Wildlife filmmaker Danny Schmidt has an immense passion for exploration; from the wilds of Colombia to the vastness of Space he is transfixed on bringing little known but complex stories to the attention of the masses. And that is exactly what his latest expedition to film the endangered brown spider monkey aims to achieve.
I’ve always had an affinity for the natural world. Its complexities and interconnectedness offer a lifetime of wonder and learning. I feel extremely fortunate to have a job where I get to look in on this world and translate its magic to eager audiences. I have worked full time as a filmmaker for the last 7 years, focusing my energy and my lens on stories related to science and nature. These jobs have taken me around the world, from the subterranean caves of Italy to the tundra of Denali National Park, and nearly every environment in between.
Danny Schmidt on the move to keep up with the monkeys (p: Federico Pardo)
Most recently I embarked on an expedition to Colombia to document the plight of the endangered brown spider monkey and the critical role it plays in tropical ecology. I was traveling with a team of amazing filmmakers – Federico Pardo and Rick Smith, both of whom have extensive resumés and experience filming wildlife around the world. We wanted to explore this ecosystem and tell the story of how this single species is responsible for dispersing the seeds of nearly 80% of the trees in its habitat. This is not a fact to take lightly: without these primates, whose populations hover on extinction, this massive jungle will lose a huge force in its ability to propagate and support its health.
We had traveled to this part of the world before. The sprawling tropical forests that make up the Magdalena River Valley are deep in the tropics and, based on our previous trips, we knew we were going far off the grid to a place that requires lots of planning. We planned for the environmental factors that can wreak havoc on your body: mosquitoes, ticks, no-see-ums, wasps, ants, poisonous plants, snakes, etc. Add to that 100°F temps, 100% humidity, and tropical thunderstorms. We wore long sleeves, long pants, and rubber boots and generally soaked ourselves in DEET from sun-up to sun-down. We brought a generator to run the digital imaging station and charge batteries and purified drinking water for the 10 days were in the field.
Federico Pardo and Rick Smith keeping spirits high as the mosquitos swarm. (p. Danny Schmidt)
Filming monkeys in the jungle is not for the faint of heart. Walls of mosquitoes wait for you at every stop. Vines and thorns grab at your skin and gear. And the monkeys live in the forest canopy often obscured from your lens by foliage. The name of the game is to move slow, be patient and know when and where the animals will be throughout the day.
Each day we would pack our cameras and gear and travel up-river in canoes in search of the monkeys. We would split up and head into the forest and each take a separate camera package and radio so we could communicate throughout the day. With a short production window, it was best to divide and conquer. For instance, some days Federico would shoot high-end macro sequences with a motorized dolly while Rick and I would each search for animals in different parts of the forest. Often we’d come back with nothing, other days we would get stunning behaviors. At the end of each day, we’d fire up the generator and offload our footage, checking dailies and fixing any gear issues that had come up. We’d scratch mosquito bites and lick our wounds, knowing the next day we’d do it all over again. We joked about the suffer-fest we had created for ourselves but we knew that we were lucky to have the experience and that the story we were telling is one the world needs to hear.