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…
With increasing world-wide interest in natural history, Tina Dalton Hagege and Gary Steer, producers and co-owners of Wild Visuals, a New South Wales-based doc company, have benefited from international appetites for images of Australia’s exotic flora and fauna. Although native wildlife forms the bulk of their stock library, the team is resolutely global, never forgetting that their first project was shot off the continent.
Officially incorporated in 1996, Wild Visuals was a partnership born of necessity in 1992 with The Flight of The Rhino, a 60-minute documentary about the threatened survival of the endangered black rhino in Zimbabwe. After securing about US$12,000 in pre-sales from Australia’s Channel Nine, Dalton, a former producer and host of a children’s wildlife series, approached National Geographic Television. They loved the project but, Dalton admits, were reluctant to commit. ‘I had lots of enthusiasm but no track record internationally.’
Dalton’s solution was to ring up Gary Steer, director and producer of the award-winning series Australia’s Remarkable Animals (1985), whom she had already met briefly. Steer’s signature was enough to bring National Geographic on board with an international broadcast fee of US$177,000. With a total budget of approximately US$250,000, the team started packing. ‘Basically,’ says Dalton, ‘we put [Steer's] name to the project and three weeks later were on our way to Zimbabwe.’
Wild Visual’s next project, the 60-minute The Art of Tracking (1996), took the partners around the world and back. Acknowledging the importance of local and international coproducers, Dalton and Steer pieced together the nearly US$500,000 budget entirely from pre-sales to Discovery Channel, SBS Australia, ORF Austria and Telcast Germany.
The award-winning doc, chronicling the tracking techniques of Aborigines, the Inuit and the Bushmen of the Kalahari, amongst others, called for a re-examination of their take on natural history by the producers. As Dalton explains: ‘We tried to stay focused on the wildlife angle because we knew that if we strayed too far from the wildlife focus, we were going to find ourselves with an anthropological film on our hands and one that didn’t sit comfortably in our library.’
In fact, Dalton admits, ‘The Art of Tracking hasn’t sold well as an acquisition compared to a lot of the other films because it was this difficult niche.’
As with all of Wild Visuals’ docs, international sales for The Art of Tracking are handled by Jennifer Cornish Media (JCM) and home video is handled by Wild Releasing, both Australian companies.
International coproducers have included National Geographic, Discovery U.S., Telcast Germany, NHK Japan, ORF Austria, GA&A Italy, and the BBC.
For the producers, the challenge of dealing with various international coproducers is usually one of formatting rather than editorial control. Their latest project, the 30-minute King Koala, in official competition at Jackson Hole this year, is a good example. (King Koala will also be presented with The Art of Tracking in official competition at Wildscreen this year.)
Shot on 35mm for US$375,000, the entire budget for Koala came from broadcast pre-sales to ABC Australia, NHK Japan, Telcast Germany, GA&A and Nat Geo, with Nat Geo and NHK supplying the greatest amounts.
NHK was pleased that the 35mm format of Koala offered a high quality image for HDTV but requested extra footage, ‘of Japanese tourists cuddling koalas,’ says Dalton, for NHK to cut a version specific to the Japanese market. Telcast Germany required a 60-minute version, so Wild Visuals supplied extra footage that showed a koala birth.
All of this was accomplished despite a tight shooting ratio of 18:1, kept low because of the expense of shooting on 35mm. ‘Fortunately,’ Dalton concedes, ‘with koalas, once you find them, they don’t run away.’
For Wild Visual’s latest project, Animal Weapons, a 5 x 60-minute series detailing the weapons – claws, horns, chemicals, etc. – animals use for survival, the producers joined with old coproduction partners Discovery Channel U.S., Telcast Germany and Seven Network Australia to round up the nearly US$500,000 per episode budget entirely with pre-sales. The first of five installments will be delivered to Discovery in September.
Animal Weapons marks Wild Visual’s push, and the general trend in natural history programming, towards series. ‘The increase of satellite and cable systems has created a voracious appetite for series,’ says Steer.
As for Wild Visuals, they have come full-circle. ‘We [as individuals] initially did series, then one-offs, and now we’re moving to series again,’ says Steer. Dalton adds it’s a relief to avoid the yo-yo schedule of one-offs. ‘Now we can get the company on a two to three year plan.’
Producer Profiles -
United Wildlife (pg. 12)
Scandinature Films (pg. 16)
Asterisk Productions (pg. 22)