Producer Profiles – Asterisk Productions: Consciousness Raising. Social issue doc-makers take on the natural history world

Where there's a will, there's a way. And where there's an audience and a broadcaster, there's a producer. As the natural history genre continues to prove a ratings-winner for broadcasters globally, the supplier pool keeps getting deeper and more diverse. RealScreen...
August 1, 1998

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And where there’s an audience and a broadcaster, there’s a producer. As the natural history genre continues to prove a ratings-winner for broadcasters globally, the supplier pool keeps getting deeper and more diverse. RealScreen checks in on four production companies: four different philosophies, four different dimensions, four different locales…

Ask David Springbett and Heather MacAndrew of Victoria, Canada-based Asterisk Productions, whether their recent move towards natural history docs has compromised their earlier ambition to create socially conscious docs, and you’ll hear an emphatic ‘No’.

As MacAndrew, one-half of the husband and wife production team, explains: ‘You can’t separate `nature’ from the environment at large; you can’t separate the environment from people; and you can’t separate people from social problems – they all impact on each other.’

Springbett cites the subject of their latest award-winning film The Monarch – A Butterfly Beyond Borders (1997) as an example of that connection. ‘Here’s this amazing insect…but the existence of its migration is under threat both from the way we live in Canada and the U.S., because we like green lawns and don’t like milkweed much, which monarchs need to live…so there is a problem with the monarch habitats diminishing, almost because of our affluence, if you like.’ MacAndrew adds: ‘In fact, our project differed from their [main coproducer Discovery Canada's] other projects because it had a larger social component.’

Presenting broader social issues is important to MacAndrew and Springbett, who got their political chops in the `70s as a researcher and a photojournalist, respectively. Asterisk’s first production, Guatemala: Campo Vivo, a 1976 co-production with CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) for Man Alive, contrasted emergency aid forces with long-term development in post-earthquake Guatemala.

Asterisk continued to work with coproducers CIDA on their next project, The World’s Children series – a 13 x 15-minute series about a day in the life of a child in various (mainly developing) countries in 1978. With a budget of CDN$325,000, the producers returned to visit three of the children, now aged 18, in Growing Up In The World Next Door (1986) and recently received development funding from CIDA to go back and reconnect with a boy in Kenya, who is now 32 years old.

Other coproducers from Asterisk’s two-decade history include broadcasters such as the CBC, North-South Productions in the U.K., TV Ontario, ACCESS Alberta and Vision TV, as well as various non-government organizations like the UN Population Fund, and Unicef.

Bullfrog Films, a Pennsylvania-based distribution company, has carried most of Asterisk’s titles for the U.S. educational, non-broadcast market. Toronto-based distributor Magic Lantern carries their titles for Canadian educational venues.

A move in 1993 away from the blizzarding winters and muggy summers of Toronto to nature’s bountiful West Coast may have prompted Asterisk’s producers to take another look at the natural world.

In 1997, Asterisk launched into Monarch with CDN$5,000 in development funding from Discovery Channel Canada. BC Film, the production development agency of British Columbia, matched the CDN$5,000 through its Market Incentive Program for a total of CDN$10,000 in development money.

The total production budget of CDN$200,000 was rounded out by CDN$50,000 from Discovery Canada for Canadian broadcast rights for four years. Edmonton, Alberta-based Great North Releasing, who holds international broadcast rights, kicked in CDN$12,000 as a guarantee against royalties. Says Springbett: ‘We looked at getting more broadcast partners in, but decided against it due to time pressures.’

Just completing production from Asterisk is Good Wood, a 60-minute for CBC’s Nature of Things with David Suzuki, about the state of tropical forestry, produced for CDN$230,000 with coproducers CBC, CIDA and BC Film. CBC International holds international and Canadian broadcast rights.

Three projects in development – a 60-minute called Forest of the Sea, about the kelp ecosystem; Weapons in Life, a 13 x 30-minute series examining the tools utilized and adapted by nature to facilitate survival; and Living Things We Love To Hate, a 30-minute series based on Desmond Kennedy’s books about bugs, slugs, and other despised things in nature – were pitched at this year’s Banff Television Festival with interest from Discovery Channel Canada.

Asterisk hopes to follow up the interest in the three projects with deals at this year’s Wildscreen in Bristol.

So is the move to nature a permanent one for Asterisk? While the producers say that nothing is permanent, MacAndrew concedes, tongue-in-cheek: ‘It’s a relief to film nature because, unlike humans, they don’t talk back.’ Adds Springbett, ‘The other change that we noticed is that [at Banff this year] distributors are searching us out, which is a big change from doing social documentaries. That’s a reflection on the international appeal of natural history.

‘I’m interested in reaching a bigger audience, and I suppose more folks are going to watch a nice butterfly than they are a film about a village in Africa.’

See also:

Producer Profiles -

United Wildlife (pg. 12)

Scandinature Films (pg. 16)

Wild Visuals (pg. 24)

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.