A Breathtaking Time-Lapse Journey Through the American Southwest

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The Wild Heart captures the color-saturated beauty of some of North America's most stunning natural phenomena, from the Grand Canyon to the lunar eclipse of last December. The video is by Henry Jun Wah Lee, a physician of Chinese medicine who took up photography as a way to reconnect with the natural world. He describes the extensive work and travel that went into documenting these remote locations in an interview below. 


Courtesy of Henry Jun Wah Lee


The Atlantic: Have you always done both photography and film, or did one lead to the other?

Henry Jun Wah Lee: While I have been taking pictures ever since I was a kid, my photography didn't get serious until about four years ago. It was a series of events that started with my practice as a physician of Chinese medicine. The underlying principles of the medicine are based on learning from nature. Everything from how we see health and disease in the human body, to the herbs we prescribe, to how we eat seasonally and to how the environment affects our health, is all connected to nature. And for many of us, especially those of us living in cities, we have lost much of that connection to our natural world: all the beautiful natural wonders, the seasons, the stars, and even our food.

As someone who also grew up in the cities, I first started going out in nature simply to reconnect for myself. Being out there made me realize how much I was missing in my life. In the wilderness there is nothing between you and the stars. Trying to grasp the infinite is an inspiring, as well as a humbling experience. Seeing in person how nature works helped me also to better understand myself.

I started taking pictures of my journeys and sharing them with friends and my patients. They were amazed at what's out there, as well as what they saw as my eye for the aesthetic. This was around the time that video started coming packaged with still cameras so I started experimenting with video as well. My first video was a really amateur attempt. It is still online so you can see my progression from then to now.

How far did you have to travel for The Wild Heart?

Many of the locations require going far into the wilderness using a four-wheel drive vehicle and/or hiking on foot. This includes the shots in Monument Valley and the Vermillion Cliffs. For example, getting to White Pocket in the Vermillion cliffs was a three-hour drive across deep sand as well as snow. Really in the middle of nowhere! But perhaps the most difficult was the opening shot of the snowstorm at The Wave in Northern Arizona. Going in was a 1.5-hour hike across slick rock and sand dunes with a 50 lb pack of film gear. Luckily it didn't start to snow until half way into the hike but by the time I reached The Wave, there was two inches on the ground and the snow was getting heavier. By the time I left it was dangerous. Four to five inches of snow. Slick rock that was so slippery and icy that at some points I had to get on my hands and feet to crawl up slopes. To make matters worse, it was nightfall while I was only half way back to the trail head. Add a couple of wrong turns and it took two and a half hours to hike out. Luckily I was prepared and nothing bad happened. But another hiker had to rush to the ER because he fell and dislocated his shoulder several times and went into shock. Nature can be very unforgiving!

What was the process of shooting like?

There's a lot of planning involved before a shoot. First I figure out what kind of story I want to tell. What is my theme and how do I want to tell it? Visually what do I want to capture? Then I think locations. I do online searches of places I want to go to, check out photos and talk with photographers who have been there. Weather is a huge factor. I go for unique shots, moments people don't often see, so I prefer going out in unfavorable conditions when common sense recommends staying home. Phase of the moon is important, particularly for night shots -- full moon for well-lit landscapes or new moon for lots and lots of stars. I also like knowing where the sun, moon and Milky Way are rising and setting if I want to include them in the shot. The apps on my iPhone are indispensable for that.

Then there's all the gear. Lots and lots of gear. Cameras, lenses, dolly systems. Sometimes I bring the 12-foot crane. Plus food, emergency stuff in case unexpected problems come up, etc.

Of course, shooting and capturing good footage is only part of it. Putting everything together and editing takes a good chunk of time as well.

What's next for you?

I'm going international this year. Trips to Japan, Iceland and China are planned. There's so much beauty in other parts of the world that are worth telling a story about. I also have an urban landscape film I'm trying to finish. Lastly I'm working on a more fictional project about nature on an alternate earth.

For more video and photography by Henry Jun Wah Lee, visit http://evosia.com.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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