Gary Yost had the qualifications for the job: he was a professional photographer with video experience, and he was also a volunteer fire lookout for the Marin County, California, Fire Department. The assignment: create a video aimed at attracting recruits to the fire lookout program.
Well, let’s modify that a bit. It wasn’t technically an assignment. Like the fire lookout position, it was a volunteer job, and Gary was asked to do it. He accepted with no hesitation, despite the obvious challenge: “Fire lookouts just basically hang out in the lookout tower and watch for fires...nothing too exciting,” he says. How could he “make watching seem cool” so that folks would be inspired to volunteer for fire-watch shifts during the mid-June to late October fire season? And did I mention that he would have to be both cast and crew?
Gary decided to combine video and time-lapse photography in a creative mix that would capture the beauty of the area the watcher protected and, at the same time, would strongly suggest the noble intent and nature of the job.
The location was Gardner Fire Lookout in Mount Tamalpais State Park, where Gary does a three-day shift once a month during the fire season. “The shift runs from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.,” Gary says. “It’s not required for a lookout to overnight up there, and about half of them don’t—they drive up, put in the day, go home and drive back the next day. Statistically, the fires, when they happen, happen during the day.”
What the fire-watchers are looking for as they scan the area is, of course, a column of smoke. “It’s sometimes hard to find,” Gary says, “because there’s so much fog in the area, and you can be fooled by little wisps of fog that form in the valleys.” But there’s never a question of taking a chance: “If we see anything that could remotely be smoke, we call it in.”
I think what I did can inspire people to see what can be done by one person.
Gary shot the video in three full days in August last year, taking breaks for brief nighttime catnaps. “I had a rough shot list of activities I wanted to show,” he says, “and I went up there in July shooting tests for that list. I built a storyboard based on what I’d shot, and when I went back in August I had a detailed list.”
He also had about 120 pounds of gear: his D4 and D800 cameras, an assortment of NIKKOR lenses, tripods, motorized sliders, storage drives and a full complement of etceteras. He came down from the lookout with 500 gigabytes of video and time-lapse stills.
The finished production, A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout, runs six minutes, with the first two-and-a-half being the day-in-the-life take on the lookout’s job and the final three-and-a-half a time-lapse trip through the San Francisco Bay area night from the vantage point of the Gardner Lookout. You can view the video at Gary’s website, www.garyyost.com; click on Video, then the top left frame.
When Gary contacted Nikon about his video, he said, “I think what I did can inspire people to see what can be done by one person. You don’t need all the equipment I had, or the same cameras. D4, D800—great, but you can do video and time lapse with a D5200, a D7000 or a D600 and a basic motorized slider. And there’s nothing scary about editing: I taught myself, and I edited the video in Final Cut Pro X, which is really built for photographers who start out knowing nothing about editing.”
So, how successful was the recruitment effort? “A little too successful,” Gary says with a laugh. “We hoped to get ten or maybe a dozen volunteers. We got several dozen. Now there’s a long waiting list.”