Too Close for Comfort: What Some Filmmakers Do for the ‘Money Shot’

Beginning with a daring escape from the communist regime in East Germany in 1961, when he was twenty-four, Wolfgang Obst has taken plenty of risks. Those he takes as a filmmaker tend to be off screen and involve the respectful watching of wildlife in remote places, not touching or wrestling with them. He gets close to wildlife at times, but only when the animals come to him. Needless to say, this approach to making engaging films takes time and patience.

When I started producing environmental documentaries in the early 1980s, I hired Obst to make a film about the threat of oil drilling to the wildlife—especially migrating caribou—in a 100-mile-long stretch of pristine coastline in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Four months later, Obst and his wife, who was also his filmmaking partner, hopped in a bush plane and flew to the refuge’s coastal plain. Within a few days of their arrival, though, they decided their marriage was over. As a plane carried Obst’s wife away from the filming location, a dreadful silence descended. Obst knew that being alone would add significantly to his risk. But he had a one-hour television special to make for Audubon, and I was pressuring him to deliver.

With one tent for himself and another for his camera gear, he felt like a minuscule creature out there alone amid thousands of square miles of harsh wilderness. An injury that might be inconsequential back home could prove fatal in the isolated Arctic with no one around to help. He carried a radio so he could call commercial airline pilots to relay messages in case of emergency, but he discovered that it wasn’t working. If anything happened, he would just have to wait until his bush pilot returned with supplies once every three weeks.

Walking on the tundra was challenging. Obst watched every step he took and every move he made. Weighed down by a backpack stuffed with his camera, batteries, extra film, a tripod, shotgun, and food, he wobbled from one grassy lump to another, avoiding icy water in between and taking care not to turn an ankle. Finally arriving at his destination, he settled down to wait in the middle of the empty calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, filming little things here and there, but nothing of real interest. He knew wolves and grizzlies were nearby. And he knew he was no longer at the top of the food chain.

After three long weeks, the caribou finally arrived—tens of thousands of them, moving rapidly toward him in a broad front. He felt like running, but there was nowhere to go. Besides, however frightening it was to be in the middle of a stream of caribou on the move, this is what he had come to shoot. As the herd got within thirty feet, they parted to go around him, and then closed ranks thirty feet farther on.

“In contrast to the previous silence, this was a madhouse swallowing me up,” Obst recalls. “Every year the caribou come to the refuge to have their babies. Many of them had little ones already, and some were born around me. Mothers and babies were calling each other. The noise was unbelievable.” Taking special care to disturb the herd as little as possible, Obst camped in the middle of this chaos for two weeks, mostly filming—and eating, cooking, and sleeping only when he had to.

Wolves came out of hiding to hunt the weaker caribou. At times as close as sixty feet from Obst, they seemed to view him more as entertainment than as a potential meal. The grizzly bears that arrived to feed, sometimes taking over carcasses from the wolves, also stayed away from him—perhaps, Obst says jokingly, repelled by his smell, since he had not bathed for weeks. “Wolves were feasting on the old and the young caribou, as were bears,” Obst relates. “Finally I had something to film.”

“Two weeks later, having had their babies, the herd moved on and was replaced by mosquitoes,” Obst says. “With the mosquitoes, my film came to an end, because they concentrated on anything dark, and one of these dark places was the front of my lens. There was nothing else I could do. It was impossible to continue shooting.”

Another filmmaker known for shooting only the most authentic footage possible is Ray Paunovich. He abides by a code of ethics as strict as that of anyone in the profession. Even so, Paunovich sometimes gets pretty close to his wild animal subjects.

While working on The Great Bears of North America in the early 1990s, Paunovich and his soundman, Bart Ready, were on horseback in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley looking for grizzlies. They could smell a carcass east of their position. Because grizzlies will feed on carrion, Paunovich and Ready rode in the direction of the smell, keeping their eyes peeled for bears. At the end of the trail, they found a dead bison next to what appeared to be a pile of brush. Closer inspection revealed that the pile of brush was actually another, younger bison that had been dragged from some distance away and covered up. This was obviously the work of a bear, who would most likely be back to continue feeding. Paunovich and Ready found an ideal place nearby to set up their camera, where the wind would not carry their scent to the bears. They were close, but not so close that they would disturb the animal’s natural behaviors.

Their observation post was a small gully about 150 yards away that offered cover and a place to hobble their horses. Peeking over the small rise, they could see the bison carcasses and still be safely hidden. Unlike many wildlife filmmakers, Paunovich is an experienced outdoorsman who grew up hunting and fishing and handling weapons, and he knew how to take care of himself in the wild. But even experienced outdoorsmen make mistakes.

About an hour and a half later, a sow with two small cubs emerged from a patch of timber about half a mile away. At first, the bears were just feeding at the edge of the timber, and Paunovich wasn’t sure if they knew about the bison. But little by little they fed and played their way toward the carcasses. Then, as if someone had rung a dinner bell, all three grizzlies made a beeline for the bison.

Although the men were not in the direct path of the bears, the grizzlies ended up entering the small gully in which the men were hiding. When they were 250 yards away, the bears suddenly stood on hind legs, sniffing, and then dropped down and circled around. The sow began to foam at the mouth and snap her jaws, a sure sign of nervousness and aggression.

Then she spotted the filmmakers. The men heard no warning sounds, but instantly the two cubs came together and the mother bear charged, covering half of the 250 yards in a matter of seconds. Paunovich and Ready screamed and waved their arms to scare her away. The horses were terrified and, because they were tied, unable to flee.

When the sow got within a hundred yards of the filmmakers, she stopped, jaws still foaming and snapping. She rose on her hind legs several more times, and then dropped down for good. She looked back at her cubs, then at the men, and back toward the cubs again. Then, suddenly, she turned again and charged, this time coming within seventy-five yards of Paunovich and Ready. Once again, the filmmakers yelled and waved their arms. Luckily, she stopped, went to get her cubs, and eventually moved on to the dead bison.

“I’m sure it only took seconds for all this to happen, but it seemed like an eternity, and our legs were trembling. Her speed was something I will never forget,” Paunovich says. “She could have been on us in a heartbeat had she wanted to. After things settled down, and we gained our composure, we actually shot some good footage of her and the cubs on the carcasses.”

Clearly, it’s impossible to eliminate all risk when filming large, dangerous predators in their native environments. Even a filmmaker as conscientious as Paunovich has had close calls. But the care he takes to keep what he judges to be a safe distance may have made the difference in his own survival—and that of some of his subjects.

What inspired you to write Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom?

I was dead-set on writing an insider’s account of something, and this is the industry I’ve been in for the last 25 years, so it was pretty much my only option.

Alright, but why did you think anyone else would be interested in reading about wildlife films?

We have all seen these programs – whether National Geographic documentaries, March of the Penguins or Shark Week – but very few people know how the films are actually made. I’ve spent my career as a film producer collecting stories, experiences, and opinions about the realities of nature filmmaking.

And have you ever written a book before?

Let me just say: Shooting in the Wild is full of beautiful photos.  As to my writing ability, you’ll have to be the judge of that.

In this interviewer’s humble opinion, the writing is truly exceptional.

Thank you very much. I’ll take that for what it’s worth.

Your book has a number of stories about working with celebrities. Which is easier: making movies with animals or making movies with Hollywood stars?

One of the toughest things about filming wild animals is getting all the cameras set up and getting everything ready to go, and then having to wait forever for them to show up. So, in that sense, it’s very similar to working with celebrities.

The animals probably also have fewer wardrobe issues.

That’s true. What’s fashionable isn’t always the best clothing option for filming in the African desert. But in reality, celebrity hosts can be essential for attracting viewers to wildlife films.

So what makes a good wildlife film?

It should be as dull and boring as possible. No, actually I think part of what has made nature programming so successful in recent years is that filmmakers understand the importance of entertaining the audience. While wildlife films need to educate the viewers, they can’t afford to make viewers feel like they’re back in school. They have to draw in viewers with stunning images, compelling drama, humor, and, yes, celebrity hosts.

So is this recent success a good thing?

It’s a great thing that so many people are interested in learning about animals and the environment. The problem is that too many shows have completely given up on trying to educate at all. These shows are built on graphic footage of feeding frenzies and bear attacks. Why tell the truth when depicting animals as man-killing monsters gets higher ratings?

So you would rather we see them depicted as warm and cuddly?

Not at all. The tragic death of Timothy Treadwell shows what can happen if we do anthropomorphize and get too close to wild animals. We can’t pretend that animals don’t fight and kill, but this is only one small part of their lives. It’s important for nature shows to entertain, but it is wholly irresponsible to misinform the audience.

What would you like readers to come away from your book with?

I hope that they can look at wildlife films with a more critical eye. I hope they gain an appreciation for how difficult it is to make these films and also how important it is that the films be made in the right way.

Anything else?

I hope they laugh. I hope they get caught up in the adventurous stories of working with wild animals in the world’s most remote locations. I hope the book changes how they look at the world. And, if that’s asking for too much, I hope they at least enjoy the pictures.