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Kickstarter Project to Fund Newt Film

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CALIFORNICATION: Four California newts (only one female) form a spawning ball. Says Lance Milbrand, "During spawning the female goes into a trance-like state that resembles a sea turtle giving birth. The circular spheres encased in gelatin along the background are freshly laid newt eggs."

by Brendan Bane

July 16, 2013—Walk along a Santa Cruz creek and you may find Lance Milbrand’s seemingly lifeless body splayed across the riverbed. But he isn’t dead. He’s very much alive, and a love of newts courses through his veins.

Milbrand spent the last year subjecting his body to strenuous conditions so he could capture the dramatic life of the California newt, Taricha torosa, on camera. To document the newt’s courtship ritual (essentially an all-day amphibious orgy), Milbrand donned a drysuit and lay half-submerged in a frigid creek for hours. “I would lie there two to four hours at a time,” says Milbrand, “day after day. I’d be there so long my hands went numb—completely white. But that’s what’s required to tell the story.” (Sometimes this story elicits nothing short of awe: “Without the assistance of blue pills,” notes the wildlife filmmaker, “the newt mates for way over four hours.”)

As a seasoned nature documentarian, Milbrand is accustomed to physical challenges. He’s filmed human remains a half-mile underwater, whale sharks in the Mexican Yucatan, and once documented a 46-day expedition where he lived alone on an uninhabited island. Past project partners include National Geographic and the BBC.

But his most recent subject, neither gargantuan nor grandiose, has commanded his attention completely. “There’s a lot of storytelling with the newt,” says Milbrand. “It’s big…bigger than me.” Milbrand has partnered with Dan Harder, director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, and composer Eddie Freeman to craft a film documenting the newt’s natural history.

The seven-minute final product will debut at the museum, which hosts 35,000 children annually, and will feature high-caliber footage of newts in every state of affairs: feeding, breeding, swimming, digging, and dancing. The team is seeking financial support and a narrator through Kickstarter. They hope to source enough funding by Aug. 1 that they can complete the project by this December.

The California newt needs its story told. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly Fish and Game) regards the species as of special concern. Invasive crayfish, mosquitofish and bullfrogs have eradicated southern California newt populations. Another concern involves lack of publicity. Milbrand suggests nature documentaries tend to focus on impressive megafauna, which butt less noticeable animals like newts out of public view.

“Species like this newt, the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, red-legged frog and California tiger salamander—they’re all endangered,” says Milbrand. “And the researchers who study them are becoming endangered. And the filmmakers who film them are becoming endangered.”

Milbrand hopes his film will motivate museumgoers to become environmental stewards. If anything, he holds that his eye-level, nose-in-the-dirt perspective will instill the same change in audience members he’s experienced while documenting the poisonous, red-bellied, charismatic amphibian. “Looking at them from the ground level and studying their face and movements—it’s just really an amazing animal,” said Milbrand. “The newt has shrunk my world.”

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