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Excerpt: Shooting In The Wild

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.

Excerpted from Shooting in the Wild by Chris Palmer. Copyright 2010. Published by Sierra Club Books in association with Counterpoint. Used by permission.

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