A mechanical fish can only do so much, so when Peter Benchley’s book “Jaws” went to film, Valerie Taylor and her husband Ron were called in to shoot the real deal.

The ultimate blockbuster made them famous, but later the Taylors felt regret at the public’s refusal to discern fact from fiction, and Valerie Taylor watched in dismay as opportunists capitalized upon myth and fear, promoting a massive and unnecessary culling of the ocean’s top predators.

A new documentary, “Playing With Sharks,” tells Taylor’s story and how she has spent her lifetime since then dispelling the notion that any shark wants to eat you.

Jackson Wild knows a good yarn. Formerly known as the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, the organization’s 2021 Summit culminated last week with its Media Awards Ceremony live-streamed from in the Center for the Arts theater. A limited number of in-person attendees sat in the theater, including 16 who were this year’s Jackson Wild Media Lab Fellowship recipients.

The creation of successful nature and wildlife conservation media involves the communication of good science, making the science intellectually compelling and accessible to an overloaded public. It’s a tricky balance, but when it works (think “My Octopus Friend,” a 2020 Jackson Wild Media Award winner that was a huge hit onNetflix) the conversation can’t help but be changed.

So Jackson Wild created Media Lab, a nine-day immersive experience in filmmaking, storytelling, science and the supportive connections required to bind and communicate one to another. Media Lab’s cornerstone is inclusivity. Applicants for Media Lab fellowships span the globe, crossing race, gender-identity and monetary bounds. Ultimately the group of 16 was broken into groups of four. Each was introduced to a client’s cause and, with the help of experienced documentary storytellers and producers, they created their own short films.

Watching 2021 fellowship groups engage with their conservation organizations and programs they had been tasked to produce short-form programs for, it seemed fitting that a family of deer would made a quick run across a nearby green. Everyone gasped as human children began hot pursuit. Perhaps one team’s assignment — the education and dissuasion of a public’s interaction with wild animals — would be writing itself.

Thankfully, parents intervened.

Media Lab’s conservation partners this year included Nancy Bockino, who has been studying whitebark pine and its stressors for more than 20 years.

“Moisture isn’t the problem,” she said. “It’s temperature.”

In essence, as spring and fall become more moderate, the season for destructive pine beetles grows longer.

Another team partnered with Wyoming’s Wildlife Crossings, a venture enjoying popularity among both vehicle owner and animals. And then there’s that “Don’t Feed the Deer” bunch from Teton Conservation District.

But one group won the lottery of all subject matter: Amy Brennan McCarthy, executive director of the Teton Raptor Center, quickly enfolded her “students” into a world of wings. She explained how the sheer number and variety of raptors migrating in and around the Teton area is significant, as a change in those numbers can indicate the health of a species across not just state, but international borders as well.

One day of filming occurred inside a flight barn. Fraser Jones, a nonfiction filmmaker from Atlanta zoomed in for a closeup of an owl. Only three people could be inside the barn at a time, so as not to stress the birds, but even from outside and a respectful step back, one could hear the power of wing-grabbed air as a raptor made its perch.

Sofia Martinez-Villapando, a biologist and science communicator from Mexico, and Page Buono, a writer and producer from New Mexico, discussed future shots to frame. Ariel Contreras, co-founder of Cua Conservation Agency in the Dominican Republic, quietly slipped in and out of the flight barn, inconspicuously retrieving equipment as needed.

The professional tools used by the Media Lab were provided by Canon and partners. Workshops encompassed everything from technical application to pitching a story. Then there’s editing. There is a lot of editing. In the end, emerging nature and wildlife conservation storytellers and media creators clock real, hands-on time with cutting-edge materials, technologies, mentors and experts.

“Before this I didn’t have as much behind-camera experience as I’d have liked,” said Buono, who called the Media Lab “a life-changing experience.”

At one point she accompanied a volunteer out to a remote area to document the Raptor Center’s ultimate goal: a rehabilitated raptor’s release back into the wild.

On Sept. 29 Valerie Taylor accepted Jackson Wild’s Legacy Award in person and participated in a keynote interview and speech.

“Nature gave us a beautiful planet to live on,” she said. “It had everything under water and above.”

Taylor visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton national park in the days just before Jackson Wild Summit, camping along the way, despite being in her 80s.

The Jackson Wild Media Awards ceremony took place Sept. 30 and recognized a dizzying array of nature and wildlife films, subject matters and individual contributions. “Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story,” named best feature film, is currently streaming on Disney+. It is the stuff Media Lab participants’ dreams are made of.

Other 2021 winners include: “Soul of the Ocean,” (Animal Behavior, long form); “Day Zero,” (Ecosystem, long form); “After Antarctica,” (People and Nature, long form). Each film captivates with its blend of storytelling and science.

For the complete list of Jackson Wild Media Award winners, background and introduction to Media Lab Fellowship participants, and details about Jackson Wild and its mission, visit JacksonWild.org. 

Contact Karen Challe via 732-7078 or entertainment@jhnewsandguide.com.

Since moving to Jackson Hole in 1992, Richard has covered everything from local government and criminal justice to sports and features. He currently concentrates on arts and entertainment, heading up the Scene section.

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