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Sophie Vartan on her exit from NHU Africa, plus ventures old and new!
By Jason Peters

How did you feel about leaving NHU Africa and the other initiatives (Wildlife Film Academy & Wild Talk Africa) given that they were essentially your babies?

It was exactly the right time for me to leave NHU Africa. I had been the CEO of NHU Africa since its inception in 2007 and I believe it is never good to stagnate in the same job for too long. Of course it is wonderful to see your ideas become fully-fledged and sustainable in their own right as it means you have done something right. I guess similar to when your children grow up and leave home... if they are independent and don’t need you anymore, then you have been a successful parent! The teams at NHU Africa, Wild Talk Africa and Wildlife Film Academy had been with me for a very long time, most of them back in the DewClaw days, so I know they were more than capable to carry on with the good work. I have a lot of new ideas that I would like to see through which would have never worked under the NHU Africa banner so I was excited to move on to pursue those. Change is often a very good thing!

Have you missed the office?

Yes and no. It has been great to do my own thing again but I did have a lotof fun at the NHU Africa office. Theteam gelled together really well and most days were full of funachievements. We also had a lot of interns through the doors, which is invigorating and keeps you feeling challenged. Working on your own again can be difficult to stay focused - I tend to draw a lot of inspiration from other people and generate ideas from conversations with them… needless to say my phone bill these last few months has more than doubled! Of course, I have stayed in touch with the NHU Africa office and have a great relationship with the team there so that helps not to feel too isolated. I am also working now with some really fabulous people and organizations that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so if I stayed at NHU Africa due to conflict of interest. It really is true that with every door that closes, another 10 open!

What production were you most proud of commissioning at NHU Africa?

Probably not the ones you would expect… it is the more risky or difficult commissions that I feel most proud of. The ‘no-brainer’ commissions were the easy ones that you know are going to be a success as the subject matter is so charismatic or obvious… but they are not the ones that make me feel most proud. Any other commissioning editor would have commissioned those too. It is the ones that someone else might have passed over and not seen the talent in them, and ironically these are the ones that have won awards or raised the most revenue for NHU Africa …these I am most proud of. I had a gut feel that they were going to work but you never know until the very end that they have been a success. I know that other people may not have risked their name on them and I am so glad that I took that chance on those people and titles.
A few examples:

A Kalahari Tail was a wonderful achievement for the young filmmaker, Johan Vermeulen,. He was only 19 years old when I commissioned him and never had made a film before! Well, he did an amazing job and I am pretty sure no one else would have given him the chance at that time. The post-production process was a lot of fun for me because Caroline Pryce (friend and colleague) and I had to construct an elaborate story from fairly simple animal behaviour. We worked with a lovely script-writer called Bruce Young who I believe is currently doing a children’s series with Johan at the moment. We did a co-production on the film with NHK and they were also such a pleasure to work with. The whole film from start to finish was a wonderful experience and still has a real feel-good factor about it every time I watch it.

I also really enjoyed commissioning The Cheetah Diaries series. I feel that we have made a very positive difference to the charitable conservation organization, Cheetah Outreach through those ongoing series and it is wonderful to know that you have had a small input into cheetah conservation through your commissions. And now they are on the 4th season of this series so I must have hit on something right there!

Paseka the Easter Elephant was a very personal journey for me and a commission that I loved every minute of and of course the crocodile trilogies (Into the Dragons Lair etc) were some of the most exhilarating shoots I have been on.

How have you found life without all the responsibility?
Have you allowed yourself to fully relax, kick back and enjoy life?

Yes is the simple answer. I have a Degree in enjoying life!!! ;-) My life is full of doing fun things in Cape Town with my partner Adrian, my children, hiking, sunsets, spending a lot of time in the Okavango Delta, amazing people and a little bit of work thrown in to complete the picture!

Was it always your plan to relaunch DewClaw Productions?

I didn’t think of it until very recently. In fact it wasn’t even my idea! Sometimes its not always so easy to see the obvious staring you in the face. DewClaw was a really successful production company back in the early 2000’s and one that helped me to grow and believe in myself. We did a lot of exciting projects that really launched my career and got me to where I am today. DewClaw was the main feeder company that launched NHU Africa, the Wildlife Film Academy and Wild Talk Africa, and then got forgotten whilst those initiatives took off so well. Perhaps now is the time to unleash its full potential…?

Do you have anything in production now? What are you working on at the moment?

Yes a couple of things. One is a series that follows a couple of strange but wonderfully interesting characters based up in the Okavango Delta. They have taken on a life-long crazy dream that they might just pull off! It’s something COMPLETELY different and quite cutting-edge so might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I love it because it is so humorous and whacky.

The other series we are doing is more mainstream and is similar in style and format to the Cheetah Diaries, which has been so successful but if I tell you more, I would then have to shoot you… :-)

We are also developing a couple of projects which are more around the online broadcasting and distribution arena’s than actual productions and are very long term collaborative projects with other companies. Also I am supporting Harriet Nimmo’s (ex Wildscreen CEO) work in South Africa, on the Wild Shots Photographic Symposium Event, which is going to be brilliant. It’s wonderful to work with someone so professional.

What kind of films do you want to make?

I am drawn to making programmes where people can really feel immersed in the wonders of our world. I am continually fascinated by new discoveries and love to push the boundaries. I appreciate those filmmakers who want to highlight devastating conservation issues and calls to action but I don’t have that in me. I want to make people smile and say ‘wow!’ in a positive way and inspire them… and whilst I take my hat off to the very serious issues that are being tackled, it is not the genre that I find most exhilarates me. Ultimately I am an entertainer at heart.

What is the concept of the online wildlife film school?

The DewClaw Academy is a very personal bespoke service that targets a niche part of the wildlife film industry. Offering such a personal service needs a dedicated individual to do that rather than a faceless company as it is so important to help new filmmakers coming up into our industry.

Through running the Wildlife Film Academy for so long, I have been privileged to meet a lot of hopeful young filmmakers. The aim was basically to inspire them to great things but ironically, they always inspired me with their dedication and passion. It was a wonderful thing to do. I don’t want to lose touch with newcomers that are breaking through – they are a very important source of talent that needs to be nurtured but often when you are so immersed in making your own films, it is hard to find time to help others. So the point in the online and weekend courses is to continue the good work that the Wildlife Film Academy is doing but to cover the gaps that WFA cant fill. I am not competing for the same market, but offering those that cant afford the time or money to attend WFA, a course that would work for them instead.

So the DewClaw Academy offers weekend and online courses that teach you everything you need to know about Wildlife Filmmaking but very cheaply. It can fit in with your current work, life and family rather than having to take time out and large financial risks through travel and high training fees. You are also given personal service to address your very specific level of experience and needs rather than being part of a larger group. Read more on www.dewclawproductions.com!

What your plans and hopes for the future?

A lot more of the same… it seems to work for me and I have been extremely happy in my career. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken! In a nutshell? Having fun with productions, projects and people in the industry, playing around with new ideas, new concepts, new collaborations, working with old friends and making new contacts, and of course inspiring more newcomers to keep moving this wonderful industry forward.

dew . claw
noun: a rudimentary inner toe
present in animals such as dogs and cheetah.

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