By Jo Cooper  
       Barbara Jampel, writer-producer of many WQED National Geographic specials, has been charged by a gorilla and cuddled by a koala bear, and had a minor scuffle with a baboon.
     Although she's had no formal training in film or wildlife, Jampel has traveled around the world and has become an espert on many subjects while writing her award-winning documentaries.
I interviewed her recently between trips.
Jo Cooper: Was the gorilla charge your most terrifying experience?
Barbara Jampel: Oh yes. I'm not an outdoor girl. I was born and bred in New York City. it was the second time in my life I'd even been camping. We were filming "Gorilla" in Rwanda, Africa. The researchers who knew the gorillas well, told me that one large male, called Peanuts, had a habit of asserting himself if strangers invaded his territory. But they said, "Don't worry, he never ever completes the charge. He'll stop short and run off." I started on our trek through the dense vegetation, more than a little nervous.

  Were you alone?
Jampel:      No, the researchers were with me, but at one point they told me to sit and wait while they climbed higher. They were only a few yards above me, but I couldn't see them. So I was essentially alone.
     All of a sudden I heard one of the researchers saying, "OK, Barbara, don't panic. Peanuts is here and he's on his way down, NOW!" Just then, through crashing vegetation, I saw a gorilla screeching and pounding his chest, just like in the movies, and he was coming directly at me. All my six months research telling me that gorillas are shy vegetarians that never hurt anybody went right out the window. I knew I was supposed to appear submissive, but I coudln't get any lower. I covered my eyes. This all happened within
seconds. While my eyes were covered I said to myself, "look, if you're going to die, you're going to die, but you probably aren't, and in any event you don't want to miss this." I made myself open my eyes just in time to see him stop short, about four feet from me, and run off sideways, I even got a picture of him.

How long does it take you to complete a National Geographic film like "Gorilla?"
Jampel: They take ten to twelve months to complete. Roughly two months to research, one to three months of shooting, depending on the complexity of the subject and the distance we have to travel to location, four to six weeks of writing, which includes a research phase. There is a full-time researcher at Geographic whose only job is to see to it that every word of our scripts has a check mark over it before we record narration. We're in the business of doing scientific films, and we feel very strongly about accuracy.

What specific writing tasks does the form of the TV special impose on you?
Jampel: I really do two types of writing: I "write with film," as we call it, and I write the actual narration. First the film editor and I spend four to six months creating the structure of the story by editing the film. Finally, we have a "picture lock," which means, "Sorry, time is up, you must now stop this film."{ I think it was D.W. Griffith who said, "No film is ever completed; you're just forced to abandon it."      After the pictuer is "locked," I use my stop watch and take "timings." For each sequence I have a separate page. For example, with "Among the Wild Chimpanzees," the story of Jane Goodall's twenty-two-year-old study of the chimps. I have;
     ---thirteen seconds;: map
     eleven seconds: boat on lake
     ---six seconds: close up, Jane and crowd
     ---five seconds: Jane talking (and I know I can't
          talk there; she's talking)
     ---five seconds: pan the shoreline
     ---seven seconds: set up the tent, etc.

     Sometimes I edit myself into a corner. I cut a particular scene because it looks good at that length, and then, when I go to write what I wanted to

  say more. I'm out of luck. When Jane comes into the forest, for instance, the information I wanted to give you was her name, her age, and the fact that she was completely untrained and had only a high school education. The high school education was never mentioned because I ran out of time. I couldn't put it in later because it was old news at that point.

Was the Goodall special harder to write than your others?
Jampel: Yes and no. At first I was writing things about the chimps like, "Fifi and Figan are playing while Flint is nearby and Fabin and Flow are fascinated with....,." and it sounded like I was writing for Little Golden Books. We also had a hard time with past and present tense.
     In other ways, it was easier. It's a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It even has a charming, intelligent leading lady, which is rare in documentaries. In most documentaries there's no one for you to identify with.

I remember the way the narrator told the Jane Goodall story. It was beautiful, yet so simple. these were your words, weren't they?
Jampel: Yes. You can't use fifty-cent words that are gong to make the audience say, "Huh?" If you do, they lose the next two sentences. The minute you start getting too clever, you detract from what you're trying to do. Most of my writing is simple and straightforward, and it tells a story. Cutesy phrases are out. You must tell the story clearly and logically.
     I learned that wall-to-wall words bombard people and turn them off quickly. So I "create meadows." When you see scenes of Jane walking throught the forest, I had said, "OK, here's the perfect opportunity for a 'meadow.' We'll just let her walk for a while." And we did. She just walked and looked, and then we came back in with narration.
Were there any writers or teachers who influenced your writing?
Jampel: Yes. In eighth grade I took journalism and worked on the school newspaper, and in ninth grade I took creative writing, both with the same teacher. He was just WONDERFUL! His name was Newton Nelson. I've often wondered if he's still teaching.

Did he encourage you?
Jampel: Yes, but it wasn't that he encouraged me personally; it was his attitude toward writing. He encouraged creativity. It was his openness and willingness to spend time with us, and clearly his own love of writing, that influenced me.

How did you get started in writing documentaries?
Jampel: I started at Wolper Productions (a leading documentary film company) as a production secretary. I moved up to researcher, and then joined the newly-formed MGM Documentary Department.

What are you working on now?
Jampel: I recently returned from Italy, where we worked on our next documentary, which deals with the archaeology and contemporary life in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. I don't know the title yet, but it will be aired in fall 1987.

     Who knows where Barbara Jampel may travel next to bring us great adventure stories, but we can expect top-notch writing wherever she is.

  Barbara Jampel's award-winning documentaries include:

* "In Search of the Lost World."
* "The Nobel Prize '79."
* Jacques Cousteau's specials: "Time Bomb
     at Fifty Fathoms" and "Mediterranean;
     Cradle or Coffin?"
* National Geographic Specials: "Gorilla"
     (nominated for Emmy), "Australia's Animal
     Mysteries" (nominated for writing Emmy),
     "Among the Wild Chimpanzees" (won 1985
     Emmy) and "Miraculous Machines."

By Ralph Cooper, 12-28-07
     This is one of a series of articles which were published in the Writing! magazine. Jo interviewed the subject, transcribed the tape, and then wrote the article and submitted it, subject to the approval of the person who had been interviewed. This particular article was published in the May 1986 issue of the magazinze.
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