Peter von Puttkamer is a three-time Emmy Judge and wildlife filmmaker of multiple award-winning series and specials for major networks worldwide over the last 35 years. His latest film is for Ecoflix, entitled: Remaking Wolf Connection. It will be available on Ecoflix from 13th August – International Wolf Day.
What inspired you to become a wildlife filmmaker?
I grew up in the Canadian Pacific Northwest, surrounded by nature. Large Killer Whales with six-foot dorsal fins slapped their tails on the water and swam by my home, every birthday in the spring. Self-taught, and making Super 8mm films in high school, first with an old home-movie camera my mother had, I began my love affair with photography from the age of 14. By the time I was 18, I had photographic shows in Vancouver.
From an early age, in the 1960s I spent weekends in the wilderness near Vancouver at Paradise Valley, Canada’s first eco-tourism resort, which my father had envisioned. I was exposed not only to Coast Salish First Nations and their culture tied to wildlife but experienced the sight of Bald Eagles, magnificent Killer Whales, Black Bears, and the annual run of millions of Salmon that came up the river by the property to spawn. I was just fascinated and in awe of the beauty and power of nature.
What was your big break into mainstream wildlife TV?
After completing a BA in Film at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s, I landed a government job that took me to the native communities in the province to film what became important social/health/cultural videos. Throughout the ‘80s, I was producing award-winning films with/for First Nations & Native American communities, all of whom had deep ties with the wild animals around them.
At this point in my career, I had produced native-themed films for national broadcasters in Canada, including the ground-breaking Spirit of the Mask, with famed Ethnobotanist, Author, and Anthropologist Wade Davis (The Serpent and The Rainbow). This was the first film about masks of the Pacific Northwest and documented how masks connect First Nations to the Animal and Spirit world.
After winning awards for this and influential native films, in the 1990s, I was asked by Christian Bruyere – producer of Discovery’s Champions of the Wild, to Direct & Edit episodes of his series. For him, I created shows on Giant Pacific Octopus, Bald Eagles, Big Horn Sheep, African Elephants, and even Moose, which had a major impact on me. That was ultimately my big break into series television and led to a career making global wildlife, travel, and adventure films for the likes of BBC, National Geographic, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, and now Ecoflix.
Why do you think film is an important tool in the race to save the planet?
Film is such a powerful tool for changing hearts and minds. It is the most emotive medium for storytelling and allows an audience to see and experience worlds they might otherwise never visit in their lifetime. Films that feature animals, or the relationship between people and wildlife, are crucial to raising the general understanding of biodiversity and the need to protect and conserve animals and our planet.
For example, with the recent film I directed for Ecoflix, The Last Stand, currently available worldwide, the story focuses on the protests of concerned citizens in British Columbia.
They were outraged about the clear-cutting of the last three percent of Ancient Forests in the province. I was asked to juxtapose that story against the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The film shows the connection between North & South America and the “atmospheric flying rivers” that connect us through climate & weather patterns. It also highlights people who are making a difference: a theme often emphasized by Ecoflix. The Last Stand focuses on both individuals creating eco-forest experiences and Silicon Valley companies that are using cutting-edge research to create new carbon-saving trees.
Another powerful film I helped make for Ecoflix is Free Billy (Director: Marshall Corwin) which chronicles the decade-long legal battle to free a beleaguered elephant, Billy from the LA Zoo. Ecoflix founder and CEO, David Casselman and others have sought to rescue Billy for decades. This poignant film raises awareness about the horrific conditions these large mammals endure in Zoos: suffering that many people are just not aware of today.
Ecoflix was created to produce films with strong messages about saving wildlife and/or stopping climate change, to inspire the public to help save our planet in their own way. Even if that is as simple as no longer going to zoos. Everyone really can make a difference.
What’s the hardest aspect of your job?
Some of the most challenging aspects of filming wildlife worldwide are bureaucratic: organizing entry and film permits and access to remote areas in foreign countries. Many countries, rightly, have tough restrictions to access their wildlife, or simply for any film crew to operate in their nation.
As a result, part of this job means convincing authorities and local experts on the ground that your work is worthwhile, that you are following rules, and working in the country with the best scientists/locals who study those animals.
Over the years, I have often been successful at making these connections and maximizing our time filming these wildlife stories. On some occasions, we provided radio collars and other important tools that local wildlife authorities needed to track and care for their wildlife. Drawing attention to the plight of these endangered animals and those under threat has been a critical part of my filmmaking career.
What’s the craziest animal behavior you’ve caught on camera?
I have many fascinating examples. Here are three:
- Polar Bears, crawling out of the ocean and going through Yoga-like movements for up to 40 min…rubbing and scratching themselves on the ice or tundra bush.
- A Tiger that charged at us to protect a prey/kill site.
- A giant snake that looked both ways to cross the road. This was three years ago for the third season of my Biggest & Baddest/Wild Survival series (created for ITV Studios & Discovery Networks) with Niall McCann. In that series, we filmed a 14 ft King Cobra with a microchip in it – so scientists could track it. This is the world’s longest venomous snake. It has enough venom to kill 20 men or one elephant. It turns out that not only are they a friend to man, by eating the snakes that kill the most humans in India (snakes kill 50,000 people annually), but they also have a unique intelligence about them.
As we learned while filming, when King Cobras reach a motorway – they will rise in the air up to 5 ft or more and look both ways – only crossing when they think it’s safe. And if a car is nearby, or they detect a heat signature from a recently parked car – they will continue to travel along the road, only crossing when the moment is right. It’s incredible how nature can surprise and impress us every day.
What’s the most important lesson you have learned about animals and the planet through your work?
I learned that sometimes the animals we fear the most, are the ones that need the most help. People have natural fears about big predators, or just large, formidable animals.
As I discovered over years of filming on most continents, it seems the wildlife we have the biggest preconceived ideas about Bears, Tigers, Lions, Wolves, Leopards, Anacondas, Elephants, and Rhinos, are often in the most precarious states.
Big predators and large mammals in general, often get in the way of humans. Either they are preying on our livestock, or their longstanding migration patterns lead them across our farmland, creating conflict.
Finding ways to live with predators and large mammals in our midst may be our biggest challenge in saving animals on the planet.
What film are you most proud of making and why?
I’m proud of the many films I’ve worked on. One of my films, Heart of the People, helped impact Canada’s social change. The Huu-ay-aht Native tribe asked us to do a film about their sacred river (Sarita) that had been destroyed by clear-cut logging in the 1950s. The logging meant the river filled up with silt and gravel, the salmon disappeared (there had been millions), the wolves disappeared as did the Fur and Elephant seals, and much more.
Their lives and cultures forever changed as the tribe was moved to a flat reserve a few miles away from their beloved river (where they had lived for 10,000 years). The tribe had also suffered years of social ills, including the legacy of abuse from church-run schools and poverty and alcoholism.
Our film raised awareness about their desire to restore the river, working with local non-native communities by re-building stream beds, reducing logging in the area, dredging out pools, and eventually bringing salmon fry back into the system; all the while involving the non-native population in First Nation’s culture, making them feel a part of the process.
The film was nominated for a Canadian Emmy (Gemini Award) and the Federal and Provincial governments decided to put money into the restoration of the River- as a result of the film’s success. The community has since flourished, building an eco-tourism and sustainable forestry business- employing its people. I’m very proud of that film and its sequel.
What is Ecoflix and how did you get involved?
Ecoflix is the first not-for-profit media group dedicated to saving animals and the planet. Their worldwide streaming channel aims to educate and inspire audiences to encourage positive change in human behavior. Ecoflix donates 100% of its membership fees to partner NGOs/Charities which are chosen by its members.
I became involved through Dr. Niall McCann, a wildlife biologist we discovered when he was a student, who became the host of several of our shows including the three-season Biggest and Baddest/Wild Survival Series, currently seen in 80 countries. Niall connected me to the Founder and CEO of Ecoflix, David Casselman. It was great to make the connection with David, a very inspiring philanthropist. We shared a deep love for saving animals and the planet, and this quickly developed into a solid working relationship. I’m proud to be part of the amazing Ecoflix team.
What is Remaking Wolf Connection about?
This is my latest Ecoflix film and is about our connection to Wolves. Ever since the first ancient hunters followed wolves to the location of prey, humans developed a deep-seated connection to canines. We lived symbiotically with the wolf over tens of thousands of years. These wild animals eventually became “man’s best friend” in the form of domesticated dogs.
The Remaking Wolf Connection film is about a remarkable Sanctuary in Southern California which celebrates the Wolf and uses the ancient connection we have with them to heal young and old.
The refuge is home to over 80 wolves and wolf-dog hybrids, all of which have been rescued from often life-threatening circumstances.
Wolf Connection is the brainchild of outdoors’ youth counselor Teo Alfero whose training includes certification to work with the court and school systems in California as well as extensive experience with captive exotic animals. The film features the work of Teo, his wife Rene, and a working group of expert psychologists, and youth counselors.
Teo’s team simultaneously cares for the wolves, while improving the lives of troubled young people coming from foster care, schools, or the court system.
At the same time, the documentary features major improvements to the facility, inspired and supported by Ecoflix Founder and CEO David Casselman, who is a new Board Member of the Wolf Connection.
David has a background working to save animals around the world, including founding elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia.
Viewers will learn how the new Wolf Connection construction is now underway to provide a world-first viewing facility, for people, and more freedom for the wolves. When completed, it will allow people to safely see the wolves run free below elevated walkways, as they enjoy the native hillsides and valley of Palmdale California.
Remaking Wolf Connection, Part I will be showing worldwide on Ecoflix, starting on August 13, International Wolf Day.
What advice do you have for upcoming filmmakers passionate about wildlife and the planet?
For upcoming filmmakers wanting to make an imprint on the world with films about wildlife, I would suggest seeking out companies that make wildlife films.
Then, go and work with them to build up your reputation and a body of work. Once you have that, you can pitch your films directly to networks that make these films.
If you are in a position now to film unique wildlife behavior or a story about a group of humans saving wildlife, you can even use your hi-end Phone or SLR Camera to film sequences and put something together.
Even well-made “home films” can be entered into wildlife festivals to help you make a name for yourself and get your stories and style noticed. The world needs more qualified, passionate wildlife filmmakers!
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