“Our goal with this film is to educate a broader audience and elicit an empathetic emotional response that shifts the hearts and minds of viewers to better understand bears and the communities that coexist with them.” —Andrew Ackerman

To know the story of The Bear Coast, you must first know the story of its director, Andrew Ackerman.

Andrew grew up in South Florida, where his reverence for wildlife increased with each crashing wave. Scuba diving and playing in the ocean from an early age cultivated a curiosity for the natural world, which developed into a profound love for marine life. As a college student, Andrew spent his life’s savings on a camera and underwater housing so that he could share stories of the sea with a broader audience.

Then, in 2012, Chasing Ice premiered. Watching the film, Andrew’s dreams of becoming a documentary filmmaker crystallized. After relocating to Boulder, Colorado, to be closer to the production team, Andrew finessed his way into an editing internship at an office shared by Jeff Orlowski, director and producer of Chasing Ice.

The two embarked on a diving expedition in Bermuda, capturing footage of ocean ecosystems in a changing climate. Those reels evolved into a Sundance Audience Award-Winning film and Netflix Original Documentary, Chasing Coral, for which Andrew was the cinematographer.

cinematographer Andrew Ackerman filming documentary on a glacier

Wilderness Documentaries: Off the Map and Onto Your Screen

Now, Andrew has his own documentary production company: Off the Map Media.

“I think what sets us apart most is our mentality,” Ackerman says. “I learned a great lesson from a mentor at the beginning of my career. He said, ‘I don’t believe in conversion; I believe in perspective.’ What he meant was, don’t try to convert people to your way of thinking (no matter how right you are). Instead, share your perspective and be open to learning theirs.”

This “listen first” mentality has become a core ethic for Ackerman as a storyteller. “We may have a story we want to share with people, but our first job is to listen to the people and places in that story and make sure what we have envisioned lines up with our characters’ experiences. I think this has helped create a very empathic style of storytelling instead of an extractive one,” Ackerman says.

Character-driven stories are at the heart of Off the Map documentaries. Andrew’s powerful imagery encourages viewers to think more critically about their relationships to gender norms, empathy and the environment. This is evident in the two SommTV Original Documentaries Andrew directed—The Busboy and Saving the Restaurant—films for the BBC and National Geographic, and myriad short films for Natural Habitat Adventures, including:

Active listening is a core component of Andrew’s creative process. But as you’ll soon see, documenting the wildness of life takes a whole lot of grit, too! Join us in going behind the scenes and farther afield with Andrew Ackerman, director of Nat Hab’s newest short film, The Bear Coast: An Alaska Conservation Story.

The Story of The Bear Coast

The Bear Coast: An Alaska Conservation Story focuses on a large swath of coastal land on the north end of the Alaska Peninsula that includes the coastlines of Katmai National Park (which we explore on our ship-based Alaska Grizzly Encounter: Kodiak to Katmai adventure), Lake Clark National Park (the location of Nat Hab’s Alaska Bear Camp) and McNeil River State Game Sanctuary—an area known as “the best bear habitat in the world.”

wildlife lens video filming brown bears in Alaska

Directed by Andrew Ackerman and produced by Nat Hab’s Director of Marketing Production, Nick Grossman, the film features interviews with a group of passionate Alaskans, including Steve MacLean, Managing Director, WWF US Arctic Program; Alexanna Salmon, Bristol Bay Program Director, Alaska Venture Fund; Sue Mauger, Science & Executive Director, Cook Inletkeeper; and Drew Hamilton, Board President of Friends of McNeil River and acclaimed Expedition Leader for Nat Hab.

“The beauty of the Bear Coast area is that we don’t have to restore anything. It’s already here—we just have to protect it. Storytelling is an important piece of natural history travel. The more people who come and see a wild place, an intact place, the more advocates we have for protecting these places.” —Steve MacLean

Exclusive Q&A Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Andrew Ackerman

What is the story behind The Bear Coast?

Tucked among towering Aleutian volcanic mountains and pristine alpine rivers on the Alaska Peninsula is a unique stretch of habitat: Alaska’s Bear Coast, home to the greatest density of wild brown bears in the world. Wildlife preserves—McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Katmai National Park, Lake Clark National Park, and many more—make this coast one of the few places globally where people can safely view wild brown bears up close in the company of an expert bear guide.

Despite the number of protected wildlife areas, brown bears still experience significant threats to their survival. The fractured, disconnected landscape of the national and state park systems exposes the bears to many threats, like mining, logging, hunting, oil and gas extraction and climate change.

While many environmental films use a narrator or single character to drive the story, we develop our story through a chorus of people from along the Bear Coast, including Native Indigenous community members, a bear guide, a biologist, and a former bear hunter, among others. Our goal with this film is to educate a broader audience and elicit an empathetic emotional response that shifts the hearts and minds of viewers to better understand bears and the communities that coexist with them.

documentary filmmaker Andrew Ackerman wearing Natural Habitat Adventures rain jacket and logo in Alaska viewing brown bear

In what ways did filming The Bear Coast differ from filming The Big Bad Wolf?

The Bear Coast was a very different shoot than The Big Bad Wolf. For one, TBBW was all set in Gardiner, Montana, so I was in one location and had a home base from which to shoot wildlife or interviews. The story was much more localized, making the filming process relatively simple. Even though I shot 12 interviews, I only spent 10 days on location to capture the vast majority of the footage for The Big Bad Wolf.

In contrast, I spent almost six weeks in Alaska for two different shoots to capture the footage for The Bear Coast. The actual Bear Coast is so big that we had tons of small flights to different locations to really capture the feeling of that ecosystem. In the middle of our biggest shoot, we got stranded in one location due to weather and couldn’t get an interview we’d scheduled. So, in general, it was a much more complex shooting process. The editing was relatively similar, as we had an equal number of interviews and story structure for both films.

What advice do you have for travelers and conservation storytellers who want to get into videography or advance their skills?

Many people think there is a huge difference between videography and photography, and I’ve spoken to many people who are hesitant to jump from photo to video because the barrier to entry feels so high. In my opinion, the main difference is movement. Photography captures a still moment in time; video captures a dynamic moment.

My biggest advice for photographers looking to get into video is to start by using a tripod and use all the skills they already have about lighting and composition to capture “locked-off” video shots. Locked off means stable on a tripod. People’s biggest mistake is to start handholding when shooting video, and then it doesn’t look good. Start by using a tripod and take moving pictures, then you can advance and add camera movement with gimbals and steadicams.

Which films are you currently working on with Nat Hab? Is there one you’re particularly excited about?

We’re in the final stages of a 15-minute documentary titled The Silverback. It features the story of Richard de Gouveia, a South African wildlife guide and photographer and Expedition Leader for Nat Hab. We filmed it last fall in Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa, and I think it is one of the most powerful films we’ve made to date. The film is scheduled to debut via a Nat Hab eNews on Thursday, July 20. We spent a lot of time with chimpanzees and gorillas, and I can’t wait to show people the footage and the story. You can watch a trailer for it here:

Want the inside scoop on what it was like starring in Andrew’s films? Check out my other interviews: The Big Bad Wolf: Greater Yellowstone’s Greatest Controversy and Nat Hab Expedition Leader Colby Brokvist Stars in ‘The Guide.’