Production Journal: March 27, 1995

The scent of volcanic fumes is still in my nostrils but the memories of production from the lava fields of Kamoamoa is being to fade like the setting sun over Mauna Loa. The Big Island is an incredibly beautiful place, although its twisted, burnt-out lava flows offer a counterpoint to the fern forests and groves of flowering trees. And even those terrible flows have a weird sort of beauty. But overall, working on a lava field is not something you want to do again right away.

Our biggest problem was also our advantage: the dynamic quality of the lava field. The flows were not like rivers or even springs; they broke out here or there in scary little rivulets, without warning, and closed over just as quickly, sometimes a few minutes later, sometimes not for a few hours -- it was impossible to say. The day of the major breakout after production began, I had a conversation with the park ranger who receives an overnight satellite photo on which the flow is identified. He told me, the flow has stopped. At that moment it was, unknown to him, gushing out of the hillside and heading straight for us.

But taking advantage of the flows meant we had to get to one which would still be flowing when we needed it for the program; we had to move cameras and sound crews and scientists around in a complex choreography that was not easily altered without risk of being caught without a camera operator when and where one was needed. So we could not just cut to the lava whenever it was good. And a flow might crust over in minutes. It made it impossible to use machines like the lava crane, which took too long to move, or even the Little Dipper, which was semi-portable but still took some fine-tuning to get near enough to molten lava. The idea that these devices could be set out along on the field to operate independently by telepresence was predicated on a stable point of entry -- a skylight. And there were not any of them in range.

The two weeks was filled with acts of individual heroism and incredible accomplishment by the crews. Working out on the flows with ground surfaces at 130 degrees F, terrain about right for a mountain goat, and not a lot of help from the command center (the walkie-talkies had a hard time functioning in the lava field. Did you know that lava sets up a huge magnetic field all its own? Enough to block signals in all kinds of unpredictable ways, and it changes all the time as the lava moves. We were in an invisible but nearly impenetrable electromagnetic fog the whole time)-- even under those conditions the crew held everything together and threatened every day to "melt the lens" --get in so close to a shot of lava that it might just do that (and guess what that would do to the operator?) One day we had a small bench collapse, just enough to set up larger than usual plume at the end of a show; Bob commented on it. But Bob Nesson ran right toward it and set up shots right there, in it. You never saw it--the results were pretty much just clouds, and it was impossible to tell what it was-- but he was there in case it would work for us. That is what the crew did every day, went out and got the best shots they could, regardless of the difficulty.

I know Tom Zannes was harnessed into the chopper when he was hanging out to shoot Bob's intro, but it was still heart-stopping when the Director cut to his camera and it was swinging wildly. Tom was supposed to reach into the chopper and throw a switch to turn on the infra-red camera at that point. What was happening was he could not get back inside the cabin; he was essentially hanging by his harness outside. He could lunge close enough to hit the switch but would then be tossed out again by the gyrations of the chopper. He kept hitting the wrong side of the switch, and I could hear the Director saying, Tom, that is the wrong camera, throw it the other way, Tom, can you hear me? No one in my area was breathing as we watched the struggle and tried to figure out if Tom was in big trouble or worse than that. Eventually, of course, he regained purchase on the airframe and got inside and the show went on without comment. I had to ask Tom myself what had been happening; for him it was all in a day's work. He was a little embarrassed that he had missed his cue.

But I guess the highlight of the trip for me was catching carnivorous caterpillars with Steve Montgomery, and actually catching the first one of the hunt! Working with the scientists was right up there with working with the fabulous crew that gathered to make this mission a success. I think I said in a previous entry that there is an element of adventure, of exploration in such a production. Some people might think that is like the adventure of jumping off a cliff or something. I don't mean that at all. The fact is, it is the adventure of learning that is most important--it is only the new knowledge and the pleasure of gaining new knowledge that is thrilling. And we all learned a lot. Being able to share that experience makes it even more sweet.

Thanks for reading.

Tom Newman

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