Deep in the Heart with Christian von Preysing-Barry

Christian von Preysing-Barry was responsible for capturing footage of the elusive wild cat, the ocelot, for the nature documentary "Deep in the Heat." We had the opportunity to sit down with him, who tells us you can still find mesmerizing stories in your own backyard. 

Deep in the Heart with Christian von Preysing-Barry

Here at Glimmer, we have creators whose experience with nature spans the globe. Christian von Preysing-Barry is one of them, who acted as a Camera Operator (among other things) for the spectacular nature documentary “Deep in the Heart.” The film, directed by Ben Masters, sought to raise awareness of conservation efforts in Texas, focusing on animals that others normally shy away from. Its debut on streaming services such as Apple TV and Amazon Prime in 2022 was met with high praise - from its sweeping shots of natural beauty to its gripping narration by Matthew McConaughey.

Christian, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. We love starting from the beginning so tell us - how did you get involved in such an interesting process?

“I got involved early on films that spoke about human connection with nature. After those I heard there was work being done on this very ambitious wildlife project, so I offered to support them any way I could. Luckily, living in this corner of the state they were very interested in the endangered ocelot population. It’s a very labor-intensive process, to set up cameras and keep going back to check them every week, so I got involved.”

Right, it seems like these shots would be pretty difficult to get. How’d it all come together?

“Camera trapping. To give you a general idea, it’s a much better strategy when dealing with elusive animals that will run when they see you. It’s a better idea to set up a camera trap - they’ll notice it but they won’t run away in the same way they will if they see a person. So animals like black bears, ocelots, mountain lions, stuff like that, it’s best to set up a camera like this and walk away.” 

A crew member sets up a camera trap to try and get a glimpse of the elusive ocelots.

“There are limitations, sure - you’re kind of setting up only one angle and hoping for the best. It’s not just the angle that can be the challenge either. Sometimes you’re committing to one focus point, so a lot can go wrong. You’ll get something in your frame but it’s not exactly how you want it to look. 90% of the footage ends up getting thrown out, so when you go and set up these camera traps the more the merrier.”

You mention you had limited experience with this particular thing going into it - which is wild because these are spectacular shots you were able to capture.

“Yeah, I learned camera trapping on the job. Sometimes you just kind of learn by seeing what other people do and try doing that. One day while working with this group they told me we were going to use camera traps, and set me up with how to use them. As long as you know how to work a camera there are only a few steps of complexity beyond that, but it’s basically the same thing: setting up a shot and hoping it works out.”

Christian set up various camera traps near ocelot habitats in hopes of catching a glimpse of one. This particular method can be rather challenging, as there’s no guarantee you’ll walk away with the perfect shot. It takes a certain kind of skill, patience, and the ability to be okay if you come back with nothing.

“The way these work is you need to set up your camera and a sensor. Once an animal walks through the sensor it will trigger the camera to take the shot, so sometimes animals can walk around the sensor. You’re out of luck in this case. You kind of just take your best educated guess and hope it works out.”

“I always tell people who are trying to get into this business to not spend $10,000 to go somewhere and bite off more than they can chew. Stay in their backyard, stay in their neighborhood - you can tell a great story there.”

Were there any other challenges or unexpected circumstances that come to mind? Any memorable moments from working on the project?

“I wasn’t filming ocelots at the time but was working with the same team in Big Ben in West Texas. They sent me to look at a camera on a trail we had set up on a mountainside somewhere. I grabbed the camera and we were reviewing the footage and saw that an hour before I had gotten there a mountain lion had gone down that exact path.” 

“That was pretty wild - haven’t seen one in person yet, but came pretty close. It’s interesting because after working with ocelots for over four years I still haven’t seen one out in the wild either. We were within 1,000 yards of where they likely made their home - maybe even closer - and we can only assume that during the day they were running around within that area. That speaks to how difficult it is to see these animals with your own eyes.”

Camera trapping allows crews to capture more authentic moments in wildlife without disturbing their surroundings.

You mentioned that you have this passion for connecting humans with nature and rekindling this relationship. Where does the passion for this come from?

“My situation is kind of interesting because my day job is a broadcast journalist for TV News and I’ll do freelance work on the side. I’ve had the luck of having these wildlife gigs in this area specifically for ocelots. I’m always looking for these opportunities. I think the challenge for me is to explain to people what they’re missing out on. We’re more and more disconnected from the outdoors and wildlife. I get joy out of telling people about the wonders they have in their neighborhood, in their region. You don’t need to really explain something to people when you have this compelling image of an animal, especially one that’s hard for someone to see because it’s so rare.”

Christian, like thousands of other freelance creatives, will often split their time between their day job and their passion. In Christian's case he continues to hunt down opportunities to explore the natural world around him, making platforms like Glimmer important to allow him to chase his dream.

The release of this film seemed to coincide with the US Fish and Wildlife Service rolling out a new conservation strategy - was there a correlation there?

“Just to be clear it wasn’t the film that caused this change - these changes were in the works for many years, this film just brought the issue of ocelot conservation into the limelight and put it on a lot of people’s minds. So it’s possible that this film compelled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to take advantage of that opportunity and public interest to announce this project when they did. To give a bit of context, the project was geared towards creating a new area for Ocelot newborns to be placed so they can form a new habitat and build a new population. The existing ocelot population in the United States is fewer than 100 or 120 - there are very few left.”

“There are ocelots living in South America and Mexico, but the importance of genetic diversity is to maintain the U.S. population since it’s an isolated population that we would rather not have disappear. We need to keep that limited population alive so they can ultimately disperse and repopulate.”

You mentioned that you had these scientists on your team who learned the way of the ocelot. You obviously know a lot about this particular population, but anything that you took away or learned from this experience?

“They pretty much guided the team to exactly where the ocelots are. It’s a 50,000-acre ranch we worked on - lots of space. But if we didn’t have the scientists guiding us we would have never found them, and that was information that must have taken years, even decades to discover. We were able to get results within weeks and sometimes even months (remember, they’re quite elusive), and that made all the difference.”

Christian von Preysing-Berry in his search for ocelots.

So the population is struggling here in the United States. What are some of the biggest threats facing them?

“Really what they’re up against is urbanization from the nearby cities. They don’t do well anywhere near homes. If there’s wild space for them they’ll do okay but otherwise, they’re going to lose their habitat. They definitely wouldn’t be near a neighborhood, and even being in proximity to a city is not what they prefer. To try to boil it down, they need a certain kind of wild habitat where they can live and avoid predators like hawks and owls that can take them out if the habitat is even modified slightly. Like if you start taking out trees or foliage then they lose their defense. So factors like that start affecting their homes. Wild cats have this tendency to get pushed out by existing members of the area (particularly males) too - they have this instinct to disperse and unfortunately, you’ll see them try to cross highways or things like that.”

Well Christian, it’s been incredibly insightful speaking with you. If you could leave creators with any advice when it comes to filming environmental projects, what would you leave them with?

“Look inward. Look into yourself and look into your community. A lot of the big grand stories in the world have been told - people have spent a lot of money going to all corners of the world talking about the biggest and most charismatic animals. We’re reaching a point where a lot of these stories are being repeated now and production companies are looking for new stories. People looking to get into wildlife production can look into their own community and tell a new kind of story about what they have right there. We’ve seen so many documentaries on lions and elephants - the big charismatic species - but I think we’re seeing less of those documentaries and more productions that are right there where somebody lives.”

Christian poses in front of his camera traps, set to capture magic.

You can check out the trailer for Deep in the Heart (as well as an array of other spectacular work) on Christian’s Glimmer Profile, or watch the full documentary on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, or VUDU.