Academy Award-winning Passion Pictures and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios present one of the most important but untold science stories of our time—a tale with profound implications for the fate of life on our planet.
Beginning in the 1960s, a small band of young scientists headed out into the wilderness, driven by an insatiable curiosity about how nature works. Immersed in some of the most remote and spectacular places on Earth—from the majestic Serengeti to the Amazon jungle; from the Arctic Ocean to Pacific tide pools—they discovered a single set of rules that govern all life.
Now in the twilight of their eminent careers, these five unsung heroes of modern ecology share the stories of their adventures, reveal how their pioneering work flipped our view of nature on its head, and give us a chance to reimagine the world as it could and should be.
Nothing could have prepared me for our first shoot. It was early 2016 and we had contacted Bob Paine about a daylong interview in June. He was cheerful and enthusiastic—he clearly loved to talk about ecology. Then on the 6th of May, Bob emailed us with terrible news— he had leukemia and it was terminal. But he also wrote, “I’m in very good spirits and very much looking forward to participating…”
Weeks later, on the 22nd of May we got an email from Bob’s daughter, Anne. She said Bob was unlikely to survive the night. I remember feeling crushed. We cancelled the shoot and considered cancelling the film. Thankfully, Bob didn’t die that night. Two days later, Anne called us again. Amazingly, Bob insisted on doing the interview. Anne was worried how severely the disease was affecting his skin and eyes.
What remained of Bob’s life could be counted in minutes. That he was willing to spend it with a film crew was astonishing to me. But it was clear that he saw his work as connected to something bigger than himself. The obvious discomfort he suffered speaking to us from a hospital bed, for him, was trivial. What mattered was his story.
During the day, Bob had maybe an hour where he could accept visitors, the rest of the time he spent in a near coma. The waiting room at the hospital was filled with Bob’s extended family and a “who’s who” list of ecologists and scientists, all lining up to pay their respects to this great man. Bob gave us a lion’s share of his time—20 minutes per day, for two consecutive days.
Bob’s story wasn’t about “saving the planet,” and I don’t think he embraced many “campaigns.” He was a scientist. For him, science was about experimentation and deep thinking. And in the end, I think, science for him was about love. Among Bob’s last words were:
“What made this group so special is that each of us has a pretty private part of the world, some large, some small, which we understand and love. To know something intimately one recognizes change, and much of the secret of ecology today is to not only acknowledge change, but to begin to factor out causes. Why is the world we know so well changing?”
A few days later Bob was gone. But with his words ringing in my ears, I was then given the extraordinary privilege of meeting the others in his group. More than that—I was able to film them in the places they love: Tony Sinclair’s Serengeti, Mary Power’s Oklahoma streams, John Terborgh’s Amazonian rainforest, Jim Estes’ Aleutian Islands.
This film is about more than the ecology of place. Collectively, the fact that scientists have found nature working the same way all over the planet tells us that Bob (and the others) discovered something fundamental about life. Predators and keystone species may become our greatest allies in the coming fight to protect our biosphere.
— Director Nicolas Brown