Lessons for Filming with Video in the Great American West

It was a quick trip with six stops for shooting test video in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming… three places along the Platte River (east of where the North Platte and the South Platte join to form the Platte), Courthouse & Jail Rocks, Chimney Rock, and the deep trail ruts at Guernsey, Wyoming.

My first three stops were in the Platte River Valley in Nebraska. The Platte River is too shallow for even canoe travel and, I suppose, is why there is an abundance of wildlife along its course. Lesson #1: eagles and other birds live here and they don’t have much tolerance for a small drone aircraft trying to film their habitat. Mine was chased behind a tree by a large golden eagle and was approached by him if ever I left the safety of that tree. It was a beautiful bird, but the drone was expensive and I didn’t want to lose it. He can be seen chasing another bird just above the water’s surface at the :50 mark… just before he veered off toward me.

Lesson #2: since the Platte is termed a “braided stream” it has a swampy, and yet sandy, bottom and has various islands and sandbars that are determined by the amount of water flowing in the river. Many emigrants in the 19th century lost wagons to quicksand and I suspect that it was not a wise idea for me to be walking alone on the wet sandbars to fly the drone. Danger from quicksand is probably unusual, but I’ve read accounts of when it has happened.

Having said all of that, videography using the drone at altitude along the river is the only way to view this remarkable landscape and put it in context with the surrounding area.

In Nebraska, Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock together create a formation that, from a distance, resembles a jail next to a courthouse. It looks best from a distance of 3 to 5 miles away. I followed a county road to a “park” that led nearly to the base of these two formations and it was really too close to make out that resemblance. However, I was close enough to get some nice aerial video of the two rocks as rock formations. I was careful to fly over areas that I could retrieve the drone if it “came down”, leading to lesson #3: “Rattlesnakes are common in this area”. They are camouflaged in scrub brush throughout the west, and a guy in shorts and running shoes has no business trekking through that landscape even if it is to retrieve his camera mounted on a drone.

The next stop was Chimney Rock in Nebraska, and lesson #3 applied here as well (it actually applies about everywhere in the west). In fact, there were numerous signs in the area reminding me of that special rule. The National Parks Service has specified an area around this rock formation as a “no fly zone” so I needed to fly outside of this area. It wasn’t hard to do, and it led to my learning about lesson #4: many things in the west are bigger and further away than the eye comprehends. Whether I flew 200 feet side-to-side to get an aerial view or ascended to 200 feet to get a good view really didn’t hold much of an advantage over video filmed with a terrestrial video camera. This, it turned out, was a valuable lesson in good videography.

The last stop for video testing was at the deep trail ruts in Guernsey, Wyoming. There is an airport right next door, so flying a drone for video was not even a consideration. It was here that the Oregon-California Trail narrowed and the wagons were forced to go in a single file though this area. Some of the ruts in this area are, probably, 6 feet high and six feet wide carved mostly from thousands of wagon wheels and the hooves of so many animals pulling them. Even though the video camera was right there in the ruts it was difficult to capture the height, narrowness, and ruggedness of the ruts. Probably filming in the early morning or late afternoon would be best so that the shadows show some of the relief of the terrain. Also, it may be that video just cannot capture this well and a physical trip to the ruts is necessary to see for yourself what the emigrants endured as part of their hardships traveling west.

For me, travel in the Great American West is a nostalgic and romantic experience. Filled with rivers, incredibly large objects, unimaginable distances, an almost limitless horizon and skies sometimes filled with stunning cloud formations it tells a story of the beauty of our land. To the Native Americans, who were its custodians for thousands of years, it is described by author, N. Scott Momaday, as “a dream landscape filled with sacred realities… powerful things. It is a landscape that has to be seen to be believed… and may have to be believed in order to be seen.”

Click here to see a short video from this trip in August, 2016.

About storiesretoldblogger

I am an Elkhart, Indiana native and became interested in applying video to history when consumer video cameras were first introduced on the market in the late 1970’s. My production company, Stories Retold, specializes in preserving oral history, traditions, and values with video. Primarily interviewing individuals, I sometimes document families, and on occasion document an entire community. My niche is developing a personal relationship with clients which helps me to tell their story just the way they would like to have it told. Everyone has a story worth preserving, and I enjoy discovering interesting stories from people with whom I come into contact on a daily basis. In years to come, these videos will be priceless as they portray original stories complete with visual images and actual voices filled with all the primary material and emotion that was intended to be. I gain a strong sense of personal satisfaction with each completed project whether it involves an individual or an entire community.
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5 Responses to Lessons for Filming with Video in the Great American West

  1. Richard Murphy says:

    Thanks Larry, I will be checking this out! 🙂

    Sent from my iPhone 6 Plus


  2. Richard Murphy says:

    Awesome pictures and great music, Larry!!

  3. Marthe Doll says:

    We just watched your Nebraska and Wyoming video again and wanted to say 1) How did you manage to get such clean video – almost no sign of contemporary landscape blight? Absence of power poles, etc., makes it easy to imagine that we’re seeing the land as it was hundreds of years ago. 2) We like the cowboy song you used — the video alone is powerful, but with the music, even more so. Beautiful work, well worth a second look.

    • Thank you, Marthe. This video is actually test video taken in preparation for a larger documentary on the Oregon-California Trail, but there was enough of it to use in this short video to get a glimpse of what it might look like. In answer to your questions, I would say that the video cameras actually make things look better than they look in real life in some cases… particularly landscape scenes. However, sometimes the landscape is so awesome that cameras are incapable of capturing it. Much of the landscape blight is not visible because of the cameras, but also is not visible because I intentionally try to choose the purest landscape I can to tell the story. I also try to choose scenes that avoid man-made objects… power lines, buildings, roads, antenna towers, and even people. In this video I used Google Earth to choose river scenes that contained a minimum number of man-made objects but, as you can see, video from altitude can’t help but include a few of them. However, it is worth it to put the river into context with the surrounding area. My intention, when taking video out west, is to capture scenes as closely as possible to the way they looked to the pioneers. That is difficult to do these days even out west! It is always disappointing to discover a beautiful rock formation only to find that there are TV/Radio antennas all over it. Music is a powerful part of telling a story. Usually, music should never call attention to itself and should be used in video like seasonings are used in cooking… just for enhancement. Ordinarily I use instrumentals, but in this case I used a vocal which tells the story in a more powerful way. I love the nostalgia and romance of the west (which seems to slowly be disappearing), and tried to express that in this video.

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