by Flo Dwek
Are you the kind of person who waits until you have out of town guests to visit the Smithsonian? So many of us who live and work in the nation’s capital fall into that mindset — and are missing out on some fantastic happenings at our museums. A case in point: the stunning new feature documentary, IMAX AMAZON ADVENTURE 3D, currently on view at the Samuel C. Johnson IMAX Theater at the National Museum of Natural History.
Scurry on over there one balmy evening (or afternoon, if you can play hooky) and see this epic tale of scientific exploration and derring-do before the hordes of summer tourists start taking over. Tickets can be bought online a month in advance from www.si.edu/imax.
Put on those campy 3D glasses and immerse yourself in a lush, majestic world of exotic plants and animals with endless intrigue, hidden secrets and dangers and a jungle’s worth of canny mimicry and camouflage. While you’re instinctively nabbing and grabbing whatever appears in 3-D reach, you’ll also learn a thing or two about the great (but-not-a-household-name) British explorer Henry Bates, Charles Darwin, the Theory of Natural Selection, and a good bit of evolutionary trivia.
Take a peek at this dream review from the senior film critic at Variety. We know they don’t often review these kinds of films – so hello all you experienced and emerging filmmakers – keep that glowing review in mind the next time your team is slaving away to get that ultimate cool shot!
Interested in the educational side of documentaries? Need to figure out what really appeals to teachers and students? Then check out some science teacher testimonials from a recent sneak preview of the film out in Los Angeles.
Working on your own dream doc script? Need some valuable pointers? Don’t miss the insightful “behind the scenes” Q&A below with Wendy MacKeigan, the co-writer and co-producer of AMAZON ADVENTURE 3D and Executive Vice President of SK Films, based in Toronto.
WIFV thanks MacKeigan, one of Canada’s most experienced and respected film executives, for the time and effort she devoted to this interview.
Now head out and explore the Amazon!
Amazon Adventure 3D
Runtime: 45 min.
MPAA Rating: NR
SK Films, Toronto, Canada
Meet Wendy MacKeigan, the Co-Writer and Co-Producer of IMAX AMAZON ADVENTURE 3D and a VP with SK Films in Toronto.
WIFV: When and how did you first get involved with AMAZON ADVENTURE? How did you learn about the little known hero of this adventure, the British explorer, Henry Bates?
MacKeigan: Four years ago, when we were in post production on our previous Giant Screen/IMAX Film, FLIGHT OF THE BUTTERFLIES, 3D, there was a profound and rather poetic quote we wanted to use about the modification of butterfly wings that we could not source. Everyone assumed Darwin had said it, but after questioning world-renowned entomologists, a few clues eventually led me to Henry Bates. I was very intrigued with his largely unknown story after I read a book about him and his own book of his 11-year exploration into the remote Amazon. I wanted to learn more about him and figure out the full significance of his scientific discoveries, as it became clear that Darwin was a big fan of Bates and had mentored him. I really wanted to get all details about this important relationship.
WIFV: What prompted the SK Team to make a documentary feature film about Bates? And what was your primary role in this amazing project?
MacKeigan: We make natural history films and have been determined to break new ground by combining “blue chip” natural history with both an equally strong scientific discovery story and a compelling and inspirational human drama. And this one pretty much hit all these targets. The essence of Bates’ story is very moving actually – a humble nobody who had to leave school at 13 to apprentice in a sock factory, and is self-taught, with an insatiable passion and curiosity for nature, who becomes a somebody and provides Darwin with the “beautiful proof” for Natural Selection. I told my partner that I thought we had the perfect subject for our next film: an empathetic character arc and a great scientific discovery in the fascinating world of animal mimicry, a compelling scientist who risks his life in the Amazon rainforest and remote river region, and who both befriends and learns from the native communities. What more could we ask for to make an entertaining and educational film for the museum market – even though we knew it would be a very challenging film to make.
The main motivation for the film and certainly once we partnered with Tangled Bank Studios of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was to engage audiences in an entertaining way in lifelong learning around the complex subject of Natural Selection, which is not very well understood and sometimes not accepted as science and evidence-based, which, of course, it is! We felt that through Bates’ point of view, audiences would follow him and his adventures and learn so much, and test screenings and surveys have shown that to be the case.
I was the head of the research team (an effort spanning more than three years and working with over 125 scientific and historical advisors) and also the co-writer and co-producer of the film.
WIFV: The project itself seems like an amazing saga of exploration and discovery. How long did it take to make the film, start to finish?
MacKeigan: The project took over four years, from inception to completion, with the utmost attention applied to detail and authenticity, including working closely with the world’s leading scientists on mimicry and natural selection; and with prominent historians about the lives and work of Henry Bates, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. We also worked closely with the Natural History Museum in London and ended up unearthing new information about Bates and his discoveries from little bits gleaned from letters, books, scientific articles and notebooks.
WIFV: What was the biggest challenge in leading the writing team and getting the script exactly where you wanted it?
MacKeigan: The biggest challenge was being true to the fascinating Bates story in the screen time available – telling both his human story (which we start when he is a young boy) and the scientific natural history story– including the unknown fact that he was the first scientist ever to put a case forward for “speciation” – the creation of a new species from another. And it was not just about getting the science right, but making it understandable for our core audience and for students. Natural selection can be complicated, so it was challenging to figure out how to simplify it and still make it understandable and demonstrate that viewers were learning while being entertained.
There were so many things to choose from in his story, and lots of intense discussions took place about what were the most important things to include and which ones we could leave out. We really feel that we achieved that balance and ended up telling a story that holds the audience and moves them. And all of this – the captive emotion and learning – is set in the visually stunning Amazon with over 55 different wild animals and Bates’ pet monkey. (Bates was fascinated by monkeys and had several pet monkeys while he was there.)
WIFV: Tell us a little about what went into the massive research effort. Who assisted you with the research and with the story’s scientific and historical accuracy?
MacKeigan: As with all projects supported by the National Science Foundation, we had to make sure that our core team of five advisors – four scientists and one historian – approved all the science and historical accuracy in the script. When you consider that Tangled bank Studios is run by one of the world’s top evolutionary biologists, Dr. Sean Carroll, we had to be on our toes in proving everything we put in the script. And in doing so, we even unearthed some new information and created a bibliography of over 500 books, letters, journals, notebooks, drawings and so on. Some of the information out there about Bates is minimal, some is wrong and misinterpreted by too quick analysis, so we worked very hard to leave no stone unturned. Also, not a lot is known about some of the mimicking animals that Bates encountered, so we had to consult many other scientists for the behavior and possible locations of the animals we thought we might be able to find to film – and the ones we were actually able to find once we got to the Amazon to film.
WIFV: What did director Mike Slee set out to achieve with this film?
SK Films has worked with Mike Slee on four films now and we are very fortunate to have a very close and collaborative partnership. We shared the same goals of what we wanted to achieve with audiences with this film – to immerse them in the Amazon and to have them relate to a human story of perseverance and discovery. Mike was involved early on and was very committed to the story as the script developed. He was also one of the co–producers. From a director’s perspective, Mike’s goals were to make sure that there was a relatively equal balance between the natural history story and footage and between the human adventure story and footage; and that both would be spectacular. In that regard, we decided it would be best if there were a separate Director of Photography for Natural History, Richard Kirby, and one for the drama, Gerry Vasbenter – and Mike worked very closely with them.
WIFV: How did you all find the talented actors Calum Finlay (Henry Bates) and Begê Muniz (Tando)? They had such great chemistry and camaraderie on screen! (Did Finlay’s sensitive portrayal come close to your personal vision of him as an original thinker and devoted scientist?)
MacKeigan: After you research and write a true story for three years, you tend to know your protagonist very well, together with the other characters in his story. We had a great casting agent, very tied into the young British talent, and she brought some fine choices to us, some much more well known than Calum. However, Calum truly embodied Bates for us and stood out among the rest. He also submitted a tape to us where he went into his backyard and read his lines to plants and insects. So, yes, he very much fulfilled our vision for Bates. We spent several months with Calum in England and in Brazil under very challenging and hot and humid conditions, and he was an absolute pleasure to work with and faced every challenge well, including when he got legs cramps from staying in the same place for a long time during film takes. He is very much a clever, curious and good natured gentleman – just like Bates – and all the cast and crew enjoyed working with him. We spent 10-12 hour days eating most meals together, many on our main boat, so we really got to know one another. Calum got to spend a lot of time, including time off, with his fellow actors – Ed Birch, who plays his friend Alfred Wallace, and Begê Muniz, who plays Tando; and we just knew they would have a great friendship. The casting agent in Brazil also brought us some very interesting choices for Tando, but again, Begê submitted a great first tape, and when the team went to Brazil to meet him, he stood out. We even used a fish tattoo on his mouth from his mother’s native tribe.
WIFV: Tell us a little bit about how and where the remarkable rainforest scenes were filmed. How much is real and how much is CGI?
We were based in Manaus, which can only be reached by boat or airplane and located in the central Amazon. We filmed all of the rainforest scenes by traveling up or down the river in boats and barges filled with trucks and cables and food, and also travelled inland for a portion of the shoot, such as the trips to the waterfalls. All the incredible locations are real. Other than the one scene of the “terra cahida”, when the river banks collapse (which happens unpredictably), no locations were enhanced with CGI. On the film’s website (www.amazonadventurefilm.com), we have some great “behind the scene” segments and several include the very challenging logistics of filming in the Amazon. Foremost, it is remote and so unimaginably hot and humid; a lot of time and effort (and multiple trips to the Amazon) were required to find the right locations, and the right animals. And then, of course, we had the challenge of filming there with all of the personnel and equipment and power generators required. Three of our crew came down with the Zika virus, but fortunately, we had on site medical help, and they were in the hospital and back within a few days.
WIFV: How can teachers use this film to start a dialogue with students about evolution and natural selection? About the origins and meaning of life?
We tested the film with many teachers and students in the script, (in both the rough cut and fine cut stages). And we really made every effort to ensure that the film would resonate with students and be a powerful tool for teachers – by following Bates through his journey and process of discovery and coming to a powerful conclusion that students can understand and relate to. Based on the screenings of the finished film with teachers, they are thrilled with the results, and there is a huge appetite to use the film with students.
Here are some of their testimonials and ideas on the value of the film for their students:
Teacher Testimonials –-> https://youtu.be/60yeusMC58U
Teachers can arrange field trips to their local museum to see the film. We have an extensive educational outreach program that has been funded by the National Science Foundation through The Pacific Science Center in Seattle, with tools for teachers to use with students. We also have an educational resource section on the film’s website.
WIFV: What is the one big takeaway you want kids and adults alike to get out of AMAZON ADVENTURE?
MacKeigan: Scientific discovery is like a great detective story with a lot of common sense to it but a defined scientific process to follow. If you are curious and a keen observer, document your ideas and findings, test and retest your ideas, look for patterns in the details, and are patient and don’t give up, you might well achieve something special, like Henry Bates did.
The kids we tested were most impressed that Bates had a passion for nature from the time he was just a little boy and that he had a burning quest to find evidence in the Amazon that species do change and would not give up, no matter what obstacles he faced, until he achieved his quest.
Today, more than ever, we need more scientists and more evidence- and fact-based thinking and communication; and we hope this film motivates the next generation of scientists and citizens who will better understand and appreciate the scientific method and evidence – particularly with serious challenges that are facing us today, like climate change and achieving a more sustainable planet.
WIFV: What can we all do to keep the joys of science and the importance of curiosity alive?
MacKeigan: I think we are suffering from what I call NDD – Nature Deficit Disorder – and the more we get out into nature, the more we can discover and reconnect to our roots. Also, the more we can find the human stories about science – the drama of a human’s quest and overcoming obstacles to unravel the mysteries of the world around us – the more we will stay connected to the joys of science and curiosity. The emotional connection to the human quest unlocks greater understanding and appreciation of science. There is great research to back up this thinking.
WIFV: What advice do you have for emerging filmmakers and writers interested in doing feature documentaries of this caliber?
It is not easy, but if you pick a subject that you are personally passionate about, and do your research to shape your subject as best you can, that passion will carry you through the tough times. I also believe very much in testing at every level of a project and to look for consistency in the feedback you get. Seek feedback from people who would represent an average audience and really listen to what they are saying en masse. Getting the funding is the most challenging and stressful part of the process, so break down your goals into achievable steps and get help to make sure you put your best foot forward when pitching your project – what you think might be obvious, might not be to others. Think the worst and plan for it, for all the obstacles you will face, but always maintain an overall positive and passionate attitude. Don’t give up! There are always like minded people out there who will want to help you in some capacity – a team is needed, even if it’s a largely informal team.
WIFV: Is there anything else you would like to share with our WIFV audience?
Please check out our website for the film: (www.amazonadventurefilm.com) and see the Behind the Scenes segments on the Challenges of Filming in the Rainforest, Filming in 3D, Production Design, Who is Henry Bates, and About the Animals.
It was a very challenging project, but ultimately, it brought us all so many rewards. We had such a great team, with so many lasting friendships, and everyone loved the story of Henry Bates and felt they were making something special and very worthwhile.
We value and appreciate the WIFV community in DC for its friendship, support and encouragement. If you do get a chance to see the film, we would love to hear your comments.