Superglue-ing Dead Flies to Create Reality: Two Wildlife Filmmakers’ Memoirs

Nature documentaries can be amazing: The majestic scenery, the wild bird’s melodic call, the killer snake’s dramatic close-up, the lion’s gruesome assault on the savanna. But these documentaries’ awesome spectacles hide the obstacles that go into capturing them. While human participants generally offer some degree of decorum, animals don’t sign consent agreements or take direction.

Memoirs by wildlife filmmakers show just how challenging it is to navigate the line between the real and the visual while working with wild animals. For this post, I read two memoirs, Snarl for the Camera: Tales of a Wildlife Cameraman by James Gray and Shark Tracker: Confessions of an Underwater Cameraman by Richard Fitzpatrick.

The memoirs share themes. Both writers fell in love with animals and nature as children, and both studied everything they could about them, either through university studies in Fitzpatrick’s case or more independently in Gray’s case. Both books recount experiences with different species. Gray and Fitzpatrick face perils when the animals get shy or aggressive before the camera, and they also face equipment issues in getting just the right shots and hauling expensive equipment around the globe.

Richard Fitzpatrick’s memoir had “shark” in the title so of course I had to read it. A specialist in filming marine life, particularly around Australia, Fitzpatrick recounts meeting undersea creatures both exotic and mundane: great white sharks, grey nurse sharks, eels, squids, jellyfish, clownfish (like Dory), and pearlfish, which take shelter in a sea cucumber’s anus. While majestic sharks and other venomous creatures comprise some of his filming obstacles, what was the most troublesome? Spawning coral. He writes

Of all the events I have to film, coral spawning stresses me out the most. Getting the location, the timing and the light right is one thing — then you have to hope that the sea conditions will be favourable.

With four years lapsing before successfully getting that footage, no wonder it is so stressful.

Filming underwater with sea creatures poses multiple threats: oxygen depletion, decompression sickness, equipment failure, and animal attacks. Despite them, Fitzpatrick maintains an energy and excitement about interacting with and filming these creatures. He also recounts a couple of occasions when he plays jokes on other scientists and divers, not to mention his own injuries and hospital runs.

Not all of the challenges in filming wildlife come from the animals. One incident in particular caught my attention because it resonates with Blackfish, the 2013 documentary about Tilikum the killer whale, his horrible living conditions, and his killing of his handlers. In 2003 Sea World in Australia planned a shark exhibit, and Fitzpatrick was asked to examine the condition of a captured tiger shark. He concluded that the shark, which was held in too small of a space for it to move freely and thus was damaging its body (and probably its mind), should be let go. The backlash he experienced was swift, isolating, and defamatory. Even Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, accused him.

While Fitzpatrick’s recollections focus mostly on filming under the sea, Gray’s memories stay mostly on dry land. Gray offers experiences in filming a wide variety of animals from around the globe: polar bears, panda bears, caimans, fiu-fius, stick nest rats, gibbons, and vultures. What I appreciate about Gray’s memoir is the level of detail he provides in his writing. He delves more into the process of getting just that right shot, which often results from a series of near and far misses and a handful of successes.

Some of these processes might raise an eyebrow. In one assignment, Gray needed a shot of a cricket with a fly on its back. Crickets jump, and flies, well, fly, so how … ? Gray explains their staging:

We put a dead fly on the back of a live cricket. At first the cricket’s movements unseated its jockey, but with the application of a drop of superglue, we had that shot.

In another assignment, Gray needed to film human lice laying eggs. He jokes about his previous experience with lice as a parent: “Poisoning them, squashing them and eliminating them with eye-stinging shampoo were more in my line.” But then he learns that in order for the lice to breed, they need a steady diet of human blood. To feed them, Gray volunteers his own arm as a food source, and he donates his own hair stuck in plasticine for their egg-laying site. The jokes continue: “Lice that refuse to breed sounds like a dream come true for people working in public health, but for me it was a problem.” This kind of humor weaves throughout the book.

Gray in particular focuses on equipment and its uses in getting just the right shot. He mentions using a wind-up Bolex for his first film. Weather hazards affect camera performance, and some shoots require getting down into the mud or freezing in arctic winds. Getting aerial shots from a helicopter require rigging the camera with bungees. Gray also explains something he calls “camera courage,” which arrests the dangerous reality of the animal on the other side of the lens, rendering it a “harmless” image instead. This courage appeared while he tried to film a panda and an elephant, but someone pulled him away just in time.

The biggest surprise of wildlife filmmaking to those used to seeing the drama and glamour of nature documentaries? Waiting. According to both Fitzpatrick and Gray, waiting is the hardest part. Fitzpatrick notes the “hours of utter boredom that come hand in hand with shark research. Discovery Channel never show that side of things on their ‘Shark Week’ documentaries, but in reality waiting makes up larger proportion of the job.” Gray recalls days of strategic waiting for hearing mating calls or capturing polar bears emerging from their winter dens.

Both authors share concluding thoughts in their memoirs. Fitzpatrick ends with “Richard’s Rules,” which include treating airlines with respect when checking in camera cases, wearing “rubber gloves when handling electric animals,” and staying “away from the pointy end of a shark.” James ends with a rumination about his intentions toward becoming a cameraman in the first place: “In light of my experience though, I’m not quite sure how much I have been helping to save the world, and I’m even starting to wonder whether being a cameraman puts me on the side of the good guys at all.” He also wonders about these wildlife films just being free adverts for the tourism industry.

Book Goes Behind the Scenes of Oscar-Connected Documentary Productions

Documentary Case Studies book cover.
Documentary Case Studies book cover.
Documentary production processes differ greatly from the more streamlined (factory?) approaches of mainstream fiction media. Without the written script, paid actors, and deep budgets, documentary makers face many variables that might advance, pause, or change a film’s progress. Some of those variables might even halt the film’s production altogether.

Learning about what happens on other films can help documentary filmmakers handle the challenges that might appear in their own productions. Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told, by Jeffrey Swimmer, provides just those kinds of insights and more.

For this accessible volume, Swimmer interviews directors and producers who worked on Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning documentaries. The chapters cover films such as 20 Feet from Stardom, The Act of Killing, Food, Inc., Gasland, Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, Man on Wire, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Restrepo, Sergio, Sound and Fury, Spellbound, Super Size Me, and Undefeated.

To write these chapters, Swimmer conducted interviews with Josh Aronson, Greg Barker, Jeffrey Blitz, Simon Chinn, Josh Fox, Mark Harris, Sebastian Junger, Robert Kenner, Daniel Linsday, James Marsh, T.J. Martin, Frieda Lee Mock, Morgan Neville, Deborah Oppenheimer, Joshua Oppenheimer, Elise Pearlstein, Morgan Spurlock, and Roger Weisberg.

Though structured by title, the book develops several themes across these interviews. One of the largest overarching themes is working with participants. Though often quite watchable and engaging, charismatic subjects can still prove challenging. For Man on Wire, high-wire walker Philippe Petit is just that charismatic subject, but Petit also proved reluctant to consent to the production and demanded involvement other aspects, such as interview choices, interview filming, and dramatizations. Sergio offered a different kind of challenge with the charismatic subject. Though Sérgio Vieira de Mello had died in 2003, interview participants remained reluctant to say anything negative about him on camera.

While a few filmmakers start with their own stake in an issue, such as with Josh Fox and Gasland, most are outsiders to the cultures and communities appearing in their films. In creating Sound and Fury, which offers an inside look at the Deaf community and the divisive issue of cochlear implants, Josh Aronson needed to find access, to gain the community’s trust, and to show the community’s views fairly. He learned some sign language to help with communicating, but the filmed signed interviews still required careful translation to prevent alienating the community.

Of course, finding and choosing the right interview participants remains the fundamental challenge for any documentary production. Spellbound follows the National Spelling Bee, which draws finalists from regional competitions. How do you choose engaging candidates who might make it to the finals from such a large pool? is one question that Jeffrey Blitz faced. Mark Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer also faced a similar challenge with Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Morgan Spurlock solved the “casting” problem for his fast-food experiment by “casting” himself in Super Size Me.

Offering a range of interview voices is important, but some participants remain reluctant to talk at all. This situation arises in particular with documentaries that address political issues, including Food, Inc., Super Size Me, and Gasland.

These participants become part of the documentary’s story, which creates more issues. Many materials about the Holocaust exist, so Harris and Oppenheimer needed to find a new angle. Food, Inc., needed to balance gruesome scenes within its story. Morgan Neville encountered the largely overlooked stories of backup singers in 20 Feet from Stardom, but he struggled to bring those stories into one narrative until postproduction. Every chapter in Swimmer’s book offers points about these storytelling struggles.

Money — mostly the absence thereof — was also a prominent refrain in these chapters. Some started with funding but still needed completion funds. Some maxed out credits cards and juggled them to make expenses meet. Some started with nest eggs and soon ran out, accruing more debt. Of course, the money woes impacted travel, equipment, and other expenses, which in turned impacted interviews and storytelling.

The chapter I highlighted most was about The Act of Killing, which flips the script on genocide documentaries to focus on the perpetrators and not the victims. Director Joshua Oppenheimer worked with one of those perpetrators, Anwar Congo, to recreate the multiple murder scenes. Inspired by the Hollywood dream factory, Congo had some extravagant ideas about faked chase scenes and on-location scenes, but Oppenheimer turned him down. The chapter’s strength lies in the discussions of the trauma that Oppenheimer himself experienced both during the production and the nightmares afterward.

Swimmer writes in a conversational style that makes for a quick and engaging read. The quoted remarks and the background information mesh well together, and Swimmer avoids unrelated tangents and academic theorizing. His choice of Oscar-connected titles is a savvy one, and the production issues these case studies reveal are relevant for filmmakers and documentary enthusiasts alike.

New Documentary Offers Advice for Thriving with Age

Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear in If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast
Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear in If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, from HBO.

Popular media and culture celebrate youth. Soft news stories show us how to feel young and look young in 73 easy steps. Rates of cosmetic surgery increase each year. If 60 is the new 40 and 50 is the new 30, then 41 must be the new minimum drinking age. Time to get your new fake IDs, folks.

Of course, none of these ideas focus on actually staying young because reality and science fiction haven’t caught up to each other or the naked mole rat — yet.

But, a fascination exists when octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians do, well, anything: dancing, running, writing, sky diving… Betty White continues acting in her 90s, starring most recently in Hot in Cleveland. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a reputation for being a “badass” in her 80s as she continues to write strongly worded dissents and inspire jabot-ed Halloween costumes. And as Norman Lear complains in HBO’s new documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, people shouldn’t be surprised he can still touch his toes at age 93.

Directed by Danny Gold, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast is a life-affirming and witty documentary that provides an elegant and positive way to think about aging with vitality. With the help of his nephew George Shapiro, Carl Reiner, 95, is our host in examining how people in their 90s not only live, but also thrive.

Ida Keeling took up running at age 67 to cope with her sons’ murders. Now 100, Keeling continues running and breaking records.
The documentary offers a series of portraits and interviews with nonagenarians and a couple centenarians. We meet 100-year-old Ida Keeling, who took up running after her sons’ murders to cope with depression. She was 67 at the time, and now she continues to break records with running at her age. Yoga expert Tao Porchon-Lynch, 97, learned to tango. Ray Olivere continues painting portraits, and Jim “Pee Wee” Martin continues sky diving and living in the house he built with his own hands.

The portraits and interviews also offer a who’s who in entertainment: Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Tony Bennett, Kirk Douglas, Stan Lee, Irving Fields, Betty White, Patricia Morison, and Harriett Thompson. All of them continue to engage life. Carl Reiner and Betty White write books. Tony Bennett still sings, and Irving Fields still writes songs and plays piano at a hotel. Harriett Thompson runs marathons.

Dan Buettner serves as the longevity expert in this documentary. He cites five keys to vitality:

  1. Physical fitness
  2. Cognitive awareness
  3. Life informed by passion and values
  4. Contribution
  5. Ongoing achievement

Reiner adds a sixth item to that list: A sense of humor. Along with all the stories, so many of them have jokes. So many jokes. Fyvush Finkel, 92, cracks, “Half of my life is gone already.” In a conversation with Betty White, Reiner says, “You don’t lose your interest in sex but you lose your power.” Even the title comes from a joke by Reiner, though it is thrown on its ear when Reiner sees an older picture of himself in the obit for Polly Bergen.

Rounding out this gentle documentary are a bouncy jazz soundtrack and animated bits from “The 2000 Year Old Man” sketch done by Reiner and Brooks in the 1960s.

Aging terrifies many of us, but it shouldn’t. While this documentary won’t undo the deeply held ideas about growing old, its light-hearted approach does offer a better way to think it.