An interest in photography would seem only natural for Brent Mills, the son of Olan Mills, the man whose name appeared on millions of school portraits over the decades. But it was movies that really caught the younger Mills' attention, and when he saw one about great white sharks, his future career was set.
Today he is founder and president of Nature Films Network, the company that shot and produced "Shark Clans," which is now showing as part of Sharkfest at the Tennessee Aquarium and Imax 3D Theater.
He travels all over the world filming wildlife in their natural habitats, but his main interest has always been sharks.
"The way it all came about was I grew up around photography and filmmaking, but I've always had a fascination with motion pictures. I've also since childhood had a fascination with dinosaurs, and I realized sharks are the last living dinosaur. They are T-Rex of the sea.
"Then my mom took me to see 'Blue Water, White Death' [the 1971 documentary that predated 'Jaws'], and from there I was struck."
Mills made it a goal to dive with great white sharks and eventually met and befriended Rodney Fox, who made it his mission to protect great white sharks after he survived an attack. In 1994, Mills worked with Fox while directing "Hunt for the Great White Shark," a documentary for National Geographic that garnered him a good deal of publicity and respect in the nature films world.
Nature Films Network is one of the oldest such production companies working today. Mills says the company's philosophy has always been to work with professionals in the field to accurately capture on film what is happening in the animal world.
Rob Hall has been working with Mills at NFN since 2005 and is currently vice president of technology services. He says Mills has an innate ability to ask the right questions and to listen for the rest of the story.
"Brent is amazing at staying connected to people and following stories," Hall says. "The little things I don't pay attention to he does. He is very inquisitive and can pull out stories from people who don't think they have a story to tell, but he finds it."
Mills says his goal is to talk with the people who are doing the work.
"We try to connect with marine biologists and other filmmakers, the ones actually in the water, and find out what they know and what they think is news, so to speak. I got lucky in the beginning that I became, by happenstance, friends with Rodney Fox. He and I built a friendship, and he has been a great asset."
Hall says that he, Mills, Michael Love (vice president of marketing and business manager) and Barry Cammon (vice president of editing and stock footage) make a good team at NFN.
"We all do a lot of jobs here," Mills agrees.
They also each bring different outdoor interests to the team. Hall's main outdoor interests are in rock climbing, while Love's is fly fishing. Cammon's interest and skills are in photography and editing.
Love, who handles stock film files, sales and marketing for NFN, says he first learned of Mills as an eighth-grader at McCallie School when he gave a presentation on "Hunt for the Great White Shark."
He has become a certified diver since joining NFN and did his first dive with sharks during the filming of "Shark Clans." As such, he "plays" a tourist in the film who has traveled to Australia to swim with sharks.
Over a six-day period, he made five dives. The first two were in a surface cage wearing a snorkel. The next three were in scuba gear and in a cage lowered to the ocean floor 70 feet down.
He says the first trip into the water with the sharks was all about learning the drill and getting comfortable.
"You see those dorsal fins slicing through the surface, and you realize you are putting yourself in proximity of a large predator," he says. "You are on high alert, looking around constantly."
He realized, he says, that sharks are curious but relatively standoffish. They would swim at the cage and then swim away, returning a little closer with each pass.
Love recalls that his second visit into the surface cage during filming was less stressful and he was able to pay attention to the task at hand, which was to focus on parts of the shark's body that weren't the teeth.
› What: Sharkfest
› When: Sharkfest activities, 5-8 p.m. today, with Imax movie screenings at 5 and 6 p.m.
› Where: Tennessee Aquarium, 1 Broad St., and Imax Theater, 201 Chestnut St.
› Admission: Free for Aquarium members, $14.50 nonmember adults, $9.50 nonmember children ages 3 to 12; movie tickets $8.
› For more information: www.tnaqua.org
› Online: Watch a trailer of “Shark Clans” at https://vim eo.com/221933443
› Read a related story at www.Chatta noogaNow.com.
"The underbelly, the scars, the fins," he says. "We had one that had obviously had its entire head inside the mouth of another shark fairly recently."
These markings help the scientists gather data on which sharks are in the area.
The three bottom dives were different because now the diver is not only aware of the sharks but he has to pay attention to technical aspects of the dive, Hall says.
"That's when you realize you are in a cage 70 feet down and relying on a scuba tank," he says. "It's a smaller cage, and it brings you out of your comfort zone. Now you are scuba diving and trying to capture images. There is a lot more going on."
When all was said and done, Love says, "I was quickly able to check off a bucket list item. I was in a cage with sharks on the other side of world. Doing it was a rush. It will get your heart pumping."
Mills says not all of NFN's film projects involve sharks or traveling the world. The crew is currently filming wildlife in Chattanooga.
"We're open to all sorts of projects," he says.
"We are currently working on a project about the Tennessee River Gorge and canyon and wildlife. We've got some pretty interesting animals right here. Rob and I went and filmed freshwater jellyfish in Lake Chickamauga. I'm not sure people even know they live here.
Mills says he has considered moving the company to Washington, D.C., to be closer to National Geographic or Discovery Channel headquarters, "but actually what we have here in this region is unique, and there are a lot of filming opportunities here, so I stayed put.
"We are really excited about doing a new film with paddlefish, mountain lions and cave bats right here in own backyard."
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.
1993 “Jaws Last Dragon,” Universal Studios
1994 “Hunt for the Great White Shark,” National Geographic (an NFN original)
1996 “Ultimate Guide to Sharks,” Discovery
1997 “Jaws and Claws,” Discovery Kids
1999 “Blue Water, White Death,” MGM Studios
2010 “The Reef,” an independent feature film from Australia
2012 “How Jaws Changed the World”
2012 “Jawsome,” shark special for Discovery’s “Mythbusters”
2015 “Shark Clans” on Discovery’s Shark Week (an NFN original)
2016 “Great White Bite,” National Geographic international release (an NFN original)
NFN also has contributed footage to the following: “Today,” NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, BBC, TBS, “Saturday Night Live,” Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and various commercial spots and PSAs both nationally and internationally. Their footage also has been used in aquariums and museums around the world including the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md.