The video above examines the life at a fire lookout over two days. Gary Yost used time-lapse to help tell his story. We had a chance to talk to Gary about the experience of both shooting this piece as well as what it is like to spend time at a fire lookout tower.
Kessler University (KU): Tell me a little about yourself.
Gary Yost (GY): Although I made an attempt at supporting my family with photography in the early 1980s, I became sidetracked at the time by the imaging potential for microcomputers. After spending the 80s developing animation software for Atari computers, I formed a company that invented and licensed Animator, 3D Studio, and 3ds max to Autodesk. After selling that company to Autodesk in 1999, my wife and I adopted our second child (which happily coincided with the beginning of the digital camera revolution). I began taking family snapshots with a Nikon D100 in 2002 and that rekindled my love of photography, leading me to my current “serious amateur” status.
KU: Would love to know a little more about the film.
GY: I’ve lived at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais, just 10 miles north of San Francisco, for 15 years. Two years ago I began volunteering as a fire lookout at a 90 year old stone lookout tower on top of Tam’s East Peak. Being a photographer, I was excited about the possibilities of capturing the SF Bay Area from such a unique angle. I began doing 2 and 3-day shifts once a month during the fire season, and I was blown away by how beautiful the light was in the early morning, at dusk, and during the night. Mt. Tamalpais is on California State Park land and it’s closed to the public from sunset to sunrise, so being there at night is a very rare and unique opportunity.
There is something so powerful about just quietly witnessing the habitat of the Bay Area, with over 7 million people doing their thing. You’re still in it, but not a part of it at the same time. During our official 8hr shifts (from 11am-7pm) we’re just watching. But for the other 16 hours we can take personal time, and I wanted to find a way to share the beauty of the mountain with my friends and the world. So during the summer of 2011, I made a few short videos of the famous SF fog rolling around the mountain. They were a good first attempt but I didn’t capture the subtleties of the weather, stars and fog at night. During the night the light at the mountain-top is amazing… On a full moon the mountain is illuminated like a spotlight and during the new moon the lights of the stars and the lights of our human world are dazzling. When the fog is fully in, the lights of the stars become even brighter, and the city lights appear as blobs of pink (mercury-vapor) color as if from an underwater world. I had to purchase some new gear this spring (A Nikon D4 and a D800) to tell the story, and the new gear worked beautifully.
So this video, at its core, is meant to evoke the feeling of what it’s like to be a fire lookout, alone, on top of a mountain, watching over the world. If you come away from viewing it with a sense of that, I’d be very pleased. The timelapse techniques I employ in the video are a great way to convey the passage of time, which is an essential quality to the job of a fire lookout.
KU: How did you use the Kessler gear to help tell your story.
GY: Because there’s a steep 30 minute hike from the parking area up to the fire lookout, and since I was using 3 cameras on the shoot, along with tripods and all the other gear that goes into making a video like this, I was limited as to how much weight and size I could carry. The Kessler Phillip Bloom Pocket Dolly 2′ Traveler size was perfect for this because it comes in a sturdy soft case that I was able to simply bungee to the back of one of my photo backpacks. I used the lead-acid battery, the Basic Controller, and two different motors for the various shots… The 500:1 and the 200:1. (I needed the 200:1 for realtime shots where the slider would have to move quickly and the 500:1 for slow mostly vertical time-lapse sequences.) The Kessler iOS app for calculating Basic Controller settings was a fantastic tool to use up there because I was nowhere near a computer. I’m really looking forward to getting the new Ion battery system, which will shave a couple of pounds off the weight. Every little bit helps.
All-in-all I brought three backpacks of gear up with me… about 120lbs of stuff. I was lucky to have a friend help me up with it and another to help me back down.
KU: What can we expect next from you?
GY: I always have a lot of projects in the fire… from small ones to usually one large one at any given time. I’m trying to use these tools to tell stories instead of simply making pretty pictures. It took me months of thinking about the 6-minute fire lookout video before I actually shot and edited it, and I expect the same of my next project. (My new rule is that if it’s not really hard, then it’s probably not worth doing.) I’m also a very regional photographer and I’m primarily focused on exploring the area near where I live (which is a pretty rich subject, given the beauty and history in the SF Bay Area). I don’t want to get too specific about my next project yet, but there was a significant event that happened on Mt. Tamalpais during the last century that very few people know about. I have filed two different Freedom of Information Act requests with federal agencies in order to get the necessary historical information to tell this story. If it works out, I’ll be shooting on the mountain all winter and expect to have this piece done sometime next spring. Besides that I’ll be doing a bunch of much smaller human interest pieces over the autumn and winter to tell other stories. I need to keep working all the time in order to continue honing my skills and techniques.
If you would like to see any more of Gary’s work, check out his website, www.garyyost.com.