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To Our Friends at Illustra Media: Congratulations on 20 Years of Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking!


In April 1997, a producer, an editor, and a businessman were fresh out of work from an institution that had just decided to discontinue its film department. The trio faced a choice: scramble for separate jobs, or band together to pursue a new venture. They chose the latter course, and we’re glad they did. The team of Lad Allen, Jerry Harned, and Jim Adams formed a new company which became Illustra Media. This past Saturday, we were delighted to have an opportunity to applaud them and celebrate Illustra’s 20th anniversary, as almost 600 supporters gathered at Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, California.

“At the time, we had no equipment, no facility, and very little in the way of financial assets,” Lad told the audience. “But we did possess some very important resources: a dream, a lot of energy, and the grace of God.” Crucially, they also brought to bear superb filmmaking know-how sharpened by years of experience.

The rest is history: 18 major documentaries, including superb presentations of intelligent design: classics such as Unlocking the Mystery of Life, The Privileged Planet, Darwin’s Dilemma, the Design of Life trilogy (Metamorphosis, Flight: The Genius of Birds, and Living Waters), and most recently Origin. Over 8 million DVDs in 25 languages have extended their message around the globe, including over 7 million in China. From the VHS tape era to today’s digital streaming and social media, Illustra has explained the science of design in a series of consistently attractive, appealing, and articulate packages. The films excel in information, convincing presentation, and audio-visual power.

Discovery Institute Vice President John West and Senior Fellow Paul Nelson were on hand for the event. Our friendship with Illustra goes back to its beginning, when Stephen Meyer encouraged Lad Allen to pursue his vision. In 2001, Lad and Steve worked together on a documentary film that would present the case for intelligent design. Discovery offered the finest spokesmen for ID, including Meyer, Paul Nelson, Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, Phillip Johnson, Dean Kenyon, and others. That film, Unlocking the Mystery of Life, released in 2002, launched Illustra into the spotlight of the ID debate, which was just heating up at the time.

The relationship has continued to the present, with Discovery Institute Senior Fellows including Meyer, Nelson, Ann Gauger, and Richard Sternberg playing lead roles in Ilustra films. It was good to see Jim Adams (now retired) present with his wife Janet. They played a key role in establishing Illustra Media as a 501(c)(3) non-profit company and starting a base of financial support for the fledgling operation. Both Lad and Jerry continue to work out of their homes. Their business plan was “low overhead and lots of prayer,” Lad quipped. “Actually, that’s still our business plan today.”

Lad prepared quite a show for the audience. Onstage, an impressive array of scientific equipment, courtesy of popular science speaker Dean Ortner, tantalized the audience. Ortner “sparked” our interest when he switched on his Oudin resonator, sending a million volts of electricity into bolts of lightning-like sparks. At the conclusion, he upped the ante: he stood on top of the generator! When he called “Fire!” an assistant switched it on, sending a million volts through his body. Sparks flew from his fingertips, and a piece of lumber he was holding burst into flame. The energy did not hurt him, though, because at 65,000 cycles, the electricity was not tuned to the human body. The energy passed outside his body and only became manifest at points like the fingers. Nevertheless, it was a daring and vivid demonstration of the laws of science.

Illustra Media

Another attraction outside was a drone demonstration by Dennis Burkhart, who had taken some of the beautiful drone shots for Living Waters. And with an assist from Shady Oaks Butterfly Farm in Florida, Lad delighted children afterward by letting them release butterflies from envelopes in which they had been safely kept in hibernation for the occasion. Door prizes included sets of Illustra DVDs and autographed copies of Darwin’s Doubt, by Stephen Meyer, Undeniable, by Doug Axe, and Zombie Science, by Jonathan Wells.

Illustra Media

For the main part of the program, Lad reviewed highlights of Illustra’s two decades of film production, showing clips of some of its major feature films. Then he showed a “teaser” of an upcoming new short documentary, to be released in January 2018. Present for the program were composer Mark Edward Lewis (who opened with a piano concert of themes he had produced for past Illustra films), biologist Tim Standish, Captain Dave Anderson, Discovery Fellow Paul Chien, David Coppedge of NASA/JPL fame, as well as a number of others who have participated in the making of the films both onscreen and behind the scenes.

What’s next for Illustra? Market demands are moving the company in the direction of online short films that can be shared through social media. Illustra has already modularized some of its existing films, making them available on Vimeo and YouTube via a custom website, and it plans to add more features for subscribers. Discovery Institute looks forward to more years of outstanding work from this highly effective and influential filmmaking team.

Photos: Illustra team and friends (top), Dean Ortner (middle), Lad Allen (bottom).