People think of Fred Kaufman as a regular Dr. Doolittle.
But he’s quick to point out that “I’m not a naturalist. I didn’t study animal behavior.”
The confusion is not surprising. Kaufman has been with “Nature” – PBS’ most watched documentary film series – from its inception in 1982, with the last 21years spent as executive producer. The Emmy and Peabody Award-winning series, which airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on Thirteen-WNET, returns for its 30th anniversary season Oct. 10 with “Siberian Tiger Quest.”
So what keeps the Irvington resident walking on the wild side when he’s more of a sports fan (basketball, Boston Celtics in particular; New York Giants; Yankees)?
It’s his passion for the variety in visual storytelling.
“Every film is new. Every story is new,” he says, relaxing for a moment in one of the crisply modern spaces that make up WNET’s Manhattan headquarters. “You have the potential to film something that’s never been seen before.”
Albeit with “stars” who are not used to working from a script.
“We’re at the mercy of things we cannot control,” he says.
That’s why in “Nature,” the prep work – research, reliance on experts, development of a natural story arc – is so important.
“The people we work with say the first priority is not to stress the animals.”
If you as a filmmaker find yourself in harm’s way, he adds, well, then, you haven’t done your homework.
Fortunately for Kaufman and the filmmakers he features, many species lend themselves naturally to storytelling.
“Any animals that are social – elephants, chimps, dolphins – that have relationships in groups, that’s easy,” he says. “Independent animals, like leopards, are harder.”
Who, for example, could forget “Echo: An Elephant to Remember,” a five-hankie tale of the indomitable matriarch of an elephant family; Ely, the sickly son she nursed back to health; Erin, the mortally wounded daughter she was forced to abandon to save her calf, Email; and puckish Ebony, the baby daughter Echo rescued when she was kidnapped by a rival elephant clan.
Though Echo died in 2009 at age 65, the leadership, courage and strength she passed on enabled her family to survive the worst drought in the history of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
“Elephants are very intelligent, interesting animals,” Kaufman says. “It’s not hard to create stories around them.”
Though he’s not often on location, Kaufman had an opportunity to experience elephantine intelligence first hand on a trip to Africa.
“Filming in Africa is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s very epic, very big. The animals are not hiding. They’re there in front of you.”
Kaufman was in a caravan of Range Rovers when his group spotted a line of elephants with a calf that was only days old. The caravan stopped; the cameras came out. But as the elephants approached, the line became a phalanx. The elephants had closed ranks to protect the baby from the photographers’ gaze. Then they just as silently moved on.
“If you had your eyes closed, you wouldn’t have known they were there. They’re that quiet.”
That nature now seems to us to have its own soundtrack is thanks to “Nature” in general and Kaufman in particular. Alex Lasarenko’s pulsing, yearning opening theme – brilliantly punctuated by winds, brass, melismas and especially drums – is an audience favorite.
“When I started here 30 years ago, we used half the music,” Kaufman says. As “Nature” has shifted over the years from mere behavioral science programming to documentaries that marry biology to filmmaking, music has become more important, though as a judicious backdrop.
“Siberian Tiger Quest” originally had a Russian-flavored score that Kaufman says was too heavy for the story of a South Korean filmmaker, Sooyong Park, who lived for five years in the wild – often concealed in pits or four-foot hides in trees – to capture the elusive creatures on the extreme eastern Russian frontier. The new score, reflecting Park’s solitary quest, is Asian-influenced and spare, Kaufman says, “the undertow of loneliness.”
Kaufman himself is from another part of the forest entirely – the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, where he grew up amid a melting pot of friends, eating peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches made with matzos as he watched the Yanks from the bleacher seats at the stadium. He studied journalism at SUNY Binghamton, then headed west but didn’t care for Los Angeles. When he got the “Nature” gig, he says he thought he’d stay for a bit, keeping an eye on CBS Sports.
“Awhile” has turned out to be quite a long time, thanks to the kaleidoscopic nature of his work.
“What I love about what I do is that every film is its own living story, requiring its own special canvas.”