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The Bears of Anan Creek by Brian Ratcliffe won a 5-Stars Award and the Best Documentary Award at BIAFF 2009.
I'd love to be able to say that this film was planned but I'm afraid that, like most of my films to date, it wasn't really planned at all. That said, our trip to Alaska in 2005 certainly was planned - in great detail - over a period of nine years - from a hospital bed in Campbell River, BC, after a road traffic accident in 1996 left my wife with a broken leg just three days into our holiday. We watched the cruise ships passing up and down the Inside Passage to and from Alaska and we vowed to be on one of them one day. The year 2005 - our 25th Wedding Anniversary Year - seemed like a good time to go and the planning started.
As we got into the planning we soon decided that cruising was not the right option for us - cruise ships spend too little time in any one place. Not enough time to savour the atmosphere and to get beyond the tourist traps that catch most cruise ship passengers. We decided to plan our own trip, getting around using internal flights and the ferry system - the Alaska Marine Highway. This we found brought its own set of problems - fine we could plan to spend an appropriate amount of time in each place we chose to visit, but we couldn't plan the weather with its disruptive effects on air travel, and we certainly couldn't plan for ferry cancellations at the last minute and without warning whenever the ferry company decided that they needed a boat to be somewhere else. Alaskans have a laid back acceptance of such disruptions which they take very much in their stride.
Fortunately, our trip to the Bear Observatory at Anan Creek was scheduled very near to the start of our trip and, in spite of some very inclement weather which gave us a very bumpy approach and landing, our flight from Seattle to Wrangell was achieved more or less on time. Like most towns in South East Alaska, Wrangell is only accessible by air and by sea - there is no road access. The town is small and quaint, probably having changed very little in the last 50 years. Interestingly, we would call it a village - the locals regard it as a city!
Anan Creek, which we came across through a tour operator's website, is located about 90 minutes by jet boat to the south of Wrangell. This is a true wilderness area - remote and scenically extremely beautiful. The Bear Observatory is managed by the United States Forestry Service and, during the period of the salmon run in late July & August, when the bears are active, access is tightly controlled. Only around 30 permits per day are issued on a first come, first served basis; so, again, some planning is necessary. The visit starts with a briefing at the boat landing before we are sent off on a trail about half a mile or so to the viewing platform and hides. We were reminded that this is bear habitat; that they have right of way; that they can run at 30 mph, and can climb trees without difficulty. Fortunately, we had our armed guide with us but nonetheless we were not tempted to ignore the rules about staying on the trail, keeping close watch, and about not carrying food, any drinks other than water, and no perfumes or deodorants with us. Bears can scent such things over a distance of more than a mile!
Once at the viewing platform we could stay as short or as long a time as we wished. We had anticipated that we would fill a couple of hours or so but, in the event, we stayed all day. We had all seen bears before - in zoos and wildlife parks and in the wild - but always from a safe vantage point behind or fence, or from the safety of a vehicle. This time was different - we were in the bears' own territory with only a low rail between us and them. But, strangely, we felt quite safe and relaxed in their presence; and, indeed, privileged to be there seeing the bears going about their business. At times, we were only inches away from some of these fine creatures, but we felt that, had we been just sitting on the river bank, they would still have carried on with their fishing. After all, who needs tough, stringy humans with all that juicy salmon around.
Filming was an absolute pleasure, but not without its difficulties. My son and I did the filming using a pair of Panasonic NV-GS400 camcorders, using a wide angle lens adapter for some of the time. These are now fairly old machines - 4x3, standard definition - but they are 3CCD machines and in my view the image quality is quite high. I normally take manual control of my camera but on this occasion both machines were left on auto most of the time. I did take a tripod with me but it was not really a suitable location for a tripod so it stayed in its bag. All the footage was shot with the cameras hand-held. We relied on natural light and sound was recorded with the on-board camera microphones.
When we first arrived on the observation platform, we tended to grab whatever footage we could see, expecting that we may only see a few bears during the day. But, as the day wore on, and the bears kept coming in a constant stream, the light improved a bit and we could be a bit more selective. In the end, we finished up with between two and three hours of footage - plenty of choice to make a 20 minute film.
Back home, I did the editing and narration on a Casablanca Kron+ editor with Smart Edit 4.0 software. This was one of my first attempts at voiceover, using a fairly cheap Ross microphone, plugged directly into the editor. Indeed, getting the audio mix right was one of the main challenges in making this film. Using the on-board microphones at the location meant that we picked up some very over-powering river noise which had to be heavily suppressed at the post production stage. Also, at the busier times during the day, there was a lot of background chatter which needed to be removed. Hence, the audio mix, took quite a long time to complete. The background music was selected from the AKM "Beautiful Themes" album.
The initial attempt at this film was made in 2007, mainly for a presentation to a local photographic society. Prior to this, my interest in video had been limited to family holiday and family event videos. So, this was my first attempt at "proper" film-making. It started out at around 30 minutes and was very well-received at its first showing. I then submitted it to the Casablanca User Group Film Fest 2007/8, where it got some criticism for a dull, monotonic voiceover and over-modulated audio, but was again generally well received. It was subsequently shortened to its current length and the voiceover re-recorded.
I am at the same time both amazed and delighted that the film has done so well. The bears certainly deserve it!
By way of background, I am a 66 year old dog learning many new tricks, especially after joining Nuneaton Movie Makers in December 2007. The support and encouragement I get from my many new friends there has brought my film-making on in leaps and bounds and I would most strongly recommend any amateur film-maker working alone out there to join a club. The rewards and benefits are tremendous.
- Brian Ratcliffe