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Global Warning: 'Ribbon of Sand' Proves an Elegy for Vanishing Islands

By Bob Fisher

A scene of the wild barrier islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore, from John Grabowska's Ribbon of Sand

“The more clearly we focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

--Rachel Carson, The Real World Around Us (1954)

More than half a century after environmental pioneer Rachel Carson wrote those words, North Carolina’s famed Outer Banks are imperiled by rising sea levels due to global warming. Carson’s writing, full of wonder and warning, frames Ribbon of Sand, a 30-minute natural history film produced by John Grabowska on the ecology of the sand barrier islands off the mid-Atlantic coast.

“The accelerating rate of erosion shows that the Outer Banks are in a state of collapse,” says Grabowska. “Coastal geologists calculate that the barrier islands will break apart in our lifetime.”

Ribbon of Sand, described by The Washington Post as “poetic...both intimate and sweeping,” premiered in March at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Since then it has been on the environmental film festival circuit around the world, including screenings at several special events marking 2007 as the centennial of Carson’s birth. The permanent venue for the film will be a high-definition, surround-sound theater at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina.

Grabowska, who since 1991 has been creating environmental films for the Interpretive Design Center of the National Park Service in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, says the islands are a national treasure in danger of disappearing.

“The challenge was to share that sense of wonder in the natural world that Rachel Carson believed in so deeply and wrote about so eloquently,” says Grabowska. “She did some of her research on these barrier islands for her book The Edge of the Sea.

“My intent was for the film to be equal parts exaltation and elegy,” he continues. “Cape Lookout is breathtakingly beautiful, and surprisingly remote for being on the East Coast. The wild, natural islands of the national seashore will continue migrating, rolling toward the coastline as barrier islands are meant to do, but the developed islands are doomed.”

Meryl Streep reads the passages by Carson, and Todd Boekelheide composed the score for the doc, which was shot on Super-16mm film by Grabowska’s long-time collaborator Steve Ruth. “We shoot on film for many reasons, but mostly because I love the look,” says Grabowska. “It’s still the only real archival medium, which is important because the negative will be a record of this ecosystem, which is in the midst of tremendous change.”

Ruth worked with a modest toolkit, including Aaton XTR and ARRI SR Super-16 cameras, Zeiss primes and an Angenieux 11.5-138mm zoom lens. He used the Aaton camera for shots filmed on land and sea, and the Arri SR for aerial coverage from a Tyler nose mount on a helicopter. Ruth started filming with fine grain Eastman EXR 50D 7245, then switched to the Kodak Vision2 50D 7201 film when it was introduced midway through production.

The idea for producing a film on the entire North Carolina seacoast rather than on the park itself came from a 2002 conversation between Grabowska and Park Superintendent Bob Vogel. The film examines the forests and swamps of the coastal plain, the vast estuaries behind the barrier islands, the sand islands themselves and deep ocean areas off the edge of the continental shelf.

Grabowska created a sparely-written script from his research in coastal geology and biology, with Carson’s quotes providing an affecting voice of environmental ethics. The filmmaker himself narrates Ribbon of Sand with Streep, in the voice of Carson, providing the lyrical counterpoint.

“Meryl was very patient and involved, and gave me several different reads,” Grabowska says. “She obviously cared deeply about this project and was very emotionally engaged. No one’s writing can connect us with the natural world like that of Rachel Carson, and no one could interpret her words with more empathy than Meryl Streep.”

Wildlife is prominently featured in the film, since the area is a key route for migratory birds. Black bears and even a population of red wolves inhabit the coastal plain. The film also examines the estuaries, which are nurseries for ocean-going sea life, as well as a cold water coral habitat 1,000 feet deep.

“It would not have been as compelling a film if we had just concentrated on the islands themselves,” says Grabowska dryly. “One stretch of beach looks much like the next; they’re topographically challenged. So we shot from high up in the air, used underwaters and some micrography too.”

The Washington Post’s review also describes one sequence as looking like a high-speed kaleidoscope: an ingenious sequence that features a jazz cue by Boekelheide under a rapid-fire montage of single-celled algae. Grabowska worked with editor Sam Green to make the sequence faster and faster, shortening each image to an eventual four frames.

“Environmental films can be so earnest,” says Grabowska. “This was a chance to have some fun and make the audience’s pulse rate change.”

Ribbon of Sand is Grabowska’s third collaboration with Boekelheide, an Academy Award-winner for his sound work on Amadeus. Their previous co-ventures were Crown of the Continent and Remembered Earth, which profiled wilderness ecosystems and parks in Alaska and New Mexico, respectively. Grabowska timed the film with colorist Dave Markun at Henninger Video in HDCAM-SR format.

“I’m thrilled there’s an HD format with enough audio channels for this type of film,” Grabowska says. “We filled up all 12 channels with 5.1 surround, Dolby E for HD broadcast, stereo and an international mix.” The film is encoded for HD projection.

Grabowska has followed a typically unconventional career path for a filmmaker. He attributes his interests in the environment and filmmaking to his parents, who were professors at Northern State University in South Dakota. His father used science films as a teaching tool, and his mother was a hobbyist with an 8mm Kodak Brownie camera.

Grabowska began his career as a one-man-band reporter/photographer/editor for a CBS affiliate in his home state, covering news in South Dakota and surrounding states. He subsequently spent time in the political and policy world as a legislative analyst in Washington, DC, and served in the Peace Corps in Honduras “teaching killer beekeeping for fun and profit.”

While in the nation’s capital, he got to know a filmmaker for National Geographic, who suggested that the Park Service’s Interpretive Design Center would be a good fit for his talents and interests.

Maybe it was destiny. His environmental films are making a difference in inspiring and motivating the public about the need to protect national parks and natural areas for future generations. In addition to the millions of people who have seen his films at national parks and film festivals, PBS has featured both Crown of the Continent and Remembered Earth as primetime specials, and will air Ribbon of Sand on a date to be determined, in both HD and standard definition formats.


Bob Fisher has been writing about film preservation and cinematography for over 25 years.