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Doug Emlen

University of Montana biology professor Doug Emlen's research on animal weapon evolution is brought on screen in "Nature's Wildest Weapons: Horns, Tusks and Antlers."

Courtesy photo

Nothing puts the challenge of making a good wildlife film in perspective like Glacier National Park’s “Bear Cam.”

Thousands of people have followed the live webstream of a black bear dozing for days in the bole of a cottonwood tree. Occasionally it sticks its tongue out. Sometimes it climbs out and breaks off some budding branches to gnaw on. Glacier editors have released a short clip of the bear doing what a bear does in the woods.

“You know people will log in and look and watch it,” said Alberta filmmaker Andrew Manske. “As filmmakers, the main focus has to be on what does the audience want. We have to feed them, but we can’t manipulate them.”

Manske spent five years gathering footage for his featured entry, “Wolverine: Ghost of the Northern Forest” in this year’s International Wildlife Film Festival. On one hand, the popularity of a static view of a snoozing bear can be a frustrating comparison to a feature film that required thousands of hours of dedication. On the other hand, Manske relied on similar technology for some of his hard-won wolverine images.

“If you use trail cameras, you can see patterns in their chest fur that are like thumb prints,” Manske said. “You can figure out the patterns and tell them apart. Now you’re able to tell the story. You’ve got characters.”

Now in its 41st year, Missoula’s International Wildlife Film Festival has set the worldwide standard for scientifically accurate, artistically honest animal storytelling. University of Montana grizzly bear biologist Chuck Jonkel set the rules to get away from the anthropomorphized tales that relied on captive animals and editing tricks to present artificial views of the natural world. A number of filmmakers this year, including Manske, knew Jonkel and carried on his standards.

“I want to give a huge shout-out to Chuck,” Manske said. “I miss him dearly. Thanks to him, we’re still making good films.”

This year’s festival will present 145 films between April 14 and 22 at the Roxy Theater in Missoula. Festival producer Jeri Rafter said that was winnowed down from 241 feature entries and 67 short-film submissions, as well as about 50 films that were invited to appear.  

“The number of filmmakers continually increases as the technology becomes more accessible to people,” Rafter said. “They can make a film about a species without a ton of equipment. It’s changed the landscape, but the same basic tenants of good storytelling hold true.”

Montanan cinematographer Bob Landis got his start at the IWFF, and will present a retrospective of his 40-year career at this year’s festival.

“I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t get the exposure at the IWFF,” Landis said. “Being in Montana, I didn’t have much chance to meet with people.”

The annual gathering wasn’t just a time to show new work and win awards. Landis said it also allowed filmmakers to network with producers and financiers who might get a next project off the ground. That was crucial in the days when film and developing and printing cost lots of money before the first distribution deal ever got signed.

“Now there are a lot of very good, low-budget films that could never be done when I started,” Landis said. “Things like marrying sound to film employed lots of people that are no longer employed. People with just a dream and an idea can fulfill that dream without a lot of financing.”

The change from film stock to video and then HD video still separates the high-end workers from the beginners, however. Landis said a good telephoto lens for HD cameras can cost $70,000. And fancy digital equipment hasn’t erased the need for narrators, writers, musicians and editors.

University of Montana biology professor Doug Emlen exemplifies another challenge in the filmmaking world. The author of the book “Animal Weapons” got to work with both BBC and NOVA film crews on a video version of his insights into how animals use huge antlers or claws as weapons to win mates. He said in writing the book, the shift from his academic biology world to popular literature was somewhat jarring. Translating that to visual storytelling was yet another big step.

“Just learning how to write for a non-academic audience was huge,” Emlen said. “And then it all happened again with the film people. They had a clear idea of what it has to look like to be engaging to viewers. I had a clear view what was accurate for the science. I finally started to learn how to communicate in ways that were totally new. It was really fun.”

The result was “Nature’s Wildest Weapons: Horns, Tusks and Antlers.” But one challenging aspect was Emlen’s parallels with animal weapon evolution and the patterns human military forces fall into. The biologist’s written work compares how elk or fiddler crabs use their oversized appendages as much for display as for fighting, in similar way nations present military parades and sail aircraft carriers to show off their power. Emlen also explores how some animals go the other way and use stealth tactics to mate without fighting the better-endowed dominate males. He compared that to cyber spies who use malicious software hacks to disable communication systems or battlefield equipment.

“I could make comparisons between fiddler crab claws and nuclear weapons, but I couldn’t take it to the next step and show how new military technology is affected by cyber hackers,” Emlen said. “I wanted to make that parallel to sneaky beetles and sneaky bighorn sheep, but the BBC guys said ‘no, too scary.' NOVA refused to do any comparisons to the military. They cut very different versions, knowing their audience and how far they could push out of comfort zone.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.