By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin August 18, 2010 at 4:00AM
The author of this colorful memoir may not be a household name, but he’s been involved in everything from Walt Disney’s The Living Desert to Out of Africa, from Disney animal movies like The Incredible Journey to Never Cry Wolf…and he has great stories to tell.
Couffer was a naturalist and a seaman before he ever thought of looking through a viewfinder. It was only by chance, when he attended USC on the G.I. bill after World War Two, that he became friendly with a fellow student named Conrad Hall, who persuaded him to try a cinema class. He fell under the spell of the celebrated montage-maker and teacher Slavko Vorkapich, and before long, he, Hall, and another newcomer were filmmaking partners. Couffer’s tales of trying to break into the business—and how the three hungry newcomers bent and broke rules to do so in the 1950s—are evocative and still instructive today. How the trio made its first dramatic feature (Running Target) on location, with—
— very little money and not-always-cooperative actors, could still be used as a textbook on indie filmmaking.
Eventually he shot some macro-footage of insects, which got his foot in the door at the Disney studio and his first assignment. He and Hall, who shared his adventurous spirit and love of the outdoors, spent almost a year living in the Galapagos Islands, for starters, filming wildlife that had never been put on film before. He continued working for the company on a freelance basis well into the 1960s, and reveals fascinating details about how some of the remarkable animal footage for films like Nikki, Wild Dog of the North, The Legend of Lobo, and The Incredible Journey was accomplished. He also spills the beans about Disney’s not-so-generous attitude toward freelancers, and how—after push came to shove—he got the last laugh.
Couffer isn’t bitter, however; he seems to be a pragmatist, and realizes how fortunate he was to do something he genuinely loved and get paid for it. He also has kind words for Walt himself, and marvels at the fact that whenever he chanced to run into the boss, he always knew exactly what Couffer was working on at the time and had a ready supply of questions.
His other far-reaching adventures crisscross the globe and provide insights into the process of working in remote locales, with all sorts of wild creatures, and always coming home with Hollywood-grade material. For some of the animal films—or second-unit work involving animals—preparation work might begin a year ahead of time, raising anything from an eagle to a lion to be able to work in front of a camera. Couffer occasionally got to work with humans, as well, as director of such films as Ring of Bright Water and Living Free. Over the years he became a good writer, which is evidenced by this absorbing, highly readable autobiography.
Some of his funniest stories involve disastrous shoots like Sheena (1984), for which Couffer shot second-unit action under the direction of John Guillermin, who functioned best in an atmosphere of chaos. Another second-unit shoot, for Sydney Pollack on Out of Africa, reveals the darker side of the movie business, where personality clashes take precedence over getting good results on screen.
Couffer delves into his personal life, with some degree of discretion, and tells us how his long trips away from home put strain on his first marriage, but also shares some wonderful times he spent with his son where they got to share the fun of being on location and learning about nature.