America's most spectacular regions, the mountainous Northwest, the steamy South, the arid West, and the endless Heartland.
America The Beautiful Series, narrated by Michael B Jordan, had an incredible team of cinematographers. A few of these filmmakers share their personal experiences while capturing the natural wonders of one of the most diverse continents on Earth for National Geographic and Disney+. Watch America The Beautiful series on Disney+.
Episode 1: A Land of Heroes
Cinematographer Greg Wilson of VSPEED talks behind the scenes on the aerial cinematography and new perspectives captured of North America's most spectacular regions for Disney+ America The Beautiful Series.
"Cinematography to me is finding a balance between the reality of what's unfolding in front of you and the impressionist vision of how that subject exists in your imagination. It’s about being fully engaged in the moment, yet allowing space to stand back, witness the magic in that moment, and react accordingly.
“For an image or shot to be successful, I believe it's critical to deeply understand what it is you're filming in the first place. Our tight-knit team’s use of groundbreaking tools on America the Beautiful enabled us to get physically close to our subjects, moving through space and playing with the compression of time to generate entirely new perspectives. However, launching the jet towards one of our subjects, like the tornado sequence in Episode 1, is the last part of our process.
“We only fly after we’ve done a tremendous amount of research, planning, and calculating not only for exactly the right conditions and the best light but to do it safely. Our approach and crew’s decades of combined experience in aviation, cinematography, and meteorology allow us to put the camera in the right place at the right time to do justice to the subject. This process created the environment for VSPEED and Wild Star to present the iconic American landscape and its big weather systems in a completely new way." -Greg Wilson, Aerial DP
Episode 2: Waterland
Father/ daughter duo Tom and Pheobe Fitz share their wild experiences while working together on location.
“It doesn’t get much better for a freelance wildlife cameraman to be assigned a glossy Nat Geo film to work on with your daughter on the team too. Phoebe and I spent a ton of time in the water for this one, and for me, one of the highlights was being on my rebreather for the manatee sequence. Though in usually less than 10’ of water -easy snorkeling depth- I was able to lie on the bottom for hours at a time and emit no bubbles, so the manatees seemed to forget I was there altogether. This provided me with really close and intimate filming opportunities with my RED HELIUM in the housing, as the manatees appeared to simply forget that I was even there.” - Tom Fitz, Wildlife Filmmaker
“Manatees are very curious, friendly creatures, so we got to see a lot of fun behavior in the month we spent with them in the Florida Springs. The springs are an amazing place to work — their crystal-clear water is where most of Florida's drinking water comes from. I was camera assistant to my father Tom, shooting stills while he filmed on his HELIUM.
One of the funnier moments of the shoot was when one manatee became fascinated with Tom’s rebreather. The troublemaker kept trying to turn the green O2 valve off, which I think makes Tom one of few people who can say he’s been almost murdered by a manatee! Thankfully we were right at the surface, so I could safely film it and laugh.
‘We’d attempt to keep a low profile while filming, but every once in a while, a manatee would come over from out of frame and try and eat whatever particulate had landed on our wetsuits. They also loved playing with our high-vis orange vests. This area of the Florida Springs is a popular tourist destination, so we wore vests to signal that we were allowed to dive to the bottom.” - Pheobe Fitz, Wildlife Filmmaker.
Episode 3: Northland
The Northland episode includes Tom Ross’s once in a lifetime brown bear picnic while filming.
“America has such a diverse landscape, and I was lucky enough to be posted to the “Northlands” an area of outstanding beauty with snowcapped mountains, crystal clear glacial rivers and a host of curious creatures.
I spent a month filming brown bears cashing in on the great sockeye salmon migration, an event that’s integral and vital to the ecosystems and native communities around Iliamna Lake, Alaska.
“This was my first time filming brown bears and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of trying to understand and work with a pair of young cubs learning to fish on one of the rivers. Due to COVID-19, these youngsters hadn’t experienced any negative human impact from conflict or hunting that occurs in the area we were working in. Something that is unfortunately common. There’s something about a pair of clumsy fluffy little bears play fighting and learning to catch salmon terribly that even when your waist deep in freezing water can still make you warm inside and grin enormously whilst your head is buried in the EVF.
“I was also lucky enough to experience what was described as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to film a congregation of large bears feasting on a washed-up whale carcass. It was truly something to see so many bears migrating to and from this whale carcass from far and wide. At one point it was just myself filming 9 bears feasting on the carcass, with individuals demonstrating friend-like communication and contact towards one another. I never expected huge males to be so gentle and friendly towards one another like I saw, between them demonstrating a higher complexity of bear society than I imagined.
During the period of filming, I had two cameras on location, armed with the HELIUM on the long lens setup and GEMINI on the gimbal.” -Tom Ross, Wildlife Filmmaker
Episode 4: Wild West
From the giants of the ocean to the incredible macro honeypot ants, Kyle McBurnie and Alex Jones share their experience while shooting.
“There aren’t very many places in the world where mother whales seem to actively encourage their calves to interact with humans, which is why the gray whales of Baja California are such amazing animals. The whales in these bays were aggressively hunted 150 years ago, making the fact that they’ve re-learned to once again accept human interaction all the more special. Here, a mother has nudged her young calf gently towards our panga, allowing the young calf the time and space to inspect both the camera and ourselves, eventually hanging around for roughly 5-10 minutes before moving gently on with the flow of the tide. Shot using a custom polecam with HELIUM in a GATES Deep Housing.” - Kyle McBurnie, Wildlife Cinematographer
“Filming desert birds and insects over the course of 2 years is absolutely amazing and full of adventure. Our road was completely washed out from flash floods and before coming back after the repairs, we off-roaded deep in the canyons to try and find another filming spot. I loved pausing in the middle of the shoot to just step back and see that I was alone in the desert for as far as I could see and watching stunning animal behavior. I was using my RED HELIUM to capture high-res macro and long lens footage.” - Alex Jones, Wildlife Cinematographer
Episode 5: Heartland
Shooting in one of the most extreme places on Earth, cinematographers Chema Domenech, Dawson Dunning and Justin Maguire share the natural diversity and extreme conditions they experienced shooting on the heartland.
"Working on the Heartlands Episode of America The Beautiful was a unique opportunity to film some of America’s most iconic animals like never before using RED HELIUM. Whether it was witnessing a burrowing owl family raise eight chicks, following along as a red fox hunted, or filming aerials of a bison herd as a thunderstorm approached, our experiences ranged from the intimate to the grand. In particular, a shoot that stands out was filming bison with Dawson Dunning in the coldest depths of winter. One afternoon I stood at the edge of a meadow as a blizzard moved in, the bison herd appearing and disappearing as snow squalled around us. Sharing these moments with wildlife keeps me anxiously awaiting the next opportunity in the wild." - Chema Domenech, Wildlife Cinematographer.
“Filming across all the episodes on this series provided me with so many memorable wildlife experiences, but the out-my-backdoor shoots with the Great Plains wildlife, which I’ve come to know so well living in Montana, are still some of my favorites. I was particularly excited for the opportunity to be the first to put a RED HELIUM integrated Shot Over Systems M1 on a Yellow Stone Expeditions snow coach and capture winter red fox, bison, and wolf material with Chema Domenech over the course of two years. These deep winter shoots were important in establishing the dynamics between these Heartland icons, bridging intimate character behavior with scenes of the species interacting. I’ve filmed each many times before, but I never tire of witnessing them cope, survive, and thrive in some of the coldest and harshest conditions in North America.” - Dawson Dunning, Wildlife Cinematographer
"There were two particular moments that stood out to me while shooting America The Beautiful. Capturing the mass aggregation of gulls along the Niagara River in winter was tasked to me. Mostly the weather was heavily overcast and grey, but on one of the few sunny days long lens images captured with a RED GEMINI and drone aerials provided that captivating, cinematic, otherworldly view of the falls backlit with a flurry of gulls, giving a normally familiar site a fresh sense of scale, grandeur, majesty and a feeling of an imagined fantasy landscape that might’ve been painted.
“Secondly, I was tasked to film dolphins off the coast in the area of Los Angeles using a RED HELIUM in a Shot Over System M1. After weeks of filming, one particular day we happened to have that perfect moment when the dolphin pod, were lined up with the famed Hollywood sign - what an opportunity to get a two-shot! It made me acutely aware of how closely our human lives are lived so closely to that of wildlife and the natural world." - Justin Maguire, Wildlife Cinematographer.
Episode 6: Brave New World
Working alongside the human heroes fighting to preserve America’s wildlife and wild places for future generations, Director Rob Sullivan shares his experience working on the closing episode of America the Beautiful with cinematographer Andrew Thompson.
“The key message of the ATB conservation film is that anyone can make a difference, they just need to care. I loved working on ATB Brave New World. We filmed with a wonderfully diverse group of people from all backgrounds and ages. Highlights were releasing a new herd of bison onto the northern great plains with the Chippewa Cree people and looking for panthers and bears in the Florida swamps. As this is a sync-led people film we chose RED RANGER due to its sound capabilities. It performed excellently in a huge variety of challenging locations, from frozen Alaska to steamy Florida and salty California. It was my first time using a RED as a proper docs camera rather than blue-chip wildlife, and I was extremely happy with the images. So happy in fact we’ve just been using the RED RANGER & GEMINI again on a shoot in India with tigers.” - Rob Sullivan, Senior Producer & Director
Thanks to the team at National Geographic and Disney for allowing RED to showcase this story.
A special thank you to all the cinematographers for America The Beautiful for countless hours of filming different types of weather, animals, landscapes, and ecosystems and driving better awareness and understanding of protecting nature.
JP De Lespinois