Behind the Scenes:
An Interview with the Jeff Gentes,
Producer, Writer, Editor of "Monumental Arizona"
To film this high-definition program, producers chose a mix of aerial
and ground photography to capture the reality of the sites because, according
to producer Jeff
Gentes, helicopter and aerial photography is limited in what it can do.
"You can only come in so low, and zoom in so much. We had to look
at each site to see what would work best and come up with a plan,"
he said. "And there is risk involved -sensitive, high-definition
camera equipment is mounted on the nose and side of a helicopter, which
is a large, vibrating machine."
Gentes added that helicopters also present some special problems: Where
are they based? Where can they refuel? How long can they stay in the air?
And there are restrictions about how low helicopters can fly and where
they can land.
"Areas around wildlife habitats are verysensitive, and in Navajo
National Monument, some of the ruins are under rock outcroppings,"
Gentes explained. "Park rangers there were afraid the vibration
from the helicopter blades might loosen the rock and cause damage. Each
park has its own rules, so we met with managers ahead of time to be
sure we respected those guidelines."
There has to be a plan, he says, but you also have to be prepared to
change the plan when the unexpected happens. For example, the weather
turned out to be more challenging than they expected. Filming was planned
for November when the weather in Arizona is usually at its best.
"We came in tee-shirts and shorts and wound up flying over northern
Arizona in a helicopter with the door off at a temperature of 21 degrees,"
he explained. The crew also encountered lots of rain and cloud cover.
Gentes says Arizona is perfect for filming in high definition. "You
can see 100 miles and the air quality is good. High definition photography
offers great depth of field. It's exciting to be able to create those
kinds of images.
"The goal of shooting in high definition is to come back with images
that are perfect. There are actually three 'photographers,' in the helicopter:
the pilot, flying at 80-100 m.p.h., is keeping the aircraft flying smoothly;
the cameraman, who is lining up the shot; and me, acting as assistant
cameraman, working under a dark cloth and watching the television monitor,
shading what he is photographing. It's like creating a TV studio in the
helicopter," he adds.
Gentes says they have learned to always expect the unexpected.
"Flying over Organ Pipe, we had great lighting and were getting
some terrific shots when some dirt or moisture hit the lens. We had to
put the helicopter down, clean the lens and get the shot again,"
he says. Later, when they landed in Ajo, they were stopped by immigration
agents who wanted to know who they were and what they were doing. "They
examined our permits carefully. They had been tracking us on their radar
all day thinking we might be smugglers."
Ideally, filmmakers like to shoot at the beginning and the end of the
day when the light is most dramatic. On the day they drove to Ironwood
Forest to get some ground shots, the weather was gray and threatening.
"We waited for hours, and just as the sun was going down, I saw
a patch of blue sky. Within minutes, the gray became orange and the light
was gorgeous," Gentes said. "We were shooting everything we
could to capture this fabulous lighting when I noticed that Ragged Top
Mountain was glowing a fantastic red. I grabbed the camera, started shooting,
and backed into a cholla cactus. I got the shot, but it took a flashlight
and pliers to get the cholla barbs out of my backside."
What's amazing about aerial photography, especially in Arizona, is
that you can fly for miles over nondescript landscapes and then be taken
by surprise, Gentes explained. "Approaching Canyon de Chelly, there's
nothing but desert scrub as far as you can see. Suddenly, there is this
fantastic canyon. You are totally blown away by something you never
expected to find. It makes you think about the first people who actually
found these places and wonder what they felt. In some ways, I feel we
are documenting their experiences."
Altogether, the crew had just seven-to-ten days to complete the filming.
Shooting on the ground took much more time than they expected. "I
drove 2000 miles in 10 days," Gentes said. "We set up shots,
unpacked, then packed up and moved on. Wherever we went, people stopped
to see what we were doing. They were fascinated by the high definition
images. And they always wanted to know when they could see high definition
programming in their homes."
Well, it's finally going to happen. High definition programming is being
broadcast worldwide throughout the system. The future is bright, and Gentes
believes public television is particularly well positioned to take advantage
of this technology because so much of its content is documentary and nature
Monumental Arizona is the second Channel 8 production filmed and
broadcast in high definition. The first, Over Arizona, premiered in
August 1995. Both are part of the station's award-winning Arizona
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