Answers provided by Producer/Directors (or Filmmakers) Andrew Young and Susan Todd.
What inspired this story?
Our movie grew out of our experiences and observations in the woods around our backyard in Westchester County, New York. We have lived in the same place for two decades, and we’ve spent a lot of time outside with our two kids making gardens and exploring the ponds, wetlands, and forest. We also noticed that with the advent of personal electronics, our kids were spending a lot less time in nature than we did growing up. When we read Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, we realized that this was a growing phenomenon and we began to think about creating a movie that would inspire kids to get outside and reconnect to nature. The spring migration of the spotted salamander and all the other wildlife “miracles of nature” that we too often overlook became the subject matter that we wove into this story.
The story grew rather organically over the course of three years. We wanted to create a narrative about the yearly cycle of animals and plants that live outside a family’s home. Like most families in the digital age, the one in our story live unaware of what’s going on outside – until their 11 year old daughter becomes tuned in to the wonders of nature around them. With input from our science advisors, we worked on filming scenes of the animals that actually live in our backyard, which is part of the Eastern forest ecosystem. For the human characters, we drew on the experiences of our own family. We originally asked our kids to be in the movie, doing typical activities like mowing the lawn, watching TV and waiting at the bus stop, but we eventually had to cast actors because our kids grew up too quickly! The story was kept very simple and told as much as possible from the point of view of the animals and nature.
Describe some of the challenges faced while making this film?
Some of the challenges of the movie were working in snow and freezing temperatures, filming at night, in the rain, 70 feet up in trees, and waist deep in vernal pools. Perhaps the most challenging thing of all was working with the timing of illusive events, like the laying of salamander eggs, the hatching of wood ducklings, and the births of raccoon kits and a fawn. We had to calculate gestation periods precisely, be in the right place at the right time, and be extremely patient. Capturing the growth and seasonal change of plants with time-lapse cameras was also a really challenging process that took many attempts before we got it right. At one point we had three small trees and a host of other plants in our studio along with eight specially programmed cameras operating independently.
How do you approach science storytelling?
We believe audiences learn science content best when it is an organic part of a story that they have become engaged with, so the key for us is to first put the emphasis on story, and let the science content integrate naturally. We always work directly with scientists to show accurate and illusive behaviors in the natural history scenes. That becomes a driving force in the story. In the case of Backyard Wilderness, we next wrote scenes with our main character engaging in questioning, observing and doing a report on one of the animals whose behavior she studied, much like any field biologist would. Once people are engaged and feel an emotional connection to what they are experiencing, the science content and methods will feel inspiring and will be absorbed by the audience.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
In the age of personal electronics, kids just aren’t going outside the way we used to. Nature Deficit Disorder is a term coined by Richard Louv to define a growing lack of contact with nature that children and adults are experiencing today. Our lives are now almost 90% indoors and we spend hours in front of computers and on our cell phones. There has been a huge increase in diagnoses of obesity, depression, ADHD, and there is clinical evidence that increased exposure to nature actually reduces these problems and helps people heal. We wanted to create an experience that would inspire the kids of today to reconnect with the wonders of nature occurring all around us and to launch a campaign to get kids to put down their screens and get outside in the natural world. We want to make kids and families feel more actively engaged in their own backyards and parks and hope that our film sparks interest in the sciences and the healthy benefits of outdoor recreational activities like hiking, camping, biking, swimming, geocaching, building forts, and playing in the woods.
Were there any surprising or meaningful moments/experiences you want to share?
Preparation for one of our centerpiece scenes, the hatching of a nest of wood ducklings and their leap from the nest fifty feet above the ground, really began five years earlier when we first discovered wood ducks nesting in the tree above our house. Later that year, after the ducks had left, a storm blew the tree down. We cut the nest from the fallen tree, rigged it with cameras and bolted it to another tree, close to where the original nest had been. We had no guarantee that the wood ducks would return to the nest, so we were thrilled to see them exploring it just a few days after we put it up. And this time the nest was wired and ready for filming. When the big day arrived, we were ready with numerous remote control cameras rigged around the house and a crew of ten, all gathered around a live feed from the nest with knots in our stomachs. The feeling of amazement and relief after the last duckling made it to the pond was incredible.
Working with the human actors who played the kids in the family was also rewarding because they had a chance to experience the woods, butterflies, ducklings and spotted salamanders. We could see that they grew to better appreciate nature during the course of making the film and they loved being a part of something that would inspire other kids.
Anything else you would like people to know?
For us, Backyard Wilderness is not just a movie. We really want it to be the launching pad for a whole movement aimed at getting nature back into our lives. The film’s goal is to inspire audiences to begin that process. And we’ve partnered with Howard Hughes Medical Institute to get a great educational outreach initiative going alongside the film. We have created one of the most extensive national campaigns ever to help schools and communities reconnect with nature and learn about ecosystem science.
The educational outreach campaign includes a Family Activity Guide offering fun outdoor exploration for children and families, a Bioblitz Toolkit that will help schools, libraries and science centers put on local citizen science events, and traveling library/museum/school exhibit displays designed to stimulate interest in outdoor exploration. We have also worked with the California Academy of Sciences’ iNaturalist team to launch a new kid-friendly exploration app called Seek, which will complement the popular iNaturalist app and give kids and families a fun and easy introduction to the world of observation and citizen science.
We are working on a number of 3D Giant Screen/IMAX films in the development stage as well as a television series about the relationship between humans and nature. We’re also traveling and giving presentations to expand the educational outreach of Backyard Wilderness as it opens in museum and science center theaters around the world.
And specific questions for your Category: What do you feel is most important to remember when telling science stories to younger audiences?
You have to make the story entertaining to younger audiences and spark their curiosity. We think it’s important to use science concepts that are at the grade level of the core audience you are targeting. In Backyard Wilderness, we chose to use a young woman narrator, looking back on her life as an 11 year old girl (3-8th grade is our core audience) so kids could relate to someone their own age on the screen. We incorporated contemporary dialogue and activities that young kids experience with their families. To get them excited about the animals outside in their backyards, we juxtaposed some of our own human behaviors with the animals’ behavior to get a chuckle and show kids that animals need many of the same things that we do. Kid are like adults in that they want to be entertained as well as “wowed” by story and visuals.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.