The Santa Ynez Wilderness is a wildlife-rich study of the upper reaches of the Santa Ynez River by Michael Love, who interviews experts in ecology, geology, and anthropology to paint a vivid portrait of a nearby gem. It’s a must see for anyone who loves the Los Padres.
What made you decide to do a film about the Santa Ynez River?
I bought a cabin in the Santa Ynez River area 20 years ago after living in Manhattan for seven years. It was so peaceful and beautiful that I quickly fell in in love with the area. This inspired me to learn more about it and deepen that relationship. As I did, I began filming bids, wildlife, wildflowers, and mushrooms.
The film initially was going to be a short focusing on the Acorn Woodpecker and Valley Oak (both are still an important part of the documentary). But as documentaries are wont to do, the project expanded over four years as I continued filming between screenwriting gigs. I was amazed at how little people knew about the stunning and pristine natural world right in Santa Barbara’s backyard. Soon I wanted to learn about the local geology, anthropology, and biology as well, going from the general to the specific.
When I approached prominent local experts in these fields and they agreed to become part of a natural history documentary, the movie took on a life of its own. I see the film as a love letter to the region, sharing what I have learned and seen over four years.
The shots of birds are incredible. How many hours of footage did you have to cull through for all of those?
This is my third feature documentary and I was a novice when it came to filming wildlife. It was frustrating because I would spot a bird, run to set up my camera, and often, just as I got it in the lens, it would take off. Over four years my few hits accumulated. I learned to set my camera to record focusing on a nest or habitat and walk away for two hours. The birds became accustomed to the camera and it was a great way to get close up shots and natural behavior. Since it was digital video I was able to scan through the two hours and pick out the shots, sometimes lasting only a few seconds. Flying shots were challenge but it was fun to try and follow the birds, such as the beautiful White Tailed Kite in hunting action.
There is also a lot of great wildlife footage. Where did you learn those techniques? It must require a lot of patience and persistence.
Wildlife was even more challenging than birds. Many are nocturnal, and when you do spot them during the day, they are shy and move quickly. The breakthrough came when I bought an HD trailcam triggered by infared sensors and using an invisible LED blacklight for nocturnal shooting. The next trial-and-error was finding a trail wildlife used. The trailcam was on night and day, rain or shine, and it was extremely rewarding over the months to find I had caught coyotes, bobcats, and foxes and other animals who were completely unaware that they were being filmed. The bathing black bear was photographed with a trailcam as well.
How much does the average person understand about the connectivity of all the things in a watershed?
I think the average Santa Barbaran has a very superficial notion of the incredible complexity, mosaic of habitats, and biodiversity in the Santa Ynez River area. It is so close, right over the Santa Ynez Mountains. I was no different in my ignorance. I learned so much from biologist Cristina Sandoval over the course of making the film. Adding the layers of geology and anthropology just made my appreciation stronger and I was eager to share what I had learned with the general public with the goal of enhancing their appreciation and understanding as well.
What do you hope the audience takes away?
I would be very gratified if the audience is inspired to explore and expand their understanding and appreciation of the vast wilderness we have in our backyard. It is such a precious local resource and one that we need to preserve in this world where wild places are decreasing at an alarming rate every year. As Cristina Sandoval says, “We need to have respect for all living things….We are all just a part of it.”
The Santa Ynez River Wilderness screens on Thu., Jan. 31, 11 a.m., at the Metro 4, and Sun., Feb. 3, 10 a.m., at the Museum of Art.