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Filmmakers Talk Turkey About Nature Programming

Movies: Each year the heavyweights of natural history films gather in Jackson Hole to screen work and cut deals.


JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — They came to talk bucks, the antlered variety, and bucks . . . well, you know.

In what quickly has become an annual tradition, some of the world's leading natural history filmmakers and funders gathered here this week at the foot of the snow-capped Tetons to screen samples of their work, cut deals and gaze into the future--this year to discuss whether producers of wildlife programming should be poised to provide cutting-edge footage for the much-ballyhooed era of high-definition television.

Though wide-screen HDTV sets are not expected to hit the mass market until 1998 at the earliest, some of the cable networks that feast on nature programming already have begun funding expeditions to capture classic wildlife subjects--from the African plains to undersea coral reefs--using new "high-def" cameras.

"This is some seriously cool technology," declared Thom Beers, the plain-talking vice president of Turner Original Productions, who is also serving as executive producer on TBS' "Wildlife Adventures" series. As evidence, he previewed spectacular snippets of perhaps the most ambitious HDTV project in the works, a six-film joint venture by Turner and Japan's public television network, NHK, that is sending top nature cinematographers to their favorite locations around the world.

An audience of TV and technology company executives applauded the results as they filled a 12-foot screen in the auditorium of Jackson Hole's new National Museum of Wildlife Art: leaping hump-back whales off Alaska, charging herds in Botswana, a stirring African sunset--all shot in a digital technology that promises to bring those images into millions of living rooms with a clarity approaching that seen in big-screen movie theaters.


That qualifier--and the financial implications of it--hung over the nearly week-long gathering that in just six years has become to natural history filmmaking what Robert Redford's Sundance festival is to independent films. Every other year, industry heavyweights stage a full Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival inside Grand Teton National Park. But in off years, it becomes a smaller, down-to-business gathering for industry insiders. The topic for this year's Jackson Hole Symposium was "Natural History Programming and the Future of Television."

Most everyone agreed that HDTV technology will be a central part of that future. The cameras operate with nearly the ease of current video cameras, but produce film-like quality through digital technology. Advocates gush about how it could be an advance akin to the onset of radio or color TV.

"If anyone wants shelf life [for their film], it's got to be high-definition wide screen," said filmmaker Randall P. Dark of "Woodstock" fame and who has become an HDTV pioneer. He's starting to shoot concerts in the format for Disney, and has produced a video raft ride for a nature park in which visitors sit on crates gently moved by air bags while watching images in which "you literally get pushed off and float down the river . . . as real as real can be."

But current prototype HDTV sets cost $12,000 or so and the long-awaited establishment of HDTV broadcast standards by Washington has been held up amid squabbling between television and computer giants over who will control the design of the sets.

So even Turner's Beers acknowledged that while his company is intent on "pushing the format," it will be a long time before the station's viewers will be able to appreciate the HDTV images being recorded by nature film legends such as Al Giddings, who is returning to the Pacific Ocean site where about 70 Japanese ships were sunk during World War II and documenting how a once gruesome scene has evolved into a reef-like home for beautiful sea life.

Because the use of evolving equipment makes an HDTV project more expensive (to upward of $1 million for an hour of high-end nature programming), Beers said Turner's six-film project was feasible only because of cost-sharing with the Japanese and its production house, New York-based Rebo Group. In addition, a German concern was willing to pay more for a package of Turner nature films because they included three of the HDTV works, he said.

The uncertain timetable for HDTV has scared off--for the moment--another of cable's major purchasers of nature programming attending the symposium.

"We don't want to pay for something people won't see for five or 10 years," said Jonathan Rogers, the ex-CBS executive recently named president of Discovery Networks U.S., which runs the Discovery and the Learning Channel. "We'll do whatever the 'highest quality' requires, but enough people must be able to see it."

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