Chasing Nature: The Making of A World Alive

Nature is both pervasive and elusive. It surrounds us, and in subtle and integral ways enriches our lives. But to capture those ways, to communicate the relationships between plants, animals, and their environments, is a profound challenge for the filmmaker. Nature doesn’t wait, pose, or follow scripts. It is as unpredictable and confounding as it is exhilarating. As an art form, natural history cinematography is unique because of the problems and opportunities it creates.

In August, 1989, we — and by “we” I refer to the writers, filmmakers, and photographers of Sea Studios — set out to make a film that would celebrate the diversity of animal life on the planet.* This was our charge from the Saint Louis Zoological Garden, our client, who had received funding from the Southwestern Bell Foundation to produce a feature film to showcase a 400-person theater in its new $17.9 million state-of-the-art educational facility, “The Living World.” The film was intended to be a counterpoint to “Requiem,” a three-screen multi-media exhibit about the dire condition of the planet. We produced “Requiem” for an 80-person theater in “The Living World” in May, 1989. The Zoo wanted a film as uplifting as “Requiem” was disturbing, a film that would emotionally involve people with the amazing diversity of animal behaviors. They felt that if people could be touched by the film they would be more contemplative about their own lifestyles and more likely to behave in a manner sensitive to their environment.

We approached the project enthusiastically but with great respect for the challenge — capturing in 20 minutes some of the drama of a world of animal behaviors and ecologies. As one of the few production companies worldwide specializing in natural history cinematography, we appreciated the biological issues: what animals were important and representative, what behaviors were interesting, what animals could be filmed during the short production period. We also understood the cinematographic questions: what stories to tell, what unifying themes to choose, how much and what kind of music and narration to use, how to pace the shots and how to edit. Then there were the issues that bounded these: what footage was available from other natural history filmmakers, what was technically good and appropriate footage.

It was understood from the beginning that A World Alive would not be a traditional nature documentary by virtue of its goal and medium. That is, as a large-screen 35mm film intended to elicit emotion, it would not rely strongly on narration as its principal source of information but rather on the choice of shots and a powerful musical score. Several other concepts were agreed upon or, at least, accepted as necessary. For example, 20 minutes is both a long and short time — long enough to require pacing and movements in the film, short enough to constrain the number and complexity of stories.

These were some of the issues debated during the development of the storyboard — an illustrated outline of the film. There was also the crucial question of a structure and theme for the movie. After all, there are countless ways to examine animal diversity: geographically, phylogenetically, evolutionarily, by habitat, etc. And there are many different potentially unifying stories, behaviors, or characters that could hold the film together.

We chose to approach animal diversity somewhat ontogenetically; that is, by looking at the range of animal characteristics and behaviors over the course of a lifetime. The film would begin with a prologue that established the unique qualities of earth as a home for life. The first movement of the film, termed “Delicate Beginnings,” would introduce the birth of animals, nurturing and development of young, and different strategies for producing offspring. The next movement, “Magnificent Movements,” would be a fast-paced profile of the diversity of animal motions. “Diverse Repasts,” the third movement, would examine feeding strategies. The fourth, “Divisions and Pairings,” would be a sketch of reproductive strategies and courtship behaviors. The epilogue would re-examine the uniqueness of earth in the context of three billion years of evolution. The film would end with a quiet message about our responsibility as stewards of the planet.

This choice of sequences created boundaries for other artistic choices, namely, the choice of images, music and narration. It was clear that we would have to draw from a variety of natural history cinematographers rather than rely solely on our own work. After all, while we maintain an extensive stock footage library, it cannot begin to approach the diversity of animal life. To capture the range of behaviors and characteristics that we envisioned would require a dynamic film. Consequently, we would need an upbeat style of music, something to work with the images to pace the viewer emotionally. The narration would have to be sparse but powerful, something that would enhance the non-conventional style of the film.

With diversity as the the film’s principal theme, continuity presented a principal challenge. After much debate, we chose one class of animals — large raptors; specifically, the bald eagle — as a principal character. We decided to open and close the film with dramatic footage of eagles, and to include eagles or other large raptors in each of the movements.

We also proposed to the Zoo an additional cinematographic component aimed at increasing the emotional involvement of the audience: four original point of view shots of animals. Our idea was to film an animals’ eye view of different behaviors and to edit this in with acquired footage. Point of view shots are uncommon in natural history filmmaking. While we knew it was a risk, we felt it would add considerably to the excitement of the film.

These decisions made, at least tentatively, we spent two months researching the acquisition of the best possible nature footage and planning our point of view sequences. We contacted cinematographers from around the world, sending letters and request lists to over thirty producers. One of our researchers flew to England where she examined the film libraries of Oxford Scientific Films, the BBC, and Survival Anglia. We sorted through ten hours of footage shot by Charles Guggenheim under contract to the Zoo. In total, we surveyed over 350 hours of film looking for the shots most appropriate for the storyboard.

We realized early on that in addition to the artistic challenges, A World Alive posed major technical ones. Our studio is equipped with Betacam video broadcasting equipment. We have chosen to develop our business around video because of its advantages over film for natural

history work.** However, nearly all natural history cinematography has been in film, usually 16mm but occasionally 35mm. In requesting footage, we asked each cinematographer to transfer his work to Betacam SP — the newest and highest resolution version of Betacam — so that we could review and edit it in-house. Eventually, all of the footage was edited on-line to a digital video format (D-1), then transferred back to 35mm for the final release print show at the Zoo. Versions in 16mm and Betacam SP were also produced from the digital master.

Betacam SP also proved useful as a means to bring a disparate collection of formats, including varying quality 16mm and 35mm film stocks shot under different light conditions, into a common feel in the most cost-effective manner. Transferring all footage to 35mm to edit would have been far more difficult and expensive and the differences in the source material would have been more painfully obvious.

Conquering the format problem was arduous and frustrating, since we were one of the very few production companies to attempt it. It required repeated visits to Image Transform in Los Angeles, viewings of 35mm tests and re-tests in local theaters, and careful calibrations of film speeds and colors.

No less arduous were the productions of the point of view sequences. During the twelve weeks of production, we filmed eagle nests in the San Juan Islands using a helicopter-mounted 35mm camera with a gyrostabilizer; dolphins in the Sea of Cortez and the Hawaiian Islands using an underwater 16mm camera mounted to an in-board, out-board boat; and tree-swinging white-faced monkeys and hatching Ridley turtles in Costa Rica in both 16mm and Betacam.

While all the shots were important, the eagle sequence was key since the eagle was our theme character. Moreover, an eagle’s nest was our metaphor for earth. Mark Shelley, Sea Studios president and cinematographer, envisioned the film opening with a point of view shot of an eagle soaring onto a remote nest. As it landed, the point of view would shift to the inside of one of its hatching eggs. Then, the film’s first sequence on animal birth would start. Likewise, the film would end with a point of view fly-up to the nest. This time the eggs would be replaced by the special effect of a rotating globe matted into the film.

We spoke with eagle specialists in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska before choosing to scout two principal locations, the mouth of the Columbia River and the San Juan Islands. We were looking for an eagle nest on an isolated island, one that a helicopter could approach without confronting telephone lines and the other accouterments of civilization. An island in the San Juans fit the bill, and Mark set off for a two-day shoot.

With equipment and crew costs of $2500 an hour and a budget of only $25,000 for the shot, we were careful to plan the shoot. The helicopter pilot and cameraman out of Preston Cinema Systems of Los Angeles flew up to Seattle, where they equipped a rented helicopter with the gyrostabilizer and 35mm camera. The gyrostabilizer held the camera steady so that it could more realistically capture the effect of a soaring eagle. While the shot was eventually successful, our plan proved to be more exact than its execution due to unforeseen problems with the camera and the vagaries of weather in the Pacific Northwest..

Each of the other shots presented its own challenge. Planning to film dolphins in the Sea of Cortez, we arrived on the heels of a hurricane and found the water unexpectedly murky. After much internal agonizing over costs and budgets, we scheduled another shoot on the island of Hawaii where water conditions were ideal and the dolphins cooperative.

We installed a World War II “Gzap” camera into a small, streamlined housing, modified it to be radio controlled, mounted it on a nylon-wheeled frame, and then put that frame onto tracks mounted vertically in front of a motorboat. With a fluke-like fin attached to the camera so that it tilted upward on ascents and downward when the camera dove, we were able to cruise with the dolphins, mimicking their behavior.

The species of spinner dolphins we filmed in Hawaii were more photogenic than the common dolphins in Baja. Spinners are so named because they jump entirely out of the water and spin 360 degrees as they cruise along. Because the Gzap camera only ran for about a minute and a half, we had to stop the boat fairly often to change film cassettes. While we were reloading, the dolphins all stopped and patiently milled around the boat, then picked up their exuberant frolicking when we got underway.

In Costa Rica, we hoped to film howler monkeys in the tree canopies. Despite consultations with a number of howler monkey specialists, we learned on our arrival that filming in rain forest canopies is nearly impossible and that howler monkeys are very skittish. This episode and others confirmed our notion that a good knowledge of biology is no substitute for cinematographic innovation, and vice versa, which is to say, to be successful as a natural history filmmaker, you have to know your animals and to be able to think on your feet biologically and cinematographically.

Our alternative primate was the white-faced monkey, which could be found in several of Costa Rica’s national parks. Using mountain climbers’ harnesses, we scaled trees so that we could film the monkeys on their level. In one sequence, while swinging in a tree from a tether rope to film the point of view of a monkey jumping from limb to limb, our cameraman smashed into a tree with caustic juices and within ten minutes developed welts and stinging eyes. This injury would have been much more serious — people have been blinded by the tree – had we not received special medication from the director of the national park.

While one Sea Studios team was off filming, another was holed-up in front of a monitor viewing and logging stock footage. Editors Kate Davis and Natasha Fraley viewed over 80 hours of footage on the first pass before selecting 200 minutes of possible shots. Their rough criterion was simple: find the most spectacular, representative, and diverse footage possible. As they began to weed footage down, other facets became important: what effect would the shot have when transferred and projected in a large screen 35mm format; how well did the shots work together; and what unifying features were present, such as color, function, context, or motion.

For example, they looked for humorous as well as dramatic shots. In one courtship sequence, two albatrosses display humorous neck-bobbing and beak-tapping behaviors. They followed that shot with an avian ballet of two grebes shaking their heads then skimming across the water in unison. These shots were juxtaposed with a later sequence showing wolves in battle and big horn sheep ramming their heads into one another.

Concurrent with the filming and editing, other decisions were being debated, including the choice of music and narration. After listening to many different styles of music, we decided on jazz fusion because of its rich rhythms, changes, and emotion. We interviewed several musicians and chose Kit Walker, a recording artist on Windham Hill Jazz, to compose the musical score. Called “the Henry Thoreau of jazz” by Jazziz magazine because his music is inspired by the elemental forces of nature, Kit was enthusiastic about the project.

The creative process between a filmmaker and a composer, like any creative process, is not easy to describe. As the film developed into a rough cut, Kit developed musical treatments. Film and treatments were reviewed, critiqued, and reiterated until the two began to meld together.

Natural sounds also played an important part of the soundtrack of the film, and our search exacted both artistic and biological precision. A Santa Cruz graduate student provided the barking sounds for the species of wild African dogs used in the film. Long Marine Lab provided underwater recordings of dolphins. A professor at Staten Island University provided the screeching sounds of white-faced monkeys. The Cornell University Library of Ornithology provided a variety of bird sounds. In each case, we were careful to match the sound to the behavior of a particular species.

In choosing a narrator, we wanted someone who was unconventional but popular. We wanted a rich, lyrical, gentle, and upbeat voice. Our aim for the film was to reach the widest possible audience, yet break the pedantic mold of nature films. After a long and somewhat convoluted search, we reached and convinced Shakespearean actor (and Darth Vader’s voice) James Earl Jones to work with us. His voice is outstanding, adding a richness and depth that very few narrators could. Being a superb actor, he was able to put meaning behind his voice and, unlike many narrators who simply come in and read a script, was insistent on giving us the effect we envisioned. He read and reread the script aloud, asking how certain lines should be interpreted. Then he recorded each line many times, always working to get the best possible inflection, the most out of each word.

The final film is as much a celebration of natural history filmmaking as it is a celebration of animal diversity, a testimony to the art of capturing animal behaviors from a new point of view, selecting and editing footage to present the drama and beauty of animal life, composing an original musical score and blending it with unusual footage, and choosing and recording a powerful and unconventional voice. A World Alive was a very special project for Sea Studios and, we hope, for all the people who have a chance to see it at the Saint Louis Zoo or purchase it as a home video.

Footnote: A World Alive was completed in February, 1990, on time and on budget. It opened on April 26 at “The Living World” Pavilion at the Saint Louis Zoo and is available daily free of charge to the 2.8 million people who visit the Zoo each year.

* Mark Shelley, Sea Studios president and principal cinematographer; Dr. Robin Burnett, Sea Studios principal writer and a former instructor of biology at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University; and free-lance filmmaker and editor Kate Davis (director/producer “Girltalk,” editor “Paris is Burning,” producer/writer “Vacant Lot,” and assistant editor “Sherman’s March) formed the core team that conceived and produced the film. They received biological and editorial assistance from Natasha Fraley, a Sea Studios natural history film editor; and Nancy Burnett, a Sea Studios natural history photographer. Roger Birkel, assistant director of the Saint Louis Zoo, provided general oversight and direction on the film for the Zoo.

** The cost of shooting video is much less than film, which is critical when running a camera in anticipation of unpredictable animal behavior. Because video doesn’t require off-site processing, it provides real-time confidence: you can watch what you shoot. You save the cost of making mistakes in setting up, waiting, shooting, or processing