America's Best Idea

Written by D. Eric Franks on 29 September 2009.

Ken Burns' latest documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea started Sunday and is halfway over, but that doesn't mean you can't jump in tonight (or catch the inevitable weekend rebroadcasts). In typical Ken Burns style, each two-hour chunk takes us forward in time, with tonight's episode, The Empire of Grandeur, covering 1915-1919. I wasn't sure how much I'd enjoy this project, since the other subjects he's tackled have naturally had a little more conflict (The War) and more action (Baseball). I mean, how many amazing shots of Yosemite can you see in 12 hours?

The core of the show is not the parks, but is instead the people - the Americans - that created and protected them. From modern Park Rangers to visitors to historical bios, it's the people that make the film. While it's not as moving as The War (for example), I was surprised that after last night's episode, I had a sense that I knew Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and James Audubon better than I ever had before. And I was really surprised to find that I was starting to agree with what I initially thought was a hyperbolic title. Maybe the world's first park system really is America's best idea. It is, at its core, a democratic idea and one that is prescient far into the future, unlike just about any other short-term goals we might have. It sounds simple when Pres. Roosevelt said about the Grand Canyon "Leave it as it is; the ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it," but you also realize how very profound that is. Do you let a few miners make a little money today or do you preserve it for all time and all people? "Dig, baby, dig!" indeed.

While the interviews are the real heart of the program, there's no question that cinematographer Buddy Squires work brings quiet, majestic emotion to the project as well. It's not showy, gyroscopic helicopter time-lapse footage like you get with the BBC's Planet Earth series, but in some ways it's more intimate and artistic. I really don't want to take anything away from the experience of watching the show, but videopia.org is, fundamentally, a technology site, so I thought it would be neat to look at Mr. Squires' weapons of choice.

First, since he shoots interviews and nature and some nighttime scenes, he packs in a few different lenses from Canon, including a very long 300mm beast (and an 8-64mm  T2.4 and an 11-165mm T2.5 Zoom). It might not surprise you that Mr. Squires shoots film, but you may raise an eyebrow when you hear it's not a 35mm camera, but is instead a Super16 Aaton XTR. This makes sense when you consider Mr. Squires often had to hike back country for a few days to get the shots he needed. The camera itself is relatively small and you can pack in a half-dozen 400' Kodak VISION2 magazines of various types - daytime and nighttime, for example - pretty easily. Let's not forget the huge tripod, batteries and other goodies a cinematographer might need. Batteries? Sure, this isn't your grandpa's 16mm hand-cranked camera, you know. It's got a CCD/LCD preview system and even records time code, although it still has the signature, traditional walnut handle. There's no audio though and so, like all nature documentaries, almost every sound you hear is added in post, from the bull elk trumpeting to the splash of an otter in a river.

Back of the envelope calculations suggest that the bare camera might be worth $20,000, 3x $10,000 for the lenses, a few grand more for the tripod, plus film, developing, editing AND printing - we're talking serious money. I poked around and found that you can rent an Aaton XTR prod full production package with lenses, tripod, batteries and a couple of magazines for film for about $1,400 a day, although there are  some beauties on ebay right now starting at $1,500-$3,500!

References:
* The National Parks: America's Best Idea, on PBS.org - watch the last episodes online (I don't recommend watching online, but there it is)
* Ken Burns' Cinematic Walk in the Park, on documentary.org
* Aaton XTR prod Super16mm camera {mos_fb_discuss:9}

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