Born and raised in Northeast Michigan, Travis Kidd has always had a strong connection to the natural landscapes that surround him. He studied Ecology and Anthropology at Northern Michigan University and is an avid bird enthusiast.
Travis is currently a graduate student in the Science and Natural History Filmmaking program at MSU. He’s completed all of the coursework for the program and is now in the developmental stages for his thesis film and paper. In the years since starting his filmmaking career, Travis has produced several short documentary projects on topics ranging from raptor migration to cultural heritage, forest ecology, and the Mountain Pine Beetle outbreaks in the Rocky Mountain West. He has produced content for both the general public as well as several kids programs aimed at ages ranging from 7-12 years old. While he enjoys all aspects of filmmaking, Travis’ first love and primary professional focus is sound recording and editing.
TERRA: What inspired you to make a film about the forest and its ecosystem?
TK: I knew that beetle kill was a huge current issue for the rock mountain forests and yet it seemed like there wasn't a great amount of understanding about the very basic facts of the situation. I also knew it was an issue that was hardly talked about outside the region and I thought a film might help connect the local issue to a more global awareness of climate change.
TERRA: What inspired you to make a children’s show?
TK: I think I've always been destined to work with kids. I denied it for a long time, but I think I've finally come to terms with the fact. A big influence was getting involved with the Kid's Chess Club at the Bozeman Public Library. A friend of mine was moving away and needed me to replace him as the lead chess mentor. I actually met Conrad through chess. He is better at chess than I will ever be. I don't think I have ever beat him. I would be dishonest if I didn't credit Rob and Laura Sams of Sisbro Studios with a healthy dose of inspiration for making children's films, they do amazing work!
TERRA: Why do you think it’s important to make science and natural history films for children?
TK: Ya know, everyone says that kids are the future and all. I don't know if I believe that in the same way most people do. I feel like a lot of people forestall their own dreams, actions, and aspirations in favor of their descendants having those opportunities. I think you really have to live the change you want to see in the world. How many dads hope to make their kid the next football star after they themselves didn't make the pros? For me, the outdoors has always been a huge part of my life. I started bird watching and canoeing and cross country skiing when I was 8 years old because I had a mentor who shared those possibilities with me. I feel like kids will take to this stuff naturally if we just make it available to them. You can't love something without every really getting to know it.
TERRA: Did you have any particularly rewarding moments while making the film?
TK: I think the most rewarding thing about this project was getting to show it to about 600 kids at the University Theater in Missoula, MT as part of the International Wildlife Film Festival. I can't really describe the feeling you get when, at the end of the film, you ask a room full of kids "what was killing the trees?" And they respond in perfect shouted unison "MOUNTAIN PINE BEETLES!!!" It makes you think, that at least for a moment, you got something through to them.
TERRA: What’s your favorite bird/beetle species?
TK: My favorite bird species probably changes every ten minutes, but lately it has been the Black-billed Magpie. I get to watch them every day. I really love the way they undulate through the air, their gorgeous feathers, and most importantly the goofy sounds they make to each other. They are fairly fearless, and extremely chatty. I often sit under the big spruce outside my apartment and whistle and chirp and trill my tongue at them as they stare at me, cocking their heads to the side. After a while they will start calling back to me with their weird wheezing, or chirping or squawking. There is so much variety in that voice.
TERRA: Anything else you’d like to add?
TK: More birds, I always want to add more birds.
TERRA: What type of equipment are you using? Do you have a favorite piece?
TK: We were shooting on a Sony NX5U, as well as a couple of Canon Rebel t4i's with various lenses. My favorite lens is my old Nikon 50mm f/1.4 prime lens. It makes some pretty pictures. But my favorite piece of equipment was by far my Tascam DR-680 sound recorder. It has 4 XLR inputs which allows me to record hot and cold tracks from multiple sources, like say a wireless lav and a boom mic.
TERRA: What are the 3 things you’d never go into the field without and why?
TK: 1.). Gaffe tape: because you will always run into a problem that could be solved, in one way or another, with gaffe tape. 2.) a multi tool, survival knife meets screwdriver, meets pliers! you can't go wrong! 3.) a good sound recorder/mic. Sound is the most neglected thing on almost every shoot. You can be shooting on the best cameras in the world, but if you have bad sound over that gorgeous footage, people will think it looks amateur.
TERRA: What are your occupational goals? Tell us about your dream project?
TK: My main occupational goal would be to become a full time professional location sound recordist. I really love sound and my place is in the field, not the computer lab. It will be a long challenging road to have my independent sound work be my main form of income. But what better place to start then with a feature length rainforest documentary? My dream project? Well there are a few nature films I want to make. For instance, I would love to do a film on Kirtland's Warbler conservation in Michigan and the Bahamas. But that will be a challenging film to make, and will require some good inside connections, as they are very much a protected species and under very close observation. So that will happen someday, after I have better established myself as a professional filmmaker and have access to all the fun expensive equipment I see as necessary to really tell this story. Aside from that, I think it would be a blast to work as a sound guy on a sitcom. It would mean regular work with a potential 7+ year run, and could make for some very entertaining days on set.
TERRA: What you are workin on for Earth Soul Productions right now?
TK: The most recent project I am involved with is called Preserving Paradise. It is a tropical rainforest conservation documentary focusing on the most effective methods for rainforest conservation. We are featuring various people and organizations that are making a difference for the rainforest. This has included wildlife researchers, land preserves, community outreach and children's programming, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, ecotourism, sustainable agriculture, and sustainable living.
My primary role on this film has been managing all the sound recording on location. In addition to that I have been helping with camera work, interview setups, etc.
TERRA: What is the story behind the film and your personal connection to it?
TK: The film is really the brainchild of Paul Stoutenburgh, our producer and director. He has spent time in several rain forests around the globe and saw a real need for a solutions-based documentary about rainforest conservation. I met Paul when he came to visit Bozeman. At this point he was developing the ideas for the film and contemplating the best way to make it happen. He asked me to join the team back in April 2012 and we have been planning and collaborating ever since.
TERRA: How long have you/ will you be working on it?
TK: I have primarily been involved with the production side of the film, which really started with our 3 week trip to Ecuador in October and December of 2012, with additional work in Costa Rica in March and April 2012. We are still hoping to get to another rainforest this Fall, but that is still in the works. Independently producing an international rainforest documentary can get complicated.
TERRA: Give us a behind-the-scenes snapshot of life in the field.
TK: Life in the field is full of mixed blessings. The tropical rain forests of south and central America are a gorgeous pain in the ass at times. You can literally be filming a pit viper on the trail one minute and be blindly running down trails-turned-rivers as the sky's open and dump buckets of water on you. The afternoon rain is always a relief when you are back at camp and ready to be done for the day, but it can complicate things when you still have 2 miles of trail left before making it to the rendezvous point for your ride back to camp. The lack of amenities on location can really complicate things as well. At one point we thought we might be staying in tents for a week with our thousands of dollars worth of camera, sound, and computer equipment (luckily they made room for us in a bunkhouse). This location was off the grid so we had to purchase a car battery and inverter to charge our camera batteries and run the computers to back up footage.
TERRA: What has surprised you the most about working in the field?
TK: The biggest surprise for me was how much of a head game it became to stay positive. Despite the beauty, it is really hard work making a film in the blazing heat and humidity of the rainforest. Everyone has off days but I was often thinking of Werner Herzog's famous quote about the rainforest from "Burden of Dreams" (1982) "Kinski always says it's full of erotic elements. I don't see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It's just - Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and... growing and... just rotting away. Of course, there's a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they - they sing. They just screech in pain." -Werner Herzog I can't tell you how often this sentiment struck me as I was plagued by mosquitoes, sunburn, and well... "Montezuma's Revenge". It's really not all bad, but you do have to fight to stay positive at times. Oh Herzog and your dulcet German tones repeating in my head...
TERRA: How much of the field work have you personally been involved with? What is your favorite aspect of filmmaking?
TK: I have been involved with about 90% of the field work. My teammates arrived in Costa Rica a few days before me and got some great wildlife B-roll, but I think I was there for every interview. So, I guess all the important parts for a sound guy to be present. My favorite aspect of filmmaking is definitely sound. It is a skill that is greatly underutilized in small documentary work and it can really screw you up if you are paying enough attention to it. Sound can be a tricky critter, sometimes it seems like no matter how many times you double check everything is working, it can miraculously fail on you in the middle of an important moment. I like the dancing with the wily beast.
TERRA: Have you encountered any crazy or dangerous moments in the field?
TK: Filmmaking is always a crazy experience, at least it is if you are doing it right. There was never a specific point on this film that I thought I was in any REAL danger. But there were certainly risks involved. At one point we were in Costa Rica documenting the research on the relationship between Jaguars and nesting Sea Turtles on the beach. We would follow the team of scientists and volunteers on a 7 mile walk of the beach at night to look for nesting turtles. I was fortunate enough to be with a group that found a HUGE Leatherback Sea Turtle laying her eggs in the sand. The reason this beach is so special is that it was one of the first places to document Jaguars that come down on the beach at night to kill and eat the massive sea turtles. They are one of the only animals with enough bite force to crush a full grown turtles skull, which can be as big as a football. This interplay between the rainforest ecosystem and the ocean really fascinates me. But as I was sitting there in the dark watching the researchers count the eggs and take their measurements, I couldn't help but feel like there were big feline eyes watching us from the nearby tree line. Upset that we interrupted her next snack. Besides the Jaguars, there are other dangers with conservation in Costa Rica. Just weeks after we returned to the US, a sea turtle conservationist was killed by either poachers or drug runners on a different beach in Costa Rica.
TERRA: What does the immediate future hold for you after this project?
TK: After this project I will be refocusing my efforts on finishing my MFA. All I have left to complete is my Thesis, which right now lives in my head, but has yet to materialize itself for me.
TERRA: What has your experience been like with MSU’s filmmaking program?
TK: The MFA program has been so vital to me. I did my undergraduate work in Ecology and Anthropology with little to no experience in film. This is the only film program, that I know of, that values your experience as a scientist as much as you experience with a camera. I really wouldn't have even been eligible to enroll in any other MFA program for film. The programs mission, as I see it, is to take scientists and turn them into communicators of that science. I think this is incredibly important. For example, there has been nearly universal scientific consensus on Evolution for decades, and yet a recent poll showed that only about 56% of people in America believe in human Evolution, and only 15% of people believe that God had nothing to do with it. To me, that is a communications issue, not a science issue. But I digress... MSU has definitely prepared me for this project. Sometimes it isn't obvious how much you have learned in the program until you start showing and explaining how to make a movie to someone who has never done it before. Some of that comes from the classroom, but a lot of it comes from the experience of working on so many of your own projects, as well as all of your classmates projects. Film is a collaborative art, and you should take advantage of the opportunity to work with the other people in the program as much as possible. I even volunteered to work sound on several of the undergraduate fiction films, which I see as an invaluable opportunity to see to how a big production works with all the various departments on a set.
TERRA: If you could be a bird, which one would you be?
TK: Man, this is possibly the hardest question ever. My first instinct would be the Peregrine Falcon, for its speed and power. But to be honest, I think the life of a Magpie in Bozeman would suit me well. Except I would be much more mischievous! Such fun birds!