When filmmaker Jay Kriss, an experienced director of photography, decided to make his debut as a documentarian, the project was even more daunting than you might expect. His film, Harvesting the High Plains, is slated to debut on public television this fall, and Kriss has plans to take a 35mm print to theaters for screenings this summer. But the project, which deals with the struggle of plains farmers in western Kansas to recover from the setbacks of the Dustbowl Era, has special resonance for him — his grandfather, John Kriss, is one of the key figures in the story.
"I spent time on those farms," Kriss told StudioDaily. "I spent time looking at the land, learning about it, and being on this land with my grandfather. Taking on a project that has that kind of personal tie is a real challenge." He paid tribute to his grandfather by making sure the project would present as vivid a picture as possible of how those farmers lived and worked. That meant shooting both film and digital video, digging through archived documents, photographs, and film footage, and staging historical re-enactments with period-accurate farming equipment gathered from a Nebraska museum. We talked to Kriss about the project, shooting for a period look, photographing photographs, and the legacy of G-K Farms.
Talk a little about your company, Inspirit Creative.
I've been a freelance camera jock for my entire life. I started shooting for Warren Miller, making ski films in 16mm. I worked for the NFL and the NHL and did a lot of stuff for NASCAR, along with a whole bunch of other television. We did a neat show in 2005 called Beyond the Wheel that won a Sports Emmy for Live Event Turnaround. I've shot wildlife, forest fires, you name it. My partner said, "Why don't you start producing your own shows?" And I decided to start doing it.
Did that lead directly to Harvesting the High Plains?
It was about that time that Craig Miner, a professor at Wichita State University, contacted me. He had written the book [Harvesting the High Plains: John Kriss and the Business of Wheat Farming, 1920–1950] and said, "I think this would be a great documentary film." There's a real challenge in filming documentaries, especially historical ones. You end up with a lot of talking heads and still photos moving across the screen. To me, that's a video book. That doesn't evoke the emotion of this wonderful medium. The whole reason we're in this is to create that emotion. But Craig said, "Why don't you come out and talk to me and let me tell you what's here?" So I went out to Wichita, and Craig and I sat down and talked.
What kinds of historical materials were available?
Ray Garvey was an incredible human being. He was obsessive-compulsive and had ADD before it was popular, at least in my opinion. This guy typed all of his own correspondence and kept a copy for himself on an onionskin sheet. From 1919 to his death in 1959, he kept every piece of correspondence he ever wrote or received, all categorized and filed by month, year, and who he was corresponding with.
And when I went into the vault of the Kansas State Historical Society, we had a record of these two men's efforts through the dustbowl and all the way up to 1959. They lived 300 miles apart, one in Wichita and one in Colby in Western Kansas. Their letters were full of emotion. They discussed everything from personal issues to the challenge of the day. And they wrote to each other almost every day. We're talking about 30,000 documents.
I said, "My gosh, we've got a narrative of a farming operation in Western Kansas — a big one, but not unlike the other farming operations that were still trying to make it in the dustbowl era — and how these guys revolutionized the process for farming on the high plains. We had their correspondence with the bankers. We had their correspondence with very high-level people — secretaries of agriculture. The process carried them from taking the land for granted to respecting and partnering with the land, and what developed was a farming process that only gives you a crop every two years. That piece of ground sits fallow for a year and doesn't make you any money. It changed the rules of how you lived. These guys were forced to address the actual business of life. It was a unique opportunity.
How did you start to pull all that information together into a narrative?
I have a really good friend named Richard Dewhurst who is a screenwriter from L.A. Richard won a prime-time Emmy for screenwriting for Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, and he served as script consultant on this film. He gave us a lot of insight on how to bring those letters in and use them.
That meant we had the words and the script but not the visuals. The WPA sent a lot of people out with cameras to record what was going on in the country with hand-cranked 8mm and 16mm cameras. Some of that film was actually produced as short films, including one titled "The Plow That Broke the Plains." We bought the rights to broadcast portions of that film and actually digitized a lot of the raw footage it used through the National Archives and the Libary of Congress.
We wanted to use stills, but I didn't want to scan the stills. I used an InnoVision HD Probe, which is a tubular lens that allowed me to put a photograph on a moving platform and film the photograph with artifacts and names in front of it. We filmed three different collections of photographs, from the Smithsonian and two smaller museums.
Why didn't you want to scan the photographs?
When you scan them, you've got a still image and then you use the NLE to move them around. I don't mind doing a rough cut that way, but when you film the photographs, you're filming them exactly the same way you filmed everything else — at 24 frames a second, with a 180-degree shutter. You're not adding something to your timeline that's different from all the footage you've already shot. I can actually pan in and out of the photograph as if I were moving the camera on the set. To my eye, it looks 1,000 times better.
What other elements went into the production?
The next challenge was to actually introduce the personal aspect of farming. In Colby, a lot of the buildings and streets downtown are almost exactly as they were in the 1930s. We got five locations there, and with the assistance of the city we removed certain items, brought in vintage automobiles, and dressed 65 or 70 extras in period wardrobe. We had two actors re-enacting some of the scenes discussed in the letters to add more of a personal touch.
When I was in Washington, D.C., the year before, I had met, by happenstance, the curator of the Farm and Ranch Museum in Gering, Nebraska. "Send me a list of equipment," he said. I sent him a two-page list of tractors and other implements that were in use at the time. He emailed me back and said, "I have 90 percent of this stuff, and it's all operational." So these guys went up to a 75-acre plot of ground by the museum and planted a field of buckskin wheat that stood a foot and a half taller than modern wheat. We actually farmed it with the same equipment Garvey and Kriss used. We went in to get cutaways — tight shots of a rod weeder cutting weeds, a gangplow turning grass over, tractors running, and extras working in period costumes. The piece de resistance was a 1945 self-propelled Baldwin Gleaner combine, and we harvested that field of wheat with that combine.
What camera were you using?
We shot with two different cameras. We used a Panasonic AJ-HPX3700 VariCam with the AVC-Intra 100 codec using the Film-Rec option, with eight Fujinon prime lenses [the HAeF5 5mm; HAeF8 8mm; HAeF10 10mm; HAeF12 12mm; HAeF16 16mm; HAeF20 20mm; HAeF34 34mm; and HAeF54 54mm] and one zoom lens [HAe10x10 (10x100mm) E-Series]. We shot monochromatically for all of our re-enactments. We shot a lot of establishing shots, including some of the working shots, with 35mm ARRIFLEX 235 cameras.
Are you doing any treatments to make the new footage match the archival materials?
We have looked at that. I shot the HD footage with a Red 25 filter to raise my contrast levels and give it a more traditional look. We've looked at adding some noise, but we haven't made a final decision. We'll take it into color-correction to get the levels correct.
Did you do any restoration work on the older footage?
We did the best we could. Some of the footage is almost 85 years old. Sometimes, we were actually able to make a new digital scan of the original. For others, we were dealing with what was left of the original digital scans to Beta SP and Digibeta. Some of this footage has been lost, and the only thing left are the transfers that were done back then.
Why did you decide to do a film out? Is that specifically to meet a deliverable requirement, or is that just how you want the finished project to live?
I wanted that. PBS did not request it. I felt that, if we were going to go to the efforts of doing all that color work, we should do a 35mm film-out and make our digital scans from that. We set the production up as a nonprofit with public television in Kansas, and they own the broadcast rights to the film. KPTS [in Wichita] is our flagship, but all of the Kansas public-television stations are involved. We produced, and they are marketing the film. It looks like national public television is going to air it nationally in the fall. And I get a five-month window to take it to independent theaters.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
It's about people who lived through the darkest time this nation has ever seen. You had rationing with the war in Europe, you had the dustbowls, the depression, and no money. You just didn't have anything, and you were trying to figure out how to get out of this. These guys stuck it out, saying we can figure out how to do this and be a partner with the land, because the world needs to eat. In 1947, these guys had over 200,000 acres of ground cultivation. They raised a record crop, and that record still stands. With what these guys learned in the 1930s, when the next drought came in the 1950s, the land didn't blow. In the 1970s, the land didn't blow. They had learned how to farm and how to respect the land. I always say that in this case, G-K Farms is my vehicle and wheat is my cargo, but this film is about the American spirit.