Category Archives: Wildlife/Documentary Filming

To be Good at Filming…

Editing class in Vedum, Sweden
Editing class in Vedum. Everyone works with their own material to produce an exciting film.

After selling my first film to Swedish Television when I was a teenager, I purchased professional equipment and began to study the techniques of filming with a goal of becoming a good documentary/wildlife filmmaker. I was soon hired to work with Nils Dahlbeck at Swedish Television in Gothenburg. Having retired from his job as CEO of television, Nils had begun producing his own films for a nature program called, “Back to Nature with Dahlbeck.” I became acquainted with many people working at television. One later became my mentor, helping me with several of my early productions. One thing he often told me was, ”To be good at filming you must first learn to edit.”

Many of the films we see on YouTube or other Internet channels could, with a little editing, be fantastic documentaries. My mentor was correct when he said that a good film starts in the editing room. Through our organisation, Naturfilmarna – Swedish Wildlife Filmmakers, we have held several classes in filming and editing. Not only do our students learn to produce a better film, they are inspired and realise that editing is exciting and fun. They often become so engrossed in their new skills that they work late into the night. If you enjoy filming, but consider editing a chore, my advice is that you learn the secrets of editing and you’ll soon discover new possibilities for your film.

I’m a little late getting this blog published this week because I, and several of my colleagues from Naturfilmarna, have been at The Swedish Outdoor Show (Vildmarksmässan) where I was asked to hold a film school. Twice a day I lectured on why someone becomes a wildlife filmmaker and about some of my adventures in filming. I shared a little about working with the Kodiak bear in Alaska, the Ceylon elephants on Sri Lanka, and about our latest project, Himba – the Red People. One of the most important aspects of my job is presenting my work to an audience. Standing in front of a group of people I can almost feel their excitement as they experience the adventure through my words, and a responsive audience fuels me to tell my story with even greater enthusiasm. This weekend at The Swedish Outdoor Show we met lots of interested and interesting people who wanted to know more about wildlife filmmaking.

Some of the people who come to the Outdoor Show are a bit “unusual” with stories of their own. Perhaps you need to be a little eccentric to venture out into the great unknown, feeling comfortable in unusual circumstances that lead to incredible adventures. One of those people who came by to talk to me was Marcus Aspsjö, the son of good friends of ours. A young adventurer I’ve known since the day he was born. His next adventure this summer will be to paddle the Yukon River from Whitehorse, Canada till the Bering Sea on a SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard). Since I’ve been working in Alaska for over 30 years we had a lot to talk about. One of the things we talked about was safety, something that, as a role model, Marcus needs to be vigilant about. My advice was to be prepared for the unexpected. Most people think bears are the greatest danger while traveling through Canada’s and Alaska’s wilderness, but most injuries are caused by mistakes made when your not paying attention. Then the bear, with all his power, is the least of your problems. Follow Marcus at https://www.facebook.com/adventurecalling/

Home again, I head back into the studio for the final editing of our next film, “The Tom Coleman Story.” Next week I’ll tell you a little about this remarkable life lived in the service of others.

My Dear Elsa – The Movie is Finished

Elsa Lundh and Stefan Quinth
I often visited Elsa at the senior care facility where she lived out her last years, bringing the fan mail she received from viewers all over Scandinavia.

In February 2006, we held a three-day premiere of the film “My Dear Elsa.” Elsa hadn’t seen the film prior to the premiere and came to the theater a little nervous but very excited. Throughout the first showing Elsa laughed and commented loudly, narrating along with the film. When it was over Elsa called out loud and clear, ”Now I have finally been vindicated!”

When the film later aired on Swedish Television (SVT), Elsa became an over-night sensation! The buyer for SVT told us that “My Dear Elsa” received the most re-run requests of any documentary they had ever had. It was an enormous boost for Elsa’s self-esteem.

In 2007 Elsa contracted pneumonia. That fall and the following spring her conditioned improved slowly and I visited her and filmed her several times at the senior home where she was living. We never divulged Elsa’s address so any mail from her television audience was sent to us and every time I visited her I brought the fan mail that flowed in from all over Scandinavia. Many of those who had seen the film wrote to thank and encourage Elsa. One young girl wrote, “When I grow up I want to be just as happy and sweet, and be an inspiration to others just like you are.”

Elsa read the letters out loud for me, laughing and thoroughly enjoying all the attention she received from so many people. Those letters made her so happy. She often told me, “Stefan, I feel like a queen. Despite all the horrible things I’ve been through, I wouldn’t want to change places with anyone.”

I think that is the best payment I’ve ever received for a film – the satisfaction of doing something good, of creating a documentary that transformed a vulnerable, degraded human being, who had grown up destitute and misunderstood, and raise her up to be a queen. This tiny woman, debilitated from treatments and medical experiments, finally gained respect and the realization that she was, indeed, valued.

I asked Elsa, during one of my visits in 2008, if I could get her anything. Without hesitating she said that she wanted a box of After Eight chocolates. I promised to get it for her, but time flew by and I was away a lot that spring. We were going to be working in the USA all summer and the day before we were supposed to leave I suddenly remembered my promise. Elsa never forgot a promise, so I knew I had to rush out and buy a box of chocolates and go and visit her.

When my wife, LaVonne, and I entered Elsa’s room that evening she was already in bed, but her eyes lit up with joy when she saw us. She didn’t care about the chocolates I placed on her bedside table. Her breathing was labored but she spoke loudly and clearly between breaths. It was the first time she didn’t assure me that if she could only start exercising again she would soon be on her feet. She knew, and I could see, that this was probably our last visit together.

We sat by her bedside and listened. Mostly she spoke of the happiness she had experienced the last few years because of the film about her life. She didn’t mention it, but I understood she was saying a loving farewell. We sat with Elsa until late that evening. She didn’t want us to go, but we had an early flight to catch in the morning so we finally had to say good-bye to our friend, Elsa.

The next morning, just minutes before we got in the car to drive to the airport, the phone rang. It was one of the nurses from the senior care unit in Vårgårda. She said, “I thought you would like to know that Elsa left us this morning, you were such dear friends.”

The movie “My Dear Elsa” tells her story from degradation to triumph. See it on DVD and Vimeo .

Filming Elsa

Elsa Lundh outside Västra Marks mental hospital in Örebro, Sweden.
Elsa Lundh outside of Västra Marks mental hospital in Örebro where she was committed when she was 17 years old.

I had many unforgettable moments with Elsa during the five years we were filming the story of her life. One Sunday, in the summer of 2003, we drove to Halmstad on the southwest coast of Sweden to visit one of the institutions where she was confined for two years in the 1930’s. Still in use, it is now a home for developmentally challenged men who, during the day, had jobs in the area. I had already contacted the home and they were waiting for us. Elsa was greeted like a celebrity. They had prepared a meal and coffee and Elsa enjoyed herself immensely as she told them about life in the institution during the 30’s. The personnel were fascinated by her memories and her stories.

We left the institution in Halmstad in the afternoon and began the drive home to Vårgårda, but Elsa wasn’t quite ready to end the excursion. When we had come about half way and were nearing the city of Borås, Elsa asked, “Can’t we stop for dinner?” When Elsa said “dinner” she usually meant coffee and a sweet roll. It was five minutes to six and I knew that most of the cafés closed at six. It was going to be tight. I stopped outside a café and rushed in to see if they would stay open a little longer for Elsa. The girl behind the counter wasn’t thrilled but said if we hurried, she would serve us.

I ran back to the car to get Elsa and escort her into the café as quickly as possible. Elsa walked severely stooped with her face to the ground and commented about everything she saw. If we passed a flower she had to stop and talk to it for awhile, so we didn’t move very fast. I think we walked through the doors right at six o’clock. We placed our order with the girl at the counter and then sat down at a nearby table.

There were about 15 other people in the café who were finishing up their coffees. The girl who had taken our order soon arrived at our table carrying our coffee and rolls on a tray. As she was laying out the items on the table, Elsa began to tell her life story. The waitress looked slightly uncomfortable and I was terribly embarrassed. I thought to myself, “I hope they don’t think that she is my mother. Please, Elsa, stop!”

But Elsa didn’t stop; she continued to tell her story and before long the atmosphere in the café seemed to change. It was 6:30 and Elsa was still telling her story when I looked up. The waitress was still standing there and all the other people in the café were now standing around our table listening intently.

When I realized how moved those people were by Elsa’s amazing but tragic story, I was ashamed of my earlier embarrassment over Elsa’s eagerness to talk to strangers in a café. Instead, I sat up straight, proud to be Elsa’s friend, and listened along with the others. At 7 o’clock Elsa paused to take a breath and I grabbed the chance to say, “Maybe we should be getting home now, Elsa?”

Elsa agreed and we all left the café in silence. I am sure that no one listening that afternoon in Borås will ever forget my friend, Elsa.

Elsa and I visited all of the institutions where she had been incarcerated for over 30 years. I also went with her to birthday parties, shopping and to cafés, filming everything she did. Once, it nearly ended in a catastrophe.

Elsa had purchased a small summer cottage where she occasionally stayed for a couple of days. It was located deep in the forest and she didn’t have a telephone or other conveniences. One day she asked me if I could drive her out to her cottage and then come and pick her up the next day. Sure, no problem! We drove out to the cottage and I had a cup of coffee with her before I went home. Elsa was going to spend the night. But, to my eternal shame, I forgot about Elsa! A couple of days later I was at a party in the evening when someone asked, ”How’s the film about Elsa going?” Devastated, I realized that Elsa was still out there, alone in the forest. I left the party, jumped into my car and raced out to the cottage.

It was less than a half hour’s drive, but during that time strange thoughts flooded my mind. What if Elsa was lying dead in the cottage? What if she tried to walk home and had collapsed in a ditch by the side of the road? Those were anxious minutes before I reached the cottage.

I rushed inside without knocking and there was Elsa sitting by the kitchen table. She looked up and smiled. “It’s a good thing that you came now,” she said, “that was my last piece of sweet roll.” She swallowed the last sip of coffee and finished her roll. We climbed into the car and drove home. Elsa never mentioned that I forgot her out there at the cottage. She was always happy and grateful every time we were out on an adventure.

More next week about working with Elsa. The movie “My Dear Elsa” tells her story from degradation to triumph. See it on DVD and Vimeo .

Meeting Elsa

Elsa Lundh and Stefan Quinth
Elsa and I outside the little cabin where she lived with her mother after being released from the asylum.

The first time I met Elsa was just a few months after she had come home to live with her mother. I was eight years old and my brother, Peter, was ten. In Sweden children sell books and magazines before Christmas to earn money. They have one or two catalogs and go door to door and take orders from people. Peter was doing this and on a visit to our cousins who lived on a farm outside of town, he decided he should bring his catalogs and try to sell something in that area. We were encouraged to visit all the farms in the neighborhood but, they said, don’t go to the little house in the forest. The ladies who live there are so poor, they wouldn’t have any money.

It was a dark afternoon in October, late enough in the year for people to begin to think about Christmas, but I think most of them had already placed their orders with someone else. I remember that we didn’t have much luck, if fact, we didn’t get any orders at all. We were pretty discouraged and thought that if we could just sell one little magazine we would be happy.

When we had been around to all the farms without any sales, my brother decided we should visit the two old ladies anyway. So we follow the path through the woods to the little house where they lived. It was dark and a little creepy when we walked up the overgrown path between the looming spruce trees. Soon we saw the gleam of an oil lamp in one of the windows of a small cabin. When we reached the stone steps we knocked cautiously on the door. The door opened and someone peeked out. When we told her why we had come, she invited us in. She stuttered and spoke with a loud, shrill voice, which frightened us a bit, but we gathered our courage and went inside the little house.  The lady who invited us in was Elsa.

We showed her our catalogs and asked if she would like to order anything from us. Elsa asked us to come into the kitchen. (The cabin had three small rooms. Inside the door was a small hallway. On the right was the kitchen that was about 20-25 square feet. On the left, behind a thick blanket, was the bedroom.) Elsa looked through the catalogs and began to order. I think she ordered one of each of the books in the catalog. (We didn’t know that Elsa had just recently come home after 32 years in an asylum where she wasn’t allowed to own anything, not even a postcard) We were just pleased and happy that we had made a good sale on an otherwise discouraging and dark October evening.

We thanked her, put our catalogs into our little bag and were just about to leave when we heard an eerie, ghostly voice call from the bedroom, “Elsa does not want any books, she doesn’t have any money!” That spooky voice coming from behind the blanket was too much for two small boys. We burst out through the door and ran as fast as we could through the forest, not stopping until we reached the main road. There we stood for a moment to catch our breath and consider what had just happened before we slowly and dejectedly walked back to our cousins’ farm. We never told anybody about our encounter,  neither did we order any books or magazines for Elsa.

Twenty-five years later I was commissioned to produce a documentary about Vårgårda and some of the interesting people who lived there. I had a long list of names of people I was supposed to interview. Working my way through the list I called each one and arranged a meeting. One of the names on the list was Elsa Lundh. I had not had any contact with her since that day when I was eight years old. I called Elsa and asked if I could come and film an interview with her. She said that would be great and we booked a time.

On the day of the interview I went to Elsa’s apartment, which was located near the center of town. I rang the doorbell and waited. It took awhile before I heard someone moving on the other side of the door and the sound of locks being opened. (Elsa was afraid of burglars so she had installed several extra locks on her door just to be on the safe side.) After several minutes I saw the doorknob turn and the door opened a crack. The opening widened just enough for a gnarled hand to reach through, one finger pointed right at me. Then I discovered the little hunch-backed woman inside. Before I could say a word I heard Elsa’s strong, shrill voice asking, ”Where are the books I ordered?”

Elsa forgave me, thank goodness. She understood why we hadn’t returned with the books she had ordered that Christmas in 1965. She also told me that she did, in fact, have money then. She had just begun to collect her pension.

More next week about working with Elsa. The movie “My Dear Elsa” tells her story from degradation to triumph. See it on DVD and Vimeo .

Thank You So Much!

Premiere "Himba - The Red People"
Premiere “Himba – The Red People” February 3, 2017, Vedum, Sweden

This weekend we held the premiere for our film, ”Himba – det röda folket” (Himba – The Red People), a film about a unique culture in southwest Africa. When I’ve been working on a production for several years and are finally ready to plan the premiere, expectations are high and I am always curious how the audience will respond. Will they react the way I’ve hoped? By that time I’ve seen the movie hundreds of times, back and forth, and am, quite honestly, sick to death of it. It’s hard for me to judge if it is any good. Technically I know that it is ok, but will the audience appreciate the film and understand the message.

Producing a film or writing a book has many challenges. It’s like wandering out into unknown territory and having to climb a mountain. In the beginning it is rather pleasant as you walk up the foot of the mountain, but after awhile the path becomes steeper and more rugged. It’s a long haul to the summit, and by the time you finally reach it your thoughts are muddled and you wonder if it was really worth the effort. Then suddenly the sun breaks through and the clouds dissipate to reveal an enchanted landscape. (The audience has stayed awake through the entire show and the first applause breaks out in the theater.) Yes! It was worth the effort. Descending the mountain is easier, but on the way down we see the next mountain looming in the distance. A new film awaits, a new story to be told.

During the first showings of any film I’ll stand in the darkness and study the faces in the audience. It is from their expressions that I’ll get the first indication of whether or not I have succeeded in getting my message across. I’m filled with a kind of apprehensive anticipation.

So how was the premiere weekend for “Himba – the Red People”? We’ve showed the film to a full house each evening and the response has been fantastic. We’ve been inundated in gratitude and have received many messages, emails and posts from people expressing their appreciation. We’ve also been asked to show the movie in other parts of Sweden. All anxiety about how the film will be received has evaporated and I realize that my efforts were not in vain.

I am very grateful to everyone who came to see the film during this premiere weekend. Special thanks to Christofer Wärnlöf and everyone at Häggatorp, who arranged a spectacular premiere party on Friday after the first show. Häggatorp’s Manor House, built in the 1700’s, was filled with people and music from the live African band, and we enjoyed a tasty buffet laid out in the charming dining room. I also want to express my immense appreciation to Namibia’s ambassador, Morina Muuondjo, and her staff who has been with us this weekend for the premiere. Ambassador Morina is a great inspiration for our work in Namibia.

Our next film premiere will be held in Cambridge, Minnesota on April 22. It is a wonderful story about Dr. Tom Coleman, a surgeon who spent a large part of his life working to save the lives of thousands of people in Ethiopia. “The Tom Coleman Story” is an extraordinary account of a remarkable man whom I will write more about in the coming weeks.

See the trailer for “The Tom Coleman Story” here.

World’s Greatest Job

Stefan Quinth standing on top of a mountain overlooking Frazer Lake, Kodiak, Alaska
Stefan Quinth, Kodiak, Alaska, 2006

My name is Stefan Quinth and I am a wildlife/documentary filmmaker. I’ve actually never been anything else. Well, except for the time I worked as a freelance journalist from 8th grade through high school. I wrote for local newspapers and sometimes had as many as four or five articles a day. I loved to tell stories and found it quite fulfilling to write about things I felt were important. But then, all of a sudden, a new media opened up to me–television.

I was 17 when I made my first film and sold it to Swedish Television. I mailed the film on a Tuesday and the very next morning the telephone rang. A woman on the other end asked very politely if they could please buy my film. No television company has every purchased a film from us that quickly since then ­– it was definitely a record, possibly a world record – but it convinced me that film is a great way to tell stories.

Working with film, music, or any other art form is exciting and when your artwork, in my case a film, is premiered and the audience reacts with laughter or tears at the right moment, it makes it all worth the effort. Few people realize just how much work goes into producing a film. I was packing up my equipment after showing a film somewhere in southern Sweden when an older woman approached me and complimented me on the film. I always enjoy interacting with my audience. The woman stood there for a moment more, eyeing me quizzically, before she asked, “But do you have a real job?”

I suppose it’s a valid question–even though I have produced hundreds of films for television, numerous educational films about geography and cultures, and many other films for various organizations. Can you really have this much fun and still call it a work? When I visit schools or universities to show films and talk about wildlife, nature or cultures, students will approach me and say, “You must have the greatest job in the world!” I would have to agree. Being a wildlife/documentary filmmaker is probably the greatest job you could have.

In future blogs I’ll tell you stories about a wonderful world, a world worth fighting for.