Decoding the Driftless

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Tim Jacobson adjusts the GoPro camera on the helmet of John Howe in 2016. Howe is the executive director of the Raptor Resource Project. (Photo by David Noble)


Rough cut of Decoding the Driftless completed

By Ted Pennekamp


Filming for a natural history documentary about the Driftless Region began in 2016 and was also done in the Prairie du Chien and Bagley areas this past June. The project has since come a long way.

“I am thrilled to announce that we now have a rough cut of the film Decoding the Driftless completed. The running time of the film at this point is one hour and 1.5 minutes,” said one of the producers, Tim Jacobson. “For television broadcast, the film will need to be edited down to around 56 minutes, but we may also release a longer director’s cut on DVD.”

Jacobson said that he and the other producer, George Howe, are excited about the quality of the film coming together. 

The production quality of Decoding the Driftless is substantially higher than that of their first film, the Emmy Award winning Mysteries of the Driftless, said Jacobson, who noted that the budget is about double that of the original and they use newer technology, including cameras that shoot 4k (ultra-high definition), and have extensive use of drones, as well as use of Dairyland Power Company’s helicopter and multiple fixed-wing airplanes. 

“We engaged in substantially more time filming, as well as filming throughout the year” Jacobson said. “And, with me living in the Driftless and doing a significant amount of filming here year ‘round, we were less reliant on Untamed Science for capturing everything during the limited periods of time they were available to explore the Driftless Region. In addition, we have the benefit of using footage shot by Emmy winner Neil Rettig from Prairie du Chien, Jordan Kjome from Nocturnal Designs in Decorah, Iowa, YouTube sensation ChimneySwift11, and a freelance cinematographer from the Twin Cities.”

Decoding the Driftless will involve much more dramatic action sequences than the first film, said Jacobson. Action sequences include filmmakers rapelling down sheer 500-foot cliffs along with members of Raptor Resource Project to study and band baby peregrine falcons, climbing down a 100-foot narrow shaft while wearing wetsuits to enter the 17-mile-long Coldwater Cave, and hanging out of open doors on a helicopter to film the Driftless landscape in ways most people never experience it.

“Over the next several weeks, we will be making a range of editing decisions, such as determining whether the flow of the story needs revision, deciding what material to add and what to remove, searching for the best video clips to insert at various points in the film, and possibly shooting a few additional clips of video where we have small gaps,” Jacobson said. “In addition, Untamed Science is continuing to work on creating animations to help illustrate millions of years of geological history.”

Jacobson said filming is mostly complete, although they always are on the lookout for opportunities to capture video throughout the seasons to enhance their choices. 

“Our last major stint of filming was in late October and early November 2017, primarily to capture fall waterfowl migration scenes as well as to do more filming in the southernmost parts of the Driftless, including the Galena, Ill. area, as well as some filming around Platteville and Mineral Point,” said Jacobson.

Decoding the Driftless was shot in southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa and the northwest corner of Illinois. The crew has gained footage of caves, dramatic waterfalls, vegetation, wildlife, the Kickapoo and Upper Iowa rivers, effigy mounds, threatened habitats, fossils and unique geological features.

There is not a firm date for releasing the film yet, but the team is shooting for late spring. “We are a bit behind our hoped-for schedule, but under the circumstances, we’re doing great,” noted Jacobson. “It is very challenging to raise money to produce a feature-length documentary and then to do all of the work to make the idea for the film a reality.”

With Mysteries of the Driftless, the world premiere was held at the Weber Center for the Performing Arts on the Mississippi River waterfront in downtown La Crosse. “It was a beautiful venue, but it only seated 400 people, and we had to turn hundreds of people away and do a second screening on the night of the release to accommodate the approximately 600 people who saw the film,” said Jacobson. “This time, our plan is to hold the premiere at the Viterbo University Fine Arts Center, which I believe seats more than a thousand people.”

The timing of the premiere may be impacted by the expectations of television broadcasters, because they have yet to finalize broadcast arrangements.

The filmmakers, said Jacobson, look forward to having their new film broadcast on TV and shown at countless screenings and film festivals throughout the Driftless Region, around the country, and internationally, as well as being available on DVD for people to watch and enjoy over and over in their homes and schools. 

Jacobson, the president of Sustainable Driftless, Inc., said, “We believe the film, coupled with related educational programming by our nonprofit organization, will be transformative for promoting geo-tourism to our region, including fly fishing for trout, bird watching, general touring of the area, enhancing conservation efforts for rare and threatened species and habitats, building local civic pride, helping area businesses attract and retain talent and inspiring people and communities to invest in the region to enhance its many offerings.”

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