Conversations with Skip Hobbie: Beauty and biodiversity in Big Bend.

There are few places on Earth as majestic as one particular patch of paradise in Texas. Unfortunately, not everyone can make it there, especially these days. But never fear. PBS’ Nature brings you right there.

Big Bend: The Wild Frontier of Texas, which premiers tonight, takes viewers on an exciting tour deep into the most remote corner of the Rio Grande River in the borderland known as Big Bend, a vast, unspoiled wonderland of serene beauty and home to some of America’s most iconic animals, including black bears, rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Skip Hobbie, the film’s cinematographer, discussed what it was like shooting Big Bend.

How did this documentary get started? How did you get involved?

I grew up in Austin, Texas, and ever since my first trip to Big Bend when I was 18, I have been in love with that part of Texas. It is, honestly, my favorite place on earth.

I was extremely fortunate to chase my dream career as a wildlife filmmaker. I spent many of the early years of my career travelling the world, filming wildlife, and having experiences that were beyond my wildest imagination. I was going to all the places I’d always dreamed of: the savannahs of east Africa, the Amazon, Borneo… – but I also realized I was filming things I’d grown up watching on TV.

Meanwhile, my home state of Texas had places and wildlife of equal beauty, and stories that hadn’t really been told in this manner. So, I decided I wanted to start focusing my attention on bringing the beauty of Texas to the world.

Big Bend was an easy choice for a starting place, just from the spectacle of beauty and biodiversity. I took the idea to Director John Murray and his little production company over in Ireland; he’s made some of my favorite wildlife films of the past decade. Given that at the time, in 2017, the whole world was talking about the U.S. Mexico border, he liked the idea and was able to get the film commissioned by PBS and a handful of other international broadcasters.

During pre-production, how did you settle on which animals to focus on?

We probably started with a list of almost 150 possible story ideas that I had done some cursory research about. We whittled that list down to about 25 by giving serious consideration to the realities and challenges of filming, schedule, and budget, as well as, most importantly, what the animal adds to telling the bigger story of the Big Bend.

Then through successes and failures while filming, the list naturally narrowed itself down to probably about 15 stories that we actually really filmed. In the end, 10 of those really worked their way into the final film in their full form as it came together in the edit room.

Are there any animals that weren’t included that you wish could have been?

Absolutely. Too many to possibly name them all. I really wanted to film Peregrine Falcons nesting on the iconic and massive cliffs of the South Rim of the Chisos mountains. Falcons symbolize the remoteness of the Big Bend because while birds of prey around the world struggled through the DDT crisis of the 20th century, falcons in west Texas had survived pretty well as they’re so far removed from modern agriculture and pesticides. Falcon eggs taken from west Texas were even used in captive breeding projects that have helped restore the species around the country. That story coupled with the truly epic position of a nest thousands of feet above the desert floor, would have made for an amazing, cinematic story.

We got permission from the national park to bring in an expert to help us rappel in and film right alongside the nest, but when we went back on a final trip to scout the nest, which we’d seen active earlier in the season, the falcons had abandoned it. The nest had failed for unknown reasons. It happens in nature.

I was heartbroken for a couple of days, but on the bright side it meant cutting a very expensive and logistically difficult story from our schedule, freeing up time and budget to focus elsewhere.

Now, looking back on it after finishing the film, it’s hard to think what we would have had to cut, in order to fit that story, and it leaves me with another great Big Bend story to tell for another film someday.

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What did you feel was important to communicate about the Big Bend?

More than anything, I just wanted to share with the world a beautiful and amazingly biodiverse part of Texas that few outside of the lone star state ever get to see. I also thought it was important to showcase the majestic beauty of this part of the borderlands. We weren’t making a political film or statement, but we were developing this film at a time when there was a lot of rhetoric about the border by a lot of people who have never visited it. Big Bend’s remoteness means most people will never get to see it themselves. I deeply believe that conservation is rooted in caring, and by showcasing the beauty of a place, we can start people on a path towards caring about that place.

Elf Owl Micrathene whitneyi Adult Basic Plumage Christmas Mountains Oasis Brewster County, TX 18 April, 2019 (Credit: Lee Hoy)

Which animals were the hardest to shoot? Why?

There were a ton of challenges shooting this film, but the hardest was actually not one of my own. During the busiest seasons, we had additional crew helping with filming from Ireland. In the fall, on his first trip to Texas, our other main cinematographer, Dom Pontillo, and I had tremendous success filming bears while they were focused on fattening up on acorns before winter.

When Dom returned in the spring, since he was already familiar with the bears, he was tasked with bears while I focused on hummingbirds and elf owls. In the spring, food is scarce for bears, so they are on the move further and exploring more potential sources of calories. Dom, and assistant Brian O’Leary, spent many hard weeks, sometimes covering a dozen plus miles per day, carrying heavy equipment off trail in really rugged terrain. In the end, they got all that amazing bear-climbing behavior that is the highlight of the film, in my opinion.

Are there any moments that stick out to you while making this film?

Early mornings, kneeling in the middle of the Rio Grande while straddling an international border and waiting for the sun to rise to film beavers, was definitely my happy place. Even in one of the national park’s most iconic spots, the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, I rarely ever saw another person at those early hours. I’d have these amazing sunrises with the bird songs echoing through the canyons and share them only with this family of beavers and the other wildlife.

The soundtrack to The Big Bend is gorgeous and compliments the film perfectly. How did you incorporate the music?

Explosions in the Sky have been a favorite band of mine since they were first starting out in Austin and my older brother was a DJ at a college radio station. I’ve always thought their instrumental rock sound would make a great fit for a wildlife documentary, and given that they’re from Texas, we decided it was worth a shot approaching them.

I believe three of the guys in the band are from west Texas, and they love Big Bend themselves, so they agreed to write us a few new songs, and open up access to the rest of their library. That was already a dream, because we really didn’t have the budget to afford their kind of talent.
Then because Covid prevented them from touring, they ended up taking on a way bigger role working closely with Editor and Director Jamie Fitzpatrick to score every single note in the film. The result speaks for itself.

Finally, by the time you finished post-production, did your understanding of the Big Bend change compared to before you started the project?

I don’t think my fundamental understanding really changed. I learned a lot of lessons that would make it logistically easier to do again, but that’s easy to say of any challenging endeavor in life.

As I said before, it was already my favorite place on earth. I did worry that maybe I’d be sick of it after spending so much time out there, but I can happily say I’m not in the slightest. I’m still itching to get back there any chance I get. I’m dreaming of making a book or come up with other excuses to make it a main focus in my life again in the years to come.


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