Shooting in Yellowstone from Sunrise to Sunset, 300 Days a Year

Two-time Emmy-winning filmmaker Bob Landis may have a home office, but his soundstage is Yellowstone National Park. More than 300 days out of every year, he takes his trusty Sony HDW-730 camcorder out on the road, driving into Yellowstone and following the wildlife around in search of beautiful and revelatory instances of animal behavior. When he’s not shooting, he’s at National Geographic’s post facilities in Washington, D.C., where his footage is being edited for broadcast. His latest project is In the Valley of the Wolves, a one-hour documentary that debuts, in HD, November 4 on Nature on PBS. This kind of programming is years in the making – it includes dramatic slow-motion 16mm footage of an eagle stealing a piece of meat out of the mouth of a coyote that Landis captured way back in 2002. (Landis says he had between 250 and 300 tapes full of footage in the editing room.) Last year, he logged 340 shooting days and filled 200 40-minute HDCAM tapes. Landis spoke to F&V from Yellowstone via cell phone about what it takes to capture that kind of footage, and what happens to it on the way to the screen.

FILM & VIDEO: F&V hasn’t talked to a lot of wildlife cinematographers, so I’m not sure exactly how you operate. I’d imagine it’s a lot of work to get those occasional gorgeous shots.

BOB LANDIS: We all operate a little differently. Here in Yellowstone, we operate the same way tourists operate. This morning I just drove out on the road. It’s not like an expedition to Antarctica or into the rainforest for me – although a lot of wildlife filmmakers do that. For me it’s more a matter of time. It’s fairly easy access, but things don’t happen that often as far as exciting behavior sequences. That’s my trick: I just come out every day. I think one year I got up to 340 days out of the year. Some years I don’t get quite that many days because I have to go back to Washington to edit what I’ve shot. It’s usually 300 to 340 shooting days.

Today I’m looking for a wolf pack. I think I picked up their tracks on the snow, so I’ll go back and look for those. I’m also looking for grizzly, otter, and whatever else is of interest.

And you work more or less entirely in Yellowstone?

Yes, I live on the northern boundary, so my commute is about 20 miles every day to get to where the best wildlife action is. There’s enough here, variety-wise, that I can do different films even though it’s the same place.

And it’s just you out there on a daily basis? You don’t have assistants?

Yes. I’ve kind of transitioned. I used to do a lot of backpacking, with an 80-pound pack of camera equipment, and in those days there was money in the budget for an assistant. But now I operate pretty much from the road, so I’m alone. And over the years I’ve found out that I’m more productive from the road because those animals near the road are used to people. In the backcountry they’re apt to be much more wary and run from me even when I’m 300 or 400 yards away.

How long is a typical day for you?

I follow the sun. In the summer, I would get up at 4 a.m. and probably return around 10 p.m. I might come back home in the middle of the day. That’s the worst time to film because of the amount of daylight. There’s usually not a lot of activity in the middle of the day, and lighting conditions aren’t as good. But that’s brutal. I love winter, because I can have a social life and actually watch television. I’m glad football games are in the fall, because I would never be able to watch them in the spring. Now, for example, I’m up around 6 a.m. and get back around 6 p.m. And in the dead of winter, I would be up at 6 a.m. and probably get back in around 5 p.m.

What do you carry with you?

Right now I’m doing two shoots. I’m shooting for the park service on a visitor-center film and they want their originals to be on Super 16, so I’m carrying an Arriflex that I’ve used for years. But my primary camera is a Sony HDW-730, and on that camera I put a 40x Canon HD lens.

So you shoot from a tripod?

Oh, yes. It’s almost all long shooting. Even when animals are 30 yards off the road it’s on a tripod, because those are my opportunities to get extreme close-ups.

Some of the shots in In the Valley of the Wolves are obviously taken through an extremely long lens, and you’re struggling to keep the animal in frame.

Yep. It’s a problem, but most of the time the lens is out to the extreme telephoto position. The worst of that was at the den. That was probably a mile and a quarter from where I was at, and there was no way to get any closer. Most of the time I’m probably at 400 or 500 yards.

So you have to keep track of which animals you’re tracking, what they’re up to, and operate your own camera all at the same time.

Pretty much. There is a group of wildlife watchers that specialize in wolves, and they are always giving me hints. I have a two-way radio, so they call in and say, “This particular pack is over here. Why don’t you come over – it looks like they’re going to get close to the road.” Or I get a phone call. I get a lot of input from the watchers that’s very valuable.

Do you set your camera up off the road a piece?

Most of the material is set up within 100 yards of the road. Sometimes it’s just on the shoulder.

What else do you carry with you?

I use a Sachtler 20 Plus tripod, as light as I can get. It’s got carbon-fiber legs, because I do some work in the backcountry. The lens support that Canon supplied is way too heavy, and it’s kind of a universal mount that has been designed to fit many lenses so it raises the camera probably three inches above the head of the tripod. I had an aluminum plate engineered for that support, which makes it lighter and the camera sits lower. It’s much more stable in windy situations. About six years ago, I went to the machinist and said, “This is the last plate you’ll have to make. I’ve got the camera that’s going to last me the rest of my life.” But he’s made two more plates since then, and every time I go in with new cameras and new lenses he laughs at me.

I use Sennheiser MKH70 directional mics. For many years I had two systems, because I was shooting in film, so I used a Sony DAT deck, and we still use many sounds recorded on that system in our new films. There are a few shots in [In the Valley of the Wolves] with sound sync. That’s kind of the ultimate shot for me, to have both sound and picture suitable for broadcast. One close-up of the gray wolf howling is sound sync, and some of the packs howling are sound sync. The mics are running directly into the camera, which is a nice feature I didn’t have with film.

A lot of HD shooters use a second system anyway.

If you had an extra person, it would be nice. [Laughs.] There were times in the film days when I would let it run wild while I was filming and hoped it would match up. The days of the sound recordist going with the cameraman are kind of gone, mostly because of budgets. And I don’t do a lot of interviews, which would be the main reason for having a sound recordist with you. There are so few times you can do sound here in the park because of road noise, or tourists watching and shuffling their feet.

When did you switch from shooting mainly film to mainly HD?

It was June 20, 2003.

You remember the date?

I do, because I was liberated from the expense of shooting film. It got so bad that I would sometimes wait six months to have it processed and transferred. It was very expensive to get the equipment, but once I got it, it was very cheap. I hadn’t used tape before that, so it was quite a revelation to switch from film to HD for several reasons. One was just expense, but also I can leave the camera running to get behavior that I would have lost before because I didn’t anticipate it. I’m also filming animals that I wouldn’t have filmed before because they were kind of marginal and I didn’t know if I would use that material. But now I can go out and film little birds and so on. In that film, quite a few sequences included transitions of small birds which were quite effective, I thought. But I would not have shot those birds if I was shooting film, just from an expense standpoint.

Do you miss anything about film?

Now that I’m back shooting a little film for this other project I have a pretty good comparison. The only thing I do miss is the contrast ratio. Sometimes if I don’t get the exposure right on my gray wolves, they burn out. I didn’t have that so much on film. And the camera I have now does not do slow motion. Those are the two things I miss the most, but they are very small considerations. My 730 has a cache card, which allows me to do time lapse. I used to do time-lapse with a film camera, but I had to have two different cameras – a Bolex and an Arri. It was the inconvenience of not having the Bolex with me if I was off the road. But now if I see something and I’m a mile away from my car, I can put it on time-lapse because this camera does both.

And it looks better. As far as I can see, it improves the quality. I’m a particular stickler on focus and sharpness, as opposed to “the film look,” or the dreamy look. I like to see on the screen what I think I saw in the real world, which is fairly sharp. If I look through my binoculars it’s not soft around the edges. I like to have that kind of look, and HD gives you that look.

Do you have any playback in the field?

No, my playback occurs when I get home. Generally I go home in the middle of the day to attend to business, take my dog out and so on. If I get a good behavior sequence I’m looking at it within hours of shooting it on an HD monitor, and if it’s really good and important I can make DVD copies for the researchers to look at. That’s a feature we didn’t have with film.

The sequence [from In the Valley of the Wolves] where the eagle got the meat out of the coyote’s mouth, that was shot back in 2002, at a time when I didn’t have a lot of money, so it took five months to see that particular shot. We never were sure whether the coyote had dropped the meat first and then the eagle had gotten it or if it had taken it right out of the coyote’s mouth. It would have been nice to know that immediately, which I would have in a tape situation. But again, there’s a slow-motion shot where film had its advantages. It’s one of the few film shots in the whole thing. It was shot in Super 16 and transferred to HD. At first they weren’t going to use it just because it was a film-originated shot. And I kind of looked at them and said, “You’ve got to use that shot. It steals the show.” And they did. I don’t think anyone notices it.

It obviously takes a long time to get all of the footage you need to put one of these things together.

It does. An hour chews up sequences. You need probably 25 good sequences, and if I get one or two a month I’m doing well. I’m doing one on grizzly bears, and I don’t have near the library on grizzly that I had on wolves, so I’m quite concerned that I’ll have enough material to cover that. I have another year to shoot, so we’ll see. We may have to fudge a little bit and bring in other characters.

What’s the process after you collect all of your footage? How much do you know about what the story’s going to be, how much of it comes together in post, and what’s the relationship between you and the people who finish the project?

I generally try to get enough library material before I go into the post situation. I’m not commissioned to go out and film. I’m filming on my own nickel. It usually takes two or three years to gather the sequences and finalize an agreement of some kind. I worked on this one for two years. I worked through National Geographic Television, which is a post house, basically, and then they pitched it to Nature. The National Geographic channel is putting in money as well as Nature, WNET.

So I go into the editing room at National Geographic and I’ve got some ideas about how that all can be put together, and usually those ideas come from what I actually saw. I’m stuck with reality. In this case, Janet Hess from Nature was responsible for the story line and most of the post decisions. I’m there for input. For example, in this film the original idea was to make what I call a three-dog film. The fox, coyote and wolf would all have equal weight and somehow we would tell a story with all three of them. I went into the editing room and said there’s this amazing wolf story that’s gone on for the last four years, a fight for the Lamar Valley, which will turn this into a wolf film rather than a three-dog film. She saw immediately that was a story that needed to be told.

I’ve done two other wolf films – one won an Emmy – basically about the same area, so the concern was not to do the same film again. But this is quite different from the others because it’s from a wolf’s point of view rather than a researcher’s point of view. The other ones had a very prominent biologist, and it was through his research that we tell the story, where this one was a pure natural-history story. So the fox and coyote got folded into the story, but they don’t play the main role.

When I go into editing, sometimes I’m wallpaper and sometimes I’m considered quite seriously. It’s kind of an act of faith. If I find that they have taken my footage and not done the story that I think should have been or could have been done, or tell lies, then that’s it. I won’t do another film with them until I get some kind of assurance. My contract says I don’t have any creative control. The final creative control is with National Geographic.

So you’ve got to do what you can to assert some kind of moral authority over the footage.

Yeah. I know, for example, under the old tutelage of the Geographic Channel, I would not do a film with them. That’s changed. The new executive, Steve Burns, is much more willing to tell the story I would like to tell, which is the natural history of what actually happened, rather than overdramatizing it.

It sounds like you’ve decided in the past that the line has been crossed. But it must be a fine line in some cases.

It is. With this film there were a few things that I balked at, but it was just a few things. On others there have been major conflicts, and I didn’t have input at all at the end. It’s about who you work with and who you feel comfortable with. My next bear film will be with Nature again, and I feel very good about that.