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Capturing the Enchantment of the Land: John Grabowska's Poetic Tribute to New Mexico

By Bob Fisher

From John Grabowska's 'Remembered Earth.' Photo: John Grabowska

Remembered Earth is the eighth film that former TV news reporter/cinematographer John Grabowska has produced, written and directed for the National Park Service, where he works at its media design center in Harper's Ferry, Virginia. The under-30-minute film explores the high deserts, mountains, red rock canyons and plateaus of New Mexico. There are birds and animals whose ancient ancestors inhabited the land, and a few scars left on the landscape by excavators.

Grabowska produced Remembered Earth for the visitors center at El Malpais National Park in New Mexico. The film is also slated to air in primetime on PBS in HD format, as well as make the rounds in environmental film festivals.

Remembered Earth traces back to 1999, when the superintendent of El Malpais National Park told Grabowska there was no film for the theater at the visitors center, which opened in 1989. Grabowska used footage in the National Park Service archives to create a presentation that sold the idea of producing a film about the New Mexico landscape. He first scouted locations in December 1999.

"I was intrigued by the ecosystem of northwestern New Mexico which is part of the Colorado plateau," Grabowska says. "Its endless beauty has attracted artists, photographers and writers for decades. D. H. Lawrence moved there to write. It's where Georgia O'Keeffe did her painting. Ansel Adams photographed the region, and author Tony Hillerman set his books in New Mexico. I was inspired by the Sand County Almanac, written by Aldo Leopold. He wrote, 'The land is a community that we belong to, rather than a commodity for the extractive industries to exploit.'"

While he was planning the film, Grabowska discovered House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the people of New Mexico and their connection to the land. "The inspiration for the title of our documentary was drawn from a line in his book," Grabowska says. "I made a cold call and asked if he was interested in participating in writing and narrating the film. Fortunately, he said yes."

Grabowska says that the film was an unscripted venture with an over-arching theme. He wanted to make the land a presence rather than a character. "I wanted to make an interpretive film that provokes and inspires rather than educates," he says. "I'll consider it successful if audiences watch, listen and contemplate their own relationship to the land."

Grabowska produced Remembered Earth primarily in Super-16 with some time-lapse shots recorded on 35mm film. He explains, "I shoot nature documentaries on film whenever I can. We have been watching film for more than 100 years, and that visual vocabulary has entered our consciousness. We respond to photochemical images. There are also technical advantages. Film gave us the latitude to record the nuanced colors and contrast that are part of the story in natural light."

Grabowska and cinematographer Steve Ruth made many visits to New Mexico during a four-year span. Ruth mainly used an Aaton XTRprod Super-16 camera. He recorded aerial footage with an ARRI SR Super-16 camera on a Tyler helicopter mount, and used a 35mm ARRIFLEX IIB camera for wide-angle, time-lapse shots.

"Steve has a wonderful eye," Grabowska says. "We have been working together long enough to communicate by shorthand. We'd find a location that had an aspect that would help us illustrate the geology, or we'd come across some wildlife. Sometimes I'd make a suggestion, and almost invariably Steve would say that he had already done that twice.

"He is a master at shooting time-lapse," Grabowska continues. "He always knew where the sun was going to move in the frame, what the clouds were going to do, and the right frame rate. There are shots of huge, iconic landscapes of buttes and mesas with clouds churning in the sky and their shadows painting the desert floor. Time-lapse implies the immense passage of time in geology sequences. There is also a certain lyricism that fits the tone of this film."

Helicopter shots were filmed at 48 frames per second to smooth out the bumps. "We tried to show the diversity of the landscape from 14,000-foot-high Alpine mountains to extremely dry areas that look like a miniature Monument Valley in Arizona" Grabowska says. "We also tried to depict the past, present and future."

All of the images were recorded on Eastman EXR 50D 5245 and 7245 color negative films, which are balanced for an exposure index of 50 in daylight. "We stayed within budget while shooting a 40:1 ratio of film," he says. "I sifted through the film during editing to find the absolute best images for our story."

Grabowska also incorporated clips from a 1929 Hollywood Western called Redskin, a silent film with parts shot in Technicolor. Paramount Pictures donated the film to the Library of Congress during the 1970s. "The landscapes were perfect," he says. "Even in 1929, it addressed the impact of the extractive industries. I worked through Paramount to get permission to use clips."

He also used black-and-white clips culled from a posse chase in a 1948 Paramount film called Four Faces West. Grabowska notes that those clips offer perspective about how the land has been viewed throughout the years. "The fact that we incorporated footage from 1929 and 1948 films tells you about the importance of archivability," he observes. "I used 8mm home movies that my mom shot in 1967 in another documentary. Chances are that at least future filmmakers, including some who haven't been born yet, will use some of our footage."

The negative was processed at Color Lab, outside of Washington DC. Grabowska had logged every shot. He reviewed the film and did his first edit on paper. "I sat in my garret, looking at the footage many times and letting the images make their impact on what I wrote," he recalls. "It was very time-consuming, but that's the way I work. If you make a film like this, you want it to have a long life span."

Offline editing was done at Henninger in Arlington Virginia and the conformed negative was converted to HDCam 24P format at NFL Films in Mt. Laurel New Jersey where Grabowska timed the documentary in a digital intermediate suite in collaboration with colorist Bob Johanson.

"In one scene, Momaday is narrating on camera and the backlight was much brighter than the light on his face," Johanson says. "We suppressed the backlight enough to draw attention to his face. The eye is always attached to the brightest part of the frame.

"There's a beautiful time-lapse shot where the rising sun is reflecting on buttes and causing shadows to creep across the ground," Johanson continues. "The rich colors start to come out of the mountains as the sky changes. There are shots of dry, parched earth, and soon the ground turns a brilliant orange with colorful flowers. It was all there on the film."

The online edit was done at Henninger in HDCam 24P format.

"The fidelity of color reproduction on an HD screen is particularly important on a film as organic as natural history," Grabowska concludes. "There are no compromises."

Grabowska is currently working on a film that focuses on the ecosystem stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the gulf stream and barrier islands of the east coast of the US.


Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.