David Fortney is one of the world’s most distinguished nature cinematographers. His footage has appeared in major films such as An Inconvenient Truth, Fahrenheit 911, Naqoyquatsi, The Last of the Mohicans, Tree of Life, and Voyage of Time, and he won an Emmy for Cinematography for his work on Timeless: A National Parks Odyssey.
To welcome Fortney to the Pond5 Select collection, we paid him a visit at his home in Port Orford, Oregon, where he showed off his customized camera stabilizer while filming on the beach. Fortney built the rig himself, which is no small feat, given how well it works. Check out the video below to hear him describe his rig and technique.
From Drafting to Film
Fortney’s first foray in the visual arts was in the field of mechanical drafting. He branched out from there to oil painting and sculpture, enrolling in the Art Institute of San Francisco to hone his craft. Eventually, he wanted to add the element of motion into his work, his first thought being to become an animator. However, he found the process to be painstakingly slow and arduous, with lots of investment for little payoff. This is when he decided to pick up a camera.
Young Couple Mountain Biking on Pacific Ocean Beach, Oregon by David Fortney
“I started with macro cinematography, producing fields of abstract color, then started doing macro in nature — flowers, plants, and dew drops focused so close that the background dissolved into blurred fields of color. Then I started shooting landscapes,” he recalls. “What really inspired me to get into shooting were films like Koyaanisqatsi. Every trick and creative use of the camera was in that film. It was incredible.”
After finding inspiration in Godfrey Reggio’s cinematic masterpiece, Fortney then looked to more traditional narrative films as well. “I was also inspired by films like Days of Heaven, Badlands, and The Black Stallion — films that showed how you can tell a story without narration in your face all the time; scenes that were told with action and reaction.”
Desert In Bloom by David Fortney
These productions inspired Fortney to study film, and he gradually realized what it was he wanted to capture. “My first films in film school tried to convey what it’s like to be in nature, something very visceral,” he explains. “The main theme was man’s relationship with nature. In film, you shoot the main action and cutaways, and I found that I enjoyed shooting the nature cutaways more than the main action. So I decided to just shoot nature instead of subjects. Nature is intrinsically beautiful. The North American National Parks are the jewels of the continent — they showcase the most beautiful scenes of nature.”
“What I feel I try to convey is a sense of freedom, expansiveness, going beyond the internal thought process that we’re caught up in all day long. You go out to the beach, the mountains, the forest, and there’s a sense of expansiveness there. To be able to provide that on film for people who can’t get there, it’s a real thrill.”
Arrival of the Steadicam
The ’70s were a very exciting time in filmmaking. Many innovations and groundbreaking works were happening, not the least of which was the introduction of the Steadicam. “I love the idea of motion and camera movement, and I’ve always been most impressed by long dolly shots and Steadicam cinematography,” says Fortney. “A huge inspiration for me was Bound For Glory, which was the first film in which Garrett Brown’s Steadicam was used extensively. There’s a famous shot where the Steadicam moves through a homeless camp, a very long take, with continuous movement of the camera revealing different aspects of the camp.”
Garrett Brown operated his new invention for Haskell Wexler, ASC, on the film, and in the aforementioned scene, Brown steps off a 30-foot crane after it descends to show the camp, and follows David Carradine’s Woody Guthrie character, revealing different aspects of the camp over the course of the 2:15 minute shot. (You can watch the clip here, but please pardon the video quality.)
Redwood Forest with Fog and Sun Rays, Redwood National Park by David Fortney
“I went out and took a Steadicam course, but the Steadicam at that time was very expensive and I couldn’t afford it, so I built a makeshift rig,” explains Fortney. “I hung my Super 8 camera from a cage and suspended it with a backpack, and that’s where it started. I refined it over the years — I had a 35mm Eclair on a rig, which was backbreaking, given that you have counterweights for the camera, the batteries — it was extremely heavy. Eventually, my job got easier over the years, as I made the transition to using a digital SLR for filming instead of a heavy 35mm camera.”
Stream and Spider Web in Morning Mist, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming by David Fortney
“I started off by using a Steadicam knockoff, the Glidecam, and it worked okay, but it was incredibly heavy with the articulating arm, and all the weight in front of your body,” says Fortney. “It torques your back incredibly, and you get the classic Steadicam back pain right away. So I gave that up and just built my own. I’ve made at least a dozen different incarnations of stabilizers over the years.”
As he explains in the video, “I always thought that the POV camera move, with the camera moving forward, especially with the ultra-wide lens — that sense of movement and motion is captivating. It draws the audience in. I figure, you’re rolling film, you have this device which will capture movement, why not use it? To me, a camera sitting on a tripod is a lost opportunity.”
To see more of Fortney’s amazing work, explore his full Pond5 collection »