Montana State University

Jen Grace wins Student Emmy for children's eco film

March 5, 2009 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Jennifer Grace, graduate film student at Montana State University, will receive a Student Emmy March 21 in ceremonies in Los Angeles for her 17-minute children's film about worldwide amphibian declines and environmental toxins. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
Jennifer Grace, a graduate film student at Montana State University, has won a College Television Award, also called a Student Emmy, for her 17-minute children's film about worldwide amphibian declines and environmental toxins. Grace will receive the award March 21 in ceremonies in Los Angeles.

Grace's film, "Frog, Chemical, Water, You," won first place in the children's film category in the competition. Grace made the film for exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo.

"I knew that (the film) was really good because I'd had lots of positive response, but I never expected that it would win an Emmy, which is the highest honor a film student can get," Grace said. She added that she called "every person I know" after she learned she had won.

Grace's is the fourth Student Emmy won by students in MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program. Other MSU winners have been: Praveen Singh, first place in 2004 for "Indian Leopards: The Killing Fields;" Paul Hillman, second place in the documentary category in 2005 for "Henry Wood Elliott: Defender of the Fur Seal;" and Katy Magruder, second place in 2008 in the documentary category for a film about her mother's unsuccessful battle against cancer, "Little Mom Full of Color."

Dennis Aig, head of the film options in the MSU School of Film and Photography, said Grace's award is tribute to her talent and the program's quality.

"The Emmy Award honors both Jen and the MSU Science and Natural History Filmmaking Program in which she made the film," Aig said. "The MFA students and their work continue to gain recognition at the highest levels of our profession."

Grace said the idea for the film actually began with the Smithsonian Institution's call for proposals. They needed a video about environmental toxicology geared towards, the museum's target audience of middle school-aged children.

Grace is no stranger to science. She has a bachelor's degree in biology and worked as a biological technician in such places as the Museum of Southwestern Biology, Glacier National Park and the Galapagos Islands. She also worked in scientific communications in the Environmental Restoration project at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. As a scientist, Grace knew that there were more than registered 80,000 chemicals that come together in the environment. But she found it challenging to develop an idea that could communicate to children the complex idea of environmental and wildlife toxicology.

It was a huge challenge to try to come up with a story idea about such a morose topic for children" Grace said.

Grace said she began the process by bringing a list of ideas to Jim Joyce, an instructor in the film program, who has a narrative film background and who knows how to tell a good story. When she explained her idea about the dangers of chemicals to frogs, "He told me that I needed to let people know why frogs were important to them in terms of what happens in the environment," Grace said.

Grace hammered out a proposal and the Smithsonian selected it and gave her a $10,000 grant to make the film.

So Grace went to her computer and libraries, where she did "a ton of writing, a ton of research" about the topic. She contacted several scientists who were studying the effects of environmental contaminants on frogs and discovered Rick Relyea at the University of Pittsburgh "who was the best match for what I wanted to do." While some of the film was shot in the Gallatin Valley, most of it was shot near Pittsburgh or Pymatuning, Penn.

Grace also had to develop a concept that would make the complex topic palatable for children and would also be workable for viewing in a museum. She came up with the concept of five two to three-minute segments. Each short installment tells a mini-story, from how chemicals end up in watersheds to what children can do in their household to stop the leaching of chemicals.

Grace said with the tight budget, she relied on the help of a lot of help from her friends in the MFA program as well as local talent. Local people who helped make the film include: Kyle Sorenson, an MFA graduate now working at KUSM, did the animation and digital effects; Dawson Dunning, an MFA student now on a Fulbright Fellowship in New Zealand, cinematographer; Sara Shier, also an MFA graduate, picture and sound editor. MSU music professor Ilse-Mari Lee wrote the original score. Lillie Reising, a 15-year-old member of the Equinox theater group of Bozeman, was the narrator. Local seventh-graders Uri Menalled and Amber Halsted and a couple of Grace's friends also appeared.

Grace also credits the Smithsonian Women's Committee and to scientists Shirlee Tan and Christina Grim, who made the funding grant possible.

Grace said the Emmy is both a great honor and a big validation of coming to MSU to study documentary filmmaking.

"When I was looking at this program, one of the things that attracted me is that some of the students here had won Emmys," she said.

A graduate of the University of New Mexico and an avid snowboarder, Grace first came to Montana to snowboard in Whitefish. She is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Ireland, and was a member of the Irish national snowboarding team. In 2003 she became the first Irish snowboarder to compete on the snowboarding World Cup tour and at three World Championships. She had a "heartbreaking near miss with the 2006 Olympics" resulting in her decision to look into graduate school, which was when she discovered the MSU Science and Natural History filmmaking program.
"It felt like a perfect fit," she said. Grace and her husband, Steve Persons, head coach of the U.S. National Snowboarding team, moved to Bozeman when she was accepted to the program.

Grace has combined her interests in documentaries and snowboarding with the film "Breaking Boundaries: The Sondra Van Ert Story," about the Bozeman resident who was a pioneer in women's snowboarding. The film was a winner of the national 2008 Lunafest Film Festival and selected to be shown in 120 cities as part of the Lunafest tour.

Grace said she is turning to a completely new topic for her thesis film, the "intricacies of the human/pet relationship and how that confounds our traditional views of the nature culture divide." And, a member of a local community dance group, she is choreographing a contemporary ballet to music from the Cure for a June 18 performance.

"I am married to a true Montanan and we love our outdoors way of life here in Bozeman," Grace said. "So my aspiration is to work as a producer/ director, bring high-budget projects to Montana, tap the outstanding film talent here and raise a family in this wonderful community."

"Frog, Chemical, Water, You" can be viewed on the Terra: Life on our World" Website: by typing "Frog, Chemical, Water, You" in the search engine. Terra is maintained by students in the MSU Science and Natural History Filmmaking program.

For more information about the Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, go to:

To see more articles about students and programs in MSU's School of Film and Photography, go to:

Dennis Aig (406) 994-6216, or Jen Grace,