Oct 5

Rodents of Unusual Size has been nominated for the Wildscreen People and Nature Panda Award. This documentary explores the relationship with the people of Louisiana and the nutria, large South American rodents, which are decimating the landscape. 

We spoke with directors Chris Metzler, Quinn Costello & Jeff Springer about making this film.

When did you start making films and where did your interest in the industry stem from?

Chris and Jeff met at film school at the University of Southern California (USC). For Quinn, it was all about being high school and re-creating scenes from his favorite films to crack his friends up. There wasn’t much else to do in his little town in Idaho.  It started becoming a challenge of always wanting to raise the stakes and see where he and his friends could go next. Once he was hooked he couldn’t stop and now here we are.  All of us love to travel and meeting interesting people, so making documentaries helps us do both.

 

What made you decide to make a film about rodents considering your background of making country and rock and roll music videos?

A lot of life is serendipity and we’re ever curious, so we have pursued unique opportunities wherever we go.

The three of us are big fans of quirky documentaries with interesting characters trying to overcome the odds. Even though this movie is about giant swamp rats (and what’s not to love about that?), we hope the broader environmental themes resonate beyond the animals.

Many years ago, when we were on tour with a previous film, “Plagues & Pleasures On The Salton Sea,” we became friends with a theater programmer who was from a generations-old Cajun family in the southeast part of the state of Louisiana and she introduced me to the subject matter of nutria: A Rodent Of Unusual Size. However, we were involved in the making of another film at that time, so we filed the story idea away. We kept kicking around ideas about how best to approach the story, and at one point we just decided that we needed to jump on an airplane and head to Louisiana. Once we got down there, you get taken in by beauty of the area, the sheer number of nutria that were destroying the wetlands and the unbelievable dedication and joy of the people who were tackling the issue. We think this movie resonates best with those who have a taste for the offbeat. It’s part horror story, part environmental love affair and a biopic of a giant invasive rat. What’s not to like?

 

Rodents of Unusual Size directors; Jeff Springer, Chris Metzler & Quinn Costello

 

Did you take any different approaches when filming animals compared to your previous experience making films? Did you have to contend with any interesting situations or unexpected curveballs? 

It was definitely a new experience, as none of us are wildlife photographers or hunters.  But with that said, putting ourselves in new situations is one of things we really enjoy about making documentaries.  So at first we were just really curious and keeping an open mind.

It probably was tougher for Jeff because as being both a director and cinematographer he had put his face up close and personal with all of those nutria. But he always felt that looking through the lens or at the viewfinder kind of creates a barrier to all of this action you are witnessing and so you feel a bit detached. But as the bodies pile up (any given hunt could yield a body count as high as 300 nutrias) and you look up from the camera it quickly brings you back to reality.

And then after a while when you see the destruction they cause and consider how many other animals are going to suffer because of that, we started to understand and accept that hunting is just part of what’s necessary and controlling their numbers. Also, hunting is not just about collecting food. It’s really an activity that bonds families together.

© Gabrielle Savoy

“Hard headed Louisiana fisherman Thomas Gonzales doesn’t know what will hit him next. After decades of hurricanes and oil spills he faces a new threat – hordes of monstrous 20 pound swamp rats. Known as “nutria”, these invasive South American rodents breed faster than the roving squads of hunters can control them. And with their orange teeth and voracious appetite they are eating up the coastal wetlands that protects Thomas and his town of Delacroix Island from hurricanes.”

 

The human stories are really what make this film shine, do you think this is a more successful route in engaging the public with conservation issues?

It is a tricky one to answer as we aren’t advocacy minded filmmakers.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have strong personal opinions when it comes to the environment, but it’s not what motivates us to tell the stories we do.  We always go into a film to explore the nuances about the difficult decisions in life and we hope in sharing these human centered stories (with humor) the audience will empathize with their way of life and at least be curious to dig deeper and learn more.  That’s a long way of say, “yes.”

The film tackles the issue of nutria with a level of humour, despite it being a very serious issue regarding the loss of wetland and elemental protection for the residents. What is the overall feeling of Louisiana residents toward their future in this environment and its sustainability?

Louisianans live life one day at a time and do it with a sense of joy.  They’re practical and know that things are always changing, so they accept their fate that everyone will have to continue to adapt.

 

Has the wetland started to show signs of recovery with any increase in biodiversity?

The nutria control program is making enormous strides in controlling their numbers. Over the course of the program they’ve gone from more than 20 million down to about 5 million. So we would say that there has been a lot of success, although as Thomas says, “as long as there are two left there’s going to be millions more.”  There is no way getting around it, nutria like to breed and have lots of babies.

Because of this success, PETA has kind of been silent on the issue as many see it as the lesser of two evils.

 

Has the nutria catching been met with any resistance? Trap tampering, protests etc.

In the rural areas not so much, but in urban areas more wealthy people have a fondness for the nutria and feed them, so they often tamper with traps.

 

California is now facing a nutria invasion, do you think the people of California will be as understanding to a cull, or even to the utilisation of any catches for products such as fur and meat?

We promise we didn’t introduce them as a street level marketing opportunity for the film.  :)  I think Californians in general will be more resistant to culling the animals as it is such a new and unusual issue to many of us.

 

Many thanks to Chris, Jeff & Quinn for talking to us, and for making such a fantastic and engaging documentary telling the story of a new and unusual environmental issue.

The trailer is available to watch below, and the whole documentary will be available for public viewing at the Wildscreen Festival in Bristol on Tuesday 16 October 2018, at the Arnolfini.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of Festival speakers and screenings!

RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZE  from Tilapia Film

…They DO exsist! 😱

 

Aug 21

As part of our new Young Earthwatcher Film Competition with Earthwatch, we have been talking to producers and wildlife filmmakers about their experiences in the field, and what tips they would pass on to budding young filmmakers.

First up is factual TV producer Sophie Morgan, who has worked on a variety of natural history productions, from short wildlife films for The One Show to that scene in Blue Planet II, where Giant Trevallies were leaping into the air to catch seabirds in the Seychelles.

Sophie Morgan, Factual TV Producer

  1. Find Your Niche

Wildlife filmmaking covers a wide range of subjects. For new starters I would recommend picking a subject or skill you love or issue you are passionate about and running with it. Whether it’s following the lives of insects in macro detail, honing your timelapse skills or being an advocate for ocean conservation, being a specialist in one area will make you and your films stand out from the crowd. My specialism is underwater and my diving qualifications and marine knowledge are what landed me a role on Blue Planet II.

  1. Get Outside

Whether you have a relevant degree or not, nothing beats field experience. And you don’t have to go to Africa or the Coral Triangle to get it. I was fortunate enough to get field experience abroad, but I’ve subsequently learnt a great deal more from tracking, studying and filming wildlife in the UK. And my cold water UK diving experience is far more impressive to employers than my stints in the tropics. There are many local wildlife groups keen for volunteers – something I still do and learn from to this day. So whether it’s birding, mammal surveys, moth trapping or rock pooling, go outdoors, spend time with other naturalists, observe and ask questions. I’m always curious and always thinking about how things can be conveyed in film. I literally have a notebook filled with behaviours and ideas for potential future projects.

© James Warwick

  1. Get Inspired

Seek inspiration from other filmmakers. Watch and study both wildlife and other types of film. As technology and creativity pushes the boundaries away from conventional natural history documentary, there is far more of a crossover with other genres. Recently filming a macro sequence for upcoming series ‘Hostile Planet’, our team took a tea break to watch relevant scenes from both BBC’s The Hunt and Marvel’s Ant Man. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to others in the industry for advice – we were all in your shoes once and I’m still learning too.

  1. Think About Your Story

Try and be different to what’s come before you – whether it’s a new story, a new angle or a new way of filming it that delivers a unique perspective. It’s also really important that your story can be visualised. So many animal behaviours are fascinating to me, but if they are so subtle you have to explain them with narrative then your audience will turn off, or your producer will tell you to ditch them before you even start! If you are tackling an environmental issue you have to work especially hard to create visual engagement, so be creative – use illustrations, archive and stunts to keep the audience on board. I find creating a shotlist or storyboard in an advance of shooting is vital to work this out.

  1. Do Your Research

Once you’ve decided on your story immerse yourself in relevant content – articles, scientific papers and videos (and always make a note of your references for when it comes to checking your facts). Make time to contact and speak with experts in the field. If you are looking to film a behaviour than there is nothing more useful than an eyewitness (ideally you want to speak to several as they may have different takes) – these can be scientists, but also people that spend time in the area or with the subject – for me it is often also divers, photographers, fishermen and watersports operators. Remember that these people don’t often make films, so ask them specific questions. A good one, handed down to me from a senior producer, is ‘If I come for a week, how often would I expect to see the behaviour?’ – remember this needs to be a decent number of times to get a camera on it and cut a story. Make sure your research also tackles your approach to filming and how you will avoid disturbing the animal – for example, will you need a hide? I often have to navigate filming animals that are disturbed by scuba divers by utilizing closed circuit rebreathers (no bubbles!), free diving or even pole cams.

Just remember – a fed crew is a happy crew! | © Shannon Wild

  1. Planning and logistics

Not the most entertaining part of the job, but it is vital that you have a plan for access to the site and the time spent filming, and that your crew are adequately briefed on this. It will increase your efficiency. Build in enough time for things to run over (as they will), but also knowing when to move on is an important skill. Do not underestimate the importance of arranging food – a fed crew is a happy crew. Safety is important, even on a personal project. Ask the question – ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ and make sure you know how to react in most situations – at minimum have access to basic first aid and emergency numbers.

  1. Invest Time and Effort

Whilst working on Blue Planet II I filmed the story of a lifetime – Giant Trevallies leaping into the air to hunt birds in the Seychelles. I nearly wrote the words ‘I was lucky enough…’ to precede this, but let’s face it, it wasn’t luck. It was months of thorough research and planning. And once on location we were blighted by strong winds and figuring out how to put a camera on a behaviour that could happen anywhere and was over in the blink of an eye. The patience required here was a learning curve for me; it took us over a week, working with an experienced local fisherman, to learn to read the behaviour and get our first shot in the can. Wildlife filmmaking is not glamourous, its hard physical work and long hours spent in often harsh environments. I’m sure that as soon as I mentioned the Seychelles my friends pictured me with a cocktail in hand on a sun lounger, when in reality I spent my long days dragging kit around a hot, windy, bird poo covered island. It just happens I’m mad enough to love that kind of thing.

  1. Always shoot B-Roll

It’s easy to get engrossed in your main story when shooting, but remember to shoot around your key shots. Whether it’s the gesturing hands of your contributor, a boat passing in the background, or a non-leading animal giving a comical look it will all add depth to your film and can even make up for missing something you thought was vital. You’ll be thankful in the edit. If you have any editor friends ask if you can observe them cutting to understand what shots they find useful.

  1. Expect the Unexpected

Inevitably, the unforeseen can and will occur. Contributors will get stuck in traffic, animals will behave in mysterious ways and, if you are me, the fish you came to film will have been completely removed from the area by local hobby fishermen on their summer holidays (true story). Keep a cool head and be creative. Also allow yourself to be flexible in your story – being on location can lead you to find another interesting twist or behaviour if you aren’t too blinkered. And sometimes you may find a story that betters yours – don’t be so rigid to your plan that you miss out.

If Sophie has inspired you to try your hand at wildlife filmmaking, why not enter the Young Earthwatcher Film Competition and put her top tips to the test?

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