Television for Dummies

I don’t own a television. Never have. So it’s odd that I’ve occasionally become entangled with films for TV. I got a phone call once from a producer who was filming a series for the Discovery Channel about processes on earth that are bigger than mankind, things that humans shouldn’t be able to affect — like torrential rains at Hilo, Rhode Island sized icebergs breaking off of Antarctica, the silence of the Sahara desert. In retrospect, as we humans tinker with earth’s climate, I realize that the basic premise was flawed. Nevertheless…. 

Vikram Jayanti loved the Mojave desert enough to feature it in this series. He wanted to use the Mojave to highlight plate tectonics. He had stumbled onto a book I’d done about Death Valley. I’d written about right-lateral strike slip faults that rip this desert into ribbons, about thrust faults that grind it into confetti. Vikram’s always-fertile imagination was stirred by my description of the earth’s great plates swirling around like leaves on a pond. He called and asked if I’d like to meet him two hundred and ten feet below sea level at the Furnace Creek airport.

I wasn’t sure what would happen when I arrived. I didn’t know what film producers were supposed to look like. Vikram was standing next to his Mercedes as I taxied up, maybe six feet tall, blue jeans, a two-day stubble, and skin that bespoke origins in New Delhi and now a sunny life in Los Angeles. I shut down, we shook hands, and he began to ask questions about the geology of Death Valley.

Furnace Creek Fault Zone

I stood there, mostly mute, hands in my pockets. The stream of questions continued and all I could say was, “Well, get in and I’ll show you.” Vikram suddenly looked nervous. “Oh, no; that wouldn’t be possible.” Vikram the world traveler was scared of little old airplanes. After a string of ineffective protests, he eventually relented. Off we went, over the Devil’s Golf Course, past Bad Water and the Copper Canyon Turtleback. We marveled at the Split Cinder Cone and were reassured to reach the Confidence Hills. Soon Vikram had thrown his initial fears out the window and beamed as we overflew the bajada at Tucki Mountain and Cretaceous thrust faults below the Racetrack. We returned to Furnace Creek. Two hours had passed in what seemed like two minutes. Vikram, freed from the ground, knew that he had to shoot this film from the air.

For the next couple of months I commuted back and forth to Death Valley. Peter Pilafian was the cameraman. We filmed from a plane that Vikram had chartered down from Idaho. The Stationair sported a camera mount that allowed vertical adjustments while airborne. I was responsible for horizontal adjustments, made by pushing one or the other rudder pedals and turning the whole plane. Simple but effective. Sometimes Peter shot from the 206 as I flew alongside in my 180; the Buzzard became an on-camera icon tracing out the faults and folds we were trying to describe. The Cessnas chased around Death Valley’s peaks and down its canyons like two squirrels in a park. Fortunately Peter had a wrought-iron stomach. At the end of each day we would scamper back to the production trailer parked at Lone Pine, and look at high-definition dailies: beautiful aerial footage of the Panamint and Funeral Mountains, of sand dunes at Stovepipe Wells and cinder cones at Ubehebe.

Split Cinder Cone, Death Valley

Bill Deitrich, a world-class geomorphologist who teaches at Berkeley, was recruited to tell the film’s audience about Death Valley’s outrageous surface geology. Somehow Vikram also talked me into standing in front of the camera, one embarrassed foot planted squarely on top of the other. I had been trained in structural geology, so I was supposed to talk about subsurface processes. Bill and I immediately hit it off. We raced around, examining the valley from our two fundamentally different perspectives. The crew, tongues hanging out, tried their best to keep up with us. But all good things must end. The film was wrapped up and the crew disappeared. It aired on the Discovery Channel and on Japanese Public Television. For a while, insomniacs could occasionally watch it during the highly prized three-to-four am slot on local stations. The reruns haven’t seduced me into buying a TV yet.

A BBC crew once wanted footage for a different TV show about Roden Crater, James Terrell’s masterpiece. Mr. Terrell is quite the story in and of himself. He flew Helio Couriers for Air America around Vietnam and its neighbors in the mid-60s. Since then Terrell has become an artist of international acclaim who paints with light. Most recently he built a solar observatory deep within Roden Crater. A steep V-shaped notch exposed the heart of the cinder cone. The BBC had asked us to take a look, so the film’s director rode with Terrell in a friend’s Beaver; I followed in the Buzzard with the cameraman.

Roden Crater, Arizona

We circled the crater, filming for a while. Then Terrell, unprovoked by enemy fire, dove for cover into its center. I followed, watching in disbelief as he flew wings-flat through the notch, either tip not ten feet from the cinders. Not me, buddy. I was too chicken for that kind of flying. I flipped the Buzzard on its side and howled through the notch with wings pointing staight up and down. The cameraman, every bit a Brit, was unconcerned. Nosirree, none of that crazy flying for us. Terrell has since filled in the notch and completed the observatory. At his invitation I did later land on its rim once, but certainly not twice. That would have been pushing my luck.

In the late 1990s, the BBC also wanted to do a film about Grand Canyon. Mike Burkhead flew from London to Arizona on a scouting trip, and immediately climbed out of the 747 and into the Buzzard. Roger Henderson had rented a Skylane; together we showed Mike and his crew the Grand Canyon region which expanded to include the entire southern half of the Colorado Plateau. By then, well-deserved restrictions were in place to keep noisy pilots like me outside the Grand Canyon. To be honest, the film never was very well focused.

A three day tour had been arranged. Trucks met us at Piute Canyon where we scrambled into thousand-year old Indian ruins, and at Bluff where we 4Wheeled down Comb Wash to the San Juan River. Over the Kaiparowits, I found a straight stretch on the Smoky Mountain road and landed. As the tail settled, I realized that eager-beaver graders had cut a two-foot berm on either side of the twenty-foot road. We walked out and looked over the wild country that extended across Lake Powell and back toward Grand Canyon. Then, in order to take off, I broke out the shovel and carved a turn-around for the tail.

I asked Roger to stick right on my tail as we flew along the north side of Navajo Mountain. We were two X-Wing fighters dodging Darth Vader and forces of the Empire as we screamed down Oak Canyon. Over the radio I gave a running commentary on alcoves filled with Pleistocene sand bars, visible only by looking up from the bottom of the canyon. I noticed that my front seat passenger was being repeatedly strangled as the concerned person behind him alternately stood straight out against the front seatbelt and then curled into a foetal ball. Oh dear, another man mistakenly convinced of his own mortality.

Oak Canyon, Utah

The scouting trip was enough fun for one lifetime, but it didn’t hold a candle to the actual filming. Since it’s neither considerate nor legal to fly within Grand Canyon, I suggested the gorge of the nearby Little Colorado River. A riverrunning friend had fashioned an impromptu camera mount that would keep a forward-looking camera clear of the propeller’s arc. I picked up Richard at the Flagstaff airport. We landed somewhere near Shadow Mountain so that, alone, I could try out the camera mount. I told Richard to walk east a couple of days to reach Highway 89 if I didn’t come back. The mount seemed fine, so I landed again, this time attaching his camera. Suddenly my plane’s value had increased by about an order of magnitude. I switched the fuel selector to the right tank to counterbalance the camera’s weight. We duct-taped a 3″ camera monitor to my yoke and away we went.

Burkhead’s film called for footage within a canyon if not the Canyon. Richard and I gently dabbed our toes into the Little Colorado gorge. He seemed comfortable, even trusting, so I stuck my whole foot into it. The gorge is eight hundred feet deep, maybe a thousand feet wide in places. Less in others. Our ten mile corkscrew runs required almost constant banking, 90 degrees right, 90 degrees left, right, left. Course reversal involved a sustained pull on the yoke which briefly stood the Buzzard straight up before it arced over and shot straight toward the bottom, now heading in the opposite direction. At the weightless top of one hammerhead turn, just even with the rim, I sheepishly waved to a Navajo man sitting on the edge. Richard just kept filming, grinning like a madman.

Little Colorado River Gorge below Cameron, Arizona

I swear, those Brits are made of stern stuff. The real test of Richard’s mettle came when we ran out of gas. After more than an hour of exhausting flight, we were fifty feet off the canyon bottom when I asked if he had had enough. He said yes so I started to climb out when the motor coughed and died. I swear to god. In a micro-second I a) clicked into survival mode and picked out a Hail Mary path between the boulders, b) shared a commmon look of deep concern with Richard, and c) switched the fuel selector back to both tanks. The engine immediately roared back to life. I exhaled enough to fog the windshield. Richard slapped me on the back. He should have punched me out.

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About Michael Collier

I had the good fortune to be given five mentors early in life. John Running shared his love for honest photographs. Chuck Barnes showed me how to think like a geologist. Chris Condit, bless his soul, taught me to fly. Walt Taylor will always be the most effectively caring physician I could ever imagine. And Wesley Smith, that night above Crystal, taught me how to pray to the river. My thanks to you all.