Interview: Glenn Allen - SYF Tech

Just in time for the new year, we had a chat with Glenn Allen, who shoots for Schoolyard Films as well as takes care of the audio and tech department. He and Tom Fitz, Schoolyard Films’ Executive Producer, met 28 years ago at Santa Barbara’s Brooks Institute of Photography and have been working together ever since. Glenn taught at Brooks Institute for ten years and became Department Chairman of the Brooks Undersea Technology Department before teaching a Media Arts Program at the Anacapa School, a private 7-12 grade school, for nine years. During that time he was able to work on productions in wildlife and natural history filmmaking in the summer vacations.


On getting started with Schoolyard Films: 

I came to Florida to work on a year-long project with Tom, which was "Florida's Wild Side”, for the BBC in their “Wild" series. A couple of revelations occurred when we did “Florida's Wild Side”; one, it's really a nice blue-chip BBC program, very high quality, and it really showcases the very best of the wildlife in the state of Florida, and two, it's a 30-minute show. Because of my academic experience in teaching, and with Tom having three school-age kids, we would often share whatever project we were working on in schools, and it's really hard to share something like “Blue Planet,” [8 or 9 hour-long shows]. The half an hour show was amazing. We could go into a classroom and show this really nice film within the timeframe of a classroom, and then have a discussion about it. 

Florida's Wild Side” was produced as a broadcast film for the BBC and it was very successful.  We had 4.2 million people watching; [1 out of every 9 UK households watching TV was watching it that night]! Because Tom co-owns [the rights] to that show, he was able to say, “Well, it's a half-hour show, it’s high quality, it tells a really good story that's engaging about Florida... let's turn it into a film that teachers can use!” 

That was the start of Schoolyard Films, the idea of a short film with great conservation messaging that a teacher could not only show within a classroom timeframe but could also engage the students with meaningful discussions. With that in mind, the study guides were also going to play a prominent role, and once we made one, it snowballed. We’re trying to bring quality, conservation messaging to students, get them early so that they pay attention.


On Glenn’s favorite film for Schoolyard Films: 

I like each film for different reasons. In every film there so many background stories of the passionate people that we meet; that, to me, is the remarkable aspect of every film. We have these individuals in research or in outreach who are at the top of their game, and every film features people trying to do the right thing for the environment and the right thing for the planet. The standout film, for me it has been “Florida's Wild Side.” I saw the best of what Florida had to offer in an extraordinary year of filming and it brought me from being a lifelong west coast guy to being an east coast guy! It's a gorgeous little film I was glad to be a part of.


On presenting to and learning from students:  

When Tom or I or both make presentations of Schoolyard Films programs to classrooms we get to see the reactions of the kids and the teachers. Inevitably we end up answering questions about the behind-the-scenes production and our personal experiences on location with the animals, which in and of itself is a compelling story. It's interesting to us and we’re finding out [that] it's interesting to the kids, so that's a great compliment. We hope to do more kinds of behind-the-scenes things on every film.

Every single time we give the presentations we get something new out of it, and there's a learning curve for us in terms of what kind of content we want to deliver. We want the science and the natural history, and we want to showcase the experts and their passion for what they're doing and providing. And we want to foster the idea that you can have careers in science, technology, engineering, and math that are meaningful. 


On how subjects are chosen for new films: 

We want to tell regional stories all over the United States and all of the world, so we pick keystone species that are bridges to broader stories, whether its horseshoe crabs or humpback whales. [For example,] horseshoe crabs are widely studied up and down the eastern seaboard because they give students perspective, a broader respect for their habitat and their interactions with other animals. They have so many uses, and in the biomedical aspect, they are so very important to humans. Scientists actually utilize the blood of a horseshoe crab as a reagent to look for bacteria or contaminants in anything that is a pharmaceutical product, and at the same moment they don't have to kill the horseshoe crab in order to do it. They can catch and release these horseshoe crabs, so it's a sustainable resource and therefore a win-win. We have not been successful yet with synthesizing an alternative to their blood to act as a bio-reagent.


On some of the technology involved in filmmaking for Schoolyard Films: 

So many things have changed since the industry has converted to digital, and we have a ball with the technology. We have embraced digital tech and have absolutely top-of-the-line digital filmmaking tools at our disposal. Currently, we’re using RED cameras, [which are] cinema-grade digital cameras. James Cameron is shooting his Avatar films with RED cameras, as is Peter Jackson for The Hobbit. We’re using those quality cameras in our film productions for Schoolyard Films, as we do professionally for the BBC and other clients. 

When we have specialized sequences, we’ll bring in specialized cameras. Some of them we own, some of them we rent. To capture the specialized feeding of lionfish for “Invasion of the Alien Fish,” we rented a Phantom high-speed camera that shoots thousands of frames per second. We’re also doing timelapse sequences where we’re using specialized cameras that can shoot over many months to show slow growth patterns of, say, coral regeneration. 


On using inexpensive tools like the GoPro: 

We don't use GoPros as a main camera, but we use them often for things that they refer to in the industry as B-roll. Because of their fisheye wide-angle view, they’re a little bit odd, but you can nuance those images into a more acceptable view in post production. We use them inside cars or boats or interiors of little rooms. We also use them for shots that might put our very expensive RED cameras at risk. In fact, I have a really old GoPro I keep trying to kill, and I can't do it. Anytime we have a Jeep going through high brush, I strap that GoPro on the front, and if it gets slapped by a bush it’s okay because it's four years old and I don’t really like the menu commands on it anymore, but it just won't die -and it keeps giving us a great image!