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Good Migrations

Lloyd Fales ’88 documents nature and wildlife, from India to Israel, Manhattan to Mississippi, the Arctic to Antarctica.

Lloyd Fales on location Search for the First Dog.

“I grew up in a PBS kind of house,” says Lloyd Fales ’88. Film and nature are in his blood, which begins to explain why he has spent the last 17 years as an independent filmmaker, making documentaries about wildlife and nature mainly for the National Geographic Channel, PBS, and other channels.

His father, Dan, was one of the first makers of cinéma vérité films, predecessors of today’s documentaries that became popular in the 1950s and ’60s following the invention of lightweight portable cameras, enabling simple, unobtrusive cinematography. His mother, Nancy, worked at environmental organizations for years and headed the Western Pennsylvania Audubon Society.

During a summer between years at Ithaca, their son, a cinema and photography major, had an internship at National Geographic TV in Washington, D.C. His mother helped Fales get his first job out of college: tending to swans as an assistant to a waterfowl biologist in Virginia. He had developed a love for animals growing up with his family’s dogs, but it was while working with the swans, he says, that “my inner nature boy was emerging. I was marveling at tundra swans and other waterfowl and wondering how and where exactly they migrated from Alaska to the Chesapeake Bay.”

He sparked the interest of his former NG supervisor when he told him about swan migration patterns, and the two went to Alaska, where they made Swans: Tireless Voyagers, Fales’s first film on National Geographic (1990).

That led to a flock of film projects throughout the ’90s, which coincided with the height of wildlife TV programming, about birds—cranes, puffins, snow geese, and others. But because most programming aimed to showcase large animals, his bird story pitches had to be extraordinary or he would be overlooked. The Crows (1999), an 18-minute film on giant urban crow roosts that aired on National Geographic, is one of his favorites.

Today Fales would love to have pet dog but shies away from cooping one up in his Manhattan apartment. All of his animal amour is channeled into creature-character-driven and story-driven films, the kind he loves most and that National Geographic seeks out.

In Street Dogs (1998), another 18-minute film, he followed a pack of stray dogs through New York City. Search for the First Dog is a one-hour science and adventure film that investigates the evolution of dogs from wolves. That search took Fales from South Carolina to Israel, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and India, where scientists believe “proto-dogs”—wolves that have only partially evolved into dogs—still exist. The film won a Jury Award at the Explorer’s Club International Film Festival in 2004. Both of the dog films were broadcast on National Geographic.

Bryan Gunnar Cole, who coproduced all three of the later films with Fales—in addition to a half-dozen other projects—says he has spent “every waking minute for weeks on end” with Fales at shoots, “from a dirty side street in New York City to the cloud forest in Papua New Guinea.” What sets Fales apart, Cole says, is that “he is an excellent shooter and writer.” And, he adds, “Lloyd is incredibly generous and remarkably talented, which are often exclusive [characteristics].”

Fales spent “five crucial years,” he says, working as an associate producer—a traditional route to becoming a documentary producer—on various projects including a special for National Geographic about the 1993 Mississippi River flood, and Firestorm, a Discovery Channel special about fighting forest fires. He served as a supervising producer (an involved advisory role) for The Buffalo War, which investigates the conflict over America’s last bison herd. That won Best Environmental Film in the San Francisco Film Festival and a Jury Award at the 2001 Newport International Film Festival.

He says he was lucky to start his career when he did, during the height of the wildlife documentary craze. Then, in the late ’90s, “the market got saturated, and reality TV [became] ‘it,’ ” he says, which makes it harder now to get nature films funded.

Setting up a shot.

“Documentary filmmaking is a senseless way to make a living,” Fales admits. Like many doc makers, he freelances as an editor, shooter, or writer for various production companies. That frees him up financially to produce his own films, though getting a project off the ground is hard work: developing an idea, writing multiple grant proposals, making a video pitch—and then waiting with bated breath for funding. “When that’s all done,” he adds, “the odds are still stacked against you.” Across the field, many docs are never finished for a litany of reasons.

And although the birth of cable TV gave rise to a handful of new channels that broadcast wildlife and nature programs, competition is stiffer than ever in an era in which everyone can own and operate a handheld camera. Fales’s survival strategy in this brutal environment: partnering with “bigger fish . . . with a foot farther in the door,” he says. His strong shooting technique—which he attributes largely to IC professor Patricia Zimmermann—gives him a leg up.

For years Fales spent weeks or months on end at shoots, but since his son, Danny, was born in 2003, he tries to stick around home as much as possible. That means fewer “glamorous” trips to the wild on his own films—though he is planning a trip to Antarctica in 2007 to film penguins—and more writing and editing for others in New York. “My wife, Maggie, is understanding, but I think less and less [so] each year,” says Fales. “And when my son tells me, ‘Come home, Daddy,’ over the phone, it tears me up.” 

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