topic, so that I can help by doing things like writing project summaries, explaining why and what we’re doing. During filming I can help by helping to conduct interviews with experts on the subject. And then in post-production, when the film is being edited and revised, it’s my job to make sure every line in the script, and all of data and visuals shown on the screen, are factually accurate.
But for the Izembek film you just saw, I’ll move us back to the pre-production or development stage. I think about it as helping the team build a strong blueprint for the film, because in the same way that you wouldn’t start building a house without a blueprint, we wouldn’t send Andy into Alaska and tell him just to start shooting something. Right? It costs money, and it’s not going to result in success. So a lot of the pre-planning process is, like I said, internal discussions as well with our partners, to kind of sketch out and figure out the overall picture of the film and what we want to accomplish and what they want to accomplish. So we answer questions like, you know, what’s the film about? Who needs to see this? And what do we want the audience to think or feel or do once they have seen the piece?
So in the case of Izembek we had a strong relationship, we have a strong relationship, with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Alaskan Bureau expressed to us, this is a region not very well known, definitely not well-documented. And we want, it would be great to have a media piece to help us achieve our mission of conserving, protecting and enhancing natural wildlife and habitats of the U.S.
Right away there was a very natural, you know, connection of shared interests. As ornithologists, we knew the importance of this place for the Pacific Black Brant population that you saw. And when we started doing the research, everything just pointed to how critical this site is. You’ll see on maps of the Black Brant’s migration that they breed to eastern Russia to arctic Canada, and everybody funnels through the Izembek Lagoon on their way south to the western coast of Mexico. So it was just so clear the value of the site could not be over-stated.
Once we kept doing research we realized it’s not just the Pacific Black Brant. I mean, the amount of biodiversity that’s concentrated in this smallest of Alaska’s wildlife refuges, is just so mindblowing. We knew we wanted to convey that as well. Finally, this was latest of series of assignments to this part of the world, to Alaska and the Bering Sea. And it all pointed to this larger mission of documenting the richness and the fragility of this part of the world, whether it’s due to arctic climate change, or due to not being able to take protections and protected areas for granted anymore.
So maybe the strategy, the long game is to think about, how do you foster a sense of connection and appreciation that will lead to better protection and investment? And one of those answers is to bring those images to people so they can care, and know, what is in this part of the world.
So just to wrap things up, our partner was the Fish and Wildlife Service, our target audience was the general public, especially people visiting Alaska, and our target outcome to inspire people and to increase understanding of the importance of this area. So with all that kind of delineated, then the next step was to go out and get the footage. So here is where I pass it on to Andy.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: Great, so as Irene said, go ahead Andy, take it.
>> [Andy Johnson]: Alright, yeah. Thanks Irene, thanks Chelsea. So picking up from pre-production, we go into field production. That part of the process
is really all about collecting the visual building blocks of the story that we have researched and developed in pre-production. Often for us at the Center for Conservation Media at the Lab of Ornithology, it’s bird-centric, and the field time is really focused on natural history. So filming birds, filming their behaviors and their environment. And this project was no exception in that our initial entry point for the assignment was the Brant migration spectacle.
But as Irene eluded to, fundamentally through that pre-production process, the assignment had sort of evolved towards the story about a place. So this was about the broader natural system that actually draws those geese to it, rather than just about the geese. So yeah, going into the field we knew that we really had to showcase biodiversity and landscape on sort of this grand scale for Izembek. And yeah, what a task to have, honestly.
I’ll just say this was one of those really sort of surreal special assignments, where you just have more than fair share of unforgettable experiences. I mean, there were times when we are lying down on the cold sand out there on the sand bars, next to this roiling pile of walrus, hearing them grunting and snorting, and smelling these giant animals. Honestly that’s not something I ever expected I would see in person in my life. There were the times we’re all just sitting next to each other, holding our breath as pack of seven wolves comes trotting right past us, walks right up to us 15 feet away and just stares us down, looks into our eyes. The place is breathtaking and it’s because of these wild characters, that are the bulk of our shot list when we are going there.
But in this case, with Izembek really beyond those specific characters and those elements, one of the things that defined Izembek was geography. And it is what makes it home to all that biodiversity. As you can see in the satellite maps in the film, Izembek is situated way out in the middle of the marine system. You can stand in one place and see the Pacific Ocean south of you and Bering sea to the north. There’s the isthmus itself, sort of the heart of the land area of the refuge, this little tip of tundra that’s such a crucial corridor for these migrating megafauna, the bears and the caribou and the wolves.
I think one of the things we sort of discovered there, and that helps put this into perspective for us as we’re gathering images, is the elevational dimension of the geography. So you’re going from these glaciated slopes 10,000 feet above sea level, these volcanoes, right down to the intertidal flats where the walrus are hauling out, and the lagoon with the Brant, and everything in between. So from a field production standpoint, we knew the viewer would need to have a sense of that orientation to understand what makes Izembek special. To not only see the component characters and the individual animals, but to see their relationship to one another as part of that whole, ecologically and spatially too. So visually, that informs our process while we’re there. Beyond just this shot list of animals, we need sort of this connective tissue.
And I think, you know, as probably evident in watching that film, we leaned lot on aerial imagery to build that perspective. A lot of those shots are from a drone, and those really just have been truly transformative tools in the last handful of years as they have gotten to be much better technology. That allows us to put, you know, the bear in relationship to the salmon, or to see that river coming down from the shadow of the mountain and pouring out to the lagoon. So you get that kind of perspective. Or I think a good example in this case was looking down on Brant to see them grazing on a carpet of eelgrass, rather than just bobbing on the surface of the water.
And I think the last thing I want to mention on this note too, for capturing Izembek, was that it was crucial for this place to capture a grander scale than what you can with a drone. So we also spent a number of days in a Cesna, sort of viewing this landscape at that much higher elevation that you just can’t access with a drone. Some of the shots you would of seen looking down on the volcanos, seeing the rivers going down to the coast,
that kind of scale.
And personally, of all the experiences there, those Cessna flights really were an absolute highlight of the refuge. You’re bouncing around in this little tin can of a plane, with the windows open, so you’re just having a rush of wind and turbulence coming in the window, looking down into the steaming caldera of this volcano. And in the same view, in the background you have the coastline and the lagoon. It was just for us in the field, a moment that put everything in perspective. You have the whole place, the whole system, the whole assignment really, in this one breath-taking view. Also a little bit of a daunting thing too, it sort of crystallizes the challenge of being there. Of, how do you capture that whole, through these building blocks of images? How do you sort of put that together in a composite way?
And yeah. I’ll stop there because I think that’s a great place, where the challenge lies in the next phase, in post-production, of sort of putting those blocks together to do the place justice.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: So Daniel can speak to the post-production phase of the process. Daniel?
>> [Daniel Sheire]: Sure. Thanks Andy. I guess when I take over the film, or look at the footage, and try to kind of figure out what kind of story can be told here, I go through a pretty specific creative process. One thing I’m going to do here is kind of lead you through a couple of those steps, pull the curtain back and let you see some of the behind the scenes of making this film in post-production. And then show you the actual edit, which I have here, which I’ll share.
But first of all, you know, it can’t be said more, the amount of work that Andy and cinematographers in the field, in natural history film work. Very early mornings, working late into the night. If it you are working in blinds around birds, the etiquette is to get in there before the sun comes up and to stay until after the sun goes down. And I just really want to applaud Andy and Garrett and the folks on our team who went up there and just
did such an incredible job capturing these images. It’s just a pure joy for me to be able to work with them.
And thanks everybody else, you know, for these notes that are coming in it. Please keep your questions coming in if you have any.
What I’m going to do is share my screen and show you a few images here. This top image, what we’re looking at is what we call the story beat sheet. Essentially, this is kind of a three column document, and serves the purpose of laying out the initial structure of the film. Each column has a very specific purpose. The story beat, or scene if you will, has a title. It correlates to what visual elements we’ll be using. And then the purpose is a kind of the beginning of a thought process that lays out, what are we trying to accomplish with these images here.
So, at the beginning of the film what we have is an animation sequence, what that was trying to do is simply acknowledge there was human life, a human presence here before the establishment of the refuge. In speaking with the partners, it was important to acknowledge that. Often times
when we talk about parks or refuges, sometimes the impression is that, you know, history started with establishment of the park. Well that is just not true. There was a human presence there for thousands of years, those people were describing the animals they were seeing, they obviously had intimate knowledge of some of the migration patterns of the salmon, they were hunting and fishing that area, surviving for a long time. So this intro beat, if you will, was an acknowledgment of that.
We then move on into a story introduction, which gives a montage of images that kind of highlight what you will be seeing in the film, beginning to set an emotional tone with music. I should add strongly, that this film is designed for public theaters in Alaska, to age range from three to 103. So these are families in Alaska, at public theaters, most likely on vacation. They may not get a chance to travel all the way over to Izembek, probably in Denali, enjoying themselves in Anchorage. This gives an opportunity to see some of the other refuges that Alaska has.
When we look at the abundance of footage that comes back, one of the things I would like to identify when making a natural history film
is quite simply what we have the most of. Andy alluded to one of the main reasons we go up there was to film the Pacific Black Brant, but they spent a nice amount of time with the walrus and the bears as well. So in structuring the film, I knew that these are areas in the film we have time and footage of, to learn a little bit more than others.
The fish for example, are used really as a transition tool. They allow us to move into the refuge, to move geographically, and then introduce us to our next encounter with the bear. And then ultimately we go to the eelgrass.
And then with the Brant, you know, there weren’t a lot of nest sites, there wasn’t a lot of intimate feeding going on between adults and hatchlings. But what we did have was this amazing spectacle. What you saw was essentially, near the entire population of Pacific Black Brants in the world, stopping over in Izembek before they were heading south. So what do I do with that creatively? At this time, this moment, we decide to create a spectacle of it, put a big piece of music in there, to silence the narrator and just let those images play and gain that appreciation.
So from beat sheet, which is really, for a 17 minute film it turned out to just be two pages. We then move on to the script. As you’ll notice, TV scripts like to have columns. Again the relationship between text and pictures is extremely vital in setting these up. Picture and narration running through. And ultimately in the right, I keep a column open for music. This allows me to kind of keep track of what I’m using.
Finally, I’m just going to take you straight to the actual edit here. What you are seeing here is the entire 17 minute film broken up into all its
individual elements. This may look very chaotic at first, but there is a method to this. This is an Avid [Media Composer] system that this was edited on. Personally I edit on Avid, I edit with the with the [Adobe] Premier systems, I generally don’t have really don’t have a preference. Our work flow here is with the Avid.
And if you look at this V-1 is the video track, below it is a voiceover, below that is some beginning to be some spot effecting, several tracks of natural sound and then ultimately 13, 14, 15 and 16 are music. And as you saw in the film, there is quite a bit of music in this film. And then quite a bit of layered sound.
And then what I’ll do finally is just play a little bit of this, I know it might lag. The Vimeo link is probably a much better way to watch the film, the image quality is going to be a lot better. So I would encourage you to go to the Vimeo page and watch it there. But I’m going to play for about 30 seconds you can see how the images change and how voiceover starts at these cut marks. So just kind of look at this top video layer.
[Narrator]: In 1986 Izembek refuge was recognized as critical to the health of international bird migrations and was the first wetland of international importance designated in the U.S. Protected by a line of barrier islands, the lagoon contains one of the largest —
>> [Daniel Sheire]: Then you can see a little bit of the edit, and then again here it is kind of chaotic glory. So I’m going to stop my
I would just say one last thing. The aesthetic of this, this was designed to be a very warm film. Generally speaking, in natural history communication there is an old saying that says, teach a person a fact and they might learn it, you know, but if you tell a person a story they will carry it in their heart forever. Ultimately this blend between conservation issues and an emotional attachment,
you know, is some of what I’m at least trying to achieve through the editing process. Thank you.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: Thank you Daniel. So that was a little behind-the-scenes look on how something like this gets made. For now we’re going
to open up the floor for questions. As a reminder, if you want to submit all of your questions in the Q&A button if you are here in Zoom, and comments via Facebook. If you are in Zoom and you see a question you like, please upvote it by hitting the thumbs up icon. Alright, we’re going to open up our Q&A box here. Okay. Andy, do you want to go ahead and answer some of these?
>> [Andy Johnson]: Yeah. I’m seeing some about field process here. From Gene: How much are drones utilized? Will it be an important part of future
filmmaking? A lot, is the short answer. I think there is, definitely important part of future filmmaking. I can’t speak to having been in this field long enough to really see the difference. I’ve seen some of the drone technology evolve, but compared to 15 years ago, 10 years ago, you know, building big drones versus using helicopters versus the technology that’s available off the shelf now, it is incredible how much it allows you to do at such a reduced cost. So hugely important. If anything it is sort of a temptation to just use them too much. You put a drone up in the
sky and you are seeing something that you haven’t seen through your own eyes before, so you are just distracted and awed, when you are flying that around.
I see one more from Anne, of whether we have a person recording sound. We often, between our sort of small field production team, we’ll take on sound and video and stills between us. So usually we don’t have a dedicated person to do that, but it’s always nice that depending on the scale of things, to have more hands on deck.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: Daniel, there seems to be a question here about your story beat outline.
>> [Daniel Sheire]: I notice one that said, can you send on these notes? Which one are you alluding to, Chelsea can you read it if you are on it?
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: It literally just disappeared. Hold on, there it is. Were you using a treatment similar to story beat outlining before shooting? How much did your outline change after the shoot? Oh, so it’s kind of a group question.
>> [Daniel Sheire]: Yeah, no, that’s a very good question. I would say the shoot did not necessarily go out to create this film in particular. This film was something that we were able to discuss with US Fish and Wildlife after all the footage came back, after we could find out what was accomplished and we collectively kind of realized that we have a pretty good look at the abundance of biodiversity in the area. As well as other things. And then figured out the need for that and were able to then produce the film.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: We have a question from Facebook. Is the music composed specifically for this film?
>> [Daniel Sheire]: That’s also very good question. So in the past I’ve used composers quite often, folks that I have worked with very
closely over the years. And that is kind of a standard depending on budget. This film is working with a library that we like to go to, it is kind of our go to library. The other producer and editor and our team have never really been let down by it. This was not composed specifically for the film, but we do have a kind of go to library that we like to use.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: We have another question here. Do we use story boards before going in and before starting an edit?
>> [Daniel Sheire]: Story boarding in natural history is kind of a tough thing, it depends on kind of the intricacy of the scene. If you watch films like Planet Earth, certainly are very intricate story boards being used, especially in sort of time lapse scenes and some of the sets they do, these are things like fungus growing, you know, within a very controlled environment. They’ll story board those out. For our graphics work, we will definitely start with story boards, Chelsea you might want to say something about that. But generally speaking in natural history, yeah we have shot lists that give us an idea, you know, please don’t forget the closeups and ECU’s when you can get them and things like that. But the animals will do what they want to do. And a good Cinematographer like Andy has to make a lot of decisions in the field on the ground. Which really is quite remarkable. Sorry Chelsea, you want to talk about story boards for graphics?
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: I can be brief about it. Really just, when composing the style of the graphic, I did the map animations in this
piece, really it is just trying to find an interesting angle where you are trying to have all of the information visible and easily understood. But maybe Andy can talk about the idea of compositing a shot a little bit, say a word or two about that in a similar vein of story boards.
>> [Andy Johnson]: Yeah. In terms of sort of sequence building, yeah. I guess just generally speaking, I think second what Daniel is
saying, there is a huge amount of variability and just sort of risk and unknown in natural history filming. So, you know, the short of it is, we try to go into the field with as much concept of what we’re coming back with, and what kind of film that can lead to, multiple products. But often times things change a lot after the shoot because you’re reassessing what was feasible and what you couldn’t get.
And I guess in terms of Chelsea’s note about compositing. Yeah, I think we are always thinking about, before we go in the field and while we are in the field, always thinking about how to sort of give Daniel and other editors the best tools, the most versatile toolkit that they can have, and that they need to build a sequence and a scene where you feel like you are watching a moment rather than watching a slideshow of images.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: Can you tell us more about how you were able to get clear shot of animals? One assumes you have to stay a far away distance,
especially from bears and walruses.
>> [Andy Johnson]: Yeah I can speak to some of that. I mean bears I can start with. This is a place where they have so much food, through the abundance of salmon, that — you are definitely in their place, you have to respect distances and not alter their behavior in any way. So you are monitoring that all the time, and that’s where it is really key to have two people at least. So you are not sort of zoned in through your camera and not seeing behavior properly, or not seeing another animal behind you. And then, you know, marine animals in particular, marine mammals are very strictly protected. So you can’t be approaching within a distance and disturbing marine mammals by any stretch. That’s something we’re extremely careful about and, you know, use long lenses and find vantage points where we can get close, like a ledge looking down, without altering any behavior or getting too close.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: We have another question here asking about the communication between the production team and the post-production team and
if we have any communication while cinematographers are in the field? Basically what is post doing while production is out? Daniel, do you want to speak more to that?
>> [Daniel Sheire]: Yeah. That’s a great point and I would say also that depends highly on the amount of time you are in production, and what the individual film is trying to achieve. I worked on a lion film once, a single pride that we were following over two years, right? In a natural history
film that really gives you the ability to see life changes, within the pride in this case. So you go from wet season to dry season, the introduction of cubs, you really get a sense of what’s going on. As that footage is rolling in, you know, and editors are already starting to look through it, and kind of make determinations of what was working, what wasn’t. And in that case not a very clear line of communication with folks that were spending, you know, going out a couple more times to the Serengeti. On a film like this, the time up there is reasonable enough to kind of accomplish what we were hoping to do. I guess some communication from second time they went up, but it wasn’t necessarily a direct link, you know. We’re actually already looking at pieces of the finished product, saying here is some shots we were missing or, you know, is there any way we can get some more zebra, need more habitat shots, or get some reactionary shots. Those often can be very handy, you know, lion walks into the bushes and you see birds flying away in fear of it. Lots of times the first shooting will be focused on the animal so much you kind of miss those secondary moments, which really add a lot to the film.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: Andy it looks like there is a question here for you. Can you share any ways that you help break the ice with your audience to help build a connection with organisms, beyond megafauna? Any unique audio or video tricks?
>> [Andy Johnson]: I think it is an interesting question because I think there is sort of this background belief or narrative in our industry too, of megafauna being the only thing that resonates, or that gets air time or that people can really appreciate. I hope that fundamentally that’s just not the case, I think there is some level of truth to that. But I think the way to do that is knowing a lot of about the organism that you are capturing, and then spending time sort of just observing and having an open mind. And contributing to the narration that will be in the post-production, a perspective that’s unique, that gives it attention of regard, where you are taking away an appreciation for that organism as an individual being moving through its environment. I think you can do that with a grasshopper or a sparrow or a Grizzly bear, certainly.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: We are running low on time, so I think we are going to do one more question here. Again, if we don’t get to your questions,
you can e-mail them to us and we can follow-up with you separately after this panel.
There seems to be one brief tech question here. How do you record the sound if you are located far away from the animals, and also isolate it from the wind?
>> [Daniel Sheire]: Andy, you want to take that one?
>> [Andy Johnson]: Yeah. One thing we often have to do is, just part of why where some of this stuff takes so long and so much is unknown, we’re rolling the dice on things. For example, placing a microphone somewhere before animals are there. To try to get a microphone in a position where you know you’ve seen, for the last five-days they are coming into this area at high tide. So we’ll do things like that.
And then, yeah. It is amazing what, what they call “dead cats,” can do. Basically a giant fuzzy thing that goes over the microphone and really cuts wind out. It is a challenge, there’s times when the wind is just too much, and you can’t get a microphone close enough, and you kind of have to do what you can.
>> [Chelsea DeMott Wildey]: All right. That’s what we have time for. There is one question that ties into what I was going to mention already, which is do we have any tips for kids who want to start making their own wildlife and conservation films, maybe even using an iPhone camera? Thank you so much for asking that question, because we have a free downloadable PDF, which is available via a link in the chat. Or Facebook in the comments, remember only click things posted by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s a small PDF that breaks down the filmmaking process. It is meant for kids, ages 13-18, and it gives tips on how to make films even without fancy gear.
If you have any questions you feel we didn’t get to, we would be happy to answer them if you want to e-mail them to the link that is also posted in the comments. Thank you guys so much again for coming to Natural History Filmmaking. And oh, thank you, thank you panel people. The e-mail again is firstname.lastname@example.org If you have any additional questions, they will be forwarding those to us and we’ll be getting back to them when we can. Thank you guys again.End of transcript
Our Conservation Media team partners with local communities and organizations around the world to create compelling science-based media about pressing conservation issues. Join us for a virtual film screening and panel discussion on what goes into making a natural history film. Event will include a link to a free family-friendly activity with tips from professionals on how to create your own natural history film at home!