The silent beauty of the vast prairie landscape in the Grasslands National Park is the focus of a new documentary that premiered at the Swift Current Museum, Jan. 23.
The Story of Grasslands National Park is the 12th video in the museum’s documentary series Stories from Saskatchewan's Great Southwest.
Local production company Overtime Studios has produced all the videos in the series, which was started in 2012.
Overtime Studios President George Tsougrianis directed the new documentary. Its duration of almost 30 minutes makes it the longest in this series.
“This one for me was a real attempt to do a really in-depth documentary,” he told the Prairie Post. “Not to take away from the other ones, because the other ones are all special in their own right, but the other ones are usually much shorter and not nearly as involved in terms of the story elements, plus the shooting, the editing, all those things.”
One of the reasons for the length of this documentary is the extent of the story it is telling. It includes the area’s prehistory and First Nations inhabitants, the arrival of settlers and ranching activities, and how the dream of a national park was realized.
“I wanted it to be a certain length so that I could pitch it to others,” he said. “One of the things I want to do is to enter this in film festivals and I want to also try to see if I can sell it to distributors. So half an hour for me was important, because especially to get it on television it’s got to be 30 minutes essentially.”
He is hoping this documentary will be distributed internationally, because the unique landscape in the park will be of interest to a broader audience.
“We should be playing this in Europe on television, we should be playing this in the United Kingdom, because those are the people that are going to find this incredible and fascinating,” he said. “Everybody around here would probably find this interesting, but not like the people from outside the country.”
This was one of the largest projects undertaken by Overtime Studios. It was produced over a six-month period from June to November, and there were seven visits to the park to shoot footage.
“Each visit was several days,” he said. “Different visits had different shooting days, but there was never one day that I just went down for shooting. It was usually a minimum of two days that I was down there and sometimes more, depending on what I was doing.”
Interviews were conducted with local historian Thelma Poirier, Shelly Duquette Larson of Grasslands National Park and Royal Saskatchewan Museum palaeontologist Dr. Emily Bamforth.
Val Marie nature and wildlife photographer James Page was a creative consultant for the project, and his knowledge of the park and the wildlife was of great value.
For Tsougrianis some of the most memorable moments happened during wildlife encounters. He got within a few metres of a rattlesnake while shooting footage of a conservation officer handling a snake, and he was thrilled to see moose in the park.
“It’s just wonderful to try and capture the animals in their natural habitat without them even really knowing you’re there,” he said.
He felt the use of aerial video footage of the spectacular landscape in the park added another dimension to the documentary, but it also presented a challenge to ensure there is a seamless integration of this footage in the storyline.
“It makes sense that we’ve got to have aerial in this, because this is where you’re going to have the spectacular footage, but it can’t be 30 minutes of drone footage,” he said. “It’s got to really work to elevate. So for me one of the best parts in the whole sequence was when we transitioned and it’s literally going off the cliff and it’s going up, up, up. For me that’s one of the best moments of the film, because it really transitions both thematically and with the music and just the subject matter. I just remember having goose bumps when I watched that when it was done.”
The aerial footage was provided by Todd Tumback, the owner of Stealth Talon Aerial Photography and Video in Swift Current. The Grasslands National Park is a no-fly zone for aerial drones and he had to obtain a special permit.
“We had to tell them the locations where we wanted to fly and then they gave us permission,” he recalled. “They sent a staff member along with us to oversee the whole project. It was very cool. They were such nice people, very knowledgeable about what goes on at the park, and it was a great experience, the whole thing.”
This was one of his top projects since he started his business almost three years ago. It was a unique opportunity to work in an area that is normally off limits for drone pilots and he spent two days in the park to record the aerial footage for the documentary.
“So it was very valuable footage for me and a great experience working with a very experienced cameraman and videographer like George,” he said.
His goal as a drone pilot is to “hunt and grasp” images that will be useful for his client and to provide a perspective that nobody has seen before.
“In that instance down in Grasslands that was pretty easy to do, because they don’t allow a lot of people to look from that view,” he said. “It was nice.”
He had to be careful at one location, because the metal inside a large hill made it difficult to control his drone.
“It actually interfered with my aircraft in ways that I’ve never seen happen,” he said. “So I had to steer way clear of it. That’s why all my aerials of that giant hill are from a huge distance, because it kept me safe. I had to stay well-away from it, because the iridium inside it makes it like a magnetic field.”