NEW YORK—It was a quiet, chilly day at Central Park; the untrained ear may not have heard much except for a breeze blowing gentle ripples in the water. Jeffrey Kimball, 56, sat in front of the bow bridge and smiled serenely into the camera. “Wait, I just heard a house sparrow, let me put on my glasses,” he said.
“I never come here without binoculars,” Kimball said, disappointed for not bringing them.
Kimball was a former music supervisor who founded and ran the Miramax Films music department in the 1990s. He oversaw the music in films such as “Good Will Hunting” and “A Bronx Tale.” In recent years, he has turned toward an environmental focus, taking a leap in his career by directing his first full-length documentary, “The Central Park Effect.”
“The Central Park Effect” is a term in ornithology, which means that this piece of greenery in middle of the city is able to attract birds and enrich an ecosystem.
The film captures the idiosyncrasies and resilience of both nature and humans, by focusing on a group of birders in Central Park who know how to catch sight of exotic species of birds in the urban jungle, even in the dead of winter.
“The Central Park Effect” documentary can even be tantalizing for non-birders. With his versatile film background, Kimball decorates his film with creative visuals and musical elements that are not normally incorporated in a documentary.
Kimball also had a lot of guidance from his wife, Pamela Hogan, an award-winning documentary and investigative journalist.
Although Kimball was confident with his ideas, not everyone in his crew always was. He said at a recent film festival at Yale, one of his cameramen, who was in the audience, said the crew had no idea Kimball knew what he was doing.
“I knew that [my wife] didn’t think I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know that my cameraman didn’t think I knew what I was doing,” Kimball joked.
Perhaps it was precisely because Kimball remained humble that the film turned out to be successful.
“You can’t really move forward if you think everything you do is good,” he said. “But you do need confidence to take leaps.”
“What’s interesting is that arrogance comes from self-doubt,” Kimball said. “I try to learn from my father. I don’t think he ever had self-doubt his whole life, but he wasn’t the least bit arrogant either.”
Making the Most of Opportunities
Kimball was an ambitious child. He wanted to study literature, become a vet, and even a lawyer at one point.
“I was selected to spend a day with a profession of my choice in high school, so I spent a day with a lawyer and that was it,” he joked. “I realized being a lawyer is mostly just being on the telephone.”
“Music supervisor for movies strikes people as a wonderful glamorous job, but most of that also is just being on the telephone,” he said.
“When I discovered film I thought this is the thing to do. I can do music, visuals, politics, storytelling, ideas, design,” Kimball said.
Kimball studied film for his undergraduate at Stanford University.
“I was decidedly not interested in science in college because I went to a school that was heavily science oriented,” he said. “But if I were to start over again I might have gone into biology.”
“A mistake I made in college was thinking that science somehow is anti-intellectual. Science was only for people who didn’t want to think hard about ideas. There were a lot of missed opportunities,” he said.
Why a Film on Birds?
Kimball grew up in Northern California; his backyard had a creek and wild animals galore.
After moving to New York City to complete his graduate film studies at New York University, Kimball felt homesick for nature.
This void was filled 10 years ago, when Kimball discovered that bird watching in New York City was, in fact, a year round activity.
A friend had invited him to go bird-watching in January.
“I laughed, I said what are you talking about there’s snow on the ground. But we saw 25 species of birds in the middle of January with snow on the ground,” Kimball recalled.
“That was a pivotal moment for me,” he said. “There was a valid ecosystem thriving in Central Park.”
Yet within the span of 10 years, Kimball said he has seen the bird population decline drastically.
“Birds are in trouble. I’m not sure if I can make this film today. … There aren’t as many birds in the park as there were five years ago when I began making it,” he said.
One World, One System
Another memorable part of making the film was working with children, Kimball said.
“Although only one of them ended up in the film, I did several interviews with kids,” he said. “[Bird-watching] is never going to be for everyone, but it’s not as geeky as it used to be. I see that the next generation is coming along.”
“It’s important for kids because it’s about understanding how the world works, understanding that we are a part of an entire system,” Kimball said.
For Kimball, this philosophy is also applicable on a larger, a karmic scale as well.
“I feel there is inner connectedness to everything in the world. I feel the earth is one big organism, our actions do have consequences to other people,” he said.
“I often think about trying to make a film about how all decisions people make, to track the decisions people make and their effect. I’ve written some scripts for it.” he said.
Kimball said the idea was inspired by corruption, such as the incidents of the tainted lettuce scandal in the Midwest.
“They figured out it was from unsanitary conditions in the field. I began to imagine this circle, what if the wife of the CEO of the agribusiness ate tainted lettuce at a fancy restaurant and died … all because he ran an agribusiness that didn’t look at people’s lives, but only numbers.”