By Andrew L. Young
Backyard Wilderness

Susan and I feel unbelievably fortunate to
have not only finished our first Giant Screen film, Backyard Wilderness, but to have received a big nod from our peers
in the industry. Ever since our first conference, the GSCA has been incredibly
welcoming to us as newcomers. But before we were regulars on the scene with our
three-minute teaser, back when we were still trying to choose the best
marketplace for our film, Giant Screen was anything but a slam dunk.

Initially, pitching a film about a suburban
backyard to the Giant Screen industry felt a little bit like walking into a
Chinese restaurant and ordering a cheeseburger. It was politely suggested that
our subject matter was not appropriate for the format—that Giant Screen was
meant to take the audience to faraway places that they would never get to see
firsthand, like the open ocean or the top of Mount Everest. While the logic of
this thinking was understandable, our past had taught us of cinema’s
fundamental ability to transport us not just physically, but psychologically,
allowing us to see the familiar from a new perspective. Clinging to this ideal,
we stubbornly convinced ourselves that it was all in the execution and pressed
on with our aspirations. Thankfully, we would find others in the industry who
shared our vision.

When I was a kid, I used to go to our local
movie house and watch classics like Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
and Planet
of the Apes
. I always sat near the front of the theater, where the screen
filled my view and Hollywood could swallow me whole. I reveled in other worlds
that were strange, magical, sometimes terrifying. When the lights came up, I
would exit the theater on wobbly legs, as if having to re-learn how to walk in
my own shoes after teleporting into someone else’s. Some of these moviegoing
experiences left a lasting impression, but it was rare when this kind of thrill
was associated with learning. It did happen once when, as a teenager, I watched
one of the earliest IMAX
® films, To Fly! From the balloon ride to the fighter
jets, it was an experience that stayed with me in a visceral way—one that would
someday inform my own path.

Early on in our careers, we became enamored
with the power of documentary to transport audiences to other worlds. We
primarily made productions for the small screen, for PBS, HBO, the BBC, and
National Geographic. Back then, some of our independent films would also be
invited to festivals like Sundance, where we were inducted into the exciting
world of the theatrical documentary. While crowds were soaking up the newness
of indie features like Reservoir Dogs and Sex, Lies and Videotape, we were
discovering the true power of our own documentary medium. Films like Paris is Burning and Hoop Dreams were larger-than-life dramas
that showed just how potent non-fiction storytelling could be when created with
a theatrical aesthetic and presented on the big screen. Many of the subjects
were close to home, but the worlds they portrayed were totally unfamiliar—and
audiences were eating them up.

In the meantime, broadcast television was
becoming an increasingly crowded space. Channels were multiplying, attention
spans were shrinking, and the resulting competition did not always have a good
influence on factual programming. There was undoubtedly some great content, but
viewing habits were turning TV into an always-on, channel-surfing,
appliance-cum-marketing tool. And TV content wasn’t just competing with other
TV content, it was up against everything else in the house. In a family with
kids, that meant gaming devices. The medium was not feeling like a great option
for sharing an immersive cinematic experience.

Capturing a mouse-eye-view perspective for Backyard Wilderness

Then in 1996, Microcosmos was released in theaters—a groundbreaking film about
the lives of small creatures in a French meadow, told with stunning cinematography
and very few words. Watching the film in a New York City movie house changed
everything for me—not just because these were tiny animals made really big by
virtue of projection—it was the experiential style of filmmaking that set it
apart. The mortal combat of two ant soldiers, the sensuous love affair of two
groping snails, the Sisyphean struggle of a beetle rolling his dung ball up a
hill, only to get it snagged on a thorn—these were scenes in which drama was
actually unfolding on the screen. No commentary was required because the
situations were self-evident. We were not being told; we were experiencing, and
the audience was loving it. The sight of a theater full of popcorn-munching
moviegoers being entertained by a non-fiction film with such unlikely stars was
a transformative experience. As soon as the lights came up, we were determined
to bring this aesthetic to one of our own projects—one that would eventually
become Backyard Wilderness. The
question was, how to do it?

No storytelling medium that I have ever
witnessed gets closer to actual experience than Giant Screen. Both dome and 3D
theaters can get me there, but as I learned in the cinemas of my youth, filling
the peripheral vision is key. (Any doubt about this was put to rest watching
Christopher Nolan’s amazing Dunkirk in
15/70. The full-frame scenes created a completely immersive experience for me,
but whenever the 65mm was cut in and the top and bottom were cropped out, I was
pulled out of the moment—thanks for the world’s most awesome screen test,
Nolan!). Since Backyard Wilderness
was a story about learning to see the world around us, it became increasingly
clear that Giant Screen was the best medium for the job. All we had to do was
wrap our brains around the technology and the marketplace—something way easier
said than done. Thankfully, the GSCA members were there to help.

We first mingled with the GS industry at the
Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in 2015. Phil Streather’s Giant Screen
seminar opened our eyes to the basic ingredients of the format and Myles
Connolly wholly embraced our vision of using the format to ignite curiosity in
the seemingly mundane creatures that inhabit our backyard biosphere. His
steadfast encouragement quickly convinced us to go all in for Giant Screen. We
joined the GSCA and began attending conferences. Not long after, SK Films was
onboard with years of industry experience to offer, and soon after that,
HHMI/Tangled Bank Studios joined in with mission-critical support and input.
The combined contributions of our new team were invaluable in turning our
concept-in-the-rough into a polished fine-cut and rallying us towards the
finish line.

Now that we’re on the other side of this great
adventure and have witnessed the impact of ours and many other films on a
variety of audiences, we feel more strongly than ever that Giant Screen has a
vital role to play in educational media. The sight of kids shrieking with
excitement and leaping from their seats, eager to get outside and make their own
discoveries was all we needed to know that we had found the right home. Along
the way, I have gained a much deeper respect for the language of cinema—for
I’ve come to understand that it’s not just the size of the screen and number of
speakers that gives the medium its power—it’s the kind of stories we tell and
how we tell them that really matter.

Of course, now we have to compete with over
two million cat videos on YouTube, all pawing for our attention. The challenge
of keeping our audiences, let alone growing them, is real. As producers, the
onus is on us to consistently use the medium to its fullest, but we also look
to the institutions, educators and their supporters to see past the visual
clutter and understand what lifelong learning experiences are made of—and
realize that the very soul of educational media is at stake.

Giant Screen offers an unprecedented opportunity to
non-fiction storytellers and educators alike. It includes an amazing toolbox
with which we can inspire curiosity, change attitudes, and help others see the
world anew. Hollywood has been using some of these same tools for decades with
great effect, but nowhere else can the powerful language of cinema be so fully
brought to bear for the sake of education and enlightenment. There’s a reason
why I still remember To Fly!

Hawtin, Andrew Young, Myles Connolly, Susan Todd, Michael Male, Wendy
MacKeigan, Tory Hines, and Tyler Mifflin at the GSCA Achievement Awards

Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated directors Susan Todd and Andrew Young have been making cutting-edge, character-based films for the past three decades. They have recently formed the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization Arise Media in order to produce educational and impactful media about some of the most pressing social and environmental issues of our time. Their first giant screen film, Backyard Wilderness, took home 2018 GSCA Achievement Awards for Best Film-Short Subject, Best Film for Lifelong Learning, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and the Big Idea award for its marketing campaign.