From the Field: Jeff Reed
Jeff Reed is a contributing producer for TERRA and a graduate student in his thesis year in the Science and Nature Film program at MSU. He is recently returned from filming the work of the Gorongosa Lion Project in Mozambique. Outside of Africa, Jeff has worked on a variety of films as both a student and professional filmmaker. His film Restoring an Icon recently won Best Student Documentary at the Montana Cine International Film Festival and is an official selection at the upcoming Big Sky Film Festival. Jeff currently works at Grizzly Creek Films in Bozeman, MT.
JR: I am a documentary filmmaker based in Bozeman, MT. Right now, I am sort of easing into the professional world while trying to wrap up my formal education as well. I am in my thesis year in the Science and Natural History Film MFA program at Montana State University. In Gorongosa, I am working with the Gorongosa Restoration Foundation to produced a film following the research and conservation efforts of the Gorongosa Lion Project (GLP). In particular, I am working alongside Paola Bouley, the founder and head researcher of GLP.
TERRA: How long will you be working in Gorongosa?
JR: This trip totals about two months, however, GLP is only just beginning. Paola and her team are planning to be in Gorongosa for each field season for at least the next 3 years.
TERRA: Give us a behind the scenes snapshot of how has life been in the field?
JR: One thing Africa has never had a reputation for is comfort. I knew this going into the field and really psyched myself up for 2 months of discomfort. Some of it has lived up to my expectations. Yes, it is hot. Hot and dusty. I brought all these long- sleeved clothes to cover up with for the mosquitoes. That lasted about one day. You end up drenched in sweat and it’s just not worth it. Of course this all poses challenges dealing with equipment. Sensors and lenses definitely need some extra care. Each day ends with a cleaning session. It really takes some will power at the end of a 14 hour work day to sit down and clean dust from your tripod head when all you want to do is wash the grime off and hit the sack. But we did have some luxuries. The tents are pretty much houses. They are built on concrete foundations with a nice bed and mosquito nets. In back, they actually have a toilet, sink, and shower. On days when the water wasn’t already hot from simply being the pipes, we could stoke a fire to get the hot water heater going.
Days in the field are pretty intense. I’d say most filmmakers pride themselves on a pretty solid work ethic and ability to operate without much sleep. But Paola and her team are tireless. Gorongosa work days typically begin with a 3:30AM wake- up call. Lions are most active at dawn and dusk, finding a shady spot to snooze during the heat of the day. This means the hours between first light and about 9AM are the most vital times for us to be out in the park, looking and listening for lions.
TERRA: ￼What has surprised you the most about living there?
JR: The human presence. This may sound almost silly. Of course there are people in Africa. But oftentimes, our perception of the continent is more Lion King than realistic. Film typically does little to remedy this misconception. I think I knew I’d be around a lot of people but I also had this vision of being the in the middle of the bush, surrounded by lions and elephants living their lives ignorant of humans. But, Gorongosa National park literally has hundreds of thousand of people living immediately around it. The park isn’t closed off from the outside world. It spills into the surrounding villages and them into it. Mozambique is only a couple decades out of civil war and Gorongosa was hugely impacted. Almost every larger animal species was virtually wiped out. So the impacts of human involvement are really obvious throughout the park. One possible result of losing larger predators like lions and hyenas is there is now a huge population of small predators like civets and genets. While there is only a small group of wildebeests, other herbivores like waterbuck, oribi, and bushbuck are absolutely everywhere. These things may be the result of war but they do make the park unique. Positive human impact is also present in the park. The efforts of the Gorongosa Restoration Project, for instance, are visible in the growing elephant herds and the first photos of a hyena in decades.
TERRA: Tell us about that cool thermal cam and what you are able to get with that.
JR: The thermal camera I use is made by a company called FLIR. FLIR specializes in thermal optics for military, law enforcement, and hunting, but they have been getting more and more use in video production. Animal behavior completely changes at night and most cameras really fail in low light situations. You can sort of think of any warm-blooded animal as a light bulb that this camera can see. So the camera really has two advantages. First, we are able to spot animals from a much greater distance than headlights or flashlights allow. Second, this camera produces no lights that disturb the wildlife so we gain a look at animal behavior that is really impossible to see otherwise.
TERRA: Do you have a favorite lens?
JR: Of course. Tamron made this great 200-500mm telephoto back in the 70s. They have newer models of the lens but they just don’t really compare in quality to this thing. It’s built like a tank and far to heavy to hang off the camera without support, but it rocks.
TERRA: What’s it like filming as a one-man band? What is your favorite aspect of filmmaking?
JR: It’s a challenge. Ability to multitask is vital. I am usually running two cameras, one on a static mount and the other in hand. Then you need to keep eyes on audio as well as what is going on off camera. You have to think about story, what just
￼happened, and what may happen next. Safety is also an issue. The scientific team is focused on their own work so it is up to you to watch your own back and not fall off the truck or something. If all that goes well, you get to my favorite part of film, getting the shot, that moment when everything comes together at just the right moment. It’s like the payout at the end of a big gamble that keeps you rolling the dice.
TERRA: Tell us about filming lions, have there been any crazy or dangerous encounters?
JR: I’m quite sure there were moments of danger that we did not even notice, but one crazy night sticks out. We spent a very long two weeks without seeing much of the lions. We’d hear them calling to each other each night, but kept being in the wrong place. One of these nights I decided to sleep in my hammock, in the cool night breeze, rather than my tent. We had been hearing lions as usual but far in the distance so we decided to get some rest. 4AM and we hear a full roar in (or very near) camp and I am flying out of my hammock in the pitch black. I can hear the others scrambling and flashlights start shooting around camp. By now I’ve started powering on the thermal camera, a process that takes about 45 seconds, which it turns out, is a long time when lions are close. It comes on and there are two male lions about 100 feet away just hanging out. A pretty great start to a day in the African bush.
TERRA: What are you eating and what sorts of food do you miss?
JR: I eat a lot of bread and peanut butter. A delicious snack but it gets pretty mundane after several weeks. We throw in some canned beans and rice here and there but keep it pretty simple otherwise. I miss Mexican food, in particular, burritos.
TERRA: What does the immediate future hold for you after Gorongosa?
JR: In Bozeman, I work as equipment/data wrangler and production assistant for Grizzly Creek Films, a really fun group that produces a show for National Geographic Wild. More Gorongosa is definitely in the future whether it is editing or another production trip.
TERRA: What are your occupational goals? Tell us about your dream project?
JR: Ultimately, I’d like to write and produce feature length films. Dream project…that is tough. Everyday it changes. Right now, perhaps a film about albatrosses. Definitely something on the ocean.
TERRA: You are a student of the Science & Natural History Filmmaking MFA program at Montana State University, what has your
experience been like with that program? How has it prepared you for this project?
JR: The SNHF program really teaches you to know something about virtually every aspect of filmmaking and I think that is a huge advantage when it comes to crafting a film.
TERRA: Beatles or the Rolling Stones?