Christi Cooper grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where she was fortunate to be surrounded by people that nurtured and helped her to develop a strong connection to nature and the outdoors. She obtained an M.S. in Microbiology from Colorado State University and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Regensburg, Germany. After significant time in basic research and teaching at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, she made the decision to pursue her dream of an MFA in Science and Nature Filmmaking at Montana State University. In addition to communicating sometimes very complex issues through storytelling and visual narrative, her primary goals are to combine her research skills and in-depth knowledge of science with her desire to create compelling narratives focused on raising awareness about sociopolitical issues. In what little “free” time she has, she enjoys being a mother and a partner, growing her own food, and relishing in the incredible beauty and lifestyle of Montana.
TERRA: Tell us a little about your film "Lords and Ladies."
CC: The Science Learning Center at Glacier National Park was looking for a filmmaker to help put a story together about the Harlequin Duck research that they're conducting. I was very excited about the prospects, applied for the position, and was chosen to help them out. They wanted a story that would highlight some of the research, but would also put a face to the interesting research and techniques, as well as the importance of working with volunteers for their field work. "It Takes a Village" was one of the themes that we tried to keep in mind as we filmed and told the story.
TERRA: Give us a behind-the-scenes snapshot of what life was like in the field.
CC: I was incredibly lucky. We really had spectacular weather for all of the shoots (May, July, September). In previous years, there was still 5 feet of snow in May, when we shot footage of the males and females together. It was difficult enough traversing along the river for miles at a time, barreling our way through huge bushes and brambles with tripods, cameras, shoulder mounts, and sound gear, getting scratched up, muddy, and wet, but I can't even imagine what that would have been like with 5 feet of snow. I think a lot of the shots would have been impossible and we certainly wouldn't have had access to a lot of the places we were able to reach.
I was always wary of moose and bears, but I was working with incredibly experienced wildlife biologists and park rangers at my side, so after a couple of days I began to relax a little. One of my most memorable experiences was trying to traverse across the freezing-cold, glacial river (Upper McDonald Creek) with water up to my waste. The water was going pretty fast and I'm not that tall, so Warren ended up carrying my gear across for me. I ended up falling up to my chin in the river, so was mighty grateful that I had a 6-foot brute carrying my gear to safety. The very next trail ended up taking us through brambles so thick that we would lose each other if we weren't within 6 feet of each other and then a muddy tributary up to our knees that completely sucked off my shoe and almost swallowed my camera whole. Definitely some of the more challenging terrain that I've ever filmed in.
TERRA: What surprised you the most about working in Glacier National Park?
CC: The people for sure. Lisa and Warren were so warm and welcoming and all of their volunteers worked like a well-oiled machine together. On top of that, they were all super great friends and really enjoyed working together. Their passion for this little duck was inspiring. I knew nothing about the Harlequin Ducks before starting on this project, so I was very surprised to meet this crew of people who dedicated a major part of their lives to studying the life cycle of these little sea ducks. I also had no idea I'd fall so much in love with the ducks. The babies in particular!
TERRA: What types of equipment did you use? Do you have a favorite piece?
CC: The film was shot on a Sony FS-700 and a Canon EOS-5D Mark II. For the most part, we tried to shoot on tripods, but some of the days were shot with my Movcam shoulder mount or Manfrotto monopod. It definitely was fun to play with the slow-speed filming capabilities of the FS700 to try to capture the ducks in flight.
TERRA: Did you have any particularly rewarding or dangerous moments while making the film?
Probably the most dangerous moment was when I got my shoe sucked off in the mud pit while carrying my camera. My life wasn't so much in danger as my camera's, which basically felt the same to me at the moment.
I knew so very little about the ducks before starting out on the project, but over the course of the year, I felt invested in their survival and success. In the spring, I watched the life-long mates find each other on the river and act out their mating rituals. Then in the summer, we found the adorable little chicks with their moms on the smaller tributaries. Little fur balls that were buoyant and so capable in the freezing, rushing water. We had tracking devices implanted onto the backs of the females so that we could track them throughout the summer with their chicks. There was one mother in particular that we lost over the summer and thought that she and her chicks had been killed. The biologists trekked up and down the river and the tributaries trying to find her and her chicks, but the signal was always too vague/weak to find. Suddenly, in September, she emerged from one of the tributaries with her little flock of babies. It was so cool to see how excited everyone was to have not only located this female, but for her to emerge with a healthy, thriving flock of youngsters.
TERRA: What are the 3 things you’d never go into the field without and why?
CC: 1) A sense of adventure! Every shoot that I go on, I learn so many new things. Each film is a new story with new people and characters, and I love the feeling of enrichment that I get after making these new connections. You also never know what you're going to get in the world of documentary filmmaking. So, you need to be up for adventures and open to anything and everything happening. I like how this keeps me on my toes.
2) A crew I trust and enjoy being around. Things can get stressful out in the field and on a shoot and you really want people that you can rely on and that you know will have your back.
3) Good shoes. Goes a long way...
TERRA: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
CC: I grew up being inspired by my uncle and my late grandfather, both filmmakers in Germany. My grandfather traveled all over the world telling stories and creating incredibly artful imagery. But, I seemed to be good in the sciences, so that's where my education took me. I spent years honing that craft and establishing a scientific career. All the while, I continued to feed my artistic side by trying to do as much photography as possible. Once I found the MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking program at MSU, I knew that that was the perfect harmony to satisfy my passion to weave science into storytelling, to be able to work on environmental and social justice issues, and to tell stories through images.
TERRA: What would be your dream project?
CC: Oh man...that's a hard one. There are so many! Ultimately I would love to work on a long-form project that could make a difference in an environmental or social issue AND pay the bills! 🙂
TERRA: What’s your favorite aspect of filmmaking?
CC: I love connecting with people and helping to elevate their stories. It's hard to pick just one element of filmmaking, because I really like the breadth of the work that we do. I love cinematography, which just recently led to an Emmy in Cinematography (Indian Relay), but I also love producing and directing and the intimacy that it allows for with other people.
TERRA: Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on and why?
CC: Indian Relay was amazing. Fast horses, brave riders, beautiful culture and people. Incredible crew. But really, any project that I've gotten to work on with friends has been rewarding. They all bring something new into my life - new challenges, new relationships, new rewards.
TERRA: If you could be any animal in Glacier National Park, which would you be?
Definitely a wolverine. Can you imagine scaling over those high peaks like it's nobody's business??