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Neil Rettig, Nature Cinematographer

posted on May 28, 2007

Neil Rettig is known as one of the world's finest nature cinematographers. His work appears on our air in the PBS "Nature" series, and he's made "National Geographic" specials and IMAX movies, winning all the most prestigious awards.

Neil lives along the Mississippi River in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, making him an honorary Iowan. We met up with him near Decorah and were struck with his intense interest in his subject, a bald eagle family living near an eagle buffet.

Rettig: The unique thing about this nest is that it's right across from the state fish hatchery. All the fish hatchery guys, they laugh about it and they think it's kind of cool that they see them go down and take the trout once in a while.

This particular location is awesome because these birds are totally used to people on lawn mowers, barking dogs. And I can sit here without being in a blind standing right here, and the eagles will behave totally normally.

You know, at first when I looked at this female, I thought there was something kind of funny about her head. But then I noticed, when I got this long lens on, that she was missing an eye. And to me that makes it even more remarkable that she is so successful at hunting and taking fish, because a raptor has to have depth perception, and without two eyes it's just staggering that she can be as successful as she is.

I've read that they actually will take road kills. And one day I saw an eagle near Decorah come down and take what I thought was a woodchuck or something off the road. And I thought, wow, if we could document that, that would really be cool.

These guys do it on a regular basis. We've seen them take rabbits off the road and squirrels and actually fly up to the nest carrying a rabbit that might weigh 3 1/2 pounds. It's unbelievable.

One thing I like to tell people about conservation is that there's a lot of really good stories out there, great stories, success stories. The bald eagle is one of them. The peregrine falcon is another one.

I mean twenty years ago it would make the newspapers if somebody saw a bald eagle in this part of Iowa or in Wisconsin. In Prairie du Chien and some of the backwaters of the Mississippi River in March, there can be as many as 4-, 5-, 600 eagles in one small area.

You get the birds migrating from the south going north. You get the resident birds. And they all stage up and they're waiting for gizzard shad, which is one of their favorite fish, to defrost out of the ice. So it's like they're at the defrosting refrigerator.

My background in wildlife filmmaking actually started when I was a little kid. My parents put cameras in our hands, little spring-wound Brownie, Super 8, and regular 8 cameras.

We lived right on the edge of a very rural area, and we had a neighborhood zoo. It had snakes and turtles and possums and raccoons, and we used to make little movies in the neighborhood with the neighborhood kids of the animals. So it all started way back then.

A lot of people come up to me and they say, God, I wish I had your job, you know. And then I think about this circumstance in Africa in the Congo when I was up on a platform building these platforms alone to try to film gorillas coming into a fruiting tree, being stung by bees and covered with insects.

You've got to be in pretty good physical shape to do this because we're lugging around heavy cameras all the time, climbing mountains, climbing trees, living outside. It's tough.

A key word would be patience, and I can tell you -- sometimes I don't even know how I can do this because I've sat in blinds for as long as, you know, 14, 15, 16 hours. Sometimes I've slept overnight in blinds, and with animals like eagles, it can be boring.

For example, the female here has just been sitting for six hours, hasn't done anything. So that's the toughest thing. If you don't have patience, you might as well forget it. It's not going to work.

There are times when you've got to react fast or you miss something like -- sometimes you've got a split second to get on something and focus up and have it technically good, and this really is an intimacy and connection with your gear too. Like, I can't pick up a rental piece of equipment without practicing with it for a while, otherwise I'm going to blow it.

And that, in combination with what you know about nature -- you have to know the behavior, otherwise forget it too. It's not going to work.

For example, when a bird poops, or defecates, it's going to fly, so you know to start the camera. And there's all kinds of body language that tells you when to start and stop the camera.

One of the most incredible adventures -- and I say it that way because we were filming mountain gorillas for IMAX in the early '90s and we were caught in a war in Rwanda between the Hutus and the Tutsis. We were rescued by French paratroopers. It was scary.

As far as animals are concerned, it's not elephants charging and it's not gorillas chest beating and coming at you, it's not crocodiles. It's insects -- small, tiny, little insects. We were in Guyana in South America. We were covered with seed ticks. I mean itching everyplace on your body. You know, insects are bad.

In all my travels, I've seen a lot, and I've been in the field for a long, long time. But every day -- this is the honest-to-god truth, every day I learn something new.

Now, that was a great demonstration, and that's what they do in the rain forest... Nature is so incredible. I'm excited about every new project. And the PBS film "Raptor Force," which we just recently completed, that's a perfect example.

I thought I knew about everything there was to know about birds of prey. Like, there's a certain formula in the tear of a peregrine that keeps the eyes from drying out when they're plunging.

All the people that worked on this film basically were falconers, and Rob was able to make these tiny little cameras to put on the backs of trained birds of prey to get, like, an over-the-shoulder shot when they were doing their thing, whether it be swooping down at 180 miles an hour or chasing a cottontail or just something spectacular in flight. And it was just so cool to have this perspective.

What I see and what I feel through the camera is a combination of all my experience in the wild. And I kind of like feel like I'm doing a painting when I turn the camera on, you know, expressing the way I feel about the natural world. It's a cool, cool feeling.

Wildlife films have become known all over the world, and they've done some amazing things for conservation. They've made people aware of things that they would never be exposed to. So, I mean, I feel good about that.

I feel like when we're out here filming bald eagles or filming grizzly bears or mountain gorillas, we're actually doing something to help preserve a species, you know.

I had a reoccurring dream and it went on for, I think, years -- I haven't had it recently -- but I'd run and take off and fly, you know. Strange.

Tags: filmmaking Iowa Wisconsin


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