If you loved Life of Pi, then you’ll appreciate the marvel in director Michael Booth’s short film, How to Catch A Tiger. Presented by IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), it chronicles the release of a real Siberian tiger, Zolushka, back into her native habitat.
I saw director Kevin Smith said he became filmmaking partners and best friends over a David Lynch movie. When you were first roommates with Brant Backlund, who you worked with on this film, what film(s) made you connect?
I think what drove both Brant and I to New Zealand was a common passion for natural history films. We both grew up watching David Attenborough and no one was doing better wildlife documentaries than the BBC Natural History Unit so that was the ultimate aspiration.
How do you edit and film your work so it avoids the “boring documentary syndrome” and gets people excited about your causes?
At the end of the day it’s always going to be about the story isn’t it? A perfect frame or an immaculate edit are powerless if the story isn’t there. We have grown allergic to the old model of films that aim to educate and inform. Audiences don’t want to be lectured, they want to feel, they want to be entertained and see new and unique stories that they wouldn’t expect. With each project we are trying to think up unique ways to present the story that will help it stand out from all the other things competing for people’s attention.
Why should people who live nowhere near Russia, nor work with tigers, care about their extinction?
Siberian tigers, and all other species for that matter, are part of our shared heritage, no matter where you call home. Protecting keystone species like the tiger is vital in our hopes for an ecologically sustainable world. If we aren’t able to save the largest cat of all, the majestic tiger, what hope do we have for any other species? I can’t imagine having to explain to my kids why we as humans let things like this happen.
What surprised you about releasing a tiger into the wild?
How utterly unpredictable it is. We spent days planning and rehearsing how we would film the release, but you can’t anticipate the million things that can go wrong during the capture, transport and release stages. More importantly you can never tell a wild Siberian tiger what to do, so we were all at her mercy. There was something really powerful about how she ran into the forest, paused and looked back at us, let out an unbelievable roar, and took off.
How did you prepare so your filming wouldn’t upset the tiger when released?
Working for IFAW means that we encounter and film wild animals all the time and one of the most important things is to remain like a fly on the wall, always keeping a safe distance and hidden from view. At the time of capture, we placed remote cameras so the tigress would not perceive our presence and adjust her behavior. Before her release, we worked frantically to position our cameras in a way that would give us the best chance for success. For the ultra-slow-motion camera we used a 100-foot trigger cable to activate recording. The cable ran from the camera, all the way through the forest ground and into the armored tank we were hunkered in.
What do you know about the tiger’s progress using the satellite tracking?
Zolushka’s satellite/VHF collar and dozens of camera traps positioned in her forest habitat are showing us that she has established a territory of her own and has been successful in hunting and living a perfectly normal life. It has now been just over a year and our ultimate hope is that she will be able to breed with the resident male tiger and have cubs of her own soon.
What is going on for your seal documentary? What are the main issues we should know about seals?
We are just finishing up a feature length documentary called Huntwatch about the Canadian seal hunt. It is really a once in a lifetime film because we are able to draw on 45 years of footage that IFAW has gathered. Most people are surprised to hear that this hunt still takes place and the film really opens up a window into this issue.
We have several new and exciting projects coming up at IFAW involving everything from tigers and elephants in Bhutan to orphan wildlife rehabilitation efforts around the world, so stay tuned and remember to check out our website www.ifaw.org to find out more.
Watch How to Catch A Tiger online: