Featured Filmmaker: Thomas Wiewandt of ‘Desert Dreams’

Thomas Wiewandt

Thomas Wiewandt

Today is the 8th annual Nature Photography Day, and in celebration, we’ll be offering a FREE, oceanfront, Whole Foods-sponsored screening of Desert Dreams: Celebrating Five Seasons in the Sonoran Desert at Seaside Cinema.

The film’s director, producer and cinematographer Thomas Wiewandt is at Maui Festival and plans to be on a Filmmakers Panel today at 1:30pm, and will also attend the screening tonight to introduce his film and answer questions after tonight’s screening. In this installment of our blog series, get to know a bit about all of the painstaking effort that went into making his film.

Q: How did you get involved in film? Where and when did you start?

A: In college and graduate school, I studied drawing, painting, photography, and art appreciation along with ecology and evolutionary biology (BS/Marietta College; MS Zoology/University of Arizona; PhD in Ecology/Cornell). A deeper understanding of all living things helped to fuel my creative passions, and my love of wildlife and animal behavior led to motion picture work. While studying giant land iguanas unique to the remote Caribbean Island of Mona, I spent three years filming their behavior and stockpiled 20K feet of motion picture footage.

My demo reel captured interest from the BBC—they flew me to England, gave me a crash course in cinematography, sent me back to the island to fill in some gaps in the content, and then flew me back to England for post-production work. AN ISLAND SHALL A MONSTER MAKE was aired in the UK as part of David Attenborough’s WILDLIFE ON ONE TV series and later in many other countries.

This project led to three educational films (as Cinematographer-Director) for National Geographic, early work that was honored with an Emmy nomination, a Gold Apple Award, and four Cine Golden Eagles.

Q: What inspired you to create Desert Dreams?

A: Having explored, studied, and photographed the Sonoran Desert for 34 years, I saw the need for an immersive film that would allow others to “feel” the Sonoran Desert as I have come to know it, as a place pulsing with life, beauty, and spirituality. In 2003, I met musician Gary Stoutsos after his performance at a fundraiser for a new desert park in the Tucson Mountains. His unusual blend of cross-cultural flute and percussion caught my ear, and my photographic imagery caught his eye—the birth of this project. I structured DESERT DREAMS around the content of a book I was working on at the time—HIDDEN LIFE OF THE DESERT (2010, Mountain Press Publishing), and Gary generously opened his music library compiled over the past three decades. What will surprise many people is our decision to select most of the music for this film BEFORE we edited the picture, and the visuals were edited to fit the music. My editor John Hadwin and I chose music that we felt would best set the mood for each season; and in one segment—the toads—I had the music in mind before shooting the footage.

Q: What was the most challenging part of creating this film?

A: In a word, equipment. I prefer to work alone when filming wildlife, so the more compact and portable the gear, the better. Not being a gadget guy, as technology moved from 16mm to super-16 to video about 20 years ago, I sold my 16mm gear and shifted my focus to still photography, ecotourism, and publishing. The release of Canon’s 5DMarkII still camera with HD video recording capability in 2008 enticed me back into the motion picture business in a practical and affordable way. The 5DMarkII has been enthusiastically embraced by pros in the motion picture industry, but, and this is a big BUT, using this camera outdoors for capturing wildlife in HD video is challenging. The camera is difficult to focus quickly and accurately, battery life is short, in-camera audio recording is rarely satisfactory, it’s prone to digital compression and moiré artifacts, the maximum run time per take is only a few minutes on warm days, and the camera completely shuts down on very hot days. I had to strap an ice pack to the bottom of the camera to keep it running in the desert’s summer heat.

4. What type of experience do you hope the film will bring to viewers?

A: The desert I know and love is NOT the “tooth & claw” rendition commonly presented by other documentary film producers. And I chose to let pictures do the talking to encourage viewers to become engaged observers instead of passive media consumers. Without voice-over or dialogue, the desert can speak for itself and allow viewers to enjoy a personalized experience. All education and spiritual awakening begins with a sense of wonder and inspiration, and the most primal window to wonder is the natural world. Plant the seed of curiosity, and the desire to learn will grow, along with concern for the integrity of our environment.

Anyone interested in the names of all 182 species of plants and animals featured in this film, or the names of the 29 musical instruments heard, should visit http://www.DesertDreams.Org for downloadable lists; DVDs may be purchased here as well.

Q: What do you think our Maui audiences will most appreciate about your film?

A: I predict that people who choose to live where natural wonders abound, as in Maui, will enjoy being transported into this intriguing desert realm of unexpected natural beauty. Experiencing a desert with “hurricane-like” downpours, severe winter cold, and an abundance of wildlife seems counterintuitive. In addition, I believe that the global character of the music will have universal appeal. Twentynine musical instruments with “earth tones” can be heard in this film, including Chinese bamboo Dize & Xiao flutes, the African clay pot udu drum, a Cuban Marimbula thumb piano, a Middle Eastern frame drum, and Southwestern desert contemporary rim flutes, among others.

Coincidentally, the eighth annual Nature Photography Day will be observed nationally on Saturday, June 15, the same day that DESERT DREAMS will be screened in Maui. This day was designated by the North American Nature Photography Association to promote the enjoyment of nature photography, and to explain how images have been used to advance the cause of conservation and protect plants, wildlife, and landscapes locally and worldwide.

Q: Do you have any prior connection to Maui? If so, please explain.

A: My mother owned a small travel business and loved bringing friends and tourists from the mainland to the Hawaiian Islands. In her memory, I will be scattering her ashes at sea and in beautiful places on Maui, the Big Island, and Oahu during this trip.

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