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October 2010
The Lion and the Giraffe Online
by Jack Couffer, ASC
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

… As one might expect from a filmmaker of such diverse interests and talents, Couffer’s memoir The Lion and the Giraffe: A Naturalist’s Life in the Movie Business covers a wide range of topics and experiences, from Couffer’s personal life and filmmaking adventures to the minutiae of show business politics and the author’s squabbles with unions and producers. The result is an entertaining and informative portrait of an enviably varied artistic life.

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The Lion and the Giraffe
by Jack Couffer, ASC
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Jack Couffer, ASC has told stories about the subject that consumes him above all others – nature – in an astonishingly broad array of media. He’s worked as a director (both first and second unit) and cameraman on everything from low-budget documentaries to enormous Hollywood spectacles, he’s written screenplays and novels, and he was a television pioneer with his work for Walt Disney (he returned to the Disney empire decades later to play a pivotal role in the creation of the EPCOT theme park’s Africa pavilion). As one might expect from a filmmaker of such diverse interests and talents, Couffer’s memoir The Lion and the Giraffe: A Naturalist’s Life in the Movie Business covers a wide range of topics and experiences, from Couffer’s personal life and filmmaking adventures to the minutiae of show business politics and the author’s squabbles with unions and producers. The result is an entertaining and informative portrait of an enviably varied artistic life.

Couffer’s life as a filmmaker begins with some fateful encounters at the USC film school, where in the late 1940s he meets student filmmaker Marvin Weinstein and future cinematography legend Conrad Hall. Together the three young cinema buffs form a production company and make their mark by shooting nature footage for Walt Disney’s film and television productions, including the True Life Adventures and The Wonderful World of Disney series. Eventually the “three musketeers” split up to pursue different interests, but Couffer’s path as a chronicler of nature is set, and his work for Disney takes him all over the world. It also puts him in contact with some colorful but dangerous characters (both human and animal), who Couffer describes in amusing detail throughout the memoir.

Couffer eventually leaves Disney and becomes a successful director of animal and nature footage in fiction films and television shows including the Born Free sequel and series, The Ghost and the Darkness, and perhaps his most extraordinary achievement, Never Cry Wolf. The productions Couffer works on range from the ridiculous (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle) to the sublime (Out of Africa), and he narrates the ups and downs of all of them with great wit and detail. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the correlation Couffer draws between an enjoyable shoot and a successful finished film – which is to say, no correlation at all. The massively successful Out of Africa leaves a sour taste in the filmmaker’s mouth thanks to negative behind-the-scenes politics, while other movies that are more creatively and personally satisfying fail to find audiences. For each job, Couffer expertly describes the technical and artistic challenges as well as the political and economic ones, giving a fully rounded view of what it means to be an artist in a mass medium like film or television.  

Couffer’s is thus a tale of a working filmmaker in the trenches, doing his best to get what he wants on film and finding success, disappointment, and surprise in equal measures. It’s also a love letter to the places and animals he photographs, and to the people with whom he’s worked (of course, it’s not all love – there are some delicious chapters in which Couffer pulls no punches against the collaborators with whom he clashed). For cinematography buffs and film historians the book is pure gold, filled as it is with the stories behind films both famous and obscure – one such nugget, in which Couffer explains his small role in the evolution of Haskell Wexler, ASC’s Medium Cool, is an especially instructive lesson in the roundabout manner in which movies come to exist. Couffer’s combination of specialization (in the world of nature filmmaking) with the diverse number of professional hats he’s worn gives him an uncommonly unique perspective on the art and business of cinema, and his decades at work give his book admirable scope.          

Yet there’s also a real modesty in Couffer’s writing style that belies the breadth of his achievements, and it makes his book more pleasurable and valuable than the usual self-serving Hollywood memoir (to cite just one example of Couffer’s self-effacing manner, one of his shortest chapters is the one on Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the film for which he was nominated for a cinematography Oscar). Throughout the tome one gets a sense of the author’s sheer gratefulness at having had the kinds of filmmaking opportunities he’s had (even during the more challenging shoots), and his infectious passion for both cinema and nature is extremely inspiring. His humility extends to honest descriptions of his personal relationships, including his marital infidelities, but there’s nothing gossipy or indulgent about the chapters detailing his romantic entanglements. In fact, the more personal chapters inform rather than distract from the professional ones, as Couffer reinforces the notion of an integrated life in which relationships, nature, and filmmaking are all inseparable parts of one larger continuum.          

Bear Manor Media, $24.95


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The Lion and the Giraffe