Photographer Gary Yost Captures ‘A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout’
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing an L.A. creative director who harnessed the power of Adobe products along with actor Terry Crews’ pecs and six-pack abs to create an outlandish and hilarious one-man-band. This week I was lucky enough to get some one-on-one time with pro photographer, middle school instructor and volunteer fire lookout Gary Yost.
Gary recently gained unexpected notoriety with the release of his poetic video gone viral, “A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout” – an intimate and extraordinary short film that condenses the ‘typical’ 24-hour shift of a Fire Department volunteer lookout perched on top of California’s Mt. Tamalpais, into a few minutes. Gary’s deep passion for photography and his love of nature and the Bay Area inspired him to make the film, and we’re proud that Gary chose Adobe products like Lightroom, Photoshop, After Effects and Audition to help him share with the rest of us what might just be the best view in the world.
What gave you the inspiration to create “A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout”?
Gary: I started volunteering as a fire lookout in 2011 because my community in southern Marin is the poster-child for catastrophic fire. I wanted to do something to help keep eyes on the undeveloped wild part of the county. Of course, I thought that the view from up there would provide some great photograph opportunities so I brought my Nikon D700 on shifts with me.
I threw my little Canon S95 point-and-shoot and a GorillaPod in my bag too. It immediately became obvious that the motion of the fog flowing around the mountain was indescribably beautiful, and the only way to show my friends and family what it looked like was with moving pictures.
I did some tests with the S95’s time-lapse function and the results were promising, so for my next shift I did some additional tests with the hopes of being able to accurately capture the beauty of the place.
I needed the flexibility and low-light sensitivity of a DSLR because otherwise I wasn’t able to capture the most magical moments at night. But it was definitely a finger point at the moon (figuratively if not literally). So, my inspiration came from wanting to share the sacred feeling of being on top of an empty mountain in the middle of a community of 7 million people. It’s eerie and magical, and extremely unusual.
Describe the process that you used in capturing and editing your footage.
Gary: During the spring of 2012 I sold my D700 and bought a D4 and a D800, each for different reasons. The D4 has incredible low-light capability and the D800 has a huge sensor that allows me to pull 1920×1080 crops out of it for post-production moves on time-lapse sequences. I also acquired a Kessler PB pocket dolly, which is a two-foot long motorized slider. This enabled me to make motion-controlled moves, which are so important for lending an immersive feeling to a time-lapse shot.
Because these shots are usually made close to the ground, I also found that I needed an external electronic viewfinder that I could comfortably use to visualize the images before initiating the time-lapse sequence. The Zacuto EVF is great for this because it can zoom in on an image to check critical focus, which is a real trick with night time-lapse because autofocus is pretty useless at night.
I shot the video over a 3-day shift in August and generated about 500Mb of raw file data, copying CF cards over to my Hyperdrive portable storage device. Keeping track of all that data was a challenge.
Once the shoot was over, all of the raw files were brought into Lightroom4. Then, using the metadata export functions, they were edited in a super-important tool called LRTimelapse 2. LRT2 provides the ability to interpolate between all raw file parameters over time, and you can define keyframes to control how and when those interpolations occur. This enables the creation of all sorts of amazing effects and basically gives you the equivalent of a fully-editable raw video stream. Once I had the sequences processed they usually needed very little additional post because the raw files have so much mungeable data in them. All editing was done in FCPX.
Which Adobe products did you use to create “A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout” and how did you use them in making your film?
Gary: Lightroom 4 was the workhorse of the project. I’m a huge Lightroom fan, having moved over to it from Aperture 3 years ago. It just fits my style of working perfectly and the Lightroom development team has consistently been upgrading it to provide everything I need. In the case of this video, the reason why my time-lapse sequences look so amazing is the tremendous amount of fine control Lightroom affords over the image. Things like highlight recovery and clarity make such a huge difference between making video look flat or lifelike. You can’t make these kinds of changes in post on a rendered file (although I’m looking forward to one day using a video camera that outputs raw data… soon!).
For many of the time-lapse shots that were a little temporally coarse, I used a very useful plugin from RE:vision called ReelSmart Motion Blur inside of After Effects. This allowed me to render additional motion blur, which is important since you can’t go back and recapture a sequence with different settings. For a few sequences in the lookout video, it was a lifesaver.
I use Adobe Audition in every one of my projects to adjust the length of audio tracks. Sometimes the flow of a sequence is just perfect but the audio is slightly too short or too long, and instead of compromising the visual flow, it’s a simple thing to shrink or stretch the audio track to fit. I used that quite a bit on this project, in addition to cutting and pasting audio within tracks.
The time-lapse sequences clearly convey the emotions that you feel while volunteering at the fire lookout. What editing techniques did you use to achieve that effect?
Gary: The inherent problem I faced in making a video about a person who just sits in a room and looks out the window all day was to keep it interesting, and to convey the feeling of what it’s like to be there. I thought about this for quite a while before beginning production, and I think that three sequences in particular are very effective.
The first one is at 1:05, which is a simple tracking shot on the dolly of me sitting in the captain’s chair. This is where the lookout spends a lot of time and it was important to illustrate. The slider’s motion from right to left conveys a sense of time passing much more than a static shot would.
The second one is at 1:25, which shows how we use the Osborn Fire Finder to determine the bearing and azimuth of a smoke column. I made this interesting by shooting it as a time-lapse sequence with very long (>10 second) exposures, using about 14 stops of neutral density and making my physical moves very slowly. This added motion blur to my movements, again showing the passage of time, but in this case, time folding into itself to make an everyday common activity more interesting. I additionally used ReelSmart Motion Blur in After Effects to further smooth the inter-frame motion.
Finally I used a layering technique for the shot at 1:47 by running the camera on the motorized slider four times: one with me not in the shot and three times with me doing different things in the lookout, masking out each version in post. I wanted to convey the impression of the lookout structure being the constant and me just being one of the many people who will occupy it over time. There’s something incredibly poignant about this shot to me and I remember tearing up the first time I saw it assembled.
Besides those three shots, I used rhythmic editing principles to accentuate the emotional quality of the music, which reinforced the timelessness that you feel when you’re in the lookout. And perhaps the biggest decision was to break the piece into two major parts, daytime and nighttime, so that I could use a different rhythmic structure for each part. The first part, during the day, is edited in a much faster rhythm than the languid, dreamlike nighttime section. I think this context switch makes the video more interesting than if it was created in one single rhythmic structure.
What has the response been to your video?
Gary: I originally made this to share with the people I knew and for Marin County Fire to use as a recruitment tool. We have about 30 volunteers in the lookout program, and it’s important to keep a full roster so the two lookouts in Marin are manned as continuously as possible during the June-October fire season. I figured that maybe a few thousand people would see it. But 750,000 people have loaded it and watched it to some extent, and over 125,000 people have watched the entire thing. It must’ve struck a chord with people because mountains are fascinating, the Bay Area is beautiful and fire lookouts are something unusual.
In the time-lapse community, I think the video has been so noticed because it breaks out of the typical mode of pretty time-lapse sequences backed up by a musical track. Most time-lapse footage these days is presented as an end to itself, and not as a supporting element of a larger story. There’s a great quote from John Lasseter of Pixar:
“You cannot base a whole movie on just the imagery alone. It has to be the story and the characters.”
I first heard Lasseter talking about the importance of story in 1986 at the Siggraph conference (which we went to every year to show off our 3D software). His short film “Luxo Jr.” was a seminal event in my life and illustrated how a master could take two desk lamps and make them evoke deep emotions. Whoa! That’s huge. So when I started making videos this year I was committed to making sure I wasn’t just making pretty pictures that moved. Heck, I’d been doing that for the past 20 years. I wanted to make pretty pictures that moved people. And I feel that’s why this video has connected so widely. I cannot describe the feeling of getting hundreds of emails and comments from people about how this made such a huge impact on them. Here’s one of my favorites:
I just saw your video, “A Day in The Life of a Fire Lookout.” Brought tears.
I’m a 68 year old retired cop. I hike upon the Mountain almost every day. Your film moved me hugely.
I feel like I’ve finally found peace in my life roaming the paths and trails on Tam. I’ve forwarded your film to the people in my life. It will help them understand.
Thanks for putting it together. When I’m unable to be on the Mountain, I will take refuge in your film.
I’ll think of you every time I look at the tower.
That’s the most rewarding thing that a filmmaker can do … make an emotional connection at such a deep level.
What’s been the biggest day you’ve had as a fire lookout? The most visually exciting thing you’ve seen or captured?
Gary: One time, a large group of people showed up just before the state park was closing one evening a couple of days after the new moon in August 2011. I was preparing to do some astronomical still photography and was waiting for everyone to clear out. All of a sudden 80 or more people of all ages came to celebrate the sighting of the crescent moon, marking the beginning of Ramadan. It was a great party, I learned something about the Islamic faith, and met some really nice people.
The most visually exciting thing I’ve captured there was a rainstorm that moved through the Bay Area, which appears in the second part of the lookout video. During the first week of August this year we had some atypical weather…clouds that usually don’t show up here in the summer. I was hoping all week that some interesting weather would stick around for my shift and nature gave me an incredible show of clouds and virga (rain that doesn’t hit the ground). The winds that night were gusting at >35mph and I had to use the lookout and large rocks to shield the camera and motion control gear from the wind. I cannot put into words how excited I was when this little storm blew up, because in my world of landscape photography the beauty of nature is all about the weather and that’s what I look for when I make images outside. When that happened I dropped into an intense feeling of flow.
Amazingly, that feeling of flow continued throughout the post-production and editing phase of the project…for four more weeks. I could hardly sleep, and since my wife and daughter were out of town for two of those weeks I was able to focus 100%, 24/7 on the postproduction process. I was in heaven!
Has there ever been a day when you regretted going up without your camera?
Gary: I don’t think I’ve ever been up there without a camera. Now, if I’m just casually hiking around, I shoot with my iPhone. Here’s a crazy sci-fi-esque image of the radome on West Peak I shot up there a few days ago. It’s a little extreme with the post-processing (but that seems to be my weakness when I shoot with the phone).
If you’d like to learn more about Gary Yost and take a peek into his more than 40 years of experience as a still photographer, check out the companion piece to this interview where, among other things, Gary discusses his latest photographic project which involves the Cold War and Russian bomber attacks on the California coastline.
Also be sure to visit Gary’s website at http://www.garyyost.com