Documenting an Environmental Legacy

Students and Faculty Lead Major Project to Connect
Californians with Their Natural Environment

Arianne Aryanpur

From the majestic redwood forest to the stunning Anza-Borrego Desert, California is a treasure trove of natural beauty. It boasts a greater diversity of flora and fauna than any state in the nation.

During a recent film shoot in the Anza-Borrego Desert, HSU Film professor David Scheerer stumbled upon something rarely caught on camera: a baby hummingbird—weighing less than five grams and no more than a few weeks old—feeding with its mother. The scene became even more compelling when the fledgling suddenly spread its wings and flew, leaving its nest for the very first time.

Scheerer was in Anza-Borrego on a film shoot for the California Environmental Legacy Project, a statewide initiative led by HSU Biology professor Jeffrey White. It’s designed to highlight environmental change in California.

From the majestic redwood forest to the stunning Anza-Borrego Desert, California is a treasure trove of natural beauty. It boasts a greater diversity of flora and fauna than any state in the nation.

The project consists of a two-hour PBS documentary called “Becoming California” tracing California’s environmental past, present and future. There is also a series of short films and podcasts—produced by Scheerer—highlighting the cultural and environmental history of five state and national parks. These projects, along with an online education portal and training program for science teachers, will be unveiled this summer.

A Vision Blooms

HSU has been a key player in the Legacy Project since its inception in 2005. The inspiration for the project began with Jim Baxter, a biology professor at Sacramento State. Baxter conceived the idea in the early 1990s, after seeing a photographic essay depicting society’s effect on the San Francisco Peninsula. Moved by the dramatic transformation, he partnered with White. In 2005, the two set out to produce a full-length film illustrating how California’s environment had changed over time.

“This project grew out of the notion that most Californians don’t feel connected to nature or understand the relationship between human activity and environmental change,” explains White, who is now the project’s executive producer. “What we wanted to do was re-imagine how science, technology and media can work together to educate and inspire us to act as true partners with nature.”

Early support for the project came in the form of grants developed by White as part of the Redwood Science Project, which he co-directs with Julie Van Sickle, an HSU alum and faculty member in the Department of Environmental Science & Management.

Cold Boiling Lake trail

ABOVE: A two-mile hike from Cold Boiling Lake, Bumpass Hell contains the largest concentration of geothermal features at Lassen Volcanic National Park. The area was named after a settler who burned his leg after falling into a pool.
BELOW: Scientists and filmmakers spotted this creature, an Ambystoma gracile or northwestern salamander, during filming in Klamath National Forest.

Northwest salamander on the trail
For more information on the California Legacy Project or for a sneak peak of the work visit calegacy.org

Early support for the project came in the form of grants developed by White as part of the Redwood Science Project, which he co-directs with Julie Van Sickle, an HSU alum and faculty member in the Department of Environmental Science & Management.

With the ball rolling, White and Baxter built public support for the program by partnering with organizations such as the state and national parks services, the U.S. Geological Survey, UC Davis and the San Diego Natural History Museum. They also received a number of high-profile endorsements from state and local leaders.

“For me, what’s most exciting about the project is that it provides a new way for scientists to share their knowledge,” said HSU President Rollin Richmond in 2009. “Californians care quite deeply about our natural environment. They want to understand it better and protect it, and this will help.”

Merging Science and Film

In 2009, White recruited Scheerer, a director and producer with 25 years of experience producing award-winning science and natural history films. Scheerer was charged with producing the “Changing Places Initiative,” a series of educational films and podcasts throughout California: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park, and Redwood National and State parks.

Scheerer and White assembled a world-class team of researchers, educators, scriptwriters, cinematographers, editors and sound mixers. They were charged with telling the scientific, geological and cultural history of each location. “Our goal was to tell the story of how these places came to be,” Scheerer says. “For example, how did the largest trees in the world come to be living on the Franciscan mélange, home to the most unstable soil on earth?”

Using high-definition video, narration and computer generated images, Scheerer and White took on the task of bringing the state and national parks to life. They worked with scientists and park officials to determine the best way to tell the unique story of each location.

One of the unique things about the Legacy Project is that it relies on a close partnership between scientists and filmmakers, Scheerer explains. “Usually in a film project of this size, the filmmaker will direct the content because they are trained in how to tell the story,” he says. “But in this case, scientists are providing input every step of the way.”

One such collaborator was Michael Kauffmann, an HSU Biology graduate student and author of Conifer Country, a natural history and hiking guide of the Pacific Northwest. An expert on regional conifers, Kauffmann was tapped to edit the script for a film on the redwood forest. He conducted background research for the scriptwriters and vetted the final product to make sure it was both understandable and scientifically accurate.

"What we wanted to do was re-image how science, technology and media can work together to educate, connect and inspire us to act as true partners with nature."

— JEFFREY WHITE
HSU BIOLOGY PROFESSOR,
CALIFORNIA ENVIRONMENTAL
LEGACY PROJECT EXECUTIVE PRODUCER

Kauffmann also brought extensive experience as an elementary and middle school math and science teacher—skills that came in handy while working on the Legacy Project. “It was a lot like teaching in the sense that I was taking complex scientific topics and making them digestible,” he says.

Recreating Marine Habitats at Telonicher

Another well-known collaborator was HSU alum Rick Rosenthal (’67, Zoology), an underwater cinematographer who has produced several natural history films for the BBC, PBS, National Geographic and Discovery channels.

Last spring, Rosenthal visited HSU for an underwater tank shoot at the Telonicher Marine Lab in Trinidad.Working with Scheerer and HSU graduate student Will Goldenberg, he recreated three natural habitats using tanks, fish and foliage provided by the HSU Fish Hatchery. Over the course of two days, they filmed marine wildlife found in Tamales Bay in Point Reyes National Seashore, tide pools and a coastal redwood stream.

Rosenthal utilized macro photography to capture a high level of detail on film. “By replicating natural environments in a controlled setting, we can film habitats and animal features we can’t otherwise access easily,” Scheerer says.

From macro-photography to specialized camera equipment, being on set with Scheerer and his crew means witnessing some of the latest techniques in natural science filmmaking. For example, in another shoot at Redwood National Park, Scheerer partnered with HSU Forestry professor and Kenneth L. Fisher Chair in Redwood Forest Ecology Stephen Sillett, who is internationally known for climbing and studying the tallest trees in the world. The shoot was part of a film exploring the unique biology of the redwood forest.

Scheerer and his crew worked closely with Spider Cine— a specialized rigging firm that builds custom cable and camera dollies for natural science films. The group’s chief engineer, Marty Reed, is also an equipment technician for HSU’s Department of Biological Sciences. For this particular shoot, they outfitted Sillett with a microphone, then filmed his ascent into the upper redwood canopy using a remote-controlled camera dolly.

Alum Tim O’Malley (’11, Theatre, Film & Dance) was the sound mixer on the shoot and he outfitted Sillett with a radio microphone. “The entire process was pretty crazy,” recalls O’Malley, who was monitoring the sound from the ground. “He’d be describing the features of a salamander on camera from a fern mat hundreds of feet up in the canopy.”

"By dubbing the podcasts, I am reaching California's large Spanish speaking population. That is one of the things that attracted me to this project—the ability to reach a wide audience through the power of film"
— MARTHA CARDONA ('13 M.S. Biology)

Tapping into Student Talent

O’Malley is one of a handful of recent graduates involved in the project. After graduating from HSU in 2011, he started Impact Productions, a pre- and post-production sound service company whose clients include eBay, Dove and the U.S. government.

O’Malley got his feet wet as an undergrad, helping Scheerer produce a feature film. But he credits his sound mixing skills to HSU Film Technician Steve Limonoff. “Both Steve and David have a great wealth of knowledge that I was able to tap into.”

On the Legacy set, O’Malley was the lead sound mixer, which meant knowing proper mic technique and placement. “It’s a lot like using different paint brushes for different environments,” O’Malley explains. Filming inside a reverberant house, for instance, is a lot different than filming in a wide, open field. And when it comes to nature, unpredictability is the biggest obstacle. “You might have the mic set up and then, cue the airplane or the chirping crickets. Unfortunately there isn’t something called a cricket filter.”

Another student who gained plenty of hands-on experience on the project was Goldenberg (’13, M.S. Wildlife). Since 2011, Goldenberg has worked as an assistant camera operator for all four cinematographers on the project.

In August, Goldenberg traveled with Scheerer to Lassen Volcanic National Park to record active forest fires. And during a recent trip to the Anza-Borrego, he hiked to a remote cave to film pictographs—or rock drawings—sketched by the indigenous Kumeyaay, people native to the southwest United States and northwest Mexico.

It’s been an invaluable experience for Goldenberg, who is pursuing a career in wildlife cinematography. “The opportunity to explore California’s landscape and learn the tricks of the trade from some of the most talented filmmakers in the business has been an amazing privilege,” he says.

Martha Cardona (’13, M.S. Biology) another graduate student, is also considering a career in wildlife cinematography. Cardona made the Legacy Project the subject of her master’s program. For her final project, she wrote, edited and produced two podcasts on the Anza-Borrego Desert. The first highlighted the area’s bighorn sheep and the other featured its frog and toad populations. Cardona, who grew up in San Diego, is planning to dub each media project into Spanish.

“By dubbing the podcasts, I am reaching California’s large Spanish-speaking population,” she says. “That is one of the things that attracted me to this project—the ability to reach a wide audience through the power of film.”

Connecting with Nature

Connecting people with nature is at the heart of the Legacy Project. This spring, Scheerer is offering an environmental media master class that will allow students to use raw footage from the project’s film archives to create their own short films and podcasts. No prior film experience is necessary.

For John DeMartini, HSU Biology professor Emeritus and scientific consultant on the project, the Legacy Project represents a possible antidote to “nature deficit disorder,” a popular term that describes mankind’s increasing isolation from the natural world and each other. “We’re not getting outside, we’re not interacting with living things in our world,” he says.”

And at the end of the day, that’s what the Legacy Project is all about, Scheerer says. “I think a lot of people somehow think of the natural world as separate from us. Our goal here is to remind people that we are all part of the wilderness we yearn to know and witness, and that the stories of these places are our story.”

Ascent into redwood canopy

ABOVE: Capturing a 200-foot ascent into the redwood canopy is a daylong process.

fish

ABOVE: Filmmakers used salmonid fries and other features collected from local rivers to recreate the habitat in the controlled environment of the Telonicher Marine Labortory.
BELOW: Filmmaker Rick Rosenthal (’67, Zoology) worked the California Environmental Legacy Project crew on filming marine habitats throughout the state.

Rick Rosenthal Filming in forest

ABOVE: Martha Cardona (’13, M.S. Biology) created podcasts about the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

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