Eye of the biologist 

Ryan Killackey takes his best shot

There’s a certain level of patience and perseverance required of a wildlife cinematographer, but for local biologist and nascent filmmaker Ryan Patrick Killackey, those traits were tested to the extreme. In order to make his new film, Looking Into the Eye of Extinction, Killackey had to find his own way to Ecuador, work connections with colleagues and take obscure jobs to gain access to some of the country’s most treasured corners, and immerse himself in the culture—including deep-rooted political unrest—to complete the project. And that’s not to mention the usual expenditures of time and energy to find, study and shoot the stars of his film, including rare black caiman crocodiles in the Amazon, atelopus frogs in the Andes and countless species in the Galapagos Islands, through the lens of his handheld Sony digital video cam. After 14 months of traveling and the subsequent months editing his footage, Killackey reckons he’s in debt nearly $20,000.

“Wildlife has essentially been my best friend as long as I can remember,” Killackey says in a recent phone interview back in Montana. “This is simply what I’ve always wanted to do.”

When he’s not traveling through South America, Killackey, 29, is working for the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit and Montana Natural Heritage Program as a reptile and amphibian biologist, taking inventory of native species. That job, however, fills only about half of Killackey’s year. So it was that four years ago, Killackey, who has always been a still photographer, began exploring filmmaking. In 2004 he made his first film, Life in Peril: Montana’s Amphibians and Reptiles. When he debuted Life in Peril, which was later honored at that year’s International Wildlife Film Festival, Killackey told the audience his next project was going to take him to South America. His only problem was he had no idea how to get there.

“My plan was I was going to South America to make a movie on black caiman, so I started trying to figure out how I could get down there and work in any respect,” Killackey says. “A colleague of mine…suggested this Sani community where I could go and volunteer my time for a year as a guide at an ecotourism lodge.”

Looking Into the Eye of Extinction begins with Killackey along the Rio Napa River, working as a guide and spending his nights searching for black caiman. In addition, he’s introduced to the precarious balance of Ecuador’s environment; the eco lodge, it turns out, was built in an agreement with Occidental Petroleum in exchange for nearby prospecting rights.

The 80-minute film—which is actually separated into three equal sections covering the Amazon, Galapagos and Andes, in hopes of becoming a television special—is full of Killackey unveiling intimate images of various unique creatures, and then cautioning about their endangerment. In perhaps the most compelling sequence, Killackey shot a nest of green sea turtles hatching on a beach—each baby poking its head out from a covered chamber in the sand until all 39 are climbing and scrambling on top of each other. During the climactic scene Killackey runs a subtitle pointing out that, “Of this clutch of 39 baby Green Sea Turtles, only one will survive to maturity…if it is lucky.”

“That one single shot, where all the babies come out of the sand, was the most dedicated shot that I had to take over the course of my entire 14 months down there,” says Killackey, describing a process that included walking a two-mile beach for seven nights by moonlight before finally finding this particular clutch. “And, honestly, it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

In addition to shooting and directing all of Looking Into the Eye of Extinction, Killackey also wrote the script, narrated and provided the still photography that appears in the film. With no prior filmmaking experience, Killackey admits he’s “winging it,” but is confident in his ability to explain the scientific and environmental impacts while, perhaps more importantly, delivering vivid imagery.

“I’ve done wildlife photography for years,” he says, “and when I had a photography exhibit at the Roxy some years ago I had someone tell me that if you can do still photos, you can do film. You know composition and how to find the shots, so it’s not so different.”

He’s still learning, of course, but after his early success with Life in Peril and seeing the result of his Ecuadorian travels, Killackey plans to stick with his dual role of biologist and filmmaker to continue educating people about what he loves.

“Lots of people think, for example, the Galapagos is doing great and nothing is impacting it, but that’s not the case—it’s being really heavily impacted, and rapidly,” he says. “I think what I have here is pretty powerful, and hopefully it will impact the way people think of wildlife internationally.”

He adds after a pause: “And if I can get rid of some of the debt in the process, even better.”

Ryan Killackey presents Looking Into the Eye of Extinction Friday, Sept. 7, and Saturday, Sept. 8, at the Roxy Theatre with screenings at 7 and 9 PM. Beer, wine and catering is included opening night, and Killackey’s photography will also be on display. $7/$5 student.
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