Of all the short documentaries that I produced for the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center this is perhaps my favorite piece.
When I first began making documentaries at Point Reyes National Seashore I was asked to make a piece on elephant seals. Point Reyes has long been a destination for elephant seals who like to breed and molt on its shores. They don’t do these things just anywhere, so it’s a special characteristic of the park. Also, elephant seals are the very definition of charismatic mega-fauna, so they make excellent video subjects. The only problem I foresaw was collecting footage: I began working at Point Reyes in the summer and elephant seals only breed there in winter.
The solution was to use the park’s own footage of the seals for my documentary. Park Rangers and park biologists had been collecting elephant seal footage for years, and I had access to all of it. However, their expertise was not in shooting video but rather in studying these animals, so the footage was rough. I began culling the copious amounts of seal footage for usable tidbits. This process took a long time.
Once I had enough elephant seal footage I began writing a script for the documentary based on the selected footage. Then I interviewed the park’s elephant seal experts using questions gleaned from my script. Using this interview footage I wrote a voice over narration script to fill-in the missing pieces of the elephant seals’ story. I then pulled all these pieces together into a rough cut of the documentary. This rough cut was reviewed by my superiors who absolutely loved it. Except for one thing: they thought that the elephant seal footage was lacking a professional touch.
So they invited me to come back to the park in the winter to shoot the elephant seals myself. I could then use my footage in the fine cut of the elephant seal documentary. No problem. Except for one thing: the entire script had been written around the original footage which had been shot by the park’s biologists.
To work around this I had to recreate the same shots I used in the rough cut. Not an altogether easy task when working with wild animals, unpredictable weather, and a very limited amount of production days. But in the end I got my footage, I supplanted it into my final draft of the documentary, and I do believe that it turned out well. But you just never know where a video production is going to take you once you start in on it… and beginnings matter.
Caution: elephant seals are a territorial and unpredicable species, especially during their breeding season when they are hulled out on shore. It may be tempting to approach them for pictures or video but please keep your distance. Not only could you endanger yourself but you could also threaten their natural breeding behavior. Their species is still recovering from near extinction due to human interference. They need all the peace and protection that they can get.
This is another science documentary that I made for Point Reyes National Seashore back in 2009.
This documentary was the most difficult of the bunch. Its focus is not a charismatic mega-fauna like the Tule Elk or the Elephant Seal. It’s about a microscopic organism invisible to the naked eye. Yes, this presented some challenges. I recall thinking “how do I make dying trees interesting on video?” Well, I think that you’ll see how I answered that question with the video’s opening shot.
There were some technical difficulties on this project as well. One of our production days took place deep in the Park in a region decimated by the disease. It took all morning and all afternoon to drive in and out of this location. I brought along two SOD specialists to interview in and amongst the dead trees. Because of their busy schedules I only had one shot at this dual interview. To my relief, everything seemed to go splendidly on the shoot. It was only on the next day when I looked at the footage that I realized that something had gone horribly wrong. The footage was all digital garbage. I had two hours of blinking pastel confetti on my video tape. I was only able to salvage a single shot: one of the specialists’ hands pointing to a severed tanoak tree trunk. Was it the temperature differential under the forest canopy that caused condensation on my mini-DV tape? Was it the receiver of the wireless lavalier microphones attached to the camera that caused radio interference? Was it sun spots? To this day I wonder why the footage was digitally garbled. I guess some mysteries will always remain unsolved…