Story by Andy Johnson; Photos by Gerrit Vyn
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Multimedia Production team has spent the past three years producing an hour-long documentary about the iconic sagebrush steppe of the American west. On May 20th, at 8/7c, The Sagebrush Sea aired nationally on PBS, as part of the award-winning series, NATURE. Check your local PBS station for future viewing times. You can also stream the film online for free on the PBS / Nature website.
Gerrit Vyn, photographer and producer at the Cornell Lab and iLCP fellow, has spent much of the past few years documenting the sagebrush steppe for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Sagebrush Project included a magazine article in Living Bird, educational web interactives, and an hour-long documentary for PBS / Nature, The Sagebrush Sea. In today’s shifting media landscape, increasingly rooted in web and multimedia, conservation itself (in turn, rooted in communication and education) is also expanding its media toolbox.
I recently sat down with Gerrit to discuss how the intersection of conservation photography with filmmaking and web production can benefit a core message.
AJ: At the onset of the project, what was the team’s vision? Did you anticipate having a multi-faceted delivery of stories?
GV: Yeah, we were aware that the story about sage-grouse would be ramping up by 2015, since Gunnison Sage-Grouse was due for an Endangered Species listing in late 2014, with Greater Sage-Grouse still to follow in September of this year. So we did anticipate coordinating a larger set of stories to drum up support and awareness for these birds and landscapes. But, we had also done some prior work in the sage, mainly filming grouse with high-speed cameras in 2008 — and at that point, a full-length documentary really wasn’t in the picture, though some of that material was used in the film.
So, we knew that video, photography, and writing would all play a role, but I think some of the outlets for those media developed much later in the game in surprising and exciting ways. For example, we recently partnered with the web education team at the Lab of Ornithology to produce an interactive, online lesson with a video series on how evolution shapes the incredible displays of male birds. Of course, all of these pieces (and surely some that are still around the corner) fit into the broader goal of getting more people talking about and learning about sage-grouse, and ultimately appreciating the landscapes they depend on.
AJ: When you’re in the field doing camera work, how do you balance still photography with video?
GV: Luckily I have the choice to do both these days with one camera. A few years ago that wouldn’t have been possible. I do almost all of my shooting, both stills and video, with a DSLR – more than half of this film was shot in 4K with a Canon 1DC. There is also some Nikon D800 footage that made it into the final cut. Deciding when to shoot stills or video can definitely be frustrating. For me, as a long-time still photographer, it can be painful to film instead of grabbing stills, but on a project like this video usually rules the day. Watching some incredible wildlife footage roll through the viewfinder is certainly exciting — but I’ve always got that nagging feeling that each passing frame could have been a killer photograph! So generally when I am working on a video project I am filming most of the best action and settling more on portraiture on the stills side. But sometimes, it comes down to knowing your camera and quickly alternating whenever possible — with landscapes, it’s easier of course, but with wildlife, there are always moments where you know you need to decide whether it’s better to have the still for web or print outlets, or the coverage for a film.
AJ: In telling this ambitious story about sage-grouse clashing with development across the West, do you feel that the various types of media collected and created worked cohesively to complement one another, or was it really a challenge to balance those efforts?
GV: Absolutely, having high quality media in multiple formats is extremely helpful. With a topic of this scale and importance, the real goal is to tell many stories, not just one. We’re constantly re-packaging our messaging into various forms and outlets to reach the greatest number of people. That’s not to say it isn’t a challenge, but our overall strategy has been built around having content on as many platforms as possible, and that cohesion of multiple “stories” around a focal topic has been crucial to the project’s success. With new platforms becoming available for magazine, for example, we were able to use writing, photography, video, 3D audio recordings, and infographics all in one place, in one story. Having that broad range of tools at our disposal has definitely allowed us to deliver an effective conservation message to a broader range of potentially interested people in engaging ways. So that’s been a real point of discovery and success for us throughout the development of this project.
AJ: With you as principal cinematographer, The Sagebrush Sea really seems to carry a unique visual signature — do you think your background in still photography influenced the aesthetic of the film, or the way you approached filming?
GV: Well, it’s hard for me to say how it influenced the film’s aesthetic, but being a still photographer certainly influences my approach. If there’s an element of the aesthetic that derives from still photography, I think part of that comes from the fact the you really need to be in a different mindset for photography versus filming — or at least, doing one or the other tends to put you in a different mindset. And I think my efforts to be capturing both types of coverage of the same things means that I’m constantly blending those mindsets or approaches. In video I am thinking about sequences of shots that work together and a still frame is really about freezing a single, poignant moment in time — and for that to work well, all the elements in the frame have to be perfectly balanced, because they’re stuck that way. Ultimately the same is true for video, but because there’s action within the frame, and you’re working with a moving chunk of time, it’s not quite so critical, not quite so make-or-break. So perhaps when I’m filming, I’ll often set up a shot as if it’s a still frame, and if it’s a moving frame, I’m looking for each frame to work as if it were a still.
Using a DSLR also enables me to shoot more like a photographer. My gear is more manageable than a big video rig so it is easier for me to quickly change my positions and to be more precise about my positions. When filming I am always aiming to be shooting from the same place that I would be if I were shooting a still. I am paying attention to things like my backgrounds and my camera height in a more precise way than a videographer with a big camera might be able to. I am also able to film some things with a smaller camera in ways that you just couldn’t do with a big camera – it is more mobile and often less invasive.
So I’m really not sure how that signature or aesthetic is born out in the film, but I think the photographic style is more apparent in some of the close-up shots of birds, where they really do feel like living portraits. And some of the wider landscapes, too, where I was basically looking for the best still frame and then rolling video.
But that’s just what I personally brought to the film. Everyone who works with cameras brings their own style and preferences to the shot. So, the aesthetic of the film is also the result of the other cinematographers, especially my talented friend Eric Liner — he lives and breathes cinematography and his experience with “big” cameras really shows in some of his higher frame rate footage of the flying eagles and fighting grouse in the film.
AJ: Gerrit, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. Where can we point people online to see some of this work in context, or to tune in for the film’s broadcast?
GV: Absolutely. Well, the film itself will of course be broadcast on PBS this coming Wednesday, May 20th, at 8pm Eastern. You might have to check local listings though to be sure about the time in your area. You can see a trailer [below], and starting the day after broadcast, you’ll be able to stream the film online for free on the PBS / Nature website.
The PBS page for the show will also include some excerpts and behind-the-scenes videos we put together that show a bit about the experience of actually filming on location in this incredible landscape.
The Cornell Lab also has a website for the Sagebrush Sea project, with more information about the production of the film and what you can do to help, as well as our multimedia magazine story about the issues surrounding the sagebrush sea. And lastly, the interactive lesson on grouse displays I mentioned is online at All About Bird Biology. The film’s director and producer, Marc Dantzker, gives some really great insights into how the grouse mating system and display works — it’s pretty incredible to see!
Check out the trailer here:
Andy Johnson is a NANPA Member and a NANPA College Scholarship Recipient.