Wolfgang Bayer: TV nature-show producer -- We join the filmmaker in Wyoming as he films a show for ''Nature''

This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I am sitting in the dirt on a freezing, barren Wyoming plain, talking to a man with a camouflage tarp over his head. The man is Wolfgang Bayer, acclaimed TV nature-show producer, who is at work on a program about the Grand Tetons for the PBS series Nature. The tarp is supposed to fool a den of coyote pups into thinking that Bayer is a pile of leaves and not a wildlife filmmaker.

I don’t know about them, but I’m beginning to believe it. We’ve been out here 40 minutes, and Bayer hasn’t shot an inch of film. I was sent here to uncover the secrets of wildlife filmmaking — two days of action-packed outdoor adventure with the king of nature television. So far, other than the moose over the fireplace in my hotel lobby, I’ve yet to see a single animal. No tussling pups, no fighting stags, no courting prairie fowl.

But wait, a sound — a short, guttural snuffle. A tussling pup? An angry coyote? No, a snoring cameraman. I give Bayer a nudge. He tells me that over the years he’s developed the ability to sleep while remaining attuned to his surroundings. Nature Filmmaking Secret Number One.

I ask Bayer how much longer we have to wait. He lifts a corner of the tarp and aims a steel-blue squint at his impatient guest. ”This is nothing,” says the Austrian-born filmmaker, who is 56 and lives in nearby Jackson Hole with his wife and two children. ”Once when I was filming a National Geographic special, I waited three weeks for coyote pups to come out of the den.” He adds that there’s a good chance this den we’ve staked out is empty. During the night, coyotes often shuttle their pups to a different den, to frustrate predators and media professionals. ”They’re like MX missiles,” Bayer says. ”You think you know which den they’re in and then you spot them 50 yards away.”

My photographer is worried. Our editor is expecting the Terrific Animal Shot — ruggedly handsome silver-haired filmmaker, wild baby animals clambering over his $60,000 Arriflex camera. ”Do you think anyone would notice the difference,” he says, ”if we just brought some German shepherd puppies out here?” I cringe. Bayer doesn’t even blink. He starts telling us about the time he filmed a show on the endangered black-footed ferret. Nearly extinct species pose a problem to the filmmaker in that they’re nearly impossible to find. ”Fortunately,” he says jokingly, ”the only difference between a black- footed ferret and a regular pet-shop ferret is the black on the feet and collar. Spray paint works wonders.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. I begin scrawling notes, fast as my numbed digits will allow. Tame jaguar, declawed, couldn’t climb, had to be hoisted into trees…Soundtracks of sparrows and robins dubbed over footage of tropical birds…He pauses. ”I don’t want your readers to get the idea this sort of thing still goes on…This was wildlife films in their infancy.”

Bayer is talking about the mid-’60s to late ’70s. ”Back then, the philosophy was pretty basic,” he says. ”If it moved, put it on the air. The more blood and guts, the better. Throw a jaguar and a baboon into a pit and hope they get into a good fight.” Never mind that jaguars live in North and South America and baboons on the African plains.

In the name of entertainment, early wildlife shows dispensed a good deal of fiction with their fact. Take the piranha, for example. Vicious, razor-toothed terror — can strip an animal to the bones in seconds, right? Only on screen. ”If you walk into a piranha-infested stream,” says Bayer, ”the chances are a hundred to one they don’t even bite you. Those attacks happen, but the conditions are extremely rare. You’d have to starve them to get that sort of footage.”

Which is exactly what he did when filming an educational program years ago. ”We got about a thousand piranhas, didn’t give them food for a week, then let them go in a stream with a capybara (a large rodent).” He pauses to savor the grimace on my face. ”The capybara swam around for a while, and then it waded back out.”

Bayer says he never attempted things like that when he was executive producer of Animal World, one of the first nature programs. For one thing, the censors wouldn’t have allowed it. ”CBS used to have strict regulations about how much blood you could show,” he says. ”Most of these programs run at 6 or 7 p.m. To have a lion tearing out a wildebeest’s guts at dinnertime — it doesn’t go over too well.”

Besides, the man likes animals. Bugs, even. ”I have a love for spiders,” Bayer confesses. One of his more eccentric projects was a show about a certain kind of Amazonian tarantula that sometimes eats birds. With the sun making itself scarce and the wind howling in my unprotected ears, the Amazon sounds pretty appealing just now. Although if it takes this long to get a shot of coyote pups, imagine how long you have to wait for a shot of a spider snaring its victim. I ask Bayer how often the birds get caught. ”As fast as you throw them to the spiders,” he replies, deadpan as a man can be with a tarp on his head.

I ask whether Bayer ever has to defend the ethics of such practices. He nods. It’s a prickly question. ”There’s a fine line between what you can and should do,” he says.

Bayer says he gets less criticism from animal-rights activists than from a faction of nature photography purists who disapprove of giving nature the occasional nudge. In the mid-’80s, Bayer appeared on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, in a debate with a Discover magazine reporter who criticized his methods. The reporter had tagged along while Bayer was filming bats feeding on saguaro flowers — a difficult task in that he blossoms open only occasionally throughout the year, and the bats feed for a matter of seconds. Bayer solved the problem by erecting a large gauze tent around one cactus, waiting for it to blossom, and then ushering in a bat.

”The guy wrote a nasty article about how phony it was,” Bayer says. ”Yes, it’s fabricated. But to the viewer, it’s going to look exactly the same as it would in nature. If we showed viewers only natural, unadulterated filmmaking, wildlife filmmakers would be out of business in a year, it’d be so boring.”

Hear, hear. I’m all for waving a little hamburger in front of this coyote den. Bayer suggests we call it a day and regroup in the morning. He plans to be over at a nearby beaver pond, filming dam construction by the dawn’s early light. How does he know the beavers will be out? Because he’ll be there a half hour before dawn, pulling sticks out of the dam. ”The sounds of rushing water and the water level going down trigger the beavers to come out and repair the dam,” he says. ”Every time they go away to get sticks, you can sneak up and make another break, till you have the shots you need.” It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, but it’s awfully convenient.

”Besides,” he says as we head back to the studio, ”if that doesn’t work out, you can always get some shots of me with the Hertz rent-a-beaver lodge.”

Beg pardon? ”It’s a set. There is no way to make a beaver film without using a set. You can’t fit a camera and lights inside a beaver lodge.” Actually, what he rents are the beavers — from a local pelt farm. The set he built: a Styrofoam-and-chicken-wire affair, lined with genuine Snake River mud and willow twigs.

Sometimes the set is simply a fenced-in piece of the real thing. ”You cannot film in a rain forest like the Amazon without using sets,” Bayer says. ”You can’t film in the river because it’s too murky. You can’t film in the jungle because you can only see 5 or 10 feet.” Even with a set, it took Bayer three months to get the footage he needed the first time he filmed in the Amazon. ”We were there three weeks before we had any animals,” he recalls. ”We hired some of the local Indians — told them, bring us anything you can find from the jungle. We even put an ad on the local radio station. Eventually word got around. Every morning a few more animals came in.”

The next hurdle is to elicit a performance from your reluctant stars. No mean feat. You can lead an okapi to water, but you can’t make it drink. ”At that point,” Bayer says, ”you are back to nature. You can’t tell them, ‘Okay now, time for nursing.’ You just have to wait.”

For an international production involving remote locations, sets, frequent delays, and aerial filming, the average nature program operates on a tiny budget. We’re not talking shoestring, we’re talking dental floss. Bayer’s dolphin program, another work-in-progress for Nature, is a good example. It’s a two-year project involving extensive underwater filming in Brazil, Australia, Argentina, the Bahamas, Florida, and Hawaii. For under $500,000. That’s about what it costs to make one episode of a half-hour situation comedy.

How do the nature filmmakers do it? For starters, you have to be practically a one-man operation. For most productions, Bayer is director, producer, and cameraman. Usually he even dubs the films himself, back in the studio. Since we’re there, he offers to show me some of his sound equipment.

”This is one of my most valuable tools.” He picks up a featherduster. Yes, I can understand how important it must be to keep the equipment clean. Now can we see the equipment?

Bayer begins waving the featherduster in my face, faster and faster. I’m beginning to think he might have spent a little too much time alone in the wilderness. ”Listen. It’s a duck taking off.” He slows it down, tracing a wider arc through the air. ”Now it’s an eagle.” Bayer gets a lot of mileage from down products. To create the muffled phlumphf of a coyote pouncing on its prey in the snow, he delivers a staccato punch to a down pillow. The .41 Magnum Smith & Wesson, I learn, is not for sound effects. ”The BBC gave it to me when I was filming brown bear in Alaska.” I wonder aloud whether a gun that size would stop a charging bear. ”No, no,” Bayer corrects me. ”If a bear attacks, you shoot yourself. It’s less painful.” I think he’s joking, but I’m not sure.

At 6 the next morning, Bayer is sipping coffee on the banks of a stream, his chest waders drying in the sun on a nearby sagebrush. For the past 45 minutes, he has been wading waist-high in freezing water, filming a beaver dam. I ask him how he can stand it — the wind, the icy water, the alarm clock set for 4 a.m. For less than what most producers spend on catering, the guy braves Arctic snows, wades ankle-deep in bat guano, gets mauled by jaguars, threatened by poachers, pinned against aquarium walls by amorous beluga whales.

Bayer grins. ”Can you think of a better way to have fun? Besides,” he says, as the sun breaks forth from a billowing tower of cumulus and an elk steps into view in a nearby stand of cottonwoods, ”what good is all that money if you have to live in L.A.?”