Big Bend: The Wild Frontier

Big Bend Literary Magazine's Michelle Minto and Emmy Award-winning wildlife cinematographer Skip Hobbie discuss Hobbie's film, storytelling, nature, and, of course, beer on The Porch.


Michelle: Why Big Bend? What brought you here?

Skip: I grew up pretty much my whole life in Texas, but did not visit Big Bend until I was 18. It stuck with me as an amazing place to come back to. I was very lucky to find success chasing my dream job as a wildlife filmmaker, traveling around the world filming amazing animal stories, but that travel also made me more appreciative of the amazing wildlife we have back home in Texas. As filmmakers, we’re always looking for stories that haven’t been told. So, early in my wildlife filmmaking career, I started to think, “We’ve all seen Yellowstone or the Serengeti on screen hundreds of times. Why not the wonders of West Texas?” It took me many years to get to a point in my career where I could get a project like this off the ground, but Big Bend was always at the top of my list when thinking about making wildlife films closer to home.

Michelle: I read that you had a team with you from Ireland. What were their impressions of the Big Bend?

Skip: I brought my idea for a Big Bend film to a small documentary production company in Ireland because I love their films, and their style of wildlife documentary was exactly what I had in mind for Big Bend. Being from Ireland, they loved the idea of telling a story about an environment totally unlike what they were familiar with. As wildlife lovers and filmmakers who travel a ton themselves, they came prepared and excited for what West Texas had in store. Perhaps the biggest shock to them was the vast distances. Just driving from the park up to Alpine feels like crossing half the Island of Ireland.

Michelle: What is the first thing you noticed about Big Bend?

Skip: The beauty of the desert mountains at sunset, which also rang other bells. Drastic elevation changes are frequently accompanied with higher diversity of species. As desert gives way to forest in our sky islands of West Texas, the gradient of mixing habitats and cooler temperatures as you climb can have a profound impact on the flora and fauna present.

Michelle: What would you say is the most beautiful experience you had here?

Skip: Filming beavers in Santa Elena Canyon at sunrise was definitely one of the more peaceful, beautiful experiences. The beavers would finish their nightly routine during the first few minutes of glorious sunshine pouring into the mouth of the canyon, so it took a lot of early mornings to get the shots we needed to tell our story. Sitting there in that cathedral of rock, though one of the most visited spots in the park, most of the time I wouldn’t see another human on those early summer mornings.

Michelle: Speaking of humans, where did you stay while filming? Did you spend much time in Terlingua with the locals?

Skip: My assistant and I had a trailer in Terlingua, and, when the Irish folks were over, we rented them a place from some other locals. I wish I could say we’d spent more time integrating into the local community, but most days we were gone before sunrise and only back after sunset. We’d work 7 days a week for 2-3 weeks in a row, then head home to Austin for a week.

Michelle: Can we talk about the hummingbirds?! Did you know they were here? Were you looking for them?

Skip: We did a lot of research about the animals we wanted to film, as well as a lot of scouting to put ourselves in the best places to film those animal stories. A story like the hummingbirds in our film took almost 30 days to get the right shots. So, we have to put in a lot of consideration upfront before deciding what we want to film, where, and how will it be possible to actually film it. We knew we wanted to do a hummingbird story from the get-go, as they are always dazzling in slow motion, but we wanted a story that would say more than that about Big Bend, which led to the lucifer hummingbird: a species that lives primarily in Mexico and only crosses into the US in a few special places. This says something about Big Bend and its special geography. This species also has a particularly exciting courtship dance, which meant we had a behaviorally-driven story to tell with a beginning, middle, and end. Finally, and most importantly, we knew of a private bird sanctuary outside of the national park where we could reliably find these birds, giving us the many opportunities it would take to get the shots we needed to tell a story.

Michelle: Were there animals you randomly discovered?

Skip: In direct contrast to everything I said about research above, the bear climbing its way up into the acorn woodpecker’s granary trees was a happy accident. Cinematographer Dom Pontillo and his assistant Brian O’Leary were on a mission to find and film new, young bear cubs that summer when they happened upon the bear climbing. So, they set up a blind and tried day after day before they were fortunate to see them a few times.

Michelle: Do you try to tell a story before you film or does the story emerge from the footage you are able to capture?

Skip: We’ll adapt a story as we shoot if what we see or capture on camera doesn’t tell the story we had planned in advance, but I feel strongly that it’s only by having Plan A in place that Plan B can be quickly developed as it arises. If we didn’t have stories in mind in advance, we might come up short of the shots needed to tell a story. Beautiful images will only carry you so far if you don’t have stories to tell.

Michelle: Yes. Story is crucial. As a writer, I know. What inspires you?

Skip: Being able to share amazing places like Big Bend and wildlife stories with an audience that might not otherwise get to experience such a beautiful place. Big Bend is remote and hard to get to, which is part of what makes it special. I never want to see Big Bend overrun or loved to death by visitors, but a film like this can still transport people there who might not otherwise go.

Michelle: The documentary had beautiful shots of the landscape and night sky...

Skip: I love any excuse to shoot sunsets and stars.

Michelle: I’m so glad you did. We love our dark skies around here. Last, but certainly not least, how many beers did you have on The Porch?

Skip: Not enough! I’ll never say that I spent too many sunsets out filming in the desert. I look forward to going back more often recreationally, so I can take in more sunsets (and beers) on The Porch.


This Critic's Score: 3 out of 4 Sotols

This documentary is chock-full of the best elements. You will see awe-inspiring images of Big Bend at dawn, noon, and dusk, in the Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Bejeweled with sunshine and blanketed in rain. You’ll voyage across the desert floor, the mountain peaks, the sky. You’ll experience the stories of every kind of life therein. Big Bend: The Wild Frontier of Texas does due diligence in honoring the home we share with each other and with wildlife, who know no borders.

In addition to the stunning imagery, this documentary has a cast of characters who best tell the stories of our home. From the munching sounds of the beavers in Santa Elena Canyon at dawn before settling in to meticulously groom themselves, to the majestic desert bighorn sheep who have an… ahem… interesting way of establishing dominance over one another. Observe the male elf owl, the smallest owl in the world, who works all night bringing food home to his family. He takes stops to snack on a scorpion, only to be scolded by the female. The owls’ expressions are priceless and sure to elicit an audible chuckle. The cast is diverse, lengthy, and endearing, and includes the usual suspects as well as some surprise cameos.

The plot is familiar to locals. The story begins with a female bear, searching for a place to live and roam. She finds Big Bend and stays. Along the way, each living creature in this vast land―plant, insect, animal, human―learns that Big Bend can be a cruel place to survive, but worth it. All critical story elements are present: conflict, drama, suspense, and humor. The soundtrack by the Texas-based rock band Explosions in the Sky and the narration by Thomas Haden Church tie the film together seamlessly. I’m a sucker for stories that come full circle, and this one does in a satisfying and optimistic way.

If you tune in for anything, do so for the small moments in between scenes. My favorites were transitional, which capture the silhouettes of an ocotillo, prickly pear, yucca fronds, or a tarantula, scorpion, canyon, a mesa backlit with bright stars circling the sky, or blinding sunsets far into the distance of our vast landscape.

All in all, you cannot go wrong spending an hour taking in the familiar sights and hidden gems of Big Bend from the comfort of your own desert haven.

Skip is an Emmy Award-winning wildlife cinematographer based in Austin, Texas. He grew up in Texas flipping rocks and climbing trees, ever in pursuit of creepy crawlies and critters. After receiving his BS in Radio/TV/Film from UT, he turned his passion for wildlife into a career that has taken him all over the world for National Geographic, Animal Planet, Discovery and PBS. Skip’s passion for wildlife and conservation are only equaled by his passion for technology. His quick grasp of how to use the latest and greatest camera tech in aid of storytelling quickly advanced his career as a young cinematographer. In 2012, Skip earned an Emmy Award as part of the camera team for National Geographic’s series Untamed Americas.