America’s “Best Idea” started in California, and a new PBS documentary wants to make sure it doesn’t end there
by David Geffner photos courtesy of Backcountry Pictures
Writer/director David Vassar has been a self-described “parkie” for most of his adult life, serving as a ranger in Yosemite National Park when he was 20, and working for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. The evocative short film Spirit of Yosemite, made by Vassar in 2001, still plays today in that park’s Visitor Center, educating hundreds of thousands each year about the Golden State’s most prized natural treasure.
But it wasn’t a starry night among the redwoods that actually mobilized the documentarian to create his most ambitious and essential project to date, a two-part history of the California State Park System, California Forever, which has been playing on PBS stations, select regional theaters and film festivals throughout the year.
“In 2008, there was this very ‘reasonable’ public discussion going on about putting a six-lane highway through San Onofre State Beach,” Vassar explains from the Calaveras County home/office he shares with producing partner Sally Kaplan. “And we thought that was completely bizarre. It was clear people had lost touch with why our state parklands had first been set aside, in a process that began some 150 years ago. We knew we needed a vehicle to communicate the level of sacrifice that had gone into creating this wonderful natural and historic legacy, and, hopefully, change the conversation.”
To help create a visual language for California Forever, which includes as many intimate human moments as it does sweeping vistas, Vassar turned to his longtime cinematographer SOC President Christopher Tufty, who, when not operating on TV hits like The Closer and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has documented the planet’s most spectacular natural places. “Chris and I met in 1975 working on a film for the Smithsonian,” Vassar describes. “When we did Spirit of Yosemite [recognized for an Emerging Cinematographers Award and Best Non-Broadcast Program at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival], it was only the second 35-millimeter film ever made specifically for digital projection. We have such a close symbiosis, we can get to the visual heart of a scene without wasting any time or words.”
Episode One begins with a carefully scripted first hour that features sweeping crane moves of Yosemite Valley, Point Lobos and California’s Gold Country, and elegant narrative recreations denuded of color. Episode Two unspools in a more classic vérité style, with handheld camerawork nabbing singular moments in the lives of those who visit and cherish state parks. Given the wide range of shooting conditions − harshly sunlit southern deserts, fogged-in North Coast redwood forests, and snow-packed Sierra passes − both episodes required exhaustive preparation that included hundreds of digital stills in advance of each location.
“Our goal in Episode One was to create little mood pieces that would allow the audience to visit each park location on an emotional level,” Vassar describes. “Then, when we introduce the historical characters [through recreations] who fought so hard to save these places, the viewer would feel those same visceral reactions and inspiration.”
Nowhere is that more evident than the scenes among the redwoods, where a 16-stop range between the ground, and the sky peeking out from the trees some 300 feet above, challenged Tufty. Hauling movie lights into the fragile eco-system was a non-starter, so the DP had to work miracles with a handful of shiny-boards, carefully bouncing natural slivers of light through the earth’s largest growing sentinels.
“We were able to hike in with a JimmyJib and Doorway Dolly for a few scenes,” Tufty recounts. “Our operator, Chris Rhodes, donated his travel time to work with us, and his contributions were essential.” As Vassar adds: “John Ford said it best: Landscape is character. It has a mood and a disposition. Like Ford, I always asked Chris to keep the camera moving, both to reveal the personality of a place and to avoid that screen-saver stigma that is often associated with nature documentaries.”
Vassar says it was hard to comprehend the visual power of state park history “until you walk down the dirt road out front of La Purisima Mission and realize this was the original Highway 101 that joined northern and southern California. Chris and I decided to visually link the historical sites seen in the film by entering through a doorway or archway and exiting the same way.”
Although the filmmakers usually shoot in 35 mm because, as Vassar says, “if you’re going to spend $25,000 per day to take a crew into these remote places, you might as well come back with a big fat master that you can repurpose – TV, theatrical, Blu-ray, et cetera,” California Forever was shot with a RED ONE (MX) in 4K and down-converted to 2K. Tufty says DIT/AC Michael Watson “taught us all we needed to know” about the digital RED. “And because the project took two and a half years, I became very comfortable with [the RED’s] gamma and latitude. I knew it would handle the underexposure range, and as long as I didn’t blow out the sky, which was always a danger in the forest scenes, we’d be okay. I usually sought out backlit situations, and David was great about that. If the sun was blasting overhead, we didn’t shoot.”
In such examples, Tufty would hone in on softly lit macro imagery under the forest’s canopy – red dogwood leaves, mineralized stones, etc. Vassar says featuring delicate details as a counterpoint to the sweeping vistas echoes the work of two of the world’s most legendary nature photographers.
“Ansel Adams was all about capturing the big, monumental scenery,” the director observes. “Edward Weston chose to focus on these beautiful micro patterns and abstractions that occur in nature. Chris and I have a passion for both, and using the 14-millimeter [lens] as much as we did allowed us to really explore that combination.”
The go-to glass Vassar notes, a Zeiss t2.0 14 mm, rarely gets pulled out in Tufty’s episodic life. “We used the 14-millimeter for all the day exteriors, mostly at 5.6 with ND and infrared filters,” Tufty explains. “It doesn’t distort too much, and if you place it right, the audience is dramatically drawn in through the depth of field. Also, panning with the 14-millimeter can mimic a dolly shot, without wasting the time to lay down track. You can swoop by a branch or twig in the foreground and then pull up for a reveal of a bridge or mountain deep in the frame. No crane, boom or dolly required.”
Such juxtapositions (like the Adams/Weston approach) permeate California Forever. One memorable example is a fierce and sudden Sierra snowstorm that mirrored the subject matter − the ill-fated Donner Party, whose journey west from Missouri in the mid-1800s infamously ended with disease, starvation and cannibalism.
“The wind just started howling, the snow was sticking to the lens, and, of course, we couldn’t bring in any power for lights,” Tufty recounts of the surprise storm. “We did a few panning shots of the pass, blanketed in white, and it was kind of eerie – knowing what had happened in the same kind of weather. We also did some establishing shots of Donner Lake that segue into a painting of Donner Lake in the California Railroad Museum, where the shooting conditions could not have been more different.”
The museum, housed in a cavernous building in downtown Sacramento, afforded Tufty and gaffer Jon Fontana the kind of control Tufty enjoys on episodic television. “We had scouted the location a week before,” the DP recalls, “and were able to mix tungstens with HMIs as the Red likes blue light. We set up a video village, brought in extras, and even had a smoke machine to augment the big steam locomotives. It was as close to being on a Hollywood sound stage as the movie got.”
The emotional peak of Episode Two, indeed the entire film, is Tufty’s handheld camera trailing Chinese family members through Angel Island State Park, a former U.S. Immigration Station where hundreds of thousands were detained for months, even years, before being allowed entrance (or in many cases deported). They wander slowly from room to room, gazing at Chinese characters etched into the wooden beams and walls. Intercut interviews with U.C. Berkeley professor Judy Yung and the Angel Island Foundation’s Executive Director, Eddie Wong, reveal the etchings are actually poems of longing and sadness the immigrants carved during their long detentions.
“Looking through my lens, the carvings appeared to be sticking out of the wood,” Tufty marvels. “I had set up the lighting and somehow it kicked off the surface in just the right way so as to appear three-dimensional. It still sort of mystifies me.”
Vassar says the power of the Angel Island scenes stem from the brief revelations Tufty caught with his camera. “Some of the immigrants Eddie Wong arranged for us to bring through hadn’t been back to the island since they were detained, and were returning with their children,” Vassar relates. “Like most vérité work, you have to anticipate where the great moments are coming from, and then be ready, since you won’t get another chance.
“Chris was the A-camera operator on The Closer for seven years, so he definitely knows how to intuit the action in a scene,” he continues. “His handheld work [in California Forever] is so amazing because the design of the Red is problematic.”
“It’s like a brick that’s front-heavy,” the cinematographer smiles. “It has no viewfinder-defogging device, which is a problem pulling focus in the rain. I’m used to working with a camera that’s molded to my shoulder and lets me fly around like it’s an extension of my body, so the Red was definitely a new experience.”
Tufty’s camera skills were really put to the test for a Medivac rescue scene in California’s largest state park, the 600,000-acre Anza Borrego Desert. The segment, which focuses on the conflict between nature lovers and off-road enthusiasts in nearby Ocotillo Wells, suddenly turns into high-speed drama when a female ranger receives a distress call and burns out, in excess of 100 mph, to be first on the scene.
“My chase experience is with TV cop shows, which have a lead van and an escort,” Tufty laughs. “Here, the camera was bouncing off the roof of the cab and slamming back down on my shoulder. [The ranger] was driving so fast, we lost our follow crew. And we’d only gone out with two batteries and a few data cards.”
Vassar recounts how their back-up van had to follow the Medivac copter just to find the rescue scene, and provide more juice and media. “When we arrived, the light was fading fast, and the ranger said we had to stay in the truck in case there were weapons involved,” Tufty continues. “It turned out the rider had gone over a cliff and broken his femurs. His girlfriend was screaming at us to get away until the ranger explained we were making a documentary about the state park system and had permission to be filming.”
The right to play in, learn about, and deeply savor the historical significance of California’s wild spaces is, according, to Vassar, a privilege that has not come easy. “The citizens who worked to set aside these places 150 years ago had to struggle mightily against the prevailing body politic,” the filmmaker concludes. “It was a time of Manifest Destiny, and looking back now, in our era, it’s easy to say, ‘These guys were geniuses.’
“Having said that,” Vassar continues, “we’re going through horrendous financial times, and California’s parks have suffered in so many ways. Then, as now, the response has to be citizen action. Of course, if you had told me in 1970, when I was a Yosemite park ranger, that 40 years later I’d have to make a film to help convince people to save our state park system, I’d say you’re crazy. But each new generation needs to be reminded why these places need to be protected, or else we will lose them.”