WILD life Crossing the country in a retired ambulance, the Gator grads behind a new Nat Geo WILD series hope to get viewers hooked on nature

The crocodile has disappeared.

For six hours, three wildlife filmmakers — all University of Florida grads — have been searching for American crocodiles in Everglades National Park with the help of the UF biologists who study them. Moments ago, they spotted a croc sunning on the bank of a creek. But as their skiffs approached, it slipped beneath the surface of the grey-green water.

They wait, their cameras trained on the spot, but the water remains still. Biting gnats swarm around their faces. Mosquitoes buzz, on the prowl for exposed skin. Still no crocodile. That’s a problem, as this episode of “Untamed with Filipe DeAndrade,” the Nat Geo WILD series they’re filming, is about crocodiles. The team has one day to film them, and that day is halfway over. But they don’t panic. Instead, they make lunch.

“We’ll get ’em,” Filipe says.

Just a few years out of college, Brian Moghari, McKenzie Barney and Filipe DeAndrade have managed to turn their boundless enthusiasm, steely drive and high tolerance for uncertainty into a production company that, after eight months of existence, landed a show with the world’s leading wildlife and conservation brand. Making the 10-episode web series, which premiered March 14, has taken them around the United States, chasing hummingbirds in Louisiana, mountain lions in New Mexico, dolphins in South Carolina and sea turtles in Florida, with monkeys, raptors, coyotes and jumping spiders along the way. The final shoot covers crocodiles and alligators in the Everglades, the only place in the world the two species coexist.

They just need one to show up.

McKenzie Barney films "Untamed" host Filipe DeAndrade as UF researcher Ed Metzger keeps and eye out for crocodiles.

Filipe is putting mustard on his turkey sandwich when a shape rises in the water just off the skiff’s bow. The three swing into action, capturing the perfectly camouflaged croc as it inches closer to the bank. Then an even larger croc surfaces, this one at least ten feet long. They bide their time. After another 30 minutes of waiting, the crew is rewarded as the giant croc hauls itself onto land, where they can finally film it. They’ve got some footage now, thank goodness, but they won’t call it a day for another ten hours. They don’t want to. There’s nowhere they’d rather be.

“I don't consider what I do work,” says McKenzie, a Washington native who was recruited to UF to play soccer for the Gators. “I wake up excited and exhilarated — and honestly terrified — but so motivated by the possibilities ahead. And in the times that it gets overwhelming, I look to my left and right, and there’s Fil smiling and cracking jokes, and Brian saying, ‘What can I do to help?'

"They’re more than my cofounders. They’re more than my business partners. They’re my best friends.”

McKenzie Barney, Brian Moghari and Filipe DeAndrade filming in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Comfort Theory.

Their bond goes back to late nights at the editing rooms in UF’s College of Journalism and Communications, where they recognized in each other the willingness (maybe compulsion) to put in extra hours on a project and still make it to Paynes Prairie to shoot the sunrise.

After graduation — Filipe and McKenzie in 2012, Brian in 2013 — they scattered to pursue their careers. Brian got an editing job in Los Angeles. McKenzie also headed west, finding success in marketing and branding. Filipe interned with a production company in Utah, then hiked the Appalachian Trail, where he developed the philosophy that would eventually lead them to walk away from profitable commercial jobs for a chance at something more fulfilling. Comfort Theory, which became the name of their film production company, posits that the security and ease we’re taught to value can be a trap.

“Stagnant water breeds bacteria,” says Filipe, who double-majored in film production and wildlife ecology and conservation. “You have to be in motion — physically, mentally or both. You have to be working toward something. It’s about working toward something that makes you uneasy, but might make you happier.”

Not that their water was ever that stagnant: After his 2,200-mile hike, Filipe won 10 New York Emmy Awards for his work; McKenzie racked up four of her own after switching from branding back to film. But when Filipe heard about National Geographic’s annual Wild to Inspire short film competition and its prize, a wildlife filmmaking expedition in Africa, “it was literally the thing I wanted more than anything in the world. It was a Crock-Pot of best-case scenarios.”

As he thought about entering the contest, though, doubts crept in. He had spent the last few years shooting for other people, so he didn’t own the rights to most of his best work, only what he’d shot on the trail and some timelapses he had made with Brian. The deadline was three weeks away. He spent a week of it agonizing.

“I can go after anything in the world, but if it’s the thing I truly, deeply want the most, I hit this wall where I tell myself I’m not good enough or I won’t get it. Why do you think you can possibly do this?”

In the end, he rented a camera, borrowed his mom’s car and spent two weeks driving around Florida filming “Adapt,” which details how nature — and nature photography — gave him resilience and purpose. He won.

The win put Filipe on National Geographic’s radar, and when he got back from Africa, the newly minted Comfort Theory team found themselves in the organization’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, pitching a series where they roam the country in a converted ambulance, discovering and sharing the wonders of America’s wildlife.

“Untamed with Filipe DeAndrade” was born.

With his lip ring, ever-present Gator bandanna and an energy Brian describes as “a 5-year-old who’s had way too much Mountain Dew,” Filipe isn’t a typical host for a nature documentary. Which is exactly the point, as the people they hope to reach aren’t typical nature-documentary viewers. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Filipe moved to the United States with his family at age 5. When his father went back to Brazil with the family’s immigration documents, things got complicated.

“I felt different, I sounded different, and I looked different, but I had to hide my differences, because we weren't here legally. It was an extremely confusing time, but I ultimately appreciated it,” he says. “I wish my mom had an easier time, but I am entirely grateful for the challenges I had. It helped me realize that if you want something, it's in your hands, and if I don't get it, I have no one to blame but myself.”

He applied that determination to getting the series — and the shots they needed to make it great. In St. Augustine, where they worked with UF researchers Cat and Scott Eastman on a sea turtle episode, the team spent five nights camped out on the beach waiting for hatchlings that didn’t emerge.

“We’d had about three hours of sleep between us. We had no sea turtles, no content and we’ve signed contract to deliver 10 episodes to the greatest media entity in the world, ever,” Filipe says.

The team waiting for sea turtles. Photo courtesy of Comfort Theory.

The next night, a nest hatched.

“It was the worst day followed up by very best day. When those sea turtles came out — I can't even explain it.”

In the Everglades, they’re hoping for a similar stroke of luck. After sunset, the UF researchers — wildlife biologists Caitlin Hackett and Ed Metzger and graduate student Seth Farris — sweep the mangroves with spotlights, looking for a croc’s telltale eye shine. As part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, the “Croc Docs” monitor the health of the crocodile and alligator population, counting, weighing and tracking them as an indicator of the overall health of the ecosystem.

Farris spots a croc, and Hackett deftly slips a wire loop around it before taping its jaws closed and pulling it onto their 16-foot skiff.

For a moment, everyone pauses to admire its spiked hide, cone-shaped teeth and velociraptor eyes.

“That,” Filipe breathes, “is a dinosaur.”

The team films the researchers as they measure its length and tail girth, weigh it (143.3 pounds) and determine its gender (female). This croc hasn’t been tagged before, so they microchip it and take small samples of tissue that will tell them what it’s been eating. The whole thing is over in about 15 minutes, yielding some close up shots of the croc and data that sheds light on the progress of Everglades restoration efforts.

Making connections between wildlife and conservation underlies each episode of “Untamed.”

“We want to put something out there that changes the way people look at not just wild spaces, but their own backyards,” Filipe says.

After the biologists catch and measure a second crocodile, a smaller male, the filmmakers head back to their campsite. The next morning, they head to a Cracker Barrel with their laptops to review and upload footage and plan what remains of the final shoot.

Over biscuits and gravy, fellow Gator grad Mike Rollins, who often works with Comfort Theory, shows the team drone footage he shot yesterday. This afternoon, they’ll be eye-to-eye with alligators in an even smaller boat.

“I never thought I’d see myself kayaking 2 feet above an alligator in a 5-foot-wide canal, then walking through the Everglades barefoot,” Mike says later, “but following Filipe around will put you in those situations.”

It was following Filipe, McKenzie says, that brought their fledgling company into the National Geographic family.

“Where we're at right now is because Filipe had big dreams,” she says. “He could have made all the excuses in the world, but he saw that yellow rectangle and he saw his life's dream, and he did everything in his power to make it happen.”

New episodes of "Untamed with Filipe DeAndrade" debut Tuesdays on Nat Geo WILD's YouTube channel and website.

Photo courtesy of Mike Rollins/Skytilt Films

Story by Alisson Clark, UF News/Photos by Hannah Pietrick, UF Photography

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Hannah Pietrick/UF Photography

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