Art and science blend in unique film school

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

John Shier has backpacked more than 100 pounds of camping and camera gear into the mountains to videotape grizzly bears in the wild.

Sara Slagle has hiked 23 miles into the remotest section of Yellowstone National Park to get one interview -- and hiked out with plastic garbage bags on her feet after her boots froze.

Praveen Singh has spent a night up in a tree in the jungles of India -- almost too afraid of being eaten to turn on his camera -- to film a leopard feeding.

It takes the curiosity and intellect of a scientist and sometimes the daring and determination of Indiana Jones to be a student in Montana State University's graduate program in science and natural history filmmaking.

The program's first students have reached their third and final year. They have traveled as far as Australia, Argentina and Afghanistan. Already they're racking up some remarkable footage and recognition.

Shier recently won the Michael Brinkman Emerging Filmmaker Award at the 2003 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Student Tracy Graziano has received a $2,000 grant from the American Wildlife Research Foundation to pursue her dream of making a film about coyotes. And the program was recently featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education for offering a unique educational program.

The Brinkman award will provide Shier with four months' worth of equipment, worth about $100,000, to make a film about the Gobi bears of the Mongolian desert. He also plans to spend a month filming brown bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park.

Shier, 26, studied engineering at Marquette University in Wisconsin and was heading to a job with a Seattle computer firm after graduation. Then one day he spotted the Montana State natural history filmmaking program's eye-catching poster -- a snarling cougar with a roll of film flying out of its mouth. He said he is happy with his choice.

"I remember being in Yellowstone. I thought, 'Holy cow, I could work 24 hours straight and it wouldn't feel like working.' "

He is passionate about filmmaking for other reasons as well.

"Of all the arts, film can incite the most emotion," he said. "If you want to effect change in people's perceptions of the environment, you've got to affect their hearts."

A longtime filmmaker himself, program director Ronald Tobias has made 15 hours of science and natural history films for the Discovery Channel. He has traveled to remote jungles and mountain wilderness to make films about mountain lions, wolverines, wolves and the Amazon's piranhas and anaconda snakes.

It was over $6 beers in a bar in Sweden that the idea for an innovative filmmaking program first bubbled up. Tobias recalled a colleague saying that the people who make films about science and nature really ought to have a background in science and nature.

"It's no secret there's a gulf of incomprehension between scientists and filmmakers," Tobias said.

Filmmakers have resisted working closely with scientists, partly out of fear the scientists will meddle. So filmmakers tend to show up with a camera, grab a quick talking-head shot and leave to finish their film, often inserting conclusions that the scientist would never have made. The scientist feels misquoted and misrepresented and that his reputation is in danger.

"Too many filmmakers made enemies in the past," Tobias said.

He pitched the idea of a program that would train scientists to be filmmakers. "I said the magic words: 'This would be the first in the world.' "

Students who apply have to have a degree in science, engineering or technology, or at least a minor in the sciences. The program gets so many applications, it accepts only one student in five.

By the second year, each student must make a professional-quality film that will be broadcast on TV, used in a museum or in some other significant way. And the student has to raise the money to pay for it.

In the third year, students have complete creative control to make the films they want to make.

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