A natural partnership

Jane Adcroft and Carla Braun Elwert with a tuatara. Photo supplied.
Jane Adcroft and Carla Braun Elwert with a tuatara. Photo supplied.
For the past decade the University of Otago has collaborated with NHNZ in a documentary film-making venture that, at its core, strives to produce good storytellers. Shane Gilchrist reports.

In 2001, the University of Otago launched a postgraduate diploma in natural history film-making and communication. Back then, the inaugural class comprised a dozen students. A decade on, the partnership with NHNZ has catered for 96 graduates, who have produced 62 documentaries and won 40 international awards.

The secret?

Good storytelling, says Lloyd Davis, communication director of the University of Otago's Centre for Science.

As head of the course, Prof Davis (also a biologist with more than a passing interest in evolution) has witnessed a few mutations in the past decade.

Though the postgraduate diploma qualification still exists, the course was expanded in 2008 to incorporate a master's programme.

"As opposed to the one-year diploma, most of our intake now is into the master's programme. Effectively, the papers they are taught are the same; the difference is the master's requires an academic thesis component," Prof Davis explained.

"In essence, the programme started in 2001 when it was realised there was an opportunity. I was in the zoology department at the time and NHNZ was taking a few of our graduates - or from botany - but they lacked film skills.

"Alternative to that, NHNZ was taking people who'd been through the industry, but knew little about animals; back then NHNZ was largely a natural history and wildlife production facility but it is much more diverse than that now.

"We thought, why don't we have a course that is value-added. Why not take graduates of university biological and science programmes and give them a year's crash-course in film-making so they at least had an understanding of the skills they'd need to take to a place like NHNZ."

Almost immediately, students' films (produced as part of their course work) started winning awards, Prof Davis points out.

"And they were going up against significantly sourced material produced by National Geographic and Animal Planet and so forth. I think that came back, in part, to our emphasis on story-telling.

"If you look at the science communication programmes around the world, in particular the documentary film-making ones, the thing that distinguishes ours is the emphasis we put on story-telling. We don't resile from that.

"We are trying to meld bright, creative people. We are very different from any other course in the university in that straight marks will not get you in. We do require marks but we also require applicants to produce a portfolio that shows they are creative."

NHNZ managing director Michael Stedman says the course is a strong example of a town-gown partnership.

"The benefits are real. The graduates have had the advantage of a world-class academic education, together with being immersed in a world-leading production company ... The Otago graduates are excelling in what they do.

"We know all too well how challenging natural history is in the television industry; we've got to ensure the film-makers we're putting out there are ready for it in every way. They need to be creative, adaptable and tough."

NHNZ contributes to the course in a number of ways - from producers mentoring the students' documentaries to general manager John Crawford advising students on business affairs and head of IT Wayne Poll providing vital technical advice.

Graduate Jane Adcroft, who completed a master's in natural history filmmaking last year, gained an internship at NHNZ and now works as a freelancer for the company, researching, writing and post-directing, says the course was an "enormous" learning curve.

"Like lots of people who do the course, I have a background in science, so it was all new to me. The course was incredibly challenging, especially the story-telling units. We all know what a good story is - it seems like it would be an easy skill to grasp. But learning how to break that down into elements and then translate it on to screen is still an ongoing learning process for me."

Ms Adcroft and Carla Braun Elwert produced Love In Cold Blood last year, their film about a tuatara earning them awards for "Best New Zealand Film" and "Best Emerging Film-makers" at the Reel Earth Film Festival and "Best Newcomer" at the International Wildlife Film Festival; they were also nominated for "Best Newcomer" at Wildscreen 2010 and the Roscar Awards 2011.

"Carla and I made Love in Cold Blood together. It sort of came out the blue. We were looking for common ground on a topic that both of us would be new to and picked up a New Zealand National Geographic with a tuatara on the cover. And that was it - we realised we wanted to make a tuatara film," she explains.

"For both Carla and myself it's been a massive career swing. Both of us have a background in science: I used to be an environmental consultant in Western Australia before packing it in to move to Dunedin for the course. Now I work at NHNZ and Carla works for a film company in Germany called Nautilus.

"There are some people who do the course and go and do something non-communication-related afterwards, but it absolutely colours everything else you do. The course really focuses on story-telling - in edit, in camera, in scripting - and I think that's a skill you take with you no matter what you do."


Celebrations
• To celebrate the decade past, NHNZ is hosting a cocktail party on November 16 during the University of Otago's inaugural ScienceTeller Festival (www.scienceteller.com), being held from November 15-19.
• Following the NHNZ event is the 2011 master's students' film premiere at the Regent Theatre starting at 6.30pm, which is open to the public.