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 a short science documentary that I created in 2009 while interning for the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center which is located within Point Reyes National Seashore.
I shot it using an old Canon GL2 which was owned by the park. Remember taped-based cameras and mini-DV tape? Did I just date myself? Well, it was a good camera none-the-less. It had a 20x zoom which is pretty long. But you need long lenses for nature photography because often times the animal is very far from you (and it won’t let you get any closer).
Yes, shooting this was a lot of fun. I had to hike in over hills and across streams to where the elk herds were roaming. I had to keep down-wind of them so that they wouldn’t smell me coming. Then I’d hide behind a bush or rock and try to get footage while remaining unseen. If just one elk happened to see me then in less than a minute the whole herd would be staring at me with tense nervousness. Then they would slowly walk away from me, and keep away from me. That’d be a wrap for the day. But boy, what fun days they were.
FYI, hiking “off trail” to photograph the Tule Elk is illegal unless you are a Park Employee, and the Park Service takes that rule very seriously. I don’t want anyone to get into trouble.