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Audubon Revisited
An excerpt from a conference held Oct. 21st, 2006 at the Rensselaerville Institue and hosted by the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve.

The following is only that portion of the transcript dealing with the film. The transcripts of talks by John Chalmers and Christoph Irmscher have been posted in the Biography Section already, The transcript of the roundtable discussion on the Octavos will be posted in the Octavo Section shortly. The tentative plan, as of May 1st, is to make the transcript available in two versions: an electronic (.pdf) for $7 and a hardcopy for $35. They may be ordered through the Huyck Preserve website.


A Conference held on October 21, 2006
At The Rensselaerville Institute Conference Center,
Rensselaerville, NY

TRANSCRIPT (Note: Some of the material below is based on prepared remarks which supplement what was actually spoken at the conference.)

Introduction and Welcome

Laura Carter, Chairman of the Board of the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve, host of the conference.
I welcome you to the Rensselaerville Institute Conference Center and to this final event of the 75th year celebration of the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve. I am Laura Carter, chairman of the board of directors of the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve and Biological Research Station. And welcome to this historic conference, “John James Audubon and his America Revisited in Film and Conversation” as well as to the historic film, AMERICAN MASTERS John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature.

{Television World Premiere On PBS, Scheduled For Wednesday, July 25, 2007 -- Follow This Site For Details.)

Let me tell you a little bit about the Preserve which is the host of this conference. The Preserve was created in 1931 to protect the lands, the waterfalls and the ponds around here; to foster an appreciation of nature; and to be a place that people can enjoy. Some of you have enjoyed walking on the property. Since the 1930s the Preserve has been home to many distinguished scientists including Eugene Odum, the grandfather of ecosystems ecology. Donald Griffin discovered that bats use echolocation to navigate, a discovery made in what used to be a primitive old barn here that was later renovated to be the Preserve’s research center. Those echolocation findings played a role in the development of naval sonar. Vince Schaefer, who was on our board of directors before he died, invented cloud seeding to make rain and fog. And many others launched their careers here.

More recently, Preserve Executive Director Dr. Richard Wyman has been conducting research on how salamanders and the decomposer food web play a role in global warming. We are pleased to continue this legacy with today’s program. And it’s only fitting that we are holding the program here since Edmund Niles Huyck, for whom the Preserve is named – and his home is right out there [pointing] – sighted the last Passenger Pigeon in New York State right here in Rensselaerville, on lands that are now the Huyck Preserve. We are excited that we will be the first to see Larry Hott’s and Diane Garey’s film, AMERICAN MASTERS John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature. We will also hear from experts Dr. John Chalmers, Professor Christoph Irmscher, and Professor Ron Tyler as well as from Leslie Kostrich, Bill Steiner and Tom Blanton. And we’ll have a special treat this afternoon – songs from a musical, Wild Goose Chase, about Audubon, his wife Lucy and their family...

Roswell Eldridge, M.D. Conference Chair.
Thank you, Laura...I want to make one point at the outset: Last night 30 or 40 of us had a chat at my great aunt’s home and there was a lot of talk about the family, the woolen mill of which my great grandfather was a founding partner, and the general area, but not much about the community. Could I ask everybody here who lives in Rensselaerville to stand up? [Applause when over half of the audience stood up.] This is a demonstration of the support that this community has given me – I just wanted to add that to the nice discussion last night. Well, the film we are about to see is spectacular. I’ve seen part of it. And the discussion afterwards, I think, is going to be very educational.

But why are we here now? In fact, it’s because of this gentleman, my father, [photo of Lewis A. Eldridge, Jr. on screen] Lewis A. Eldridge, Jr., and the decision he made at age 20, around when the photo was taken, to buy 10 volumes this size [holds up an Octavo volume]. Each volume weighs about five pounds. This is Volume 5 in the 1856 Octavo edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. The Octavos are also called the “little edition.” The name Octavo has become attached to these because the volumes are one-eighth the size of Audubon’s magnificent, but unwieldy, “double elephant” folios. My father bought these at age 20 and he held on to all of them. And I, as a
12- or 13-year-old, would see these 10 volumes in the living room and every now and then I would pick out one such as this and leaf through it and look at the prints. But in time I began to look at the rest of the volume. Seventy hand-colored prints, yes, but also 340 pages of observations about each subject. In time that was the attraction – what Audubon had to say...

Now for the film!
Larry Hott and Diane Garey are the stars of the day. Larry and I go back five or six years. We tried to do this conference first in Charleston, a natural setting. Larry was going to come with Diane, but it didn’t work out. We talked again in early 2004 and it has worked out. Today is the payoff. Larry’s been doing this sort of documentary filming for over 30 years and Diane for over 20. Let’s proceed. Thank you. [Applause.]

PBS/American Masters Documentary World Premiere, AMERICAN MASTERS John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature Larry Hott and Diane Garey of Florentine Films, co-producers. DIANE GAREY, FLORENTINE FILMS/HOTT PRODUCTIONS, INC. [bio printed in conference program]

Diane Garey has had a distinguished career as a documentary and feature editor and producer. She edited and co-produced Wild By Law, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1992 and was broadcast as part of the American Experience series on PBS. In 1997 she edited Divided Highways, winner of an Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Programming, a George Foster Peabody Award, and Best Documentary at the New England Film Festival. She received the Humanities Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities in 1995. Her recent writing and editing credits include Ohio: 200 Years, a one-hour
Ohio PBS special for the state’s bicentennial; Imagining Robert, a one-hour film for APT national broadcast on PBS and the recipient of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Outstanding Documentary of 2002 designation; The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced, a two-hour film broadcast nationally on PBS in 2003; and Niagara Falls, which was broadcast nationally on PBS in July, 2006. LAWRENCE R. HOTT, FLORENTINE FILMS/HOTT PRODUCTIONS, INC. [bio printed in conference program]

Lawrence R. Hott has been producing documentary films since 1978, when he left the practice of law to join Florentine Films. His awards include an Emmy, two Academy Award nominations, a George Foster Peabody Award, five American Film Festival Blue Ribbons, 10 CINE Golden Eagles, screenings at Telluride, and first-place awards from the San Francisco, Chicago, National Educational, and New England Film Festivals. Hott was the Fulbright Fellow in Film and Television in the United Kingdom in 1994. He received the Humanities Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities in 1995; a Massachusetts Cultural Council/Boston Film and Video Foundation Fellowship in 2001; and the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism in 2001. He has been on the board of non-fiction writers at Smith College and has served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Massachusetts Cultural Commission, and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 2002-2003, Hott completed three films for PBS broadcast, the one-hour Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness and Survival and the two-hour The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced and the one-hour Ohio: 200 Years. He is currently producing and directing Through Deaf Eyes for WETA-TV, Washington, D.C. and AMERICAN MASTERS John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature for American Masters, Thirteen/WNET, New York. He produced and directed Niagara Falls, which was broadcast nationally on PBS in July, 2006.

Larry Hott, co-producer of film:

I was told there was a dress code but I didn’t realize the details! [Humorous reference to Roswell and the tattered purple robe.] I want to start by thanking Roswell for his early and generous support. From the beginning Roswell had ideas of how to get this film done. And the first person he introduced me to was Juliana Harris from the W. P. Carey Foundation. The Foundation came through at a very critical time. Their donation convinced the American Masters Series at PBS to come on board and that led directly to this premiere today. You might think that John James Audubon died around 150 years ago, but while we were producing this film I ran into him everywhere. In Henderson, Kentucky, there are Audubon gas stations, Audubon office furniture stores, Audubon Baptist churches, the Audubon Mobile Home Park. [Laughter from audience.] My personal favorite is the Audubon Pawn and Loan [laughter from audience] which is particularly apt considering that he declared bankruptcy there. Everybody wants to claim Audubon as their own. At the Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana, the director there told me that all the other plantations nearby claim that Audubon slept there. But at Oakley he really did and they are very proud of it. While I was there at Oakley, my cameraman and I took a walk outside along a very beautiful path lined with live oaks and drenched with Spanish moss. We were trying to figure out what to shoot. And then something magical happened. As we walked, the bird sounds were so loud that we had to raise our voices to be heard. And we stood in the place where the artist stood, listening to exactly what he heard, and for a second we felt him. We sensed how it must have been to live when American nature was not something that had to be searched out. It was there all around you. And it was loud. And this was the metaphorical spot that Audubon inhabited. The world could not ignore the birds of America.

Once the idea of making the film about Audubon came to us, we couldn’t ignore it either. But making AMERICAN MASTERS John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature was a challenge. How, for example, do you get dead birds, legally, so you can demonstrate how Audubon poses subjects? Where do you find a live Golden Eagle to illustrate one of Audubon’s famous episodes? How do you show the life of a man who lived his most dramatic years before the age of photography? In a moment you’ll see how we did it. So now it’s time for the world premiere of AMERICAN MASTERS John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature. [Applause, followed by screening of film.]

ABOUT THE AMERICAN MASTERS FILM John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature (Reprint from conference program, from Hott Productions, Inc. http://www.florentinefilms.org/inproduction/05_aud.htm)

The story of John James Audubon is a dramatic and surprising one. Not an American himself, he saw more of the North American continent than virtually anyone, and in time he came to stand for America – the America of wilderness and wild things. But his life is emblematic of far more. Audubon was a self-taught artist and a self-made man whose life was rife with action and contradiction. He played the debonair European when he visited the American frontier, and then the wild woodsman in the drawing rooms of Europe. He was a faithful husband and a shameless flirt, a failed merchant who single-handedly conceived and the created the largest and most beautiful book of the 19th Century. He was praised by royalty, shunned by his in-laws and black-balled – three times – by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. He was jailed for bankruptcy. He dined at the White House, the guest of Andrew Jackson. As an artist and a naturalist his achievements are monumental. The Birds of America – an astonishing collection of 435 life-size prints – was the largest book printed in the 19th Century. Audubon was not only the artist; he was the writer, publisher and promoter. The man who had failed at selling penny nails in the backwoods of Kentucky discovered that he could sell an unfinished folio for a thousand dollars in the finest homes in Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, London and Paris. His early subscribers included the kings of England and France, and the final list would boast over 200 of the richest and most recognizable names on either side of the Atlantic.

Audubon continued to work, creating a smaller folio of birds, and embarking on a major study of mammals. This book, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of America, was only half-done in 1846, when he turned the work over to his son. His eyesight was failing, as was his mind. He passed the last two years of his life in silence, recognizing no one. When he died, in 1851, his wife sold a goodly portion of his original drawings and prints to the New York Historical Society for four dollars a piece.

AMERICAN MASTERS John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature will trace Audubon’s career from its unlikely beginning to its continuing legacy. In 1896 – a year in which poachers killed many thousands of snowy egrets in the Florida Everglades alone – a small group of people banded together to protest this wholesale slaughter, They dubbed themselves the “Audubon Society,” drawing on the fame and accomplishments of an artist whose life was a revelation of energy and daring, whose art was nothing less than the full picture of the nature of a nation.

The film is a co-production of Florentine Films/Hott Productions and American Masters, Thirteen/WNET, N.Y. Funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the W. P. Carey Foundation, and Roswell Eldridge, M.D. [Much applause at end of film.]

Question & Answer session:

Roswell: Juliana, you’re here. Come on up here. What do you think? Was it
worth it?

Juliana Harris, Executive Director of the W. P. Carey Foundation: In a word,
“Yes.” [More applause.]

Larry Hott: You probably noticed that there are 59 seconds of credits, 100 names on there. Film making is a collaborative effort. So many people put their hearts and souls into this. I wish they were here to thank them. This is really something that took a lot of work by a lot of people over several years’ time. Roswell and Juliana – I don’t know if you notice in the credits, they do go by very quickly, but we do want to give you a special thanks – they’re in there. We’ll freeze frame that for you.

Are there questions?

The question I’ve been anticipating is how do we make decisions about what we keep in and what we leave out? Audubon’s working life was at least 45 years long. How do you make a man’s life? He published literally millions of words and thousands of pictures. How do you portray that in 52 minutes? What’s the one thing that I would have wanted to do that we couldn’t do with it, given the time limit? I couldn’t come up with one thing. In a funny way, one of the things I would have liked to spend more time with was what happens after Audubon died. Why does the family become bankrupt? I won’t go into any great detail, but there is a wonderful story there about the Bean edition when the family tries to publish The Birds of America with a different printing process. The Civil War intrudes and there’s not a lot of money around. The family can’t sustain it and they go belly up when they can’t pay for the publishing. It spirals downward from there. The other wonderful story I would love to have gotten into is about George Bird Grinnell who essentially founded the Audubon Society. It wasn’t as simple as that, but he’s responsible for it. He studied with Lucy Audubon because Lucy had to take in students. So George Bird Grinnell saw some of the paintings in the house on the Hudson River and was inspired. So we have a direct connection between Audubon and the Audubon Society itself, even though Audubon died some 40 or 50 years before it was founded.

Q: Is the house still standing?

Larry: No, the house is not standing. It was up at 156th Street. We did do a lot of filming up there, thinking that we would show the contrast between the West Side Highway, that section, and how it looks today and how it looked then, so I went to all the trouble of getting a permit to film on the streets of New York and I’m glad I did because when we pulled up on the highway there and took out a camera, immediately two cop cars pulled up, [audience laughter] cops jumped out and quizzed us about what we were doing there because we were shooting in the direction of the George Washington Bridge. [Audience laughter.] And after 9/11 that is seen as a target. So that’s one of the new challenges.

Diane Garey: One of the things I was delighted to see was the Audubon grave in Trinity Churchyard. It’s really very noble, beautiful and open. There’s always one gate that’s very nice that’s open. I guess people in the neighborhood are used to people sort of stopping by because when we were there we couldn’t find the right gate and several people came up. You know, they took a look . . . “People in corduroy clothes and hiking boots? They must be okay.”

Larry: The date on the Audubon grave is wrong, though. He was actually born in 1780. No, is it ’77, ’75. I think they made him older than he was. And it hasn’t been corrected. I don’t know when that monument went up. I think the monument went up actually at the end of the century. It wasn’t when he died. So it’s been wrong for over a hundred years. [Ed. Note: Roswell says Audubon was born April 26, 1775.]

Q: How did the New York Historical Society acquire the original watercolor paintings?

Larry: I’ll give you sort of a superficial outline. You can ask some of the experts here for more details. What happened was that Lucy was trying to sell them and nobody was interested. So she put out the word in the United Kingdom that they were for sale and she started to get inquiries. When the New York Historical Society found out that these American treasures were going to go out of the country, they put out an appeal, a fund-raising appeal, a subscription. They raised the money to pay her the paltry sum of $4,000 for the watercolors. The New York Historical Society now has what they call “The Aviary” where every March they take out 40 or so of the watercolors and display them and they rotate them so they don’t fade. And every year the display gets more elaborate. For example, last year they had videos, they had bird sounds, they had his desk (that’s where I saw the desk). And Roberta Olson, the curator, when we were interviewing her, just insisted that I come down and film that desk. Usually when we do filming if someone insists that we do something we just do the opposite. So no one can tell me what to do. But I looked at the desk and thought we needed to have something like that to give us a sense of scale. And she was right. The museum staff just loved running around, doing all those dissolves. We spent several hours doing it at high speed, having them run around. We finally ended up in slow motion.

Q: You have a DVD with that?

Diane: We have a DVD with extras, including that and 23 minutes on the artistic process, a good deal on the Octavo.

Larry: In the extras we have Bill Steiner here. We gave Bill enough screen time. And we have the printing process as described by the master printer at Southern Indiana University. Then also we have Bill Steiner and Donald Heald of the Donald Heald Gallery describing in much greater detail the Octavos, the difference between this work and Audubon’s work. This is the DVD which will be out in a few weeks. [Larry holds up DVD.] If there’s time, I don’t know whether we’ll do this today, but if there’s time, we can show these extras.

Q: What’s the story about the copper plates? What happened if she was
trying to sell them to make money?

Larry: The story about the copper plates is maybe apocryphal. We heard it that the boiler and his mother and his father didn’t really want to help in the melting process and they spirited them away. I don’t know where they went. I think Bill knows and he’ll talk about that later. But they did end up in various collections. And one of the hardest things for us was to get permission to use one in the printing process. We wanted to use a bigger one because it would be more dramatic. We also wanted to use a hand press but the only people who would let us use one were the people in Henderson, Kentucky. They had done a printing, a re-strike, a few years before and they knew it would be okay; that nothing would happen. So Alan Gehret, the curator of the museum, packed it up very carefully and drove the plate over to Southern Indiana University, which is about five miles away, and we did the filming there. Then he drove it back. We had to get special insurance. It was really a big deal. That’s why we have the scene where Bob Peck
holds up a large plate. We wanted to give a sense of how big the plates really were, to give a sense of scale.

Q: What inspired you first to do Audubon?

Diane: We’ve worked on environmental films a lot, for over 20 years. Everybody involved in the film project will tell you a different story. Our writer keeps reminding us that he was the guy who had the idea. Then there was Roswell Eldridge who showed up one day at our office and said, “You guys have got to do this.” And then there was Bob Peck. It’s so consistent with our interest in the environment. But you never can really deal exactly with the time. I will say this: the real attraction for a filmmaker like me is that Audubon lived a relatively short life and was productive visually; and those two things together make it easier to tell the story. If he lived to be a hundred and if he’d only been a writer instead of a writer and an artist, it would have been much more difficult to tell that story. Roswell’s daughter Annie: I first of all want to thank you so much for all the hard work and creativity that clearly went into the making of this very informative and moving film about John Audubon. The introduction segment in particular was haunting and stayed in my mind throughout the entire film. I wasn’t expecting this, as the film began, seeing an image of an older woman while hearing a snippet about her very difficult life, but not being told who she was or how she fit into the film. It was a mystery. As I watched the film my mind kept taking me to thoughts of this woman: “Who was she, was she related to Audubon, could it be his wife? And if so, what a complex and challenging life she must have had.” Because of this mysterious woman, the film brought up many family memories. As a child I would look at books, maybe the Audubon Octavos among them, here in Rensselaerville in the living room of my grandparents’ home up on Albany Hill Road. Lewis and Ruth Eldridge each had passions and nature was one of them. Lewis was ill much of his life and my grandmother was there for him in so many ways through it all. Learning about the life of John Audubon and also the life of his wife Lucy, who was indeed the woman in the introduction, made this film so much richer and moving for me. It makes me think about my grandparents’ time together and what the world was like back then in a much more vivid way. Thank you again.

Larry: One of his granddaughters is credited with bowdlerizing or rejecting the diaries so that there is so much confusion. Because that Victorian sensibility wanted to remove the randier side of Audubon. One of the criticisms that we got for the film is that some of the language that people quote often is actually something that we picked up from the granddaughter, not Audubon. And so it’s hard to tell. One thing that was a real challenge for us is that there are only a couple of pictures of Lucy. She’s old in all of them and toothless. And yet, she was a great beauty. We toyed at one point with using these pre-Raphaelite pictures. Then we got another idea: to use a police artist, a sketch artist. We were going to use Audubon’s descriptions of Lucy and when we got the artist’s sketch back we’d use that. It was a fun idea but it would have been a longer process. Eventually we decided we could use re-enactors. I’m very happy with the re-enactors because we just wanted to give a sense of the man.

Diane: You have a great opportunity today because of the people we’ll be hearing from this afternoon and evening at the roundtable after dinner. Those people will have a lot to say about Audubon. Audubon in Edinburgh, Audubon as a writer with Christoph. You’ve seen the surface treatment of the man and his timeline in the film.

Q: Is there a time when will you be going out on the air?

Larry: Well, we’re waiting to hear. The film was made for American Masters which is a major series on PBS. They do biographies of artists. They are now waiting for public television to tell them what the schedule will be. Every time I call the American Masters and say, “When is the film going to be on?” they say “Stop calling us. We don’t know. The television hasn’t told us their schedule. We are pushing for the end of April because that is the week of Audubon’s birthday, John Muir’s birthday, and Earth Day.” Also the Audubon Magazine is doing a major article on Audubon that is coming out in March and we’d like that to precede the broadcast. [Ed. Note: In February 2007 American Masters informed Larry that the film will be shown on national PBS on Wednesday, July 25, at 9 p.m. Check local listings and spread the word.] There’s a good chance that we’ll have an opening at the Smithsonian at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington. We just started talking to them. So there’ll be a lot of opportunities for it. [Ed. Note: In January 2007 the announcement was made that the film will be shown in Washington, D.C., at the
National Portrait Gallery on Sunday, March 25, 2007 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the Environmental Film Festival in the nation’s capital.] Oh, there’s one more thing: we have a distributor for the film called Bullfrog Films. They are the biggest environmental distributor in the United States. Very prestigious company. They will be distributing the film once they know the broadcast date. Bullfrogfilms.com.

Roswell’s niece: I’m Jennifer Eldridge and I couldn’t be more honored to be here, like Annie said, on so many levels. I was sitting there when you asked if there were any questions and I was so in awe I couldn’t speak.

Annie: Jennifer is the naturalist in the Eldridge family. At the family reunion she was catching snakes and helping all the little nieces and nephews hold snakes this summer.

Jennifer: Appropriately, when you said “Bullfrog Films,” I stayed at Bullfrog Camp, which people know here in Rensselaerville. [Ed. Note: Bullfrog Camp is part of the E. N. Huyck Preserve.] It’s so moving to know that that Roswell, your dream has been realized. I am so deeply touched. I learned so much about J. J. Audubon and Roswell’s passion – where it originated: from my grandparents, my grandfather’s love of nature and the Octavo set he purchased. And, I know my dad is also smiling down upon us. And this is definitely an award-winning film. It is so beautifully done. I cannot tell you on how many levels: the photographs, the workmanship. I was crying at points. It’s like watching the March of the Penguins with its breathtaking cinematography and narration of the penguins’ incredible journey to survive as a species! [Audience laughter.] This story of Audubon’s life – as artist, naturalist and husband, and his triumph over adversity to have the Birds of America completed is amazing. You brought Audubon and his exquisite drawings of nature to life. And I cannot thank you enough for doing that with this documentary.

Roswell: You’ve heard from some of the family. I’m sure you’ll hear more. You’ll have some business with my eldest daughter, Cathy. This point is really relevant to the ending of the film because it starts to talk about the Audubon Society’s founding 100 years ago and the egret and the feathers. Here we are in 2006 and we have another species that’s in danger of extinction, there’s no question about it. And it’s right here. This is this volume. There are going to be very few in private hands and here is where you get the substance, the weight of Audubon. The birds are extraordinary in their two-dimensions, but if you read just one account of Audubon about a bird you will see the value, of what is just horrible to imagine, being lost. Now, we have this mission. We have a set, not of birds, but of animals, and we have a poster signed by the working group. Larry and Diane have kindly assented to sign another poster, so you’ll have a choice. And Cathy’s going to be getting the signatures of the producers and we have this opportunity to preserve one of these species here. [Holds up Octavo volume.] Now we are going to be having a break and come back at 3 o’clock and hear something of Audubon’s European experience and then something about
Audubon as a scholar and a writer.

Laura: But first, we say thank you again for the film. [Applause.] And we’ll see you back here in about 10 minutes.

Second showing of film with introduction by Larry Hott and followed by question and answer session:

Laura: Those of you who are here for the second time, those of you who have just arrived, I welcome you. This is Larry Hott and Diane Garey, the filmmakers, and they have graciously offered to show this film a second time. It’s been a very long day and we’re very excited to welcome them here. The film, AMERICAN MASTERS John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature.

Roswell: Pardon me for interrupting, but we didn’t do the poster thing for the roundtable. We have a silent auction and the final accounting will be at the “Way Out Gallery” at 11:30 and if you are interested, there are seven or eight different posters and the proceeds are to try to save a rare Octavo set.

Larry: Thanks for coming at this late hour. I’ll be very, very brief so everybody can get started with the film. A little history: we started this film in 1951 and we’ve been working on it for 55 years. It feels like that. This film came out of a project I did on the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. We re-created an expedition through Alaska in 1899. We re-created it in 2001 and went up the coast of Alaska to Siberia. And on that ship was a man named Robert Peck from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He was a bird expert and a bird artist expert. We were discussing Fuertes who was a bird artist out of Cornell who followed in the footsteps of Audubon. And Bob Peck said to me, “Well, if you like Fuertes, you will really like Audubon.” I said, “I already like Audubon. We’ve been talking about a film on Audubon since 1983.” And Bob Peck said “I know a man named Roswell Eldridge in Rensselaerville, New York, who is very interested in supporting work on Audubon. Maybe you should talk to him.” I did talk to Roswell. He put some money in. That triggered some more money from the W. P. Carey Foundation and that led us to some more money from the American Masters Series of PBS and that led us to funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. And that led us directly to this evening here. Today, this afternoon, was the first time that it was shown in public, it was the World Premiere. Tonight is an encore. I am going to start the film. It is 52 minutes long. It will be broadcast next spring on national public television on the American Masters Series. And I will be here and will take any questions from those of you who are still here after the film.
[After the film was shown, Larry continued.]

I’ll be happy to take any questions.

Q: Will there be a bootleg DVD any time? [Audience laughter.]

Larry: We’re hoping that the DVD will be available very soon. Channel 13, the American Masters Series will broadcast it. We have made the DVD master and we have a distributor, Bullfrog Films, which has been around for about 30 years. They’re very good. It also will be sold internationally. The broadcast will be in late April. A lot of that is interviews. The interviews run for about an hour and then there is some landscape footage. We used quite a bit of what we shot. For example, the Golden Eagle. We knew we were going to use it, but we hadn’t sectioned or planned it out. We were just getting shots to use, around two to three reels. The real fun there is getting hold of an eagle in the first place. How do you get a bald eagle?

I live in Massachusetts so when I proceeded to go to Google I put in “Golden Eagle New England”. The first hit was “Wing Masters” in Springfield, Massachusetts which is 25 minutes from me. They didn’t have a phone to contact so I e-mailed them immediately. They said they have a Golden Eagle which is 27 years old and she’s a ham and they’d love to work with me and they do schools and fairs and things like that already. So they showed up when we were shooting the re-enactments. I had the art department build a cage. There was a lot of tension in the shooting because there were 15 of us working at the same time, all of us standing up in a big barn and the eagle would spread its wings – six feet at least -- and try to attack. The eagle was easily freaked out. We couldn’t use smoke if we’d wanted to. “Smoke” is an oil-based smoke that comes out of a machine but we couldn’t use it because it would make the eagle sick. That was one of our easier scenes. The harder scene was to get dead birds to show the scene where the artist shows how Audubon posed the birds. Where do you get dead birds? I even called the Fish and Wildlife folks and they said, “Oh, it takes six months to get a permit.” (I didn’t need a permit anyway because we were going to use dead birds.) “All birds in the wild are under our jurisdiction. It’s impossible.” And then I went a little deeper and found out that there are people licensed to have live birds and dead birds and they can come under somebody else’s license, so Tufts Veterinary School sent us a whole pile of dead birds. And then a licensed rehabilitator – a bird rescue person -- in western Massachusetts, in Great Barrington, said that she was licensed for birds. So we showed up at Walton Ford’s studio and we had about 10 different dead birds. The artist didn’t like any of them. He said, “Oh, these birds won’t work.” But a friend of his had brought back from Florida in a suitcase, a Chuck Will’s Widow. It’s rare and it’s big. And that’s the bird we used. We filmed the whole scene which was very interesting, fascinating. But we came under the rehabilitator’s license.

Q: In your process, did you storyboard that scene?

Larry: In this case, yes. In most cases we try to get something that looks good on paper and then we throw it out and start fresh, but in the process of writing the script to get the money, we did talk about using birds as a metaphor. Finding those shots, though, was very, very difficult. I’ve had a lot of experience in working in environmental films. I know it’s very, very difficult to get these shots in the wild. I’ve done everything from hiring animal wranglers to going out to ranches in the west where you hire a bear to work for you, wolverines, every possible type of shooting. I did a whole session on wolves. I did three different sessions with wolves until I got them to behave the way I wanted them to. Eventually I spent $3,000 just to get the wolves to go from point A to point B. So in this case I knew I was not going to get all the birds I wanted myself. I have done a lot of filming on birds and I know that if you go to bird refuges you get a lot of birds. You get waders at a place called Wakulla Springs in Florida where the birds are tame and you can get close to them in the swamps, or in the Everglades in the right time of year. The warblers, many other small birds, they don’t care. They don’t sit around. They don’t wait for the right light. Owls are okay if you know where they are. But they don’t make their nests in the best positions. So the first thing I said was “What kind of birds can I get on my own? Egrets? Small birds?” Then I had to find somebody with a format that would match my quality of shooting, high definition, best cameras. There are all kinds of video formats out there. There’s digital videos, VHS, there’s 16-millimeter film, 35-millimeter film and more. So where do you find these things? So I went searching. I happened to have a man working for me who turned up a guy named Michael Male, a bird photographer, who works some with the BBC and he had not yet transferred his bird material from super 16-millimeter film. He was the only one who had the bird sounds with it, the synchronized bird sounds; a sound person was recording it. So I hired this guy to work with me but I was very worried because it was important to get it right. We ended up having to transfer all his 16-millimeter film to high definition video. Sixteen-millimeter is dying out. We did it at NFL Films.
NFL Films is the largest processor of 16-millimeter films. They still do all the big football films. That was a long process. We only finished this film a week ago Friday and then the process of licensing and billing took time. This film is very fresh! I have a sound editor and at the end of the process he turned the film over to me and said there were all the sound effects I could possibly need. He had put in bird calls all over the place and they were completely wrong. If they weren’t I was certain they would be wrong if I didn’t know it. He had sea gull noises over all the birds. So I said to pull out anything we were not absolutely certain of. Anyway, we really pulled out a lot of sound effects.

Q: Are there any of Audubon’s relatives left?

Larry: There are some distant relatives, great, great, great grandchildren who are very eccentric. They were really weird. This is actually a common problem. It’s not common that the family members are too weird. It’s common that family members don’t know anything about the true history of their famous relative. They have not read the biographies, they have not read the journals, they didn’t know anything at all. Their only interest is they might have had a print, a painting that nobody else had. We didn’t film them because it is so expensive to film every day. You don’t just say “Oh, that’s all right, we’ll take a chance.” You don’t take chances making a film. They were very proprietary about what they had. They didn’t want anybody to see or come near or touch it. I don’t think there is a living biographer that we have not spoken to in making this film – most of them are in the film – and they all warned me that there was nothing there. We examined it just to be thorough, but it was not worth filming.

Q: Did anyone charge you to look at their paintings?

Larry: No. What we paid for is access to prints. The copy of the print, the image itself, is in the public domain. It was long before the copyright laws went into effect. But if you want to get a copy of the print you have to pay for the copy. And pay whatever the library wants to charge to use their copy. There’s a big difference. It wasn’t inexpensive but it gave us some latitude. If we can get hold of a decent copy of an Audubon print, if somebody didn’t want to charge us, that was great. For instance, the New York Historical Society gave us carte blanche. We could use any method, scans, digital tiff files, there was no charge at all. Any objects, there was no charge at all. On the other hand, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia said, “We’d love to work with you, but we are going to charge you access to the Museum, we’re going to charge you for copies of every scan, and we are going to charge you for the right to use them.” Every institution has different rules.

Q: Did you acknowledge them?

Larry: Yes. I’m the producer and director. But you might have noticed the 60 seconds of credits, 100 names. That’s the slow version. Otherwise it just would go on forever. The television version is 42 seconds. It’s a collaborative process. I have a writer, a co-producer, an editor, an assistant editor, an associate producer, many, many others, an animator. Right from the beginning in this script I thought of animation. I had the idea of doing it in charcoal and I thought I could use the skins. I was fascinated by all the skins: parakeet skins, woodpecker skins, pigeon skins. I was trying to figure out how to use them and I came up with the idea of having animation. It’s the execution of the idea that makes it work. So I called the animator and asked him what was involved in that and the first thing he said was “You cannot go there to shoot without first understanding how animation works.” So he came with me and he made sure that the birds were placed properly, that the registration was correct.

All that was a great relief to me. There’s nothing worse than having done a great complicated shoot and then going back to your technical person to check it and having him say, “You screwed up. You have to do it again.” So whatever cost there was in bringing this person down saved me tons and tons of money. I hope you like that answer. The eagle, the animation, the printing process and Walton Ford, the artist, each of those is in the movie. Because it was obvious to me that to continue through the process of making the film, I knew that if you just had the prints, the landscapes and the birds and talking heads the film would work, but it wouldn’t have any true creativity and energy there. So what we’ve always tried to do with all our films is to say, “What can we do to elevate it? What little spark? What can we do that’s different in this film?” Even if it’s not the most original creative thing, it’s just something better than a straight film. And it doesn’t always work, but at least we feel like we’re trying. That’s our challenge. Otherwise we could mail it in.

Q: You’ve obviously decided not to film Walton Ford’s work.

Larry: Yes. We filmed the sequence where Walton Ford explained the parody of the eagle he had done, Audubon on the crag. Amazing. Audubon liked pictures that were really funny, dark, troubled. So in the interview we had to explain why he did that one picture. It took us away from the story of 52 minutes. In the extras, you don’t have that part in the extras. In the extras we could expand on the selection of white versus why he chose paint, and much more of Audubon’s process. In fact, the secretary to the executive producer at American Masters did say to me after we had started this, “Don’t forget Walton Ford.” We got Walton Ford on the recommendation of Franklin Burroughs who was at Colby College in Maine. He had written an article about Walton Ford’s passion for Audubon. It was a bit of a risk for us because I had only spoken to Walton Ford. I had not scouted his studio. But I had seen his work and read up about him. And when we got there, not only was his studio wonderful, but he was so cooperative that when we finished filming – he had some other landscapes to do that day -- he came out with us to help us find the landscape shots that we needed. He also finished the painting of the Chuck Will’s Widow that he did and then mailed it to us in case we needed it to complete the scene. We decided we didn’t. Then he called and asked for me and said the gallery was upset that he hadn’t done any “real work.” [Audience laughter, then applause.]

Larry introduces the outtakes:

Larry: I will show this extra person on the outtakes. In the making of this film we went to many locations, and one of them was the location of the dealer in the Heald Gallery in New York City. He is a good friend of Bill Steiner’s. Bill started working with me from the beginning of the project as an adviser. And he introduced me to Donald Heald and when I was scouting the Heald Gallery Donald Heald just started taking Audubon prints off the wall, pulling them out of all corners of his office, showing me prints that had penciled on the backs: $48,000, $98,000. I was just in love with the whole scene there. So I knew I wanted to shoot there. We spent a day shooting there and it boiled down to about two minutes in the film, but we got some additional wonderful material. So this is five minutes of the several hours we shot at the Donald Heald Gallery. This DVD player is a prototype that was given to me by my technician yesterday afternoon. I took it from him to test it. This is the test right now, so let’s hope it works! From the outtakes (footage shot for the film but not used in the final version):

Bill Steiner: The great thing about all of these prints is that Audubon painted these birds in their full life size. You can see [pointing] every scale on the leg, you can see every vein on every feather. The setting is correct, the outline is correct, the exact size is correct. And when you compare it to Wilson’s, you are struck that when Wilson had to put his bird on the same page with several other birds he had to reduce them in size. There’s no depth of field whatsoever, there’s no detail. This [shown] is Plate number 333, Green Heron. Once again, Audubon got everything right: the feather articulation, the marsh background; you can compare this to what Wilson did with the same bird. This [shown] is Wilson’s Green Heron and these [shown] are Audubon’s. It’s jammin’ onto the page, he didn’t paint it right, the neck’s too thick, the bill’s too short. It’s the best Wilson could do. He was an illustrator. But this [Audubon’s painting] is life-sized and everything’s correct down to the last vane on the last feather. This [shown] is American Bittern. It’s Plate number 337. It’s another one of the heron prints that are highly desired these days. And this print actually was made by Robert Havell in 1836. Of the 435 original copper plates, about 80 of them still exist. This has been hand colored. This is the final product which came out of Robert Havell’s shop and this is the American Bittern from 1837. This [shown] is what it looked like as it came off the press. This is a black and white image and you can see the incredible detail that Robert Havell added to all these prints. All the little blades of grass in the background, the veins on the feathers, and all of this was etched in by using acid etching on the copper plates. So the colorists can color this. All the watercolorists had to do was add a uniformly thin layer of brown paint in the foreground and all the shading in the background made those little reeds and the watercolorist didn’t have to paint all that in. The same thing with the feathers on the neck. The feathers right here [shown] on the back, it’s all aquatinted in to bring that bird to life. This is where you get into the drawn from nature issue. It says “Drawn from Nature by J. J. Audubon, FRS, FLS.” Well, these were birds to be found in the British Museum that had been collected in Alaska. They wanted an Alaskan background but neither Havell nor Audubon had ever been there. So they looked around and found a travel book of Captain Cook’s voyages and they stole this background. You can see this big triangular mountain peak in the foreground [points] and when you go up to the print the same one is right there [points]. There’s a very distinctive notched peak here [points] and the same one is right there [points].

Voice: It’s artistic license!

Bill: Yes. Very, very loose definition of artistic license. That’s a good way to put it. And it is kind of instructive of his character. It is a fascinating story.

Someone else speaks: What we’ve got here, however, are three different editions of the Octavo birds that Audubon published beginning in 1839 and then the final edition which I think was done in 1870.
Voice: Probably the first time Audubon made some money.

Bill: Yes. And so basically a reduced version of the larger plates in the Ornithological Biography, reduced using the camera lucida, a method of essentially reducing the image down. Many of the images, of course, were then printed on separate plates. They couldn’t get all the birds into this smaller format. This is what was applicable to the first Octavo edition. Here we have interspersed the hand-colored lithographs with the original text published in the Ornithologial Biography. Someone had to leaf through this edition. There are wonderful little anecdotes of his times spent observing and capturing these birds. This is the same writing as the Ornithological Biography. It’s slightly edited along the way to make it more factual as they found out more stuff. But at the end of the 19th Century Audubon was considered one of the great writers in America. What’s really interesting about this book is that they followed the scientific order that Audubon knew at the time. When they got down to the very end, he added in the last 17 birds that he had not included in the double elephant folio.

Voice: Audubon’s art, then the Havell folio.

Bill: Yes. The last 17 birds were birds that he found on his last big trip of discovery to the Yellowstone.

Voice: The Octavo edition is even more complete as a biography of Audubon’s art than the Havell double elephant folio.

Bill: Yes. [Applause at end of outtakes showing.]

Larry: If there’s anyone still awake we can show it again.

Roswell: Let me say that at the Palmer House, probably the beginning of November, we are going to show my Octavos and some other related prints. At that point we will probably have some pricing and also, of course, with the extraordinary ability to reproduce and enlarge, I have the Octavo birds that my father had that can be enlarged to 23almost billboard size. I can do any bird, and quad, any size, without destroying the book. And, of course, anybody else interested in what you might get into, there’s a sign-up sheet for what we are going to offer from this edition, my father’s edition.

Laura: We thank the filmmakers, Larry and Diane, who have graciously shown the film a second time. It’s been a very long day and we are very grateful to them for the film AMERICAN MASTERS John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature which you can see on television next year.