The award winning documentary film by Brian Davis, The Million Dollar Duck, is set to air on Animal Planet on Wednesday, September 14 at 9 PM EST. Animal Planet can be found on the Discovery Channel. The film follows six artists in their journey to capture the ultimate prize in wildlife art – winning the federal duck stamp contest.
Brian is a young film maker and graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts (see Figure 1). He is making his directorial debut with the Million Dollar Duck. The film premiered at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah and was awarded best documentary and was voted audience favorite. In addition to Animal Planet, the film was picked up by Lionsgate and recently released on Amazon and iTunes.
Brian told me that he was introduced to the world of duck stamps as a teenager, when the mother of a friend married artist Ron Louque, winner of the 2003 federal duck stamp contest. When Brian asked what he did for a living, his friend told him that his stepfather was set for life after winning. Brian was very impressed. He never knew there was “a contest out there that could change an artists’ life overnight”.
After graduating from film school, Brian was directing pretty much full time. However, he was engaged in commercial work and longed to find a project where he was free to express himself as an artist.
A few years ago, Brian’s wife came home and said she had listened to a discussion on the radio about Martin J. Smith’s book on the contest, The Wild Duck Chase. Remembering the conversation with his childhood friend, Brian bought a copy and by the time he finished the book – knew he wanted to make a film about it.
The film starts with a brief history of the plight of North American waterfowl in the early twentieth century, discussing the over harvesting that existed at that time and the subsequent environmental problems that led to the need for waterfowl conservation and regulation.
The catastrophic drought on the Great Plains in the early 1930s and the Dust Bowl are graphically depicted with a still photograph of what the narrator refers to as a “mass graveyard for birds” (see Figure 2).
Franklin Roosevelt appointed J.N. “Ding” Darling to head up the Bureau of Biological Survey (forerunner to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and Darling was instrumental in providing the final push needed for the federal migratory bird hunting stamp – better known as the duck stamp – to come into being (see Figures 3 and 4).
In the beginning of the duck stamp program, artists were selected by Bureau officials. In the 1940s, artist and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee Robert Hines (see Figure 5), became administrator of the federal duck stamp contest. It was Hines who envisioned an open contest with a panel of judges to select each year’s federal waterfowl stamp – and it is a recent competition (2013) that serves as the setting for Davis’ film.
A documentary is a non fiction film that documents something for the purposes of education or maintaining a historical record. In the strictest sense, a documentary can be rather factual and, well, dry and boring. The trick to engaging the audience is to gradually intensify the viewer’s interest in the subject by presenting just the right balance of facts and light hearted anecdotes.
If the subject involves people, the director attempts to first introduce the characters and subsequently (throughout the film) allows you to get to know them and (in this case) discover what serves as their inspiration and motivation. In this way the viewer becomes emotionally invested in the film and it is here that Brian Davis shines.
Davis follows a handful of hopefuls (out of over 200) on a shared journey which they each hope will lead them to being selected by the panel of five judges as the winner of the 2013 federal duck stamp contest.
The artists include Adam Grimm, a man devoted to his loving family whose livelihood is dependent upon his success; Rob McBroom, an eccentric who is very much concerned about the future of waterfowl and attempts to bring a wider audience to the contest See Figure 6); Dee Dee Murry, an animal lover who strives for realism in her art; Rebekah Nastav, a youthful previous winner of the junior duck stamp contest who receives encouragement from her art teacher (see Figure 7) and Tim Taylor, a commercial painter who makes a living painting store windows but who dreams of winning the contest and changing his life.
To get an idea of how important this pursuit has become in each of their lives, one of the artists makes an analogy to winning the contest and winning the Super Bowl or World Cup.
As with world class athletes, Davis shows us that the artists (aside from a lifetime of artistic training) devote months out of their lives to prepare their entry for the contest. Each year five species of waterfowl are selected as possible subject matter. At this point, the artists choose the one they like best and then spend months observing, studying and often taking as many photographs as possible.
Then comes the sketching process and, finally, work begins on the finished product which they hope will capture the imagination of the judges and get them through the preliminary rounds of the contest and into the finals.
In the middle of the film, Davis touches on our collecting hobby and briefly interviews duck stamp dealer Robert Dumaine from behind his desk at Sam Houston Philatelics (see Figure 8). During the course of his career, Bob has done much to promote the federal waterfowl stamp program.
Davis also shows Richard Prager in his home, as he shares pages from his beautiful duck stamp albums (see Figure 9). Richie is a devoted collector who has helped to support the hobby for decades and is one of the producers of this film.
One of the obligatory points made in the film is how important the federal duck stamp is to protecting wildlife habitat in the U.S. Many of you have probably heard that 98% of all proceeds from federal waterfowl stamp sales go directly to purchasing and protecting waterfowl habitat.
What you may not have thought about – and perhaps one of the profound points made in the film – is all of the other (hundreds) of species of wildlife that are dependent upon the wetlands habitat for their own survival. With this in mind, the federal duck stamp can be seen to take on even more significance as one of the most powerful conservation means available to us.
By this point in the film, it is possible to infer that we, as a society, need to do whatever it takes to keep the federal waterfowl stamp program viable and effective. Whether you are a stamp or print collector, a sportsman or a wildlife art enthusiast – your contribution is invaluable and should be a source of pride and self-respect. Further, in an admittedly still difficult economy for many Americans, an example for others.
After developing the conservation story and the artist’s characters for the first two thirds of the film, Davis concludes with a fascinating eyewitness account of the 2013 duck stamp contest at the Beautiful Maumee Bay State Park Conference Center in Oregon, Ohio (see Figure 10).
The months (really years) of time and effort on the part of all the entrants culminates in a very emotional, sometimes heartbreaking, two day competitive event.
The judges are advised to vote with three criteria in mind:
- Anatomical accuracy;
- Artistic Composition and
- Suitability to be printed on a stamp.
In the first round, all entrees are voted either “in” or “out” by the five member panel of judges (see Figure 9). Those receiving at least three “in” votes move past the first round and into the semi-finals the next day.
Those who make it through to the second day are then judged by a numerical score, from 1 to 5, with 5 being outstanding and 1, not so much. The five entries with the highest point total advance to the finals.
In the finals, the judges are advised to vote with a point total of 3 to 5 and the entry with the highest point total is declared the winner. Of course, throughout the two day competition, Davis has instructed his camera man to capture the expressions and comments of the artists he has chosen to follow.
By now one cannot help but be affected by their joy or anguish, for Davis has succeeded in his goal. For those of you who are not aware, I will not reveal the winner. Rather, I would highly encourage you to set your Tivo or other DVR for Animal Planet on Wednesday, September 14 at 9 PM EST. Then grab some pop corn, make yourself comfortable and enjoy the film.