Challenging Nature to Film "Rocky Mountain Reunion"

By Stouffer, Mark J | American Cinematographer, June 1979 | Go to article overview

Challenging Nature to Film "Rocky Mountain Reunion"


Stouffer, Mark J, American Cinematographer


Documenting a sort of modern Noah's Ark, venturing deep into the wilderness to release pairs of some of the most endangered species

We wanted to make a film that presented exciting solutions rather than doomsdayish problems. Everyone seemed to already be aware that many animals were endangered to the point of becoming extinct. And besides, we were working with John Denver, a man with some very positive and constructive ideas.

Thus emerged ROCKY MOUNTAIN REUNION-a one-hour ABC-TV Special in which John Denver takes command of a sort of modern-day Noah's Ark, venturing deep into the wilds where he releases into the mountains breeding pairs of some of the most endangered species on earth-all of which had before been written off as forever extinct in the Rockies. The goal-to bring back to the mountains all those animals we have nearly exterminated.

To put the exposed film into the can would definitely require some very special and innovative photographic techniques, not to mention months of hard work. Like any film project, the first stage was to finalize the script, because if you haven't got it working on paper, chances are you'll never have it working on film. So, we waded through all kinds of options before we settled on the eight major story sequences that would comprise the body of the film. Each was distinctly different and presented its own technical challenge. It was already Fall in Colorado, and with Winter approaching, we had to move fast or we'd have a "white" show on our hands. Within a month of locking the script into its final form, the shooting was underway.

Photography on a wildlife documentary can best be broken down into two major areas; hardcore animal work, or story line photography. The main difference between the two is that the latter goes rather smoothly and with an air of predictability, while the hardcore animal work is just the opposite-painstaking and unpredictable. Feeling it was best to first tackle the difficult stuff, my working partner, David Huie, and Director of Photography, John King, packed the gear and headed for South Dakota, where they were out to shoot the first of our eight sequences-huge male Bison, or Buffalo, battling for the females during the annual rutting season. The task was grueling for not only the Bison, but also for David and John who had to dodge hooves, horns and Buffalo pies for more than three weeks!

In a situation such as this, one has to shoot with eyes in the back of his head, for one daydreamy moment could result in a trampled cameraman and camera. The bulls weighed in at around 1,500 pounds each, and after three weeks of moving camera positions at least 100 times per day to accommodate the roving herd, that's just about what the equipment began to weigh.

Two systems were used. One was our Arriflex 16mm BL with an Angenieux 12120mm zoom lens, and the other was our Photosonic 16mm Actionmaster 500 High-Speed camera with a combination of lenses including an Angenieux 12120mm zoom, a 230mm and a 385mm Century telephoto. It was understood that David shooting the Arri would cover all the wide angle scenes, or establishing shots, while John shooting the Photosonic would cover all the close-ups. It has always been our experience to designate the responsibility of each cameraperson before the shooting begins. If it is done properly, it will render some magnificent continuity in the editing room.

We wanted to make the animals "feel" as massive as possible on the screen, so we used the Photosonic to shoot the close-ups and some matching wide angles at double normal speed: 48 framesper- second. This speed slows things down just enough to give it a "big" feel, while not generating an obvious slowmotion look. In all, we ran about 9,000' of 7252 ECO through the cameras and wound up workprinting around 4,800' for editing. We reduced our workprinted footage by selecting the original scenes to be printed on a scratchproof Moviscope Viewer. Many people frown on this technique, but if the viewing device is checked out well enough, it will not damage the original footage and it can save a substantial amount of workprinting cost. …

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