Filmmaker needs Room to Roam

There are about 150 million square kilometres of space on the Earth. Scientists estimate there are between 30 and 50 million animal species and 6.

There are about 150 million square kilometres of space on the Earth.

Scientists estimate there are between 30 and 50 million animal species and 6.5 billion people within this space.

Those numbers don’t leave animals much room to roam, says filmmaker Ross Burnet.

“We have a population out of control,” he says emphatically and raises his arms in the air.

Humans are spreading out in all directions and using up every bit of land and crowding out other species.

It’s a spring afternoon in downtown Whitehorse and, although Burnet may be more comfortable in a grassy field or forest, he’s perched on a cement bench on Main Street.

Burnet is a filmmaker by trade and a scientist at heart.

Over the past few years, he’s produced a series of three homegrown educational videos that raise questions about how humans and animals co-exist on the land dubbed Ernie’s Earth: Room to Roam.

They’re contemporary environmental science videos using live-action film and editing tricks with drawing and text animation thrown into the mix.

They’re made in the North, but have national appeal, says Burnet.

The main character is an energetic environmentalist, Ernie, who asks questions, does experiments and talks to experts as he explores the northern landscape.

The series is especially relevant when you look at today’s headlines from the greenspace issues in Riverdale and Porter Creek to expanding the residential subdivisions in Copper Ridge, says Burnet.

It’s meant to raise questions and teach kids to think critically and make their own decisions.

“The answer is never black and white and it’s always very personal,” he says. “It doesn’t serve anybody to tell people what to do.”

And optimism is key.

Burnet crafted the series to explain the problems, but also to offer hope.

“I’m not out to save; I just want to be a catalyst.

“I believe in goodness despite our problems — I’d like to articulate that goodness. It’s easy to get distracted and Room to Roam is right there to bring us back,” says Burnet with a laugh.

Burnet, who grew up in Toronto, now makes his home a half hour from Whitehorse up the Carcross Road.

“I chose the place I wanted to live and the North bit me early,” says Burnet. He moved to Yellowknife 13 years ago, then headed west and settled in the Yukon in 2000.

Like the North, filmmaking bit Burnet early too.

As soon as he completed a degree in radio and television from Ryerson, he picked up a camera and began documenting his world.

“Few filmmakers in the Yukon make a living making films,” he says. So, like many artists in the territory, Burnet wears many hats.

He divides his life in thirds — filmmaking, teaching filmmaking at the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture and at Yukon Film Society workshops, and studying towards a master’s degree in adult education from Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University.

The idea for Ernie’s Earth began with Helicopter Canada, a 1966 documentary that gives an aerial view of the country from the rocky shores of Newfoundland to the lush British Columbian coast.

Burnet was taken with the film when he watched it in elementary school.

But when he found out students were still watching it in science classes 30 years later, he knew things had to change.

So he teamed up with NWT-based natural history author Jamie Bastedo, who plays Ernie in the films, and the pair began brainstorming ideas on environmental education for the next generation.

“We both just cared about the science,” says Burnet.

They released their first film series collaboratively in 1998 — a two-part show dubbed Winter Wonders.

Room to Roam, released in 2005, came next, after the pair spent four and a half years writing and crafting.

“It takes a long time, but the quality is very good when it pops out the other end,” says Burnet.

It was shot around the North in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Alberta and bits were filmed in Yellowstone National Park in the northwestern US.

And local personalities like Brenda Barnes and Brian Fiddler make cameo appearances.

“It’s a good example of what Yukon filmmakers can do — all the editing, all the effects and all the animation were done here.”

But being an independent filmmaker in the Yukon takes a lot of determination and self-motivation

“We have all these filmmakers and there’s no market — there’s no one saying: ‘Make me a film,’” says Burnet.

“So you have to have an idea and sculpt it, then shop it around to all the institutions and show them that your values are in sync with their values.”

And the Ernie’s Earth series is opening and exploring new markets for Yukon productions.

“There are lots of people doing docs; Andy Connors is doing the dramas like Artifacts, and there are things like Northern Town — I might be pushing the envelope with this,” says Burnet.

Few other filmmakers are producing educational materials.

The Ernie’s Earth series was pressed into DVDs and captured on VHS tapes with a slew of backers, from the Yukon government to national environmental organizations.

And the first dollar came from Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon, says Burnet.

He’s marketing the series toward families and schools in the US and Canada. It’s geared toward 11 to 15 year olds in Grades 6 to 10.

The show is ongoing at Haines Junction’s Visitor Reception Centre. The Whitehorse Public Library has purchased copies and Yukon’s Education department has promised to put an order in.

Today Erinie’s trilogy is also screening to test audiences at different science centres and museums throughout the US to gauge responses from both adults and children.

So far the reaction been “all lovely and positive,” says Burnet.

“We’re just on the cusp of it.”

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