Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2007

IMAX producer makes conservation cool

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Working as both producer and professor, Chris Palmer of Bethesda hopes his IMAX movies and the classes he teaches American University film students will increase environmental concern and activism.
Twenty-plus years of making movies, including a few ‘‘boring” clunkers, has taught environmental film producer Chris Palmer a thing or two: ‘‘Green isn’t enough. It has to have a great story, great characters and visuals. It must grab a viewer’s attention and knock people’s socks off.”

And now with cable stations, the Internet and other electronic seductions like Xbox and Weii, Palmer knows it is way too easy for viewers to push a button on the remote, and leave the beautiful bayou for ‘‘Pimp My Ride.”

This rainy morning, Palmer is sitting in his comfortable kitchen in Bethesda. Despite the Ralph Lauren lavender button-down shirt and breezy but earnest British accent, the intensity in his eyes defies any dandy stereotype. Within minutes, it is apparent Palmer didn’t merrily move from high school boxing champion to the British navy to energy wonk to environmental movie producer to American University professor without ferocious focus.

And in a region what you do for a living matters, Palmer can say he’s been there, done that. His resume includes producing some 300 hours of original programming including environmental cable specials, IMAX productions and feature films on subjects ranging from whales to water – which he is convinced will become a major concern of this century. He even has been nominated for an Oscar and a couple of Emmy Awards.

As president of the MacGillivray Freeman Films Educational Foundation, Palmer recently developed IMAX productions including ‘‘Hurricane on the Bayou” being shown at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. With Meryl Streep narrating, the sounds of classic Louisiana songs and aerial images offering hyper-real images of the lush wetlands and bayous, the film has significant Americana appeal. But not everyone is thrilled.

Palmer disagrees with a critic who dismissed the 2006 film as too safe and saccharine, especially coming on the heels of Hurricane Katrina.

This ‘‘kind of criticism hurts, mainly because he is criticizing the film he would have liked to have seen, not the film we made. Our film focused on the catastrophic problem of loss of wetlands and celebrated the spirit that is bringing New Orleans back. It wasn’t investigative journalism, and no IMAX film could ever be investigative journalism.”

He believes that audiences don’t go to an IMAX film for investigative reporting, ‘‘they go to get transplanted to places they can never see themselves, and to see dramatic visuals on 80-foot tall screens which leave you breathless with their beauty, excitement and detail.”

Long ago, when environmental films were safely ensconced in the PBS-TV backwaters, reviews were rare. Now green films are carefully scrutinized for their ratings, universal appeal, artistic merit and scientific integrity. Some of Palmer’s films might seem tame in comparison to the tactics used by the late Steve Irwin and other wildlife moviemaker daredevils.

‘‘Putting scorpions in your mouth” may make ratings soar, but it does nothing for animals, he asserts.

National Parks, he points out, are dealing with fearless visitors who hope to get up-close and too personal with the wildlife, endangering themselves as well as the animals and fragile habitats.

Yet in almost the same breath, Palmer concludes that ‘‘conservation is too important not to make it entertaining.”

And that’s why just three years ago, Palmer established the Center for Environment Filmmaking at American University. The center’s goal is to help students produce professional films, bring established moviemakers to the university and provide students with innovative programs including Classroom in the Wild, in which students travel to locations like the Florida Everglades to produce films.

Exactly how this London-born boxing champ evolved into an environmentalist can’t be quantified. He attended a proper English boarding school for boys, which he recalls as a ‘‘brutal place” where he ‘‘learned that you can’t trust some people.”

Upon leaving high school, he knew he wasn’t ready for college and enlisted in the British Navy.

‘‘It was a great decision,” he says, affording him the opportunity to see the world while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the engineering sciences. Near the end of a seven-year stint, he won a scholarship to attend Harvard.

‘‘Going to America changed my life,” Palmer asserts, especially when he fell in love and married an American in 1972. He resigned from the Navy, determined to ‘‘make my fortune in this country.”

Timing is everything. The 1970s will be remembered for OPEC playing possum with its petrol; gas was scarce and prices, rapidly rising. Luckily for Palmer, he was working at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. The behemoth company may be known for its work with the Pentagon, but his division researched and proposed energy policies. With the intensity of a stealth bomber fighter, Palmer decided to give up engineering and learn everything he could about energy.

‘‘I redesigned my life and became an energy policy wonk,” he notes.

With a Harvard connection, he became a chief energy adviser for Republican Senator Charles H. Percy.

‘‘I was having the time of my life,” he remembers.

But this liberal Democrat was worried he might be forever be smudged as a Republican if he didn’t move quickly. He soon managed a political appointment in the Carter administration. When Reagan’s election put him out of a job, Palmer became chief lobbyist for the National Audubon Society. He researched energy issues, then hiked up Capitol Hill to testify. At first it was heady fun, he says, but in time, he tired of dealing with the young staffers, especially with James Watt heading up the Department of Interior. At the time, a general ‘‘antipathy” for environmental issues plagued Washington. ‘‘I wasn’t being effective enough,” he says.

Not one to sit still, Palmer started formulating a plan. Instead of attempting to persuade elected officials about environmental issues, he wanted to affect change by going directly to the people. It was the early 1980s, when cable television was a struggling newborn. He happened to meet media mogul Ted Turner’s environmental advisor Barbara Pyle and told her about his ideas for making television documentaries.

Again, timing was everything. Turner was searching for content for his cable networks and jumped at the idea — and better yet, funded Palmer’s ventures.

Thus, the policy wonk founded National Audubon Productions in 1983.

‘‘I hadn’t changed at all,” Palmer observes, ‘‘I had changed the tools.”

A decade later, he founded the nonprofit National Wildlife Productions. And three years ago, after not getting a certain promotion, he left his job for American University and MacGillivray Films.

Now with too many titles in front of his name, Palmer speaks of his newest IMAX production arriving in March. With Robert Kennedy Jr. offering a little star power, he is producing ‘‘Grand Canyon Adventure,” a name,” the producer hastens to add, that was changed from the more pedestrian ‘‘Water Planet.”

Even the environment deserves a little razz-ma-tazz.”