Our Filmmaker on Conservation, Good Stories and Tough Shots

Andrew Quinn with camera
Photo: Jason Perry

Valuing the conservation of natural spaces benefits the people of the region as much as it does the plants and animals, and filmmaking is the perfect medium to digest the complex intricacies of our relationship to natural places and translate that to a broader audience.
—Andrew Quinn, filmmaker

Together, Andrew and I have worked on interview questions and storyboards, deliberated on cutting footage if it has too much technical language, or not enough—trying to strike a balance. When an interview hits a perfect, authentic emotional soundbite, I’m pretty sure he’s silently cheering in his head. Andrew Quinn is an independent filmmaker who has worked on all of Sonoran Institute’s major videos. His dedication, friendliness, and hard work are legendary among staff lucky to work with him.

If you’ve ever been impressed with the quality of our films, you have him to thank. If you haven’t start with Renewal (narrated by Robert Redford), then take in Bring Back the River, and Seeds of Change. He knows his way around a good story, will jump into a river, trudge through mud and wake up before daybreak to capture just the right light and visuals. His thoughts on conservation reinforce how he’s able to portray our work through shared values.

Photo: Jason Perry

Can you introduce yourself, and tell us about your first film shoot with Sonoran Institute?

I left the Midwest when I was 18 to earn my Bachelor of Science degree in aquatic biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rather than continuing in the sciences, I enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program called Science and Natural History Filmmaking at Montana State University, where award-winning documentary cinematographers, writers, and producers mentored me. I spent my time in the Rockies stalking wildlife and natural light with a camera which crystalized my attachment to open spaces, and it’s been all gravy ever since. I live on the central coast of California with my wife, children, and dogs, and spend all of my free time outside.

My first shoot with Sonoran Institute was in the Colorado River Delta in 2011 while directing a documentary for Marine Ventures Foundation. Sonoran was our liaison to the Delta’s natural and cultural heritage. We explored and documented the entire Delta region from the land, sea, and air over the course of a few months.  I met so many engaging and industrious people on that shoot and had no idea I’d still be working with many of them almost a decade later.


What are your reasons for caring about conservation and working as filmmaker to protect nature? 

Humans are not separate from nature; we are part of it. Conservation should not necessarily be viewed as protecting nature from humans, rather protecting it for us. The work I have documented for Sonoran Institute in the Colorado River Delta is a perfect example of this. Valuing the conservation of natural spaces benefits the people of the region as much as it does the plants and animals, and filmmaking is the perfect medium to digest the complex intricacies of our relationship to natural places and translate that to a broader audience.

Years ago, I was hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest streetlight or paved road on a stretch of coastline in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. My face had smudges of red ochre that was ceremonially applied in a cave that has sheltered people for over 50,000 years. I was filming a man who would become a close friend of mine as he drank freshwater, unfiltered, from rocks on the beach at low tide. I asked him a question about being so deep in the country as we were, away from the real world, doing things like this, and his response struck me deeply. “I think this is the real world. I think the rest of it is kind of made up.”


How many times have you been to the Colorado River Delta? What kind of changes have you seen over the years?

I wouldn’t say I have been to the Delta more times than I can count, but I would have to pour over nine years of hard drives and emails to figure out just how many trips I have made. Over a dozen, maybe twenty? The obvious change is in the square kilometers of native habitat that Sonoran Institute and its partners have created. A head-high sea of lifeless, dusty salt cedar has been replaced by towering cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite that break the horizon like a yellow-green mirage as you approach from miles away. The heat of the Sonoran Desert gives way to an oasis-like refuge of twinkling leaves and chirping birds.

I know that there all kinds of ecological and hydrological metrics that are impressive, but the biggest change I have noticed, is how a grassroots passion of a few people became a groundswell movement within the entire community. The natural environment of the Colorado River Delta is much more valued within the greater cultural landscape of the region, and that is the most impressive change to me.

Andrew Quinn filming in Santa Cruz River, AZ
Andrew Quinn filming in Santa Cruz River in Southern Arizona. Photo: ©Bill Hatcher/Sonoran Institute, 2019

What’s the hardest shot you’ve ever gotten in one of our films, that you’re particularly proud of, and why?

In order to capture the historic pulse flow in the spring of 2014 for our film Renewal, my colleague Owen Bissell and I brought down hundreds of pounds of camera equipment. We were there to witness an ephemeral rebirth of the Colorado River. We were ready for anything. The only problem is that no one really knew the exact course that the pulse flow would take through the flood plain. Access via our 4WD vehicle was limited, so we used 2 drones to fly up and out to look for the flow. Once we found the leading edge of the river, we took whatever we could carry across the soft sands of the dry riverbed, sometimes for a mile or more. We had no idea whether we would be filming a slow-moving trickle or a flash flood. In most cases, we could walk or run fast enough to stay ahead of the flow, but the water-filled in quickly and there were some close calls. It was unforgettable to kneel at the end of the mighty Colorado, let it overtake us, and then run downstream and do it over and over again.


How about that same question, but for any client?

As the director of photography for a Discovery Channel series about 10 years ago I spent a month living aboard a swordfishing boat on the Grand Banks in the Atlantic Ocean during September and October; hurricane season. During a particularly bad storm, “the worst seas I’ve ever been in” according to the ship’s veteran captain, I decided to try to capture the intensity of the situation by strapping myself and a waterproof camera housing to the railing on the front of the top deck of the 33m boat. The seas were 35-40 ft., and the winds were sustained at 70 knots, nearing hurricane-force on the Beaufort scale. Just as the captain realized that I was out on the bow, a large wave overtook the boat and I disappeared, along with the bow, into the face of a wave twice the height of the boat. Seconds later, the bow reappeared, with me still attached to it. The captain signaled me in with furious hand gestures, and none of us were allowed above decks for about 24 hours. They did not use the shot in the final edit.


Do you ever find yourself thinking about the Colorado River in your everyday life in California, or on other travels? When, or why?

I am always aware of the Colorado River and all of the other limited sources of water we have in the West. Books like “Cadillac Desert” and “The West Without Water” should be required reading for anyone living in this part of the country. When I travel to anywhere that has constant flowing rivers bordered by healthy riparian corridors I can not help but think about what we have done to the watersheds and hydrology of the American West, and how important it is to address our relationship with our most important resource; water.

Follow Andrew on his website, or on Instagram for more!

Blog Post By: Corinne Matesich, Marketing Communications Manager