Far from the light pollution of cities at an altitude of 7,200 feet, Yosemite's Glacier Point is one of the best star-gazing spots in the country, astronomer Morris Jones explains in this episode of Yosemite Nature Notes. The web series, funded by the Yosemite Conservancy, celebrates the national park which is 122 years old this month. In the latest episode, filmmaker and former park ranger Steve Bumgardner talks to astronomers and photographers about why Yosemite's views of the Milky Way are so spectacular. About five minutes into the video, he shoots a time-lapse of a time-lapse in progress, capturing a landscape as the moon rises. It's a rare behind-the-scenes look at how some of these amazing videos are made. Bumgardner discusses the series and what it's like to be the official documentary filmmaker of a place like Yosemite in an interview below.
The Atlantic: How did you get into shooting nature videos?
Steve Bumgardner: As a kid, I was always interested in photography and filmmaking, but back in the days of real film, those hobbies were kind of expensive. After I left college, I came out west and started working as a guide and Park Ranger in Sequoia National Park, shooting lots of slide film on my trusty old Nikon FM camera. Once the digital video revolution took hold in the late '90's, the tools and techniques had become much cheaper, so I bought some gear and began to switch over from Park Ranger to filmmaker.
Working for Yosemite seems like a dream job. How did you get involved?
I'd made a few films in Sequoia National Park about caves, bears, and illegal marijuana cultivation, so when a video production job opened up in Yosemite, I jumped at the opportunity. Originally, I produced Yosemite Nature Notes as a National Park Service employee, but now I work as a freelancer with a grant from the non-profit Yosemite Conservancy. People often say that I have the coolest job in the world, and I usually agree!
What inspired the “Night Skies” episode of the series?
I've lived in the mountains for over 20 years, so I'm pretty used to seeing a night sky full of stars, but whenever one of my friends from urbanity would visit, they'd be blown away by what they could see at night. I realized that most folks have no idea what a dark night sky really looks like, and even when people camp in places like Yosemite or Sequoia, many of them spend the evening hours staring into a campfire instead of looking up at the stars.
Another inspiration for the “Night Skies” episode is that fact that I couldn't have made this video five years ago, because the camera technology just wasn't there yet. It's only been in the past few years that these new digital cameras have been light sensitive enough to shoot time-lapse of the Milky Way, with exposure times of ten to thirty seconds as opposed to the several minutes that it took before. In a few years, we might even be able to shoot the night skies in real time instead of time lapse!
What are some of the challenges of shooting in a natural environment like Yosemite?
The time-lapse sequences for this “Night Skies” episode were shot over three summers, and I spent a total of about 30 nights to get all of this footage. I love exploring the mountains, in particular my beloved Sierra Nevada, so it's not a big deal for me climb 13,000-foot mountains or rappel off of 3,000-foot cliffs to get a shot. I'm totally comfortable in the natural world, and I have spent many weeks alone in the wilderness. Yosemite is such a beautiful place that the biggest challenge I have is in deciding which amazing thing to shoot! I'm a bit of a lighting snob, so I will often wait days, or weeks, or even years, to be in the right place at the right time. Of course, Yosemite is also very popular, so I spend a fair bit of time trying to keep people, cars and airplanes out of my shots, which was hard to do for all these night time lapse-sequences. There's a LOT of air traffic over Yosemite!
Did you expect to find such a big audience on YouTube? Are you a YouTube partner?
As a filmmaker, you want your work to be seen, so I'm pretty stoked that Yosemite Nature Notes has nearly 6 million views on YouTube, and that someone from every country in the world has watched an episode. I've had some other films play in visitor centers and theaters in National Parks, but to watch them, you have to be in those places. Even though Yosemite sees nearly 4 million visitors a year, there are many more people who just can't get there easily, especially if you live in the middle of Africa or South America or some other distant land. By using YouTube, iTunes and social media, Yosemite is connecting with millions of people all over the world, 24 hours a day. We only protect what we know and love, so I hope these viewers will become protectors and stewards of Yosemite and all of our National Parks.
What's next for you?
I just finished a new film about Pinnacles National Monument that will be coming out in a couple of months, and I've got a few irons in the fire for projects in some other National Parks. When I first started working in Yosemite, I would point to the video work that was being done in Yellowstone as a model for what all the National Parks should be doing to communicate with the world. They were really the first park to start producing these types of videos, so I'm pretty excited that I just signed a contract with Yellowstone to produce several new web videos for them, in addition to continuing my work on Yosemite Nature Notes.
For more episodes of Yosemite Nature Notes, visit the YouTube channel.