FEATURE: The Art of WILD

By on September 15, 2015

Local flavor storms the screen for film festival

Photo: Brain Farm

Photo: Brain Farm

National Geographic is no stranger to the talent Jackson photographers and filmmakers possess and the resources they have in their backyard. So when the snowboard documentary “The Art of Flight” was screened after the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival four years ago, the vice president of NatGeo WILD said, “Who was that?”

Fast forward to this year’s Wildlife Film Festival, a 14-year-old biannual industry conference reserved for the biggest names in natural history filmmaking. “Wild Yellowstone: Frozen Frontier,” a film commissioned by National Geographic and made by Brain Farm Cinema, happens to be a finalist in two categories.

New this year, with the help of the lodging tax dollars and various other grants supporting arts and culture, the film festival will host WILD. It’s a parallel film festival at the Center for the Arts that brings eight days of screenings and talks with the wildlife conservationists, scientists and filmmakers who helped make the finalist films. WILD is special because aside from an occasional fundraiser, a cameo at schools or a special screening, in the past these behind-the-scenes stars of conservation typically remained at the Jackson Lake Lodge, hobnobbing, making deals and planning their next expeditions.

The festival is bookended by a conservation summit on elephants and a party for the national parks with days dedicated to oceans, elephants and big cats in between. As the education outreach coordinator for the festival, this reporter must confess, the pace is exhausting. But the sprint is worth it to bring this caliber of programming to the community.

The festival invites folks to meet brilliant minds, such as Pulitzer Prize winning author E. O. Wilson and the opportunity to view a bounty of films, including premiere screenings of four cinematic gems: “Unbranded,” the story of four college graduates who tame wild mustangs through wild lands between Mexico and Canada, including a Jackson Hole scene; “Tiger Tiger,” a profile of Panthera CEO Rabinowitz as he tries to save the last tigers of the Sundarbans near India; “Racing Extinction, an undercover exposé about illegal wildlife trade and its impact on the environment and Brain Farm’s “Wild Yellowstone.

“It’s freakin’ crazy,” said Curt Morgan, founder of Brain Farm. “It’s cool that we are part of the community and in the festival with A-level content.

“It took a long time,”  continued Morgan, the son of an ornithologist. “It’s kind of hard to get your foot in the door to be an A-content producer for National Geographic. I grew up reading the magazine religiously, so it was a big honor. I think they saw Brain Farm as an action sport entertainment company that stood a chance to bring ‘Art of Flight’s’ style to natural history and see how it feels.”

Brain Farm is a Jackson-based film company renowned for its aerial photography and compelling sports action film narratives. Its latest project, “We Are Blood,” follows Paul Rodriguez and other innovative skateboarders as they hit the pavement all over the world. The production house rose to fame with its breakthrough snowboard film, “The Art of Flight,” which features local pro-snowboarder Travis Rice. In addition to laboring over a hushed sequel project to “The Art of Flight,”  Brain Farm’s wheels are turning on more natural history projects.

“We are really going to go after our version of “Planet Earth” in a big 4K [resolution] series,” Morgan said.

With the centennial celebration for the nation’s parks approaching, Yellowstone, the first national park, is venerated in two seasonal films by Brain Farm and multiple other film festival entries, many of which employed local content providers. But it is the winter film about Yellowstone that is a finalist.    

“Wild Yellowstone: Frozen Frontier” captures a lone wolf, a herd of bison and a pack of big horn sheep as they battle for for supremacy, playful beavers, otters, and other animals as they navigate harsh winter terrain, avoiding predators and challenging each other in desperate attempts to survive. The “Grizzly Summer” series turns the Brain Farm lens to bears, birds and other animals who wage battles to protect their territory.

“Being a finalist puts you on everyone’s radar,” said Lisa Samford, executive director of the Wildlife Film Festival. “Winning puts you at the front of the pack.”

A still from the film ‘Racing Extinction,’  which exposes the seedy world of illegal wildlife trade. The movie screens as part of the WILD Festival.

A still from the film ‘Racing Extinction,’ which exposes the seedy world of illegal wildlife trade. The movie screens as part of the WILD Festival.

The wildest players in the game

This year, with animal behavior legends like sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, elephant conservationists Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole and tiger expert Dr. Alan Rabinowitz among others on the guest list, Samford is excited to showcase the festival in a brighter light.

“The bottom line is it’s insane to attract these amazing speakers and presenters and not share them with the community in a meaningful way,” she said. “Now we can.”

Most natural history filmmakers travel to the ends of the earth and, as if they aren’t already travel weary, wait for days and endure extreme weather to capture one moment that tells the story of the creatures they follow. Their stories are desperate and harrowing. The species may be on the verge of extinction, narrowly escaping death or teaching us a lesson that can be mimicked to help save the planet.

But in making “Wild Yellowstone,” Brain Farm had a hometown advantage — its studio was only 60 miles away from the shoot.

“We know the terrain, so that helped,” Morgan said. “But it’s just a closer drive to the same situation. We just saved on flights.”

If anything, close proximity encouraged the film crew to bring more equipment than they may have if they were flying long distances. “We had crazy camera cars, cineplexes and phantoms,” he said, adding that the national park’s ban on drones did not dampen the experience. “We were able to use drones in controlled areas outside the park,” he explained.

Minus 40-degree weather and camera shy wildlife compelled the Brain Farm crew, accustomed to using high-tech gear, to film with the “light stuff.”

“You can’t direct an animal,” Morgan said. “That’s the most interesting part. You can very easily direct a human. It’s a little bit frustrating. But at the same time it’s kind of nice because the animals don’t talk back to you.”

Producer Thomas Stephens said magical moments like the big horn sheep locking horns in the rut and a fox leaping at 1,000 frames per second led to iconic images using time lapse and super slow motion technology.

Brain Farm brings its slick cinematic sensibilities to the Wildlife Film Festival this year with ‘Wild Yellowstone.’ (Photo: Brain Farm)

Brain Farm brings its slick cinematic sensibilities to the Wildlife Film Festival this year with ‘Wild Yellowstone.’ (Photo: Brain Farm)

Local production assistant Marni Walsh said the film “gives you a window into a world you can’t see.” You might live in Jackson. But a lot of folks don’t make it to Yellowstone in the winter. And even when they do, the moments captured in the film are not typically enjoyed by visitors passing through.

“We are lucky we live in a community where people feel very strongly about the environment and the natural world around them,” she added. “That’s not the case in other places.”

Pictures versus words

For many conservationists and educators, film is the most compelling medium to tell stories of deprivation and resilience in the wild. Sure, an image is worth a thousand words. But as we are reminded in “Racing Extinction,” it takes an excessive carbon footprint to make a film, considering the airline travel and energy required to run the film equipment, not to mention feeding the camera crews. The film argues, however, that the potential to change the way people live can not only erase that footprint but change the course of climate change with innovative ways to educate and inform people about how consumption is wreaking havoc on our oceans.

“Film can actually show behavior in moving pictures plus sound,” said author Carl Safina, who started the Safina Center for oceanic research at Stony Brook University in New York. “Excellent film is incredibly vivid and — after the filmmakers’ work is done — the film can more easily speak for itself than a book can.”

Veteran local filmmaker Jeff Hogan, who has won Best Short at the festival in the past, shot the footage of beavers underwater forWild Yellowstone.” He says he is grateful to make a living in the woods and that talking to students and nonprofit organizations about his work comes with the territory. He makes sure that he only gets paid when he’s outside, he said.

“I love to show the world what it takes for animals to make a living,” Hogan said. “It can be fun and comical. Even though they are going through hardships, they still share cozy moments, feel content and show surprise, shock and play.”

Like the animals, filmmakers are adapting to the new tools. “It’s nice to see the next generation get more involved,” he said. “Even though the tools have changed the approach, it’s still the same … What’s so fantastic is there’s more intimate privileged views without intrusion. An ability to be a fly on the wall.”

Whether it’s native species like beavers, mountain lions, the lone wolf, or the last species of its kind in a faraway land, the shyest of creatures will be out in rare form at WILD. Thematic screenings will be held at noon, 2, 4 and 7 p.m. daily, with after school programming for kids.

“Film can not only educate, but it moves people to act, to advocate, to step outside of an existing comfort zone in order to save something that is clearly so special to our planet and to our own existence,” said Rabinowitz, the subject of  “Tiger Tiger.”

“If it weren’t for films people wouldn’t know the elephants were being decimated,”  Walsh said.

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Gargantuan issues

While the elephant conservation summit is being held at Jackson Lake Lodge, the public is invited to Elephant Day, a fundraiser for anti-poaching organizations on Sept. 26.

Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, has researched elephant population trends since the 1970s, alerted the world to the devastation poaching has on the species, and was instrumental in bringing about the worldwide ban on the trade of ivory in 1989. He will be at the Center for the Arts on Elephant Day with his family to talk about raising kids in the wild while working to protect the elephants.

During the week, teachers and students have been invited to delve into elephants, big cats, oceans and science and nature themes with special screenings about unique species and scientific discoveries. (There is so much to learn from these films and so few hours in the day, that this writer has been falling asleep to narration from voices like David Attenborough every night.)

Whenever possible, filmmakers will attend screenings of their films at the Center for the Arts and be available for questions afterward. There will also be a WILD call to action so that viewers can bring the message from the films home to effect change and raise awareness about ways locals can become involved in global issues that have local tendrils. For example, Wyoming does not restrict or ban the sale of ivory and rhino horn sales like New York, New Jersey and California. But raising awareness here and writing Wyoming legislators could change that.

Short films featuring local projects on mountain lions, mule deer, bison and wolves and a slideshow and book signing by photographer Tom Mangelsen and journalist Todd Wilkinson will be held Oct. 2, before the world premiere of “Wild Yellowstone.” By that time, the 2015 Jackson Hole Film Festival awards will have been announced for Best Cinematography and Best Editing, the two craft categories that “Yellowstone” was nominated for. The craft categories are significant because peers judge them, explained Samford, the festival’s executive director.

“Curt has really established Brain Farm as a leader,” Samford said. “They have built a visual storytelling ethic with a cinematic perspective. Expanding into natural history is a natural next step.”

The judges took more than 3,200 hours to whittle down about 1,000 films entered in 22 categories to 76 finalists. The highest prize is the Grand Teton Award, which is selected by a panel of five distinguished judges days before the awards gala, which is not open to the public. At least not yet. The Wildlife Film Festival is considered one of the most rigorous judging in the film competition industry. Some have even likened it to The Oscars of nature film.

“What drives me is the notion of connecting people to the natural world in a meaningful way that inspires personal commitment and action,” Samford said. “I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? Using media to influence a broad cultural and consumer shift and inspire people to make a difference by actually engaging.” PJH

A still from the film ‘Unbranded,’ about riding wild mustangs through wild lands, premieres at the WILD Festival.

A still from the film ‘Unbranded,’ about riding wild mustangs through wild lands, premieres at the WILD Festival.

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