Travel Guide's Exclusive Interview with one of DisneyNature's Bears movie directors Keith Scholey and Hallo Bay Bear Camp guide Simyra Taback
This year, Travel Guide took a peek behind the scenes at the making of Disneynature’s epic true-life adventure film Bears. Set against a majestic Alaskan backdrop, the movie showcases a mother bear as she imparts life lessons to her impressionable young cubs in one of the planet’s last great wildernesses. Directed by Keith Scholey, Alastair Fothergil and Adam Chapman, Bears opened on Earth Day 2014. Among other areas, filmmakers spent two summers in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, gathering extraordinary footage and witnessing some of nature’s most breathtaking wildlife in action. A common thread among all the people we’ve spoken to about the film, the region and the bears themselves, is the sense of joy coupled with privileged awe evident in their descriptions.
Bears began with an intuitive storyline script, built from human experience and expectations of animal behavior but left utterly open to modification as wildlife dictated possible new emphasis and direction. One of the film’s directors was always on site making sure everything was running smoothly. Keith Scholey was in Alaska, where his past work includes Discovery Channel’s North America and BBC’s Bear Diaries, at the start of summer season and mid-season when the salmon were running well. The team also included about a dozen camera operators.
Considered one of the world’s top wildlife destinations, Katmai’s Hallo Bay Bear Camp provides small groups the opportunity to walk among giant brown bears in a peaceful and serene natural setting. Intimately familiar with the constantly changing environment, their skilled wilderness guides provide some of the best bear viewing in Alaska. Hallo Bay was chosen as a shooting location because of their expertise, the comfort of the camp and the large population of brown bears and wolves, which have become habituated to the presence of humans.
Hallo Bay guide and consultant to the filmmakers, Simyra Taback says, “Once in our lifetime if we are very lucky, we may experience an adventure that changes our lives forever. Hallo Bay Wilderness was such a place for me.” Raised on a farm in northern Alberta, Simyra began traveling throughout Canada and the US in 1989 to photograph wildlife. She moved to Alaska to work full time with coastal brown bears, undergoing intense training in the bear’s environment and the nuances of their body language to become a certified Leave No Trace Master Educator. Every year she spends about four months in the wilds of Alaska, teaching and guiding bear viewing guests, and she also guides polar bear excursions in Manitoba.
Through good weather and bad, Simyra acted as manager, guide and cook for the film-crew’s 1½ months at Hallo Bay’s remote small tent camp, located 15 miles south of the main one, and oversaw the strategic packing of a maximum 900 pounds of food, fuel, supplies and equipment on the small bush planes. Two of the film teams also spent about 3½ months at the main camp in larger tent cabins, and although field days were a long 13 hours, she describes the Bears experience as a totally energizing privilege and a treat for everyone involved.
One of the joint directors of Bears, Keith Scholey holds a PhD in zoology and enjoyed a brilliant 25-year career with the BBC, ultimately overseeing nearly all natural history, science, history, arts, business and religious productions, as well as drama, entertainment and comedy programming. He left the BBC in 2008 to pursue an independent career in wildlife films, producing three of the Disneynature movies. Keith was born in Tanzania and raised until his early teens in Kenya, where his formative wildlife encounters unfolded on the Serengeti, host to the world’s largest terrestrial mammal migrations. He has filmed and traveled extensively, so it is significant when he explains that in discussions with his pals, there is widespread agreement that for wildlife and setting, the two most astounding places in the world are those endless plains of Africa and the wilderness of Alaska.
A delight in the natural world is also evident in his story of the film crew walking back to camp along the beach when a little cross fox (so named because they are a cross between red and Arctic fox) began to follow along. It scampered off in front of them and reappeared with a stick, which it laid on the ground and backed off, like an expectant dog hoping for a game of fetch. Keith noted with a bit of regret, that not wanting to overstep the bounds of wild animal interaction, no one threw it back for him to chase.
He also emphasizes, “Brown bears are regarded as dangerous and scary animals, but they allowed us to make this film with them for a two-year period and live peacefully alongside them.” It was an utterly humbling experience that he wishes everyone could share.