Navigating the NatureTrack Film Festival

By Steven Libowitz   |   October 13, 2020
Ocean Stories with Howard & Michele Hall is a behind-the-scenes look at the pleasure and pitfalls of working with a 1,300-pound 3D IMAX camera

The NatureTrack Film Festival began in 2018 as a way to raise funds and draw attention to the then-seven-year-old nonprofit NatureTrack Foundation, which brings schoolchildren out into nature for docent-led treks along trails in the Santa Ynez Valley. With nature now even more important during the pandemic as outdoor activity is far less conducive to transmission of COVID-19, it’s almost ironic that the screenings of the more than 70 films comprising the 2020 festival are all happening only in the virtual world, albeit extended from a weekend to 10 days, from October 9-18.

The fest, which was abruptly canceled as a live event in March, takes quite a deep dive (pun intended) into the real world of the great outdoors, largely focusing this year on films about water, from the creatures that live in bodies of water to how humans interact with water and its importance to the health of the planet. Among the highlights is Ocean Stories with Howard & Michele Hall: Making Underwater IMAX Movies (directed by local filmmaker Earl Richmond), which follows the veteran, multiple Emmy-winning Howard Hall and his wife in a behind-the-scenes look at the pleasure and pitfalls of working with a 1,300-pound 3D IMAX camera.

Howard Hall took us beneath the surface in an interview last weekend. Festival schedule, streaming times, details, and tickets are available at the fest’s website,

Q. In the documentary, you mention that the kelp forest is your favorite marine environment. From what I understand the Channel Islands have some of the world’s greatest forests. Can you talk about your dives and shoots off our Santa Barbara shores?

A. My favorite place to dive is in a California kelp forest – on a good day. I love this environment partly because it is home to me – I began diving in the kelp in 1966. I have since traveled to most of the best diving locations in the world, but diving in the California kelp always feels like coming home. But it’s not always good. Most of the time, visibility is poor and a large swell can make swimming through the kelp uncomfortable. But on those somewhat rare occasions when conditions are good, there is no better place to dive in the world.

I have made many films in the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara including portions of four IMAX films. Our first digital IMAX film, Secrets of the Sea, will be released in 2022 and also it includes some great kelp forest sequences. Later this year, we will release a feature-length documentary called The Soul of the Sea, half of which was shot in the California kelp forest.

IMAX is your oeuvre. Why does the format continue to captivate you after so many years, despite the unwieldiness and limitations?

Every photographer or cinematographer loves to see their images projected on the largest screen possible. For filmmakers, that screen is IMAX. It is simply wonderful to see your work projected on a screen that is 80 feet high with a large audience attending. Yes, making IMAX films is challenging, especially when the image is captured on 70mm film. But I love taking on difficult tasks underwater. Out film crews are all professional divers who are capable of doing amazing things. We love it because it is hard.

 The footage of the seals plastering their faces on the camera housing is astounding! What other intimate moments stand out for you over your career?

I have had many intimate and thought-provoking moments with whales and dolphins. Many times, I have had whales approach close enough to touch. When you look into the eye of a whale or dolphin, you can almost feel how deeply the animal is looking back.

Ocean Stories addresses briefly the impact of climate change and how environments often don’t even stay static long enough after a scouting expedition for you to return with the filming equipment.

Can you elaborate on the environmental changes over the decades?

Climate change is having a dramatic effect on all environments. This is very true of ocean ecosystems. But the most dramatic impacts to marine communities have been caused by over-fishing. Fish populations have literally been decimated in recent decades. And because wildlife communities are systems of interrelated species, when one species is over-harvested, many others decline as well.

I understand you were friends with Mike deGruy and his wife, Mimi. Can you share some stories, as our Montecito audience has a particular affection for Mike and Mimi?

I have known Mike and Mimi deGruy since 1990 when I first saw one of Mike’s films at the Wildscreen Film Festival in England. In the following years I had the great pleasure to work with Mike on several films including our series, Secrets of the Ocean Realm. What I remember most about Mike was the many times we exchanged practical jokes. He had a wonderful sense of humor.

Fiddling Around in Cyberspace

While the grounds outside the Stow House known as Rancho La Patera remain open for the public to enjoy, the Santa Barbara Old-Time Fiddlers’ Festival had to cancel its annual in-person event to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. But those who play old-time music on acoustic instruments aren’t the kind to shrink from a challenge. So the festival is offering a veritable cornucopia of music via video as a virtual event on Sunday, October 11, with a packed schedule of performances and workshops accessible via a special YouTube channel.

Twin fiddling fiends/husband-and-wife duo Tricia Spencer & Howard Rains will be premiering their concert film A Visit to the Spencer Family Farm while Nokosee Fields & Ryan Nickerson, who have devoted many years to the old time musical traditions of southern Appalachia and the Midwest, also have a new music film in the works as part of the highlights of the 49th annual Fiddle Festival. Both performances and workshops will premiere every half hour, along with videos from the contest winners, from 10 am to 4 pm on Sunday. Admission is free, although donations are encouraged. Visit

Focus on Film

Pollock Pandemic Presentations Online

The new documentary, Picture a Scientist, chronicles the exponential growth in the number of researchers who are creating a new course for women scientists. A biologist, a chemist, and a geologist lead viewers on a journey of their own experiences in the sciences, where they have collectively overcome brutal harassment, institutional discrimination, and years of subtle slights on the path to revolutionizing the culture of science. The film also traces researchers who are providing new perspectives on how to make science itself more diverse, equitable, and open to all.

Co-directors and producers Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck join moderator Emily Goard Jacobs, UCSB professor of psychological and brain sciences, for a Q&A about the making of the documentary following the screening from Carsey-Wolf Center’s Virtual series. Registered at ASAP to receive a screening link to view the film in advance of the event.

Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry to Bother You blends absurdist satire and leftist labor politics to skewer white corporatism, a timely topic for today. A down-and-out telemarketer ascending the company ladder comes up against a unionized labor struggle and a sinister corporate conspiracy in the film set in an alternate-reality contemporary Oakland. Much like the hip-hop music created by The Coup, rapper Boots Riley’s directorial debut represents a funky, surreal, and politically charged funhouse mirror of corporate America.

Boots Riley joins moderator Miguel Penabella of UCSB’s Film and Media Studies Department for a discussion of the movie and Riley’s musical career at 7 pm Tuesday, October 13 in an event that’s part of CWC’s Subversives series. Sorry to Bother You can be seen in advance on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.

Sea Creatures get SBIFF-ed

The short documentary Mussel Man follows Bernard Friedman, a farmer who grows mussels off of the coast of Santa Barbara and may have an answer to the food shortages that we could be facing over the next few decades. The film follows how Friedman has found his unique methods blocked by government red tape, and his fight to keep his farm and his special brand of aquatic agriculture alive. Watch the 17-minute film at and register for the Q&A with Friedman and SBIFF programmers taking place at 6 pm on Thursday, October 8, at


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