Pondering nature – Barry Clark: New platforms for nature

Author of 'Zen and the Art of Story Injection,' realscreen's first Back Page in September 1997, Mandalay Media Arts co-chairman Barry Clark returns to offer a glimpse into the future of natural history filmmaking. Clark is one of the founders of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and is now in development on a 3D CGI feature for LA-based Mandalay Pictures
October 1, 2007

Author of ‘Zen and the Art of Story Injection,’ realscreen‘s first Back Page in September 1997, Mandalay Media Arts co-chairman Barry Clark returns to offer a glimpse into the future of natural history filmmaking. Clark is one of the founders of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and is now in development on a 3D CGI feature for LA-based Mandalay Pictures.

While widespread concern about global warming has focused welcome attention on the state of the natural world, the digital revolution has shattered the television pie into a million pieces and, with the notable exception of the BBC Natural History Unit, nature filmmakers may no longer indulge their passion for creating carefully crafted TV programs that make minimal concessions to the mandates of time or money.

Our company, which often produced a half-dozen hours of nature programming per year, was among those forced to confront this new reality. In 2000, soon after completing Sahara (a production that consumed nearly three years and cost nearly US$2 million), we diverted our attention away from television and toward large format and special venue productions. The 40-minute IMAX film Galapagos 3D, released in 2001, was the first of these ventures, followed by the 40-minute film A Thousand Roads, produced in partnership with Seven Arrows Multimedia for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. These projects made it possible for us to continue to work in the blue-chip sphere (Galapagos cost $7 million, Roads cost $3 million), while offering us the opportunity to explore new production and post technologies. In the case of Galapagos, we experimented with the 3D medium, and in the case of A Thousand Roads we gained a firsthand introduction to the 2K pathway for production and presentation. At the same time, these productions offered us a valuable introduction to two often-overlooked markets that offer creative and financial potential for nature filmmakers.

The advent of increasingly affordable 2K servers and projectors, plus the introduction of big 1080p plasma displays, has led to a boom in the creation of digital presentations for special venues. On a worldwide basis, museums, galleries, aquariums, planetariums, science centers and environmental visitor centers are either launching or else in the planning stages on projects that involve ambitious digital displays – many of which are comfortably funded. To enjoy the benefits of this emerging market, filmmakers who are frustrated by the state of the TV market must do some homework and be ready to invest the time that is needed to make new friends in the institutional arena. But when they do, they may be delighted to discover that many of the constraints which once tied their hands in television are mercifully waved away.

Though fewer than 20 new large format films are released worldwide in a typical year, the giant screen industry is currently in a state of elevated expectancy, awaiting the introduction of a digital large format projection system which Sony and IMAX have developed for projected rollout next year. If this system fulfills its aims in terms of luminance, resolution and cost, the price of large format prints and projectors will plunge overnight, fueling the construction of hundreds of new large format venues and opening the doors to a flood of new large format productions, in both the fiction and non-fiction genres. At least a half dozen features, including a 2K 3D animated picture currently in pre-production at Mandalay, are targeted for concurrent release in digital large format and conventional digital cinemas, with the first big wave of these pictures due to reach screens in the summer of 2009.

The past few years have seen some successes in the field of 2D natural history features, such as Winged Migration, March of the Penguins and Blue Planet. But these films have been the exception, following the prevailing pattern in the feature film business, where failure is the norm and profitability a wistful dream. But Hollywood is nothing if not resourceful, and the wisdom of the moment is that the best way to compete in a landscape crowded with mobile TV, video games, IPTV and an endless procession of new cable nets is to give viewers something they can’t get at home – big screen productions in 3D. For natural history filmmakers the word from Hollywood is to put aside plans for another Penguins and to consider instead the prospect of producing and releasing in 2K 3D. The logistics of 2K 3D production are daunting, and include heavier camera systems, significant demands on power and storage, and a whole new rule book for shooting. In addition, the pursuit of funding can be frustrating, with pitches to hedge fund managers and studio heads replacing pitches to TV commissioners. But the rewards may richly repay the investment.

If the boom in digital 3D and special venue presentations continues as expected, blue-chip nature programming will be far from dead. It will simply have found a new home.

About The Author
Senior staff writer Frederick Blichert comes to realscreen with a background as a journalist and freelance film critic. He has previously written for VICE, Paste Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Xtra, Canadian Cinematographer and elsewhere. He holds a Master of Arts in film studies from Carleton University and a Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.