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Geology Lesson: 'Yellowstone' Doc Tells a Prehistoric Tale

By Bob Fisher

One school of thought posits that geography is destiny. A new film on Yellowstone National Park makes the case that geology, in fact, is destiny; more, it directs evolution.

Yellowstone: Land to Life premiered on PBS September 8, with a repeat broadcast scheduled for September 13. The film takes the audience on a journey through the greater Yellowstone ecosystem to tell a compelling story about how powerful forces of geology, from fire to ice, created breathtaking landscapes that support an extraordinary array of wildlife.

A 20-minute version of the film has been playing at the Canyon Visitor Education Center at Yellowstone since Memorial Day.

"We envisioned a sweeping interpretation of  how geologic forces--volcanism, mountain-building and glaciers--created this landscape, including the gigantic caldera of a super volcano," says John Grabowska, who produced the film for the Harpers Ferry Center of  the National Park Service, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Grabowska brought an eclectic background to the project. He began his career as a television reporter and news cameraman, then worked as a legislative analyst on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Grabowska went on to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America, where he taught subsistence farmers how to manage killer bees "for fun and profit." Grabowska has been producing and directing films for the Harpers Ferry Center since 1991. Three of his films have been featured as PBS specials: Crown of the Continent (2003), Remembered Earth (2006) and Ribbon of Sand (2008). Yellowstone: Land to Life is his fourth PBS primetime special.

Yellowstone National Park has long been a part of Grabowska's life: His parents told him stories about honeymooning there, and during his youth, he would visit the park on family vacations. He and his wife took a six-week camping trip throughout the West during their own honeymoon; Yellowstone was their last stop.

"On my first planning trip for this film, the park geologist took me roaming around Yellowstone," Grabowska explains. "He talked about how the geology is broader, deeper and older than the hot spot volcano, which last erupted 600,000 years ago. In geologic time, that's only yesterday. The older Cascadian type volcanoes that are further to the east--the Absaroka Range--are more like those in the Pacific Northwest, completely unlike the hot spot's caldera. During the glacial period, the place was buried under 4,000 feet of ice. It seems every park in the West had its 'vast inland sea.' Yellowstone did too."

Grabowska decided to tell a bigger story than just about the super volcano. "The volcano is the reason for the thermal features--all the geysers, hot springs and mud pots," he explains. "The beginnings of life on earth--single-celled microorganisms like Archaea--first emerged in acidic hot springs like those at Yellowstone. The broader story is that geology, like volcanism and glaciation, dictates where life exists and how it evolves. For example, when the glaciers carved valleys and then melted, they created an environment perfect for grasslands. Grasslands attracted bison, moose and elk, which attracted predators, like wolves. We tried to make those connections clear and comprehensible for viewers, but in a more lyrical, poetic way. We weren't producing a didactic science film."

Grabowska kept those geologic connections in the front of his mind during pre-production as he hiked to locations with his 16-year-old daughter, Hilary, a budding photographer who documented the sights with still photographs. He used her pictures and his memories and notes to plan the film, including specific locations and times of day he wanted to film scenes.

"In natural history filmmaking, you have to invest an incredible amount of time to know the locations, the light, the animal behavior and weather patterns that tell the story," he maintains. "It's always a conundrum figuring out how to get images that will do justice to both the landscape and the unique subject matter."

Grabowska began by looking for a cinematographer who lived in the region and had extensive experience shooting natural history documentaries. That's when Jeff Hogan entered the scene. Hogan has made a living taking still photographs and shooting films documenting natural history since he moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 1980. Additional camera work was done by Bob Landis, another cinematographer who specializes in shooting nature films in Yellowstone.

"Jeff just lit up when I told him that we would be shooting on film," Grabowska explains. "I prefer film because of its natural, organic look, which is important to me for natural history films--and because film is an archival medium.

"The Park Service is often referred to as the nation's premier conservation and preservation agency," Grabowska continues. "That extends beyond the landscapes and historic structures. Using a proven archival medium was another form of preservation."

Hogan shot Super 16mm film during all four seasons over a two-year period. The temperature ranged from 25 degrees below zero to more than 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and the weather varied from snow, clear and cloudy skies to "beautiful" rainfall. "I had never worked with Jeff  before, but he knows the park thoroughly, from weather and terrain to animal behavior," Grabowska notes. "When I saw footage from his first shoot, I knew I would work with him again. Jeff and I share the same aesthetic sensibilities. All filmmaking is a subjective form of expression. You choose angles, composition and the right light. It's the same as choosing words to tell a story; images are a visual language. Backlight and light reflecting off of objects make different statements."

Hogan and Grabowska discussed visions for different locations, using Hilary's still images as references. Hogan also made suggestions based on his extensive experience filming in Yellowstone.

"For example, I told John about a canyon where ice is squirting through cracks in the ground," Hogan notes. "It is a fascinating example of geology in action today. Another part of my job is serving as the eyes and ears of the producer in the field." His modest tool kit consisted of an ARRI SR camera that was modified to record images faster than 24 frames per second. The camera was mounted with an Angenieux 11.5 :138 mm zoom lens that records "incredibly sharp images," said Hogan. He limited his palette to Kodak Vision 7201 (50D) "because it sparkles."

Decisions about where and when to shoot weren't random. "I tried to shoot where and when the light was right for the emotions that we want the images to express," Hogan explains. "You can perform magic in post-production, but I believe that painting natural scenes with light on film is where it begins.

"The park is stunningly beautiful and unique," he continues. "Nature augmented our plans with daily surprises, including the weather. I had to be at the right place at the right time. It was an incredibly emotional experience; I was in tears half the time."

Grabowska hired a pilot who flew a Cessna 210 airplane, and Hogan shot aerial scenes of mountain peaks, geyser basins, rivers, places where water meanders through the meadows, and the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. "I knew we could shoot a lot more footage for less money than renting a helicopter with a Tyler mount or another way to rig the camera," Hogan maintains. "I asked the pilot to bank and do some really steep turns over the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and the Lower Falls. Shooting at 100 frames a second smoothed out the images beautifully, just as though I was in a hovering helicopter."

"I didn't believe handheld shots from a fixed wing aircraft would look so good," Grabowska admits. "Jeff convinced me it would look great because he had worked with the pilot before, and he was right. The aerials are superb."

The film was processed at NFL Films in New Jersey and transferred to HD format for post-production by colorist Jim Coyne. It was edited by Mike Majoros at Northern Light Productions in Boston. John De Lancey wrote the script, which was narrated by Grabowska. John Kusiak composed and provided original music.

After production was completed, Grabowska got together with Hogan and created a detailed log of locations, times of year and other specifics about the archived footage. Grabowska noted that scientists as well as filmmakers are always asking for film of the geysers and wildlife in Yellowstone.

"Fifty or 100 years from now, they will be able to see what Yellowstone was like today," he concludes. "Geology isn't static. The landscape is always changing, but these images will last."


Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, mainly focusing on cinematography and preservation.