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Chris Cilfone on The Next Generation: Nat Geo Wild to Inspire Finalist


Each year, Submittable partners with Nat Geo to host their Wild to Inspire Short Film Contest. This year, the contest asked filmmakers to create films inspired by the natural world to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Past winners have gone on to film on expeditions around the world, star on their own Nat Geo TV shows, and receive awards from global festivals. Chris Cilfone, the second of this year’s two finalists, was generous enough to talk to us about his film and what he hopes for it to accomplish in the conservation world.

Congratulations! I’m sure it was pretty exciting to find out that your film, The Next Generation, was picked to be a Nat Geo Wild to Inspire Short Film Contest finalist. What was your initial reaction when you heard?

It came as a huge surprise, actually. I was notified about a week before the festival started and I figured since it was so close to the premiere, that I hadn’t been selected. But, low and behold, I checked my email on a lunch break at work and there it was: “YOU ARE A FINALIST!”

I was relieved, with a wave of fulfillment washing over me. I put a lot of thought into this short film and it was great to be able to justify all the hours spent on it. Reflecting back, however, I was mainly excited to be able to share my message with such a large audience.

Why did you decide to enter the contest?

I dream that one day, I will be able to call myself a National Geographic storyteller. The chance to have my images projected next to that yellow square was just too good to pass up.

The Next Generation discusses the conservation campaign, Save the Whales, and talks about its connection to current environmental and conservation efforts. Can you tell us more about how you discovered your passion for environmentalism and conservation?

When I was going to college for marine biology, I mainly focused on sharks and rays… cartilaginous fish. I distinctly remember, however, thinking about how I never wanted to work with whales or dolphins because that was the “cool” thing to do. Well, I just finished my 14th season working with the North Pacific Humpback Whale. I was hooked after the first season with them.

However, I quickly realized that we know very little about these animals. The Humpbacks are the most studied and most-watched whale on the planet, yet despite all the eyes on these animals year-round, we have yet to document the birth of one. Or mating for that matter.

The two most biologically significant events in any animal’s life are still a big mystery to us. I wanted to do something about that. So I started the Kohola Film Project. This project’s underlying goal is to document behaviors of the Humpback that no one has ever seen before.

I truly believe that discovery is the catalyst for conservation. Save the Whales started because we discovered that they could sing. Imagine what could start if we documented the first breath.

How did you come up with the concept for your short film, The Next Generation?

The theme for this year’s Wild to Inspire was Earth Day. 50 years ago, we saw a change in perspective. People, on a global scale, started to fight for the livelihood of our planet, birthing the conservation movement. One of the first campaigns that really united the world was Save The Whales. Now, I have a background in marine conservation and whale biology and I wanted to make a short film that paid homage to the generation that started these movements but also brings up the idea that the next generation of conservationists, researchers, and filmmakers is here and we are ready to pick up the torch and continue to fight for the beating heart of our planet.

What was the most challenging part of creating The Next Generation?

Honestly, the most challenging part was dealing with my laptop. It’s old and outdated and can barely handle 4k footage. Ha… I had to sit for hours just waiting for 10-second clips to render. Then, if I edited them in any way it would be another 40-60 minutes to render again. Frustrating for sure but that’s just part of the process, I guess.

The most rewarding?

The most rewarding part was getting to be a part of Wild To Inspire but also just that creative inspiration you get while you’re working on a project like this. If you can inspire yourself then you know you’re on the right path.

What upcoming projects that you are currently working on?

a half-under, half-above water shot of a man snorkeling, with mountains in the background

Nat Geo Wild to Inspire Finalist, Chris Cilfone, snorkels off the coast of Maui.

Like I mentioned earlier, the Kohola Film Project. One of our main focuses is to film, for the first time ever, the first breath of the poster animal for the conservation movement: the Humpback Whale. Over the 3-year lifespan of this project, we have come close a couple of times. During that process, though, we have documented a number of behaviors that are still unexplained by science. Thankfully, we’ve been able to use that footage to educate thousands on the importance of these whales.

What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

The storytelling aspect of it. I’m a storyteller at heart and I believe that film is a wonderful medium to show viewers a different perspective. That change in perspective is what is going to change the world.

What are your aspirations as a filmmaker and a conservationist?

The underlying goal of my career is to spark conservation through inspiration. I believe it is now more important than ever to focus on hope. I consider myself a caretaker of the sea and thus it is my job and responsibility to pass on the knowledge I have of the ocean to those who may lack it.

My aspirations are to tell ocean stories that show people that change is possible. The Humpback Whale was hunted to the brink of extinction. Only about 500 were left to hide beneath the surface of the North Pacific. But thanks, in part, to the same species that brought these whales into the darkness, a veil was lifted revealing a bright future.

In 2017 they were taking off the endangered species list. 500 to 25,000! In less than 50 years we have witnessed one of the greatest success stories in conservation history and there are countless other stories like that out there. Those stories should be and need to be told. That is what I intend to do.

If you would like to learn more about next year’s contest, you can sign up to receive updates here.

This post has been sponsored by Submittable partner Nat Geo Wild.

Abby Lessels

Abby Lessels moved to Missoula, Montana, by way of a small town in Western Massachusetts. She enjoys writing and photographing for publications like Edible, drinking Constant Comment tea, and compulsively quoting The Office.