A meditative nature documentary from the perspective of a “fire lookout” volunteer/filmmaker. Brainfilter spoke to the director of “Lookout”, Gary Yost, here’s what he had to say about his film:
How do you choose your projects? Are they self-funded?
I’m primarily a still photographer and have just been experimenting with making videos with DSLRs for less than a year. My interests lie primarily in the place where I live, something that I first was able to articulate after after reading the books of Wendell Berry. This quote by him is clearly the inspiration for the video….
“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”
That says it all, and I choose my projects in accordance with how they bring me into alignment with the place in which I live. All of my personal projects are self-funded and non-commercial.
What challenges did you encounter while filming “Lookout”?
The first was that I’d never done any time-lapse videography before. Plus, I’d only recently begun shooting video of any kind. So there were the technical challenges of figuring it all out.
But I’d been used to telling stories with single images so I knew what a narrative was, and what I wanted to say. And I knew what good light looks like, so I had a bit of a leg up on that. But dealing with the physics and ballistics of moving a 5lb camera on a motion-controlled dolly for specific distances over periods of hours took a lot of trial and error.
Over the winter I studied up on time lapse techniques and I had to purchase some new equipment to capture the subtlety of how the stars look at night, along with motion-control sliders and motors and lots of control equipment to move everything synchronously over the 1-5 hours it takes to capture the hundreds and thousands of frames that go into each shot.
Did you consider making “Lookout” a more traditional documentary (with narration and interview sessions)?
Sure, at the very beginning I thought that I might need to include some narration in order to explain it.
But as I started shooting I began to see that the images were so clear and simple that almost no dialog would be necessary, and still the story would shine. It’s just about a guy who spends the entire day lookout out the window, so how much dialog does it need?
But the critical thing for me is the voice of the fire dispatcher over the radio. While up in the lookout the radio is your only connection to the world, and the radio dispatcher and the fire crews are the only voices you hear. So you listen. And in the mind’s eye you can visualize the life and death situations that they’re dealing with while out on calls.
For a civilian volunteer like me it was eye opening to hear how ready they are to help us at a moment’s notice. And in the video there’s a tiny piece of that in the shot where I’m just sitting and different versions of me are dissolving in and out while the camera is moving.
The audio in the background of the radio is the soundtrack of the experience. It’s real, and it’s about helping people. So I think that this comes across and no conventional dialog was necessary.
What camera (and other gear) did you use to make this film?
I used the Nikon D4 and D800, both of which have their particular strengths for time lapse photography.
The D4 is great at very high iso night astro-photography, and those shots were done at iso3200.
The D800 is fine up to 3200 as well, but where it really shines for time lapse is that it produces such a huge image (36Mp) that you have tremendous flexibility in post to pull a 1920×1080 HD moving crop out of for pans.
For example, that epic night pan over the SF Bay Area with the underlit clouds and all the air traffic was just the D800 locked-down on a tripod and then the pan was accomplished in post. The D4 was usually on the Kessler PB Pocket Dolly, with some foreground rocks or bushes to provide the parallax necessary to give the image some extra depth. And having two cameras was essential to work efficiently because each shot took 3-4 hours and I could have both cameras running simultaneously.
It’s funny to be walking around in that peaceful place at night and hear those loud shutters clicking away… kind of like a couple of big bugs talking to each other. I generated over 500Gb of data between those two cameras over those three days. Crazy! Beyond that, all the time lapse post-processing was done with a miraculous time lapse software called LR Timelapse2, which interfaces with Adobe Lightroom to provide keyframing ability for all raw file parameters over time. It was edited in Final Cut Pro X.
What do you hope people will take away from this film?
It’s difficult to describe this in words, but Mt. Tamalpais feels to me very much like a mother. I live on her flanks, protected by her and spiritually nourished by her. She’s a sacred place, my talisman. I want people to feel some of that, and if they do then the film was successful. Maybe it will inspire someone to make a film about a place that feels sacred to them. That’d be a tremendous success. I’ll leave you with another quote from Wendell Berry that epitomizes what this project means to me:
“There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”