Nate Dappen is a biologist, and an award-winning photographer, and filmmaker. Nate earned his Ph.D. studying the evolution and behavior of Mediterranean lizards. In 2010, Nate co-founded Day’s Edge Productions with fellow biologist Neil Losin. Since then, Nate and Neil have produced films for clients like National Geographic, World Wildlife Fund, TRAFFIC, National Science Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Smithsonian Channel and others. Nate and Neil also teach film production skills to fellow scientists through immersive workshops at universities and research centers.
(Photo: Nate in the Bigo Bog on assignment to film Snows of the Nile in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains.)
TERRA: Tell us a little about yourself and what you’re working on right now.
ND: Before I started making films, I was a scientist. I got my PhD studying the evolution and ecology of a Mediterranean lizard. In graduate school, I met Neil Losin, a fellow biologist who shared my passion for photography and science. In search of a way to combine our interests, we started making films together. At first, our films were terrible, but they got better and better – we even started winning some small film festivals. Instead of pursuing traditional post-docs after finishing our PhD’s, we decided to start creating visual media about science, nature and conservation full-time. Together, we co-founded Day’s Edge Productions and for the last two years have been working on one cool project after another.
We have a lot of different projects underway. We are finishing up our first television hour. It’s a documentary about speciation. The film follows a researcher name Al Uy in the Solomon Islands as he makes some remarkable discoveries about how new species are born. The Smithsonian Channel is co-producing the film with us and it will air on their channel sometime in early 2015. Here is the teaser to that film.
We also just wrapped up a series of short films for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) about grassland conservation and ranching in the Northern Great Plains (NGP). The WWF has been doing some amazing work in the NGP. Ranching gets a bad reputation, but in these grasslands, ranchers are some of the only people who stand in the way of crop agriculture and energy developers from plowing up the rest of America’s great grasslands. Most of these videos are up on our vimeo site. Here is link to one of my favorites.
In July, we went to Cameroon to work on a short film for UCLA about the creation of an international research facility. It was a fantastic trip. Among other things, we got to spend some time with the Baka Pygmies in the Dja Reserve. Our goal was to create a short film about the project to help UCLA and their partners raise money to get this project off the ground. You can check out that film here.
We’re also wrapping up a short classroom science film, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute about the evolution of corn. Who would have thought that corn is so interesting?! Unlike almost every other domesticated crop, there is no obvious wild progenitor of corn. So where did it come from? Turns out, the story is fascinating and includes some really cool genetics and archeology research. We’re expecting to release the final version of that film in mid-November 2014 on the HHMI Biointeractive website.
TERRA: Give us a behind-the-scenes snapshot of what life is like in the field.
ND: Neil and I do most of our shoots alone. We make a good team. He is exacting and premeditative about his shooting strategy and my style is more shooting from the hip. We’re usually up early and out late every trip. Neil is one of my closest friends, so our shoots are pretty fun. We’re competitive about getting good footage and we can disagree about stuff without ruining a shoot. I think that’s been really important to our success as a team – being able to disagree and still work together.
We travel as light as we can – shooting mostly with Canon dSLRs, Sony FS700s and small dollies and jibs. Like most filmmakers, we like our toys, so our arsenal of tools is always getting bigger. We’re always looking for those pieces of equipment that are small, but get you high production value. One piece of equipment that we recently bought that I really love is the Edelkrone Slider Plus with the Target and Action modules. This little guy makes sliding shots super easy. You slide once and it’s perfect.
(Photo: Neil and Nate debate about how to capture a shot in a river on the remote island of Makira in the Solomon Islands.)
TERRA: Have you had any particularly rewarding moments in the field?
ND: I’ve had so many rewarding moments in the field. The opportunity to see so many remote places and rare animals has been fantastic. But, it’s the people we’ve met on our shoots that have given me my most rewarding moments. One example that comes to mind was from our recent trip to Cameroon. We asked a member of the Baka tribe, David, to sing for us. Without hesitation, he gathered a few more locals and brought us into the forest for a private concert. In the middle of one of their songs Neil whispered to me, “Holy s***, we’re filming a private concert with the Baka.” Not too many people get to experience that kind of stuff.
(Photo: In July, we got a personal concert in the forest by a few members of the Baka village on their last day in the Dja Reserve, Cameroon. Here, David plays a harp-like instrument and harmonizes with his back-up singers.)
TERRA: Any other favorite moments?
Another amazing moment was filming an interview with UCLA professor, Dr. Jared Diamond, for our film about speciation. It was one of the few times in my life that I felt like I was in the presence of a real genius. From memory, Diamond sang us birdcalls of species he had studied in the Solomon Islands over three decades ago. It was remarkable.
(Photo: Pulitzer Prize Winner, MacArthur Genius, recipient of the National Medal of Science, professor of geography, evolutionary biology, physiology and anthropology, and speaker of 12 languages - there are few men like Dr. Jared Diamond. We took this photo after our fascinating interview with him.)
TERRA: What does the immediate future hold for you?
ND: Neil and I have our work cut out for us. We’ve got most of 2015 booked with films that range from topics like symbiosis in aphids to the domestication of dogs to citizen science.
(Photo: Neil explores a cave in Puerto Rico during our trip to film bat-eating snakes.)
TERRA: Have you encountered any crazy or dangerous moments in the field?
ND: No one told us that Cameroonians don’t like to be filmed. In July, Neil and I wanted to film a marketplace in Yaunde. We set up on a balcony above the market and began to film the crowded streets below. A woman spotted us from below and started yelling, “No! No! No!” Before we knew it, hundreds of people in the market and street were screaming at us and moving toward our building. We had no idea what was going on or why everyone was so upset. People had run up the steps onto our balcony and were aggressively yelling at us in French. Luckily, a Cameroonian scientists who had come with us to the market stepped in and helped to calm the mob. We immediately put away our gear, apologized and got the heck out of there. I don’t know what would have happened if that local scientist hadn’t been there.
(Photo: The marketplace just before everyone turned on us.)
TERRA: What's your dream project?
ND: I don’t have one dream project. I have lots and lots of dream projects, some of which I’ve already had the opportunity to work on. For me, dream projects are ones where we are in charge – we have no clients to answer to, we have complete creative control and we have sufficient funding to make our vision a reality. Dream projects are ones where I’m work with friends, traveling to remote places, and turning meaningful stories into films.
(Photo: My campsite on the top of Rincon de La Vieja Volcano in Costa Rica.)
TERRA: What's your favorite aspect of filmmaking?
ND: My favorite aspect of filmmaking is the very beginning of a project, when that project can be anything. It could go in any direction. No one knows what we’ll get to see or film. I love the feeling in that beginning stage where the possibilities are endless.
(Photo: Lonsdale, one of our Solomon Island guides spear fishes in the shallow waters near Frigate Bird Island. Makira Province, Solomon Islands.)
TERRA: What are the 3 things you'd never go into the field without and why?
ND: Aside from the basics like batteries, lenses, memory cards and cameras, I hate traveling to the field without my dynamic perception time lapse dolly, VariZoom carbon fiber solo jib, or a neutral density lens filters.
I love time lapse and think it adds so much production value to any project. The Dynamic Perception is a little bulky, but we bought a 3ft rail and have taken it with us to some of the most remote locations on earth.
We purchased the VariZoom jib earlier this year and I love it. It’s super light, sets up in a couple minutes and lets you get some really neat shots with dSLRs.
You only get a few hours of great light in the morning and evening, but still need to shoot in the harsh light of day. Being able to shoot at a shallow depth of field is super important. Since we do a lot of work with dSLRs, which don’t have built in ND filters, I find myself using these filters on almost every shoot. Sometimes I’ll even put two filters on a long lens so that I can open up the aperture as wide as possible.
(Photo: Neil uses a jib to film a rancher during one of our shoots for WWF in S. Dakota.)
TERRA: What's your favorite project you've worked on and why?
ND: My favorite project we’ve worked on was “Snows of the Nile” – a short film we made in 2013 about the disappearing glaciers on Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains. This was the first real film we ever worked on. It was the first time we had any budget to work with. We won $25K from Dos Equis (the beer company) to travel to Uganda, retrace the steps of a 1906 expedition and recapture their historical photos to show how much the glaciers have melted. The film is about our expedition.
I think it was my favorite project for a few reasons. First, my dad had climbed the mountains in the 80s and had told me how incredible they were. So, part of me wanted to retrace my dad’s footsteps. Another reason I loved that project was that the Rwenzori’s are a wild place. This is a 17,000ft mountain range in tropical Africa. The plants and animals in this range are totally unique and our adventure through the forests, bogs and glaciers of the range was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Also, there is something about this being our first real project that makes the film really special to me. We’ve come a long way since making this film and when I watch it now, I see so many things that I would do differently. It’s not the greatest film in the world, but it was good enough to prove to myself that Neil and I had a future as filmmakers.