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Nature Films
By Ron Steinman

I have never been a big fan of nature films. I always believed that seeing one tiger was seeing one tiger too many. Watching lions digging into a wildebeest would make me turn away and ask why must they have their dinner in my living room. That watching a rhino splashing in a river in Africa did not astound me, nor did a trumpeting elephant move me to echo its cry. Witnessing chimps cavorting in a tropical forest was just so many jabbering mammals with not much on their minds and not much to keep them occupied. I can go on, but anyone sympathetic to me understands what I am saying.

Over the years, PBS did, and still does, a terrific job of supplying America with a substantial number of films they could repeat forever, most of which are get a big G perfect for family viewing. In the early days of cable, Discovery did its part to attract nature lovers. Now Animal Planet, a Discovery spin-off on cable bores me. I also believe every croc hunter and every bug guy who maneuvers in and out of strange terrain, is really the same person in disguise. They all do the same thing. They all sound alike, as if they have the same accent coach. They are, to their (or his, if you buy my one person in many masks theory) credit fearless, willing to go places where I will not tread unless necessary. I am a city guy, born and bred in Brooklyn where the wild animals I knew growing up were cops on horses, squirrels, the occasional chipmunk, pigeons, a wide variety of sweet song birds, and thousands of different insects. Of course, we had our share, luckily, of a wide variety of dogs and cats.

All that said I want to tell you about “Winged Migration” and “March of the Penguins” two remarkable nature films I saw over the last few months. Each beautifully photographed and each wonderfully directed. I was about to say the actors were not bad either, which is partly true, but that in a moment.

I will not repeat the plot of each film. The plot of each is simple. By now, you should know each story. The films are about survival that in a way makes we humans seem weak by comparison. The resolve of the penguins in one film and all the other birds in the other film is remarkable. The instinct to keep the species alive defies the imagination. My interest goes beyond how the creatures survive. It is in how the directors and their crews made the films.

To observe nature and allow the lives of the animals -- in this case birds -- to unfold as it happens is what I believe nature films are, unless I have been deceived for years.



4 out of 4 stars

Rating Scale

Luc Jacquet wrote and directed “March of the Penguins.” His crew of two filmed more than 13 months the lives the emperor penguins in the Antarctic, a land of massive glaciers, floes and permanent ice. The crew lived with the penguins for more than year, waiting and watching, and filming where and when they could as the penguins held their annual ritual of mating, birthing and survival. An undersea cameraman rotated in an out of the Antarctic, to film the penguins feeding and swimming as if they were performing a ballet underwater. Though there was script of sorts, it was really an outline of how the penguins lived

The camera team filmed in Super 16 mm for optimum quality because 35 mm equipment was too bulky, thus difficult to maneuver in the terrible weather of the Antarctic. The crew was always the mercy of the weather in the coldest place on earth. They wore clothing that kept them warm but that also limited their movement. Sometimes storms changed the light and their ability to function in the powerful one hundred mile an hour winds and blizzards. Listen to the camera team, director of photography Laurent Cahlet, and Jerome Maison in their own words.

DP Laurent Cahlet: “Everything went so fast that mental preparation took a back seat to all the logistical preparations for the shoot. It was probably just as well: the less time and distance we had, the less questions we asked ourselves. It became not so much about making choices but about preparing a technical and logistical operation that had to withstand 12 months of isolation and extreme cold. This meant, in addition to taking everything in duplicate, that we had to choose a ‘film’ camera that was as mechanical as possible, strong enough to operate in -40°F (–40°C) temperatures and that we could fix easily in case of problem. I went down to Grenoble to work with the French camera manufacturer Aaton to customize one of their cameras.

“Once on the ground, we agreed on a method, a daily routine, which was based on solidarity and enthusiasm. Instead of taking turns, we worked together as a team. We would get up at 5:30 AM, prepare the equipment for an hour and a half, load four magazines of film (it was out of the question to do this on the ice), get dressed, and take off for a day of shooting, carrying about 130 pounds of equipment each. Only two things prevented us from filming: the weather, and running out of our daily film stock when we were out on the ice.”

Laurent Chalet: “We also needed to be as pertinent as possible. In order to approach the chicks to film them, for instance, we built a sort of scooter which could roll on the ice, on which we rigged the camera. Our main concern, always, was to create the least possible disturbance. Even at the cost of losing calories crawling on the ice!”

Jerome Maison: “The marine scenes also, which were filmed by Patrick Marchand, were particularly difficult. But the result is so stunning! To be able to see this graceful animal in his own element – water – after watching him ‘endure’ his condition out of the water.”

Laurent Chalet: “You have to know the animals you are filming, to be able to anticipate their reactions; you need a lot of patience to see how things develop; and you need a little bit of luck… This is what allowed us to get the images of the penguins walking in file. Thanks to the ornithology lab of the Dumont d’Urville station, we knew where the penguins were going to gather, but we did not know when. And not having that information meant we had to be at the ready every day, because this is an event that occurs only once a year. And the bit of luck we had there, was that there were more than 1,200 penguins, which is very rare. Usually there are several hundred, 500 at the most.”

What they say is a lesson to anyone doing this kind of work. Their words are a testament to their perseverance, dedication, and their own ability to survive. They shot 120 hours of film, which was more than enough to fashion their moving story of the emperor penguin. Though I found the attempt to anthropomorphize the penguins less than successful and not necessary, in doing what they did with care and love, they were able to create a distinctive film.


2 1/2 out of 4 stars

Rating Scale

Winged Migration” is also a remarkable film, but after viewing the DVD, and looking at the extras, I learned some things about it that made me think more seriously about the kind of film it is. I went to the film with my eyes wide open as most viewers would. Having missed it in theaters, I watched the DVD. I thought the film magnificent, though at times repetitive and sometimes slow. Seeing so many birds in flight repeatedly tended to make my mind wander and my eyes grow weary. After seeing the film, I watched the extras. That is where disappointment set in. I wondered, is “Winged Migration” a documentary, at least in the way I understand the term? Is it something more or something less? I do not know. I do know it belongs in a category other than that of the nature film. This, then, is part of my unending search to define the non-fiction films we see.

In “Winged Migration” the same as in “March of the Penguins”, we the process, which is the making of the film, is a major subtext. I will not deny its importance, for without process there can be no creation. With “Winged Migration” process seems to be everything no matter what the filmmakers say about migratory patterns, the life and survival and death of the birds, in what I assume is a hymn to nature. In the press releases, we learn what they did, how they did it and why. I learned from the press release that the filmmakers used “more than 450 people, including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers.” They used many machines to capture the birds in flight, “including planes, gliders. Helicopters and balloons.” To get the results they were seeking the filmmakers created “numerous innovative techniques and ingeniously designed cameras … to fly alongside, above, below and in front of their subjects.” And it shows because we do see the birds in every way imaginable and in some ways we could never imagine. I have no objection to any of this. If the money is available, use it, build the needed equipment, and hire the people to run it.

However, there is almost nothing said about the imprinting of certain species of birds, thus, in some ways fixing the film to conform to the filmmaker’s wishes. This took place in a 400-acre bird sanctuary in Normandy owned by director Jacques Perrin. Here Perrin and his team imprinted particular members of different species of wild birds to make them comfortable in front of the camera. That sounds like rehearsing the birds to do what you want them to do when the cameras are rolling. Perrin then released these birds into the wild flocks to draw those birds toward the cameras. That is not very natural, at least for me. For me this act of imprinting, of effectively training the birds to do your bidding, becomes an important issue. Some critics who do not make films think it does not matter what the film’s producers did to achieve their goal. To those of us who make films and to all those who want to make films, it does matter because we need to clearly define our work. What we do, requires standards, and whether you are training actors or birds, or any animal, and you call it a documentary, you have changed the standards we normally use by putting in “the fix” to fit a personal definition that is not a definition that everyone can relate to and understand.

Both films have almost unbearable beauty. The impact of gorgeous birds on the wing is powerful and life affirming. I only wish the film had been natural, as is nature. The penguins we watched were raw and oddly stable, with an uncanny instinct for survival naturally imprinted in them over thousands of years. Some might aver that watching the birds fly and the penguins march, waddle and swim, were each in their way a true depiction of nature. Yes, but one film had the benefit of manufactured moments, birds coached by man to do its bidding, while the other had only a true portrait of how they lived.

There are those who will disagree with me about “Winged Migration”. They will say accept the film for what it is. Appreciate its beauty and technical achievement because each far outweighs quibbling over what kind of film it really is. I understand. However, I ask for honesty in filmmaking. Tell me at the start what I am looking at and why. Be transparent. Do not deceive. It will not lessen my enjoyment. I thought the film was beautiful, but it was not what the filmmakers advertised it to be. I might excuse your actions for the sake of creation. Please be candid about what you did and how you did it. If you do not, we the audience will never know what we are looking at, and in the world of the documentary film, all your cards should be on the table. Only by doing that can we can judge, and yes, enjoy your film for its full value.

I am not against nature and all it offers freely. I love to garden. I love flowers, especially roses. I love watching birds and wonder how they survive in a natural world increasingly dominated by chemicals and the loss of their habitats to man’s expansion into their forests and natural homes. Of all nature’s beauty I enjoy watching butterflies the most -- their iridescent splendor, their magnificent flight patterns, their short and effervescent lives in a world that does its best to ignore them, and the role they have in regenerating nature.

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.


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