Growing up on a ranch in rural southeastern Montana provided Dawson Dunning with an important key to a career in filming wildlife — a sharp-tailed grouse mating ground near the ranch dump.
It was on the ranch in 2011, with the help of his mother operating a camera crane, that he shot close-up footage of male grouse strutting and fighting in shallow spring snow.
“They got so used to me there were no worries about spooking them,” Dawson said, allowing him to get shots from several angles without the use of a blind. “It was a pretty neat experience to go back to the family ranch and shoot.”
He posted a clip of the mating dance on YouTube. Filmmakers at the British Broadcasting Corp. saw the footage and purchased it for a film they were making.
“That was my first sequence narrated by David Attenborough,” Dawson said.
Attenborough, now in his 90s, is the most recognized and sought-after narrator of wildlife and natural history films.
From his humble ranch dump footage, Dawson has built a career that now has him spending close to seven months a year as a cameraman shooting for films produced by the BBC, Discovery Channel, National Geographic and independent productions. Now 36, Dawson and his wife Kathryn run their own business — 3 Bears Media — out of their Livingston home.
“When you live with somebody who does this, you are in business together,” Kathryn said.
That’s not unusual in the film industry, said Tom Winston, of Grizzly Creek Films in Bozeman, who also works with his wife, Shasta.
Dawson is on the road so much that Kathryn helps out by staying current on emails, writing and taking care of their son, 15-month-old Ansel. It’s a good fit since Kathryn’s background is in conservation work.
“I want to be a camera man,” Dawson said. “I want to be in the field, but that’s a small part of conservation filmmaking. She’s an incredible writer and built our website.”
The Dunnings started their business after Dawson’s third year at Montana State University studying Science and Natural History Filmmaking. Traditionally a three-year graduate program, Dawson was so busy working in the field that he dragged his degree program out to five years. This was after putting in four years of undergrad studies at the University of Montana in wildlife biology, which included native fish genetics studies.
“I made the decision (on where to go to college) based on where the good fishing was,” he joked. “Plus, my sister lived there.”
The occasional “hook and line” sampling made fish genetics appealing. While at UM he also studied film and had the opportunity to travel to the Galapagos Islands and shoot a video while also studying biogeology.
“That changed my perspective of what I could do as a career path,” Dawson said. “I could use photography in terms of wildlife conservation. I just liked it a lot. Camera work was very natural to me, even back then.”
So he applied to the MSU film program rather than continue at UM in biology.
The MSU program launched in 2001 as a way to get people with science backgrounds interested in filmmaking. Rick Rosenthal helped start the course before leaving about 15 years ago to pursue his own film work. It’s a competitive field, he said.
“There are very few openings for jobs, and just because you get an MFA doesn’t mean anything,” Rosenthal said.
Three of Grizzly Creek’s employees are graduates of the MSU program, including Tom Winston.
You have free articles remaining.
“It’s definitely launched the career of many,” he said, noting that the people who did well professionally after school were “highly self-motivated.”
When Winston graduated in 2003, however, it was a lean time in wildlife filmmaking. The Discovery Channel, which had been a big content consumer, lost interest in conservation films. That’s slowly changed with more streaming providers producing films.
Digital cameras have also substantially altered the industry, Winston said, making it possible for companies like his to be located somewhere other than Los Angeles or New York.
“Digital has leveled that playing field,” he said.
Because of BBC, its programming, and the people it has trained, England is the big dog in the natural history filmmaking business. Britain also claims the lion’s share of programming, gaining huge audiences compared to similar productions in the United States. That makes it tough for guys like Dawson to break into the industry.
Luckily one of his instructors at MSU, John Shier, was already working in the field. Shier and his wife, Sara, were graduates of the school’s first class.
“I latched onto him as someone to get out in the field with,” Dawson said. “That’s the best way to make your way into this industry.”
Winston said that Dawson is incredibly dedicated, a hard worker and has an “authentic history” from growing up on a ranch, hunting, fishing and working with livestock.
“More than a lot of folks, he has an extensive knowledge of animal behavior,” Winston said. “He just pursues sequences and is always dedicated to capturing something in a way no one has done it before, and to do it ethically.”
Getting the shot
Dawson is willing to endure the down time, bad weather, discomfort and confinement to blinds to capture unique footage of wildlife.
“Overall the favorite part of my job is … everywhere I go is amazing and beautiful,” he said. “I get to see a lot of the world that people pay a lot of money to go to.”
He also sees wildlife behavior that few people witness until they watch his work. One example is footage he captured of a Yellowstone National Park bobcat pouncing on a duck along the edge of the Madison River. That footage appeared in “Epic Yellowstone,” produced by his friends at Grizzly Creek Films in Bozeman for the Smithsonian Channel.
“It’s a very tight-knit community,” Dawson said. “That’s why I get tons of requests for Yellowstone stuff. But there’s a danger of getting pigeon-holed.”
Winston said his company’s proximity to Yellowstone provides a wealth of wildlife filming opportunities, unlike many other places in the world. Because of that, he travels much less than Dawson.
“Yellowstone really is one of the best places to film natural history in the world,” Winston said. “With its sagebrush meadows you see a lot more” than filmmakers or visitors can see in places like Glacier National Park with its thick forest.
“It’s just a very unique situation to see a lot of different behavior,” he added.
Since leaving film school Dawson has had little trouble keeping busy. Clips posted on the 3 Bears Media website demonstrate why. He’s shot humorous footage of pikas storing and stealing grasses and flowers that they harvest in summer for winter food; he has filmed the slow-motion collision of fighting bighorn rams, the impact of which sends ripples coursing through their muscles and fur; there is also a dramatic lightning-infused bull elk battle; and hilarious camera trap footage of bears using trees to vigorously scratch their backs.
Dawson also landed a contract to shoot a film for the Smithsonian Channel on Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Photographing still images for the film, Kathryn was stretched out on the ground, which she later discovered was infested with chiggers — tiny mites whose bites leave their victims squirming with itchy skin and red welts for days. Such discomfort is one of the reasons she rarely goes on location with Dawson, preferring to avoid the hardships.
“It was intense,” Dawson said. “Most shoots are three to four weeks, but this was four months.”
The work included 15-hour days with little time to sleep.
“And it’s beautiful,” Kathryn said. “That’s my shameless plug.”