Chris Palmer is a mix of vibrant energy and patient calm. While such opposing characteristics may seem at odds, they actually make the perfect storm that led this environmental activist to bring his passionate fight for conservation to film and eventually to the classroom.
At age 63, Palmer is a 30-year veteran environmental and wildlife documentary filmmaker and full-time professor at American University in Washington, D.C. While Palmer officially teaches environmental filmmaking nine months out of the year, he is never without students, whether in the classroom, out in the field or on the road. Since the publication in 2010 of his exposé of wildlife films, “Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom,” he has presented more than 100 lectures about the film industry, still starting many by standing on his head to “wake up” the audience. He provides information on everything from how to actually get the money to make films in this ever-more-competitive business to the basics of how to network, something that appears inherent in his genes. In spite of being divided among so many tasks, he always seems to have a devoted ear and a bit of encouragement for anyone appealing to him for advice, particularly his students.
In the 20 years before becoming a film producer and then teacher, Palmer was a naval officer, an engineer, a business consultant, an energy analyst, the chief energy advisor to a senior U.S. senator, a political appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and an environmental activist. Palmer has worked in recent years on stunning IMAX productions, such as "Whales," "Cold Coral Reef Adventures," "Dolphins," "Bears," and "Wolves." His next project is bringing the mysteries of the ocean to IMAX screens.
SeaWeb recently talked to Palmer about his long-term perspective of both the power and potential de-evolution of environmental and wildlife filmmaking.
SeaWeb: What motivated you to first become
involved in environmental and wildlife filmmaking?
SW: What was one of the most inspiring encounters you had with wildlife while making a film? What was one of the most disturbing?
CP: Among the most inspiring have been getting to see massive Kodiak
bears in Alaska, swimming with whales off Maui and observing wolves up
close. Seeing those incredible animals is always inspiring because it
makes you realize that each one has evolved over millions of years.
Each one is a miraculous work of art and not to be disrespected, killed
or harassed, but rather to be cared for.
SW: In your book “Shooting in the Wild,” you cite several
examples of potential deceptions of the audience as well as negative
uses of animals for film. What do you feel are the most egregious uses
of animals in the filmmaking industry today and what should
documentarians do instead?
SW: You have seen the use of such game farm animals in filmmaking firsthand?
CP: Yes, when I was naive and before I saw what game farms really
were, I rented animals when I needed them.
SW: So was this part of the reason you starting writing
“Shooting in the Wild,” or what motivated you to write what some may
view as a condemnation of wildlife documentary filmmaking?
SW: Do you feel that making documentaries has become more
or less ethical, and why?
This leaves filmmakers who work for them crossing that ethical
line, deceiving audiences, harassing animals and sometimes killing
animals, and then not putting enough in about conservation or sometimes
carrying anti-conservation messages. I saw a woman on television the
other day kissing a wild hyena on its mouth. This lack of
responsibility is a big problem.
SW: Does this apply to movies on the big screen as well, or
does it matter as much for such large films as an IMAX production, for
SW: What advice do you tell your students who wish to become documentary filmmakers?
CP: I tell them they have to do a better job than my generation.
They have got to find new ways of telling stories that are very dramatic
and use humor and inspiration in order to overcome the competition
without being unethical. It is a big challenge. I encourage my students
to work hard and to be highly resourceful and creative. I refer them
to Chapter 11 of my book “Shooting in the Wild,” which includes an
eight-part program for reforming the wildlife film industry.
SW: So what should the consumer do to promote better
environmental and wildlife documentary filmmaking?
CP: They need to be much more skeptical and ask more questions, such
as “Is that bear really wild, or is it controlled and captive?” When
the bear feeds on the innards of an elk, “Was that activity natural or
did the producer stuff the innards of the elk with M&Ms to get the
bear to feed on it?” When that bear is walking on its hind legs, “Is
that posture really natural?” I tell people to write to the networks
and ask: “Where did you get that animal? Was it free roaming or
rented? How did you get that shot? Why didn’t you talk more about
climate change when you had the opportunity?” So, I encourage consumers
to write to their networks and to be more active as citizens.
SW: What has been the reaction to your book from the
SW: Do you think most environmental and wildlife films still further conservation and lead people to take action on behalf of our environment? Can their greater good, in essence, outweigh the sins of the industry?
I think so. It's vitally important that such films get made ethically. When ethically made films at the same time are highly entertaining, dramatic, involve compelling characters and tell a riveting story, then these films can do a huge amount of good.
© 2006 Marine Photobank