What inspired you to enter the world of wildlife film, and what was the first film you ever made?
What inspired me was a desire to use film to advance the cause of conservation. I was frantically seeking fresh and innovative ways to promote environmental protection. The first film I ever made was on the California Condor with Robert Redford.
Shooting in the Wild is a scrupulously diplomatic survey of the history and ethics of wildlife film making – what is the hardest ethical puzzle you have had to confront in your experience making films?
You forgot to say that the book is full of fascinating stories! The hardest ethical puzzle I confronted was the desire to get close to wild animals while knowing it was wrong to harass them in that way.
As a conservationist, what do you believe a good wildlife film should do? What are the limits?
A good wildlife film should inspire the viewer to love nature more deeply and to encourage action of some kind to promote conservation. And it should do this without harassing animals or deceiving the audience with staging or manipulation. There are no limits.
The tale of someone like Howard Hall and his “extraordinary patience” resulting in fascinating footage and industry recognition for his first film is inspiring – perhaps the overly enthusiastic “claws and jaws” approach hides a more intriguing diversity of behaviour in the animal kingdom?
I’m not a cinematographer like Howard, but the behavior of wild animals goes far beyond copulation and predation, and is often intriguing and unpredictable. The “claws and jaws” approach does wildlife a disservice and is highly disrespectful of the natural world.
You recount some classic stories of misadventure – Timothy Treadwell and Steve Irwin come to mind – have you personally found yourself in any close animal encounters you were glad to have got out of? What is your most memorable animal encounter?
Swimming with humpback whales in Hawaii and walking near Kodiak bears in Alaska come to mind, but remember, we always work closely with biologists and so are never in any danger unless we do something stupid or careless. I’ve never felt threatened.
And what about memorable human encounters? You have worked with a huge variety of people and you mention some of these in the book …
“Shooting in the Wild” contains many memorable stories about film stars and other celebrities. I encourage readers to get hold of my book and enjoy them!
You talk about how social media is bringing wildlife filmmaking directly to people and engaging them in action on the ground. How does this new phenomenon play into the ethical concerns that are raised in the book?
One way is that everybody is a filmmaker now because everyone has a camera on their cell phone. Millions of people with cameras are edging closer and closer to wild animals to try to capture a career-enhancing shot. This upsurge in people stalking animals in order to get pictures is not good news for wild animals, who for the most part just want to be left alone.
What drives you to make this effort, at this time, to bring your industry to account? Are you optimistic that your conscientious approach will become standard?
What drives me is the deteriorating state of television. Recently I saw Bear Grylls on Animal Planet gratuitously and cruelly kill a large lizard by swinging it against a tree by its tail, and then plunging a knife into its neck.
Are you currently working on any interesting projects?
We’re producing three giant screen IMAX films on climate change, humpback whales, and the oceans. I’m also working with Rob Whitehair and Bruce Weide on a film about wolves.
How can people find out more about the questions raised in the book?
By writing to me and requesting the companion Study Guide. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Another way is by asking to be put on my mailing list so you receive periodic e-mails about our various projects. Again, people should feel free to e-mail me about that. Also, every Tuesday night in Washington DC at American University where I teach we have events related to wildlife and environmental films which are free and open to the public.