Montana State University

Fur, footage and serious science: MSU's film students document seals

August 17, 2004 -- By Jean Arthur, MSU News Service

Montana State University graduate student Paul Hillman films fur seals on the remote Pribilof Islands of Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Paul Hillman.)   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
Bozeman, Mont.--The snarling roar of bull fur seals greets Paul Hillman as he steps into a blind on an island 200 miles off Alaska's mainland. The Montana State University graduate film student sets up a hi-definition video camera. Hoarse barking drowns out a cadenced score of rushing waves.

"From many places on the Pribilof Islands, even in the villages, you can hear the bulls," says Hillman who is completing his Masters of Fine Arts thesis, a documentary film on northern fur seals. "Those constant bellows are between males as they compete with each other for territories on the beach, and therefore, the rights to the females."

Hillman is one of two soon-to-be first graduates of the Science/Natural History Filmmaking program. It is the first such program in the world. The other master's degree candidate, Brooke Buttgen, is spending the summer in California finishing a related project. She explores the fur seals' existence from an historic angle.

Her thesis film concentrates on a naturalist, Henry Wood Elliott, a U.S. Treasury agent who spent his life working to save the northern fur seal from extinction. Elliott's story dates back to the purchase of Alaska in 1867.

"The United States began slaughtering fur seals for their pelts by the tens of thousands while other countries hunted the seal on the high seas," says Buttgen. "The U.S. tried to block other nations from harvesting fur seals (an industry worth millions), touching off a half-century political battle that put wildlife conservation at the forefront of international relations."

Northern fur seals, which once numbered more than two million on the Pribilof Islands, fell to near extinction in the early 1900s, then recovered and declined again to a current population of about 700,000. Like Hillman's 30-minute production which explores the current fur seal decline, Buttgen's project, "Slaughter in the Bering Sea: Henry Wood Elliott in the Pribilof Islands," will become a chapter in a longer historical documentary about the Pribilof Islands produced by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Headed by Ronald Tobias, media professor, the program partnered with the Discovery Channel and Sony three years ago. Tobias sought to address the challenges of communicating science and technology to the public by teaching students with science and engineering degrees how to create films, and teaching science to students with film experience.

"With the advent of serious, in-depth science programming on television as opposed to the pseudo-science and gee-whiz science that had predominated, I felt it was important to have people who have backgrounds in science and engineering make the films about science and engineering," says Tobias. "Without serious education in these disciplines, filmmakers cannot hope to know what questions to ask."

As part of the rigorous 60-credit-hour curriculum, students are filming on nearly every continent. One student is documenting medicinal properties of peppers in South America. Another is exploring signs of life on Mars. Others are filming stream restoration in Mongolia, leopards in India, bears in the Gobi Desert and coyotes in Yellowstone. Passports are inked from Easter Island, Australia, India, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Argentina and Syria.

Student filmmaker John Shier documented DNA research on grizzly bears in Glacier National Park and won an Emerging Filmmaker Award at the 2003 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

"In June we sent a student to shoot the first footage of a new species of primate that was just discovered," says Tobias. "It's a major event." Details on the primate will soon be available.

Students work with federal and private organizations to fund their projects, which cost up to $100,000 to produce. Benefactors include NASA, National Science Foundation, NOAA, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, National Park Service, World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Wildlife Conservation Society and others.

"The entire natural history industry knows about the MSU Science/Natural History Filmmaking program," says Tobias.

Contact Ronald Tobias (406) 994-6227 or