Chris Palmer’s Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom takes readers behind the scenes of popular nature and wildlife films, sharing the adventures of those behind the camera while also pulling back the curtain on what he calls the dark side of wildlife filmmaking. In this excerpt, Palmer highlights the efforts of Howard and Michele Hall, filmmakers that Palmer says employ the ‘do no harm’ approach to great effect.
For many years, Howard Hall made a good living selling still photos and natural history stories to magazines and by doing assignment cinematography for television series such as American Sportsman and Wild Kingdom. He didn’t acquire his skills by going to film school. Rather, he learned by watching films and by studying the works of filmmakers he admired. ‘If you want a course in making a good film, study a good film,’ Hall says. ‘It’s as easy as that – at least it was for me. Just turn on your television, select the kind of film you want to make, and study the film for technique.’
One day in 1987, while studying an African wildlife documentary by Alan Root, Hall began to wonder why no one was making underwater wildlife films with a focus on animal behavior. As he watched, he repeatedly complained to his wife, Michele, ‘I could do that underwater.’ Finally, she suggested he stop talking about it and just do it. Despite the fact that he had never done a film all on his own, Howard wrote a letter to ‘Nature’ executive producer David Heely, a man he had never met, proposing an underwater animal behavior film set in the California kelp forest.
Heely wrote back, saying the last thing in the world the Halls expected him to say: ‘Okay.’ The couple was thunderstruck. They had somehow gotten around the dilemma facing all new filmmakers. ‘No one will employ you to produce a film until you have successfully run a budget in a responsible way and produced a good film,’ Howard explains. ‘So, how do you make that first film?’ Step one, in this case, was for Michele to cut back on her career as a pediatric nurse to devote time to the production; soon afterward, they became a full-time filmmaking team.
‘Nature’ broadcast the Halls’ rookie effort, Seasons in the Sea, in 1990. Right up until the time it aired, Howard was afraid that the film ‘would be a dismal failure, the laughable result of an uninspired novice, just a boring watery film about fish behavior.’ In fact, it was spectacularly successful, winning ‘Best of Show’ at the top two events in wildlife filmmaking, the Wildscreen and Jackson Hole wildlife film festivals.
By 1990, the Halls were off again, this time on an adventure in Patagonia, trying to film right whales for a CBS documentary. For 10 days Howard braved the freezing waters off the remote coast of the Valdez Peninsula with no sight of whales, and he was feeling frustrated. Right whales are difficult to find, and even when they appear, the wind is often too strong and the water too turbid to successfully film them. On the 11th day, a gale wind was blowing more than 40 miles per hour. Well below the surface, Hall struggled to swim back to his dive boat, his hands numb from the cold, his scuba tank almost empty. At this point he was ready to pack it in.
As he kicked against the current, something suddenly caught his eye over his left shoulder. Startled, he turned and saw a 40-foot-long right whale staring straight at him. She must have weighed 50 tons or more and her body was marked with protruding white callosities, raised callus-like patches of skin. Howard was shocked to realize that the very animal he had been trying so hard to find and film was now inspecting him!
…When the whale came up beside him, Hall reached out and dislodged a few whale lice – fingernail-size creatures that feed on dead skin – from the callosity around the whale’s right eye. This small gesture was out of character – Hall was normally careful to remain at a safe distance from wild animals so as not to stress or scare them. He was also aware of the dangers of habituation, making wild animals accustomed to people so that the animals lose their instinctive fight-or-flight response. But this whale had approached Hall, and he intuitively and spontaneously reached out to her in a moment of discovery.
As the lice scattered, the lumbering giant leaned into Hall’s touch, as if encouraging him to scratch harder. As he scratched the whale again, Hall was overwhelmed with a single thought: ‘This can’t be happening.’ In the end, he and his colleagues captured some amazing images for their one-hour documentary, Dolphins, Whales, and Us. ‘I had looked closely into a great whale’s eye,’ Hall says, ‘and the whale had looked back.’
Chris Palmer’s new book, Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom, was published in May by Sierra Club Books. Reprinted by permission.