Jackson Hole: Nature with a new script

From September 22 to 27, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival is home to a film competition and equipment exhibits as well as a series of seminars and screenings. Organizers peg attendance at 700something tv professionals from over 30 countries, with...
September 1, 1997

From September 22 to 27, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival is home to a film competition and equipment exhibits as well as a series of seminars and screenings. Organizers peg attendance at 700something tv professionals from over 30 countries, with a heavy European emphasis.

Renowned for its dramatic setting, the festival unfolds in the Teton mountain range, high above the usual industry hubbub, near the entrance to historic Yellowstone National Park in the northwest corner of Wyoming. The scenic area is noted for its cool mountain lakes, excellent fishing and, of course, spectacular wildlife.

In-depth discussions, seminars and workshops on everything from financing natural history programs to ethical issues are on the slate at the fourth edition of the wildfilm fest, which includes a showcase of Latin American film. The festival culminates in a gala awards ceremony honoring 14 winning productions chosen from a record number of approximately 500 international entries.

Established in 1991, the jhwff is a non-profit organization whose primary mission is to encourage the production of natural history programming around the world. It works toward this, in part, through its sponsorship of the festival, which is held every second year.

There are more channels than ever before dedicated to showcasing natural history/wildlife/nature programming. The networks have new slots, not to mention the whole new world of interested cable parties. This burgeoning broadcaster demand and the increased nonfiction programming supply are having an evolutionary effect: on the creative front, they are expanding the parameters of the genre into more dramatic storytelling conventions; and on the content side, driving producers to capture exceedingly more exotic material.

Ultimately, says Andrea Maggi, a producer at Paneikon, an independent documentary production house in Rome, it comes down to the receptiveness of the audience for this breed of show. ‘I think people have had enough of soap operas,’ he suggests. ‘They’re looking to watch something that has to do with ‘real life’ and the big questions of science. They also want to see the lives of people and animals in places far – both mentally and geographically – from where they live.’

But despite the desire for things real, the soap and sitcom diet has created a palate for programming with a dramatic paradigm.

Natural history programming has its underpinnings, from many years back, in natural science. Before there were compelling stories about how elephants weep, before there were surprise plot twists in the depths of bat caves, even before there was Marlon Perkins, there was just a camera trained on some aspect of natural life. In the early days, it was simply straightforward behavioral footage.

‘Now they’re weaving in much more of a natural storyline,’ says Clark Bunting, general manager of Animal Planet, an offspring of Discovery Communications. ‘This makes it much more entertaining.’

Amy Sperry, director of Missoula, Montana’s International Wildlife Film Festival, the oldest and longest-running such festival, agrees. ‘With this move towards storytelling and human interest has come a lot of anthropomorphism, where the audience is drawn in by the characterization of animals.’

Jim Dutcher, a freelance film producer whose Ketchum, Idaho-based company just produced a film for Discovery called Wolves at Our Door, credits this evolution to the increased human presence in wildlife films. ‘The human element creates a story right away,’ he says.

Indeed, says Linda Ekizian, vp of international sales with Washington, d.c.-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises: ‘If there’s a legitimate connection between the people and the animals – meaning that they’re working with them, or they have a commitment to the needs of the animals for environmental or ecological reasons – there’s clearly a strong story there, where it wasn’t so evident in the past.’

In any case, says Stephen Ellis, president of Toronto’s Keg Productions, the key in nature programming these days is to do things as they haven’t been done before.

For Keg, the answer has been to steer the genre in new directions, most notably towards the realm of humor, as it recently did with the award-winning Buck Staghorn’s Animal Bites.

For others, the goal has become to explore all things uncharted. ‘As someone once said, ‘the average viewer has seen more cheetah kills than a male cheetah’,’ Ellis laughs. ‘Today, it’s all about trying to find ways to make subject material of continuing appeal to current and new audiences.’

As such, many filmmakers are set on capturing the never-before-seen behavior or the never-before-seen species in the never-before-seen location. A premium is being placed on original footage because, Ekizian says, ‘a lot of the intelligence in the marketplace has seen so many of these films. They would know, clearly, whether footage was taken from another film.’

In the future, Ekizian predicts, we’ll see even more human presence in the form of authored work, where it will truly be the mission of a person to discover a place, a species or a location and the stories he or she has to tell will be personal ones.

Meanwhile, Bo Landin, executive producer at Scandinature in Sweden, points to recent highly technical and scientific productions which he calls ‘exquisite programming’ and which rarely present people on camera. Here, ‘the world is regarded as an Eden, and the snake has not yet entered.’ It is this segment of the genre, without question, that would find the swiftest travel across the divide of countries and languages.

‘Broadcasters are demanding that we get ever closer to the animal, and that we get more dramatic action,’ Landin sighs. And it’s getting more and more difficult to achieve some of the shots buyers are asking for, he explains, without having to resort to trained animals, or animals that have been habituated to a human presence. ‘And this causes problems.’

What’s more, it often causes higher price tags, too. Beverly Brown, an independent producer/scriptwriter based in Sweden, points out that it’s not the field costs that are generally racking up the bigger bills, but the tyranny of technology. ‘There’s a belief in many areas that, if you throw untold thousands of dollars worth of sophisticated equipment at a film, you will produce a vastly superior product. Which is simply not so. I maintain there are still great camera-people out there who could produce first-rate material with a Bolex.’

In the end, shrugs Bunting, wildlife programming technology and tale-telling – however terrific – can all trace their success to one thing: our connection to animals.

‘It’s buried in our dna, but it’s there,’ he says. ‘Very few things in life inspire the physiological response in humans that animals do. And that’s why this kind of programming is exploding the way it is.’

While a dolphin version of Cop Rock or the ursine equivalent of ‘what’s my motivation?’ in a Grizzly doc are outside the programming bounds, for now, the trend for story-based docs means few conventions remain.

The challenge of melding what’s feasible – considering financial, technological, ethical and time constraints – with the broadcasters’ increased eyeball-grabbing expectations, keeps producers from resting on their tried-and-true formulas. As the market grows more eclectic, cherrypicking other successful tv formats (not to mention celebrity hosts) and applying them to non-fiction content is part and parcel of stalking the rare and exotic.

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