Archive for the ‘On Location’ Category

Wind Cave Antelope

August 13th, 2012 by Chris Wheeler

“Oh My, Look!”

We had just completed filming an interview at Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota.  I was at my car with Gus Yellow Hair, a Lakota Sioux who I had just interviewed about the Lakota’s spiritual attachment to the Black Hills.  Turning around, we witnessed a large animal moving not away from us, but towards us.  Fifty yards away was a large male pronghorn antelope.

I’ve tried many times to get good footage of pronghorn.  You may see them along the road, but the moment you stop and try to get footage, they quickly gallop out of sight.  Usually all you can get is a shot of their white behind.  But this time, the pronghorn was walking confidently along a slight ridge line that separated Gus and myself, and camera assistant Justin Koehler and Gerard Baker, another Native American who we were preparing to interview.

The antelope was magnificent, walking like a proud warrior – confident and with absolutely no fear.  For a few seconds, everything seemed to be in slow motion.  Things unfolded slowly enough that we were able to look the antelope in the eye as he moved towards us.  Finally, the beautiful animal strutted by, crossed a dirt road, then broke into a muscular trot down the hill.

Smiles broke out on all of our faces as the reality of what we had just witnessed began to sink in.  Moments earlier, Gus and his seventeen-year old daughter Tianna had sung a song for our cameras that spoke to the Lakota’s attachment to their sacred Black Hills.

I’ve been fortunate to have been telling stories about America’s Native peoples for more than 20 years.  It’s long enough to not be surprised when wonderful things like this happen – long enough to understand that what happened this day in the Black Hills was no accident.

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April 15th, 2011 by Chris Wheeler

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,

My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;

The flames shall not harm thee; I only design

Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

How Firm a Foundation, Verse 5

We recently wrapped production of our new interpretive film for Shiloh National Military Park.  The 35-minute film will graphically and emotionally tell the story of the Battle of Shiloh. Fought in southern Tennessee in April 1862, Shiloh has often been called “The Gettysburg of the West.” Before Shiloh many in North and South naively thought one grand battle could end the Civil War. In two days of horrific battle, Union and Confederate casualties numbered over 20,000.  That’s more than the wartime population of Atlanta.  The carnage at Shiloh signaled not an end to the war, but in fact a bloody beginning.  Antietam, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and other battles with terrible casualties would soon follow. The “fiery trial” of America’s Civil War had indeed begun.

Shiloh Superintendent Woody Harrell suggested using “How Firm a Foundation,” a song written in 1787, to provide the “foundation” for our musical score.  The beautiful hymn was sung at the funeral of Presidents Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and other famous Americans.  It was also a popular song during the Civil War.  Its words poignantly describe the “fiery trials” many soldiers felt during the war.  Ironically, its words can also be used to describe our own trials with the production of this film.

On Saturday, March 26th, we awoke to our biggest fear.  Lightning flashing across the early morning skies. Thunder booming like artillery. Rain coming down in torrents.  The forecast: severe storms and heavy rain for the next 18 hours.  For over a year, we had been planning the reenactment of the Battle of Shiloh.  More than 350 reenactors had traveled from all parts of the country to southern Tennessee to participate.  Our crew, support staff and park staff numbered an additional 150. Every detail had been taken care of. And now this.

Bill Rambo, the commander of the reenactors, rightly told us that we’d have to stand down because of the lightning.  Reenactors wielding 5-foot rifles would be nothing more than lightning rods during the storm.  After a couple hours, the rain and lightning seemed to subside.  The men came out of their tents and traveled to our shooting location deep into the woods of Shiloh.  When all were in place to begin filming, the heavens opened up again.  Reenactors scrambled for shelter in tents and a bus used to transport them. This frustrating scenario would repeat itself numerous times throughout the day.  The storms would let up long enough to offer a glimmer of hope.  But by the time we were ready to film, the next wave of severe weather would move in.  Exposed in the cold rain, our production crew worked desperately to keep all of our electronic equipment dry.  Any attempts to keep ourselves dry proved fruitless.  After a while, you just accept the fact that you cannot get any wetter. For the reenactors, it was even worse. We at least had rain gear. They wore period uniforms of wool, now drenched in rain. Simply put, it was miserable for all

Somehow, we were able to get some scenes done, yet not nearly what we had hoped.  But in the spring storm was a silver lining.  During the Confederate approach and retreat to Shiloh it had stormed.  We were able to film compelling scenes of this during the heaviest rain of the day.  The Confederate withdrawal scenes were particularly solemn and compelling.  As the reenactors filed past our cameras the only sounds were the clanging of weapons and squashing of boots in the mud.  Our crew and other observers watched in awe. For a few brief moments, it’s as if were transported back in time to April 1862. After the battle, a New Orleans newspaper wrote, “After Shiloh, the South never smiled again.”  The rain and mist provided perfect conditions to capture this sentiment.

The next day, March 27th, the storm had passed but was replaced with bone-chilling cold and heavy winds.  At Pittsburg Landing, the wind gusted at 30 mph off the Tennessee River.  Reenactors and crew huddled in the 35-degree temperature.  The calendar said spring, but this felt like a winter day in Tennessee.  Through it all, no one among that 350 reenactors, the Park Staff and 100 crew and support staff complained.  The reenactors soldiered through the trial with the dignity and toughness of those whose lives they portray.

Our shoot had one heartbreaking casualty.  Duke, a beloved horse of reenactor Kevin Gray, died of head injury.  During our first night at Shiloh, Duke was kicked in the head by another horse.  After refusing food for a day, Duke began to eat and seemed to be on the road to recovery.  But upon our return to Denver, we received terrible news.  On Monday, Duke was found lifeless in the pasture.

To Kevin, Duke was more than a horse.  He was family.  In a thank you note to the many who offered condolences, Kevin wrote:

“Anyone who ever rode Duke will testify to the fact that he was probably the most gentle and reliable horse they had ever ridden. He just minded his own business and never bucked, never threw anyone, never balked at flags or drums or bugles or swords. He trusted me that whatever I asked him to do, he was going to be OK.  I never thought twice about putting a little kid or someone who’d never ridden before on Duke as I knew they’d be safe.”

Our second – and final shoot – of the Battle of Shiloh happened 10 days later. Thursday, April 7 dawned clear and warm – the opposite of what we had experienced on the first shoot.  We were set up to shoot in Peabody Woods, scene of some of the heaviest fighting at Shiloh.  This day was also the 149th anniversary of the battle.  Unit Manager Tyler Young texted me, “Bus is on the way with 40 reenactors.”  It seemed like things might finally be going our way.  Then my phone rang. It was Tyler.  “There’s been an accident,” he said.  The trembling in Tyler’s voice signaled something was terribly wrong. Accident?  How could there possibly be an accident at Shiloh Battlefield of all places?  The speed limit is 25mph and most who come to visit drive slower than that.

Unfortunately, locals often use the Battlefield as shortcut to get wherever then are going.  On this morning, a grandfather and his grandson were apparently doing just that, using the battlefield to get to a fishing spot. Driving through the park at speeds in excess of 50 mph. the driver ran a stop sign and slammed into our bus full of reenactors.  Miraculously, the car struck the bus in the perfect spot – on it’s rear tire which served as a giant cushion.  We shudder to think about what may have happened if the car had struck the bus in any other area.  The impact could easily have rolled the large vehicle.  Only one person on board was injured, Larry Williams who was sitting above the tire.  Larry went to the emergency room with back and leg pains, but being the soldier that he is, returned to Shiloh that afternoon for filming.

The grandfather and grandson in the other vehicle were not nearly as lucky.  The impact smashed the front end of their pickup, totaling the vehicle.  Neither was wearing seats belts.  The young boy suffered a broken femur and concussion.  He was airlifted to a hospital in Memphis and is expected to make a full recovery.  His grandfather suffered more serious injuries. Fortunately, several of our reenactors on the bus were also paramedics.  They struggled to keep both stable until emergency teams arrived. Many witnesses felt the grandfather would have died at the scene if our reenactors had not been there to administer first aid. The injured man was transported to a hospital in Savannah, Tennessee where he underwent surgery.  Last we heard, he remains in critical condition.

The rest of the shoot went smoothly – thankfully.  After the accident, the shaken reenactors showed up at Peabody Woods.  I considered cancelling the shoot for the day, but the men seemed willing to proceed as planned.  In a strange way, filming the scenes this day seemed somewhat therapeutic.  It was nice to focus on 1862 rather than 2011.

As difficult as our “fiery trial” had been, the reenactment was a sobering reminder of why we were at Shiloh Battlefield.  One hundred forty nine years earlier, the very ground where we stood was littered with dead and wounded.  Young men in the prime of life from the North and South gave the ultimate sacrifice for a cause they believed to be just.  Putting it into perspective, our trials were minor compared to the suffering of the soldiers of Shiloh and their families.  The difficulties we have had as producers serve as an inspiration to create a film that honors the sacrifice and memory of those who fought at Shiloh.

Chris Wheeler

P.S. For some great photos taken by Justin Koehler, go to:


Winter at Crater Lake

February 24th, 2011 by Chris Wheeler

I have filmed in all 50 states and have been fortunate to see some of the most beautiful spots in America.  But few places have affected me as the first time I saw Crater Lake.  Located high atop the Cascades in southern Oregon, Crater Lake National Park preserves one of the deepest and cleanest bodies of fresh water in the world. Great Divide is currently producing a new interpretive film for the Park.

Most National Park sites elicit ‘oohs’, ‘aahs,’ among visitors.  Some even bring out a   ‘wow.’ Crater Lake, however, stuns you with an unequivocal ‘gasp.’  It is a sight that truly takes your breath away.  Most beautiful lakes sit at the bottom of a valley with vistas from miles away.   Crater Lake sits atop the Cascades at 8000 feet.  There are no views until you are right on the rim, confronted with one of the most beautiful vistas of the National Park Service.  The sight of the lake is almost a system over-lode. Your brain tries to process the massive circular lake, the jagged rocks of the caldera, the stunning peaks encircling the lake, and most of all, the Technicolor ‘blue’ of Crater Lake’s water.  It’s almost too much to process at one time, hence the ‘gasp.’

We filmed at Crater Lake in July and September. But nothing could prepare me for seeing Crater Lake in winter. Being from Colorado, seeing large amounts of snow is no big deal.  But Crater Lake gets 528 inches annually.  That’s  44feet!!!  Snow is on the ground almost every month of the year.  So it was with excitement – and some trepidation – that I went to film Crater Lake in February.

My timing was perfect.  The forecast was for a major winter storm.  The closer I got the Park, the higher the drifts on the side of the road.  Arriving at the Visitor Center was an unspeakable site.  The two-story log and stone structure was buried in 100 inches of snow.   The snow reached up to the second floor.  The administrative building next door was surrounded by a 15 foot drift.  Meeting me was Ranger Dave Grimes, an eight-year veteran of Crater Lake.  I called him ‘Dave’ but soon realized that to everyone at Crater Lake, he is simply “Grimes.”

“Grimes” is middle-aged, slight in build, and balding.  At first impression, he seems more inclined to be wearing a lab coat in Silicon Valley than being a ranger in one of the harshest environments in the lower 48.  But alas, Grimes would prove me wrong.  During the past summer, I went on a ranger-led boat tour of the lake that was hosted by Grimes.  His interpretive presentation of Crater Lake was flawless, delivered with expertise, inspiration and just the right touches of humor.  When Grimes’ presentation was over, the 30+ people on the boat broke into a spontaneous, heartfelt applause.  Grimes is everything that a ranger with the National Park Service should be.

On this snowy February day, Grimes had volunteered to help me get footage of the winter storm as it slammed into Crater Lake.  The road encircling the lake closes for the winter.  So, the only way to see the lake is by cross country skis or snowshoe.  Grimes had both his snowshoes on before I could even tighten my first strap.  He then offered to carry my tripod, thereby becoming my newest best friend (Note; Anyone who carries my tripod is my newest best friend).  Grimes then took off into the wilds of Crater Lake National Park, effortlessly gliding through four feet of fresh powder like a snowshoe hare.  Meanwhile, I trudged behind, slipping up mounds of snow, then tumbling down the backside – and onto my backside.  (Note to self: do not try to walk backwards in snowshoes).  Grimes patiently waited for me as I huffed and puffed to catch up with him.  Despite the temperature being 18 degrees, I was perspiring profusely.  Grimes had barely broken a sweat.

We finally made it to the rim for a view of the lake.  There was only one problem.  At this moment, there was no view.  Clouds from the approaching storm had completely enveloped the lake.  Grimes mentioned that on most days during the winter, Crater Lake is socked in by weather and is not visible.  Then, wind gusts up to 40 mph, began whipping up the snow.  It was hard to tell if it was snowing or just blowing.  Probably, it was a combination of both.  It’s a humbling, frightening, yet exhilarating feeling to be in the midst of such a powerful natural display.  The wind howled through the trees so loudly that Grimes and I could not speak to each other without yelling.  For Grimes, it was a special and rare experience. Most of the time, he is answering visitors’ questions that range from “Why is the water so blue?” to “Where is the rest room?”  On this day, he could simply “observe” and take in the raw power of Crater Lake without interruption.

As Grimes and I withstood the winter storm, we looked skyward and observed a faint blue break in the clouds, almost like the eye of hurricane. With in minutes, Wizard Island, a large cinder cone in the middle of Crater Lake, appeared like an apparition.  Soon after was a site I could hardly believe.  The clouds had broken enough to see the opposite shore of the lake, some six miles away.  Rays of sunlight hit the snow-covered rocks of the caldera just above the water line.  Within the fury of the storm was this silver lining – a literal silver lining of Crater Lake. Grimes, the ranger who has seen it all in his eight years at Crater Lake, looked at me and nodded in approval.  After a minute, the ‘silver lining’ vaporized into the winter sky.  Once again, the winds began to howl.

Chris Wheeler

Great Divide Pictures

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A Bad Day Turned Good

December 18th, 2010 by Chris Wheeler

A week before Christmas I journeyed to the Black Hills of South Dakota to get winter footage for our new film being produced for Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Only on this day, the weather was not cooperating. While the rest of the nation is being clobbered by snow, it looks like summer in the Black Hills. Though the temperature hovered around zero, the sun shone brightly with no snow on the ground.  My hope was to get gloomy winter shots to help convey the Lakota’s sacred Black Hills being seized by the US government in 1876. It wasn’t looking good.

My plan was to drive along the Needles Highway, a Scenic Byway in the Black Hills that goes through stunning rock formations. I arrived at 8am only to see a gate closed across the highway. A worker told me the highway was closed due to helicopter logging in the area. You have got to be kidding.

I drove up an old logging road looking for vistas, but found none. Logging roads usually lead to nowhere. I should have known better. But it was then that my luck began to turn.

I turned at Highway 244 towards Mt. Rushmore. Across from the monument is a beautiful view of the Black Hills. It didn’t look like winter, but about 20 miles in the distance, I could see a band of thick fog surrounding the Hills. I descended the vista and in a matter of minutes, the landscape was magically transformed. The fog had frozen onto the trees and grasses, creating a frosty landscape that seemed to be frozen in time.   Everything was coated in a spectacular coating of ice. I kept thinking of “the Moon of Popping Trees,” a way the Lakotas describe the cold winter period of December.

I traveled through the Black Hills, lands the Lakotas call Paha Sapa. In 1874 gold was discovered in these sacred lands. The discovery ignited a dramatic chain of events that would lead to the Battle of Little Bighorn two years later. I stopped to get shots, and continued on, looking for buffalo. I saw none but came about something better.

Stopping in Wind Cave National Park, I noticed a large bird atop a cottonwood tree about a quarter mile away. I knew right away it was a bald eagle. Bald eagles can be very difficult to film – they are very sensitive to human presence. Two days earlier in Wyoming, I stopped to get a shot of one ¼ mile away, only to have him fly away as I was putting the camera on the tripod.

I slowly and quietly extended the tripod, locked the camera on and began filming.  Although far way, I was able to get a decent shot. I decided to push my luck and edge further about 50 yards. The eagle stayed put. Again, I edged further. The eagle did not fly away. Before I knew it, I was standing right next to the tree, getting fantastic close-ups.  The eagle was one of the most beautiful raptors I have ever seen. His head was bright white, while the rest of his body was covered with a thick coat of jet-black winter feathers. I was so close, you could see the pupils of his eyes as he scanned the landscape.  At a couple of points, he looked directly into my lens.

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