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Laura Boyd participates in MSU's new wildlife filmmaking class.

Despite their varied backgrounds, these students all plan to tell science and natural history stories.

MSU-Bozeman graduate student Laura Boyd spent eight years in the expedition travel business, helping to host adult education tours everywhere from the Russian Far East to the South Pacific, and French Polynesia to the Aleutian Islands.

Much of her fellow student Betsy Gaines' career has been devoted to environmental journalism and working for wildlife conservation causes. Another classmate, Susan DeCamp, spent much of her professional life as a researcher of human rights issues and as a producer for public access television and public radio.

Eric Burge is a food scientist with an eclectic background that includes everything from free-lance photography to Hollywood stunt work to underwater spelunking.

The four students are members of the fledgling class of MSU's new master's program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. Their dissimilar backgrounds are part of what makes the program unique, according to professor and program director Ronald Tobias.

Budding filmmakers Andy Bell,
on camera, and Eric Burge

Despite their widely varied backgrounds, each student wishes to acquire the skills to tell science or natural history stories on film. Their productions should be suitable to air on such networks as Discovery, National Geographic, PBS, or for exhibition in major American museums, Tobias said.

"We all have different backgrounds and different interests about where we want to take our careers. Everyone, in their own way, is extremely ambitious," said Gaines.

Boyd said she grew to love sharing science and natural history topics with an eager audience while working as a program director and tour guide in exotic locations.

"In watching scientists get up in front of people and share information, it was so rewarding to see people be that excited about learning," Boyd says. "The only way to do that without being there is through film."

Serious about science

The three-year degree filmmaking program is underwritten by a grant from Discovery Communications, the parent company of the Discovery Channel and 12 other networks, including Animal Planet and the Learning Channel. The program was created with the goal of taking people with science degrees and turning them into filmmakers, Tobias said.

"The basic premise is that the U.S. is getting serious about science," he said. "In Europe, people will sit down and watch one hour of in-depth science programs. But there is no talent pool of people trained in both science and documentary filmmaking."

Tobias said the first and third years of the program are designed to be academic, and the second year "intensely real-world." The first group of students learn the basics of telling a story, because, as Tobias points out, even the most fascinating scientific topics won't interest viewers without a compelling presentation.

Other first-year topics have included research, grant-writing, film-editing, and videography. Students also spent a lot of time discussing such filmmaking ethics issues as animal treatment, event-staging, anthropomorphism, and the relationship between science and art, so that they aren't tempted to undermine their subject in the interest of telling an interesting story, Boyd said.

"The scientific community is kind of wary of filmmakers, perhaps because they have been misrepresented in the interest of making an interesting film at the expense of accuracy," she explained. "All of these issues we've covered and analyzed."

Members of the first class are already working on ideas for their own films, and preparing to pitch them to representatives of the Discovery networks. By the end of the second year, each student will have made a 15-minute film for national broadcast or expedition.

In the third year of the program, students will complete a thesis with a half-hour film, which may be an expanded version of their original 15-minute film, Tobias said.

One-of-a-kind program

Tobias expects that graduates of the program will leave with the skills and the contacts to launch successful filmmaking careers. He said MSU's program is the only one of its kind in the world, and its reputation has already spread in scientific and natural history circles.

For example, Tobias said he and other professors were initially a bit concerned about how each student would raise the $30,000 to $50,000 necessary to produce their films. But now, he said, "we are getting requests from organizations that want films made and are willing to pay for them," such as the Denver Planetarium.

Just having the chance to show Discovery producers what they can do is an incredible opportunity for the students, Tobias added. In the average year, 6,000 ideas are pitched to Discovery, and 45 are actually made into films.

"Students have access to the top people," he said, adding that if Discovery likes a student's first film, it may fund the student to go on and produce a one-hour film for broadcast.

The professors in the program are all either veteran teachers in MSU's filmmaking program or are themselves well-known science and natural history filmmakers. Tobias has made several award-winning natural history films for the Discovery Channel, and another professor, Rick Rosenthal, is a renowned underwater cinematographer for the BBC's "The Blue Planet" series.

"Talk about a star that we scored for this program," said Gaines, who admits that Rosenthal's videography class has been one of the more challenging parts of the program for her so far.

Bridging science and art

The program has also found strong support within other areas of the university, Tobias said, and has become "the bridge" between the scientists and artists at MSU.

"We're now connecting with all the science going on in this university," he said. "We're talking to our scientists on campus who have projects that would be good for TV."

Boyd, for example, came into the program with an idea for a film about a little-known culture of people she encountered in her travel career. She still hopes to make that film someday, but for her first project is leaning toward making an educational film about cutworm caterpillars, aimed at farmers and others in agriculture. The idea was pitched by MSU's Entomology Department.

"Rather than travel halfway across the world, I could make it here," she said. "The experts are here, the equipment is here, and our professors are here."

Gaines, conversely, plans to spend this coming summer researching her film idea about river restoration in Mongolia. Depending on how she ultimately decides to present the story, which will incorporate themes of religion, environmental ethics and ecological restoration, she will decide which networks would be best suited to hear the pitch for her story.

DeCamp's idea is of both local and international interest, as she hopes to make a film about ancient rock art in Montana, and how the lessons learned here underscore the need to protect rock art all over the world.

For his thesis film, Burge is considering telling a "character-driven" story about oxygen therapy by following a diver from the time he or she is initially struck with the bends through hyperbaric treatment and, ideally, recovery.

Burge's father was a diver, who some years ago suffered a severe case of the bends and was left a quadriplegic. Through the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, he has become semi-ambulatory, and on good days can even get around without a cane.

Filmmakers for hire

While not all graduates of the new program will end up working for networks like Discovery or National Geographic, Tobias said they will be able to find jobs with museums, scientific corporations, and other entities interested in scientific education.

The students said they don't yet know exactly how they will put their degrees to use, though they all are exciting about the opportunities that lay ahead.

"Hopefully there will be a seamless sort of segue between the academic thing and out into the real world," Burge said. "Time will tell."

Said Gaines: "At the risk of sounding Pollyanna, I'm so inspired and motivated. I'm delighted with the program - it's really broadened my world."

For Boyd, who said years of traveling blurred the distinction for her between work and life, the program gives her an outlet to draw upon her various experiences and desire to communicate them with the world.

"I just can't think of a better way to make a living and spend my life," she said. "This is going to be my way of reaching people."

Diana Setterberg

Adventurers Eager to Tell Their Stories

MSU filmmaker Ronald Tobias on location in the tropics.(Photo courtesy R. Tobias)
Eighty people applied for admission to the pioneer class of the MFA filmmaking program, but inquiries for admission to the second class have probably tripled, said Ronald Tobias, program director.

The competition for available slots will therefore be even more intense than it was for the first class, he added. At the advice of the graduate school, the program offered places to 20 applicants for the first class, and expected only half to accept. Instead, all 20 students - 10 men and 10 women - took their spots, so this year the school will accept only 10 new students for admission, Tobias said.

The program is attracting very high-caliber applicants, who have high Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores and high grades from top institutions. Scientists in disciplines from "astronomy to zoology" have inquired about admission, Tobias said, and 75 percent of applicants have been women. vPer its agreement with Discovery Communications, MSU is committed to accepting a good complement of women into the program, Tobias said. MSU also promised to internationalize the program, and three members of the first class are not Americans. One is from India, one from Tanzania, and one from Korea. One-quarter of the students in the first class already have advanced degrees, and Tobias estimated that 25 to 30 percent of program applicants have master's degrees or Ph.Ds.

In addition to Discovery, corporate sponsors of the program include Sony, which is providing state-of-the-art video equipment; Fujinon, which donates high-quality camera lenses; and Kodak, which is supporting the film side of the program.

Tobias said the program also is receiving significant support from the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

After reviewing the program at the end of its fifth year, Discovery Communications may choose to fund the MSU program with a permanent endowment, Tobias said.

Diana Setterberg
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