Montana State University

MSU film instructor nominated for Emmy for wolverine film

August 31, 2011 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Gianna Savoie is the first member of the MSU film faculty to be nominated for an Emmy. She will learn Sept. 26 if she won an Emmy in nature programming for her documentary "Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom." Savoie wrote and produced the program for PBS' Nature series. Photo by Kip Savoie.   High-Res Available

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Filmmaker Gianna Savoie's passion for the elusive wolverine has helped her capture something nearly as rare -- a nomination for an Emmy in documentary programming.

Savoie, who is an adjunct instructor in Montana State University's Science and Natural History Filmmaking graduate program, is nominated for an Emmy for her documentary "Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom." Savoie wrote and produced the program for PBS' Nature series.

The film, which can be viewed online at the PBS Nature site is nominated in the outstanding nature programming category. The winner will be announced at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences news and documentary Emmy presentation on Sept. 26 in New York City. Her film faces competition from Discovery Channel's "First Life" with David Attenborough, Animal Planet's "Secret Life of Elephants" and another PBS Nature program, "Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air."

"To my knowledge, Gianna is the first faculty member of the film school to be nominated for a national primetime Emmy," said Dennis Aig, MSU film professor and director of MSU's MFA program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. "This is a great honor for her and MSU. She is a great, talented colleague, and she is part of an internationally distinguished group of nominees."

The star-studded Emmy awards event will be about as far as possible from the two years that Savoie spent writing and producing the film, sometimes in the most remote locations in the U.S. Yet, during those times the project went from being just a film to a mission for Savoie.

"I didn't merely want to put the species on the radar, I want to create a place for them in the hearts of the public," Savoie said. "I want people to fall in love with them as characters, as individuals."

In fact, Savoie said that her first thought when she learned of her nomination for the prestigious award was not about what dress she would wear, rather it was the attention it might bring to the wolverine, one of the world's toughest, yet least understood mammals.

"Anything that helps put the wolverine on the radar so that people will want to learn more about them is fantastic," she said.

Savoie said the wolverine is threatened because it reproduces at a low rate, it needs vast, snowy wilderness areas to survive, and its habitat is some of the most treacherous terrain in the U.S.-- which it roams both rapidly and widely. In fact, her film opens with biologists' incredulity at a young male wolverine's 90-minute ascent of Mt. Cleveland, the highest peak in Glacier Park during the middle of January.

"(Wolverines) can cross a topo map like we cross a street," the scientists tells the camera.

The brief appearance of the collared wolverine, named M3 by the scientists, is one of the few wild wolverines that appear in the film. Such glimpses of the animal are exceedingly rare, Savoie said.

"There are scientists who have studied wolverines for a lifetime who have never seen for themselves a wolverine in the wild," Savoie said. She adds that those sightings may grow rarer still.

"Scientists concur that the biggest threat to the wolverine is climate change," she said. "Wolverines give birth in dens that hold a cover of deep snow until May or June. As the climate warms, scientists fear that suitable den sites are melting away."

Savoie filmed the documentary in Montana, including Glacier (the closest wolverine to Bozeman may be a female and her kits in the Absaroka Wilderness), Tahoe and in Alaska. Savoie said it is thought that wolverines may number a few hundred in the wild of the Lower 48. Two of the stars of the show are orphaned twin wolverines who are being raised by Steve Kroschel, a wildlife filmmaker and educator, who is raising them at a refuge at his home in Alaska. It is there that the personalities and social interactions of the wolverine are most apparent.

"Without their mother to learn from, Steve must teach the orphans how to grow up wolverine," Savoie said of Kroschel.

While Savoie, the dedicated nature filmmaker, may share a professional tenacity with her favorite subject, she is as approachable and pleasant in person as wolverines are fierce and elusive.

Savoie, who hails from Rhode Island, was a biologist and a teacher before she became a filmmaker. She lived and worked in New York City for 14 years. She is a colleague of Ronald Tobias, a longtime MSU film professor and an active science and natural history filmmaker. Tobias told her that there was an opening at MSU and Savoie said she jumped at the opportunity to embark on a new adventure in teaching and traded the skyscrapers for mountains.

"My husband (Kip, also a filmmaker) and I just love it here," Savoie said of MSU and Bozeman. "We have a lot of friends in Bozeman because there are so many people here also in the nature filmmaking business."

She said she has tremendously enjoyed teaching students in MSU's graduate Science and Natural History Filmmaking classes, where she teaches writing and production.

In addition to teaching, Savoie maintains an active filmmaking career. She has made films around the globe including "Life in Death Valley" and "True North," a film about 14 teenagers surviving cancer and their journey on an old-fashioned schooner in the Atlantic.

She is currently working on a feature documentary, "Our Blue Canoe," which follows the epic journey of 120 South Pacific islanders who are sailing (and celestially navigating) a fleet of traditional Polynesian voyaging canoes 20,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to spread a message of environmental awareness and stewardship of the ocean.

In addition to the Emmy nomination, "Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom" has won a Cine Golden Eagle award in the environment and science category, a Silver World Medal Award in the New York Festivals and was named the "Best Film Made in Montana" as well as a merit for scientific content at the International Wildlife Film Festival. It was also a finalist at the 2010 Banff Film Festival.

Savoie said she is honored by the awards. But even more, she is pleased if the publicity brings about any awareness about wolverines.

"I certainly didn't expect this," she said of the Emmy nomination. "But, I am so thrilled just to push wolverines just a little further into the spotlight so people know more about these amazing animals."

Gianna Savoie (406) 994-6227, gianna.savoie@montana.edu