As part of this year’s Independence Day, Disney+ will be celebrating with all six episodes of NatGeo’s latest documentary series America the Beautiful available Monday, July 4. With narration provided by Michael B. Jordan, viewers will travel across the North American landscape to see these precious habitats as never before. The show will be a first for a natural history series as they will be using cinema-grade cameras placed on fighter jets to take viewers on this incredible journey of breathtaking sights. We spoke with the series’ aerial cinematographer, Greg Wilson, about his experience shooting the impressive scenes featured.
Neil Bui: What was the first thing you ever filmed on camera? And can you remember what or why you filmed it?
Greg Wilson: The first thing I ever filmed were snowboarding videos of my brothers, 30 years ago or so in Vermont, on a little ski hill with my parent’s camcorder. That was not actually the start of my film career, [as] it didn’t really engage me in cameras at that point. We were just trying to get better at snowboarding at that time.
Neil Bui: Many kids want to grow up to be the next big action director. What drew you to this specific style of filming instead?
Greg Wilson: I’ve been a director of photography for about 14 years. And the type of work I have done, everything from documentaries to handheld commercials and real people, testimonials, projects on cancer and all kinds of different things, and then all the way up to a second unit action sequences for big, big Hollywood motion pictures. But I think working with a jet aircraft, the team building that goes into executing shots on the level that we were meeting on this particular program, I think was the best environment in filmmaking I’ve ever been in. It was an incredibly skilled group of people that are all the best and the best at what they do in, multidisciplinary environment and putting this group of talented professionals together: aviators, engineers, meteorological experts. And to approach the landscape and big weather and phenomena like the aurora, this was a very impressive ninja team of very skilled individuals and the camaraderie that comes from being in intense situations is where people thrive on focus. It was really special.
Neil Bui: How is the experience of filming live real aircraft compared to what audiences typically see in big Hollywood productions like Top Gun: Maverick?
Greg Wilson: I’m not gonna lie, I’ve seen Top Gun twice. I love the movie. I thought it was great. But I think the type of filming is very different. In an action sequence, if you look at the average time on screen that each shot is given. It’s maybe 1.5 seconds, 2 seconds. The pacing of the edit is so rapid-fire that for one it makes for a lot of high energy and a lot of action movies are like this. Fury Road, Mad Max, I think the longest time on screen for any given shot was 1.5 seconds. And I think the difference for how we approach our work is if you watch the show, you’ll watch shots that are 200+ miles long. So, we’re tying ecosystems together – from the plains south of Denali crossing over the top of Denali from 150 miles away. So those shots, to watch the development of, in the Denali shot in particular, the aurora borealis is up above us and we’re flying in the dark with an extremely high sensitivity camera and you can’t see the ground below you, it’s completely black, but the camera can pick it up and they’re flying just off instruments and the shot is about 45 minutes long to capture. And then what we do in post is speed that up 40 to 50 times so that you get to see the atmospheric behavior of the aurora and you get to see the motion and the transformation of the landscape overtime. Essentially what we’re doing is compressing space and time down so it’s in a digestible moment that would fit into an action type sequence. Maybe it’s not 2 seconds long, it’s now 8 seconds long, but you’re compressing this greater perspective of time into a shorter window through the power of movie magic. But it’s all captured on camera for real.
Neil Bui: On the topic of the America the Beautiful series, what was your favorite shot to capture?
Greg Wilson: There’s so many shots that are memorable for us. There’s one for me that was probably the most challenging from an operational standpoint as a cameraman. Some of these shots take about 30 to 45 minutes in real time to capture, some are 10 minutes, some are much shorter. But some of the longer ones [don’t] seem like the operation would be very challenging, but it’s a very controlled movement because if you’re moving the camera over 45 minutes or an hour, the amount of pan or tilt that you add into the input is gonna be magnified as you speed up the shot to let’s say 50X. Any bump or jostle is going to input into the camera as a visual hiccup. You have to think in slow motion as you’re working, and we call it ‘ants in the pants’ – where you want to fix something that you’re seeing, but you’re not allowed to because you have to think about the shot in this long enduring 30-minute time frame, so all corrections have to be done very carefully and very slowly. But I think the main shot was a climb up Denali. We started at about 3000 feet above sea level and climbed all the way up the glacier and then made a fairly rapid ascent up over the south buttress and then into a spiraling orbit that ended up finishing looking down on Denali with the sun beaming over the horizon onto the face and finished the shot at 25,000 feet. So, we had a 22,000-foot transition and altitude through air spaces through a significant amount of turbulence. We had a 60-knot headwind which turned into a cross wind which turned into a tailwind as we brought in our orbit. From a technical standpoint, I’m pretty proud of that shot, that was not easy.
Neil Bui: That’s incredible. It’s one thing to get great aerial drone shots, but it’s another skill entirely to curate them into an engaging, cohesive piece of cinema. Can you describe how you effectively fit all these puzzle pieces together so well?
Greg Wilson: My background is not for the most part in aerial cinematography. I come from a journalism background as a still photographer and then moved into motion pictures as a camera operator and then eventually as a director of photography. And when you’re doing narrative work, each shot has to build towards how ultimately the scene will be watched. You have your wide establishing shots, your mediums, your medium close-ups that all bring different flavors to the emotional nature of a scene. I tried to bring more of a traditional approach to how we would design a scene in natural history. I think it was a really nice opportunity to craft how we show a geographical feature or storm or phenomenon like the aurora borealis, to give the editor the opportunity to have all of these different types of shots that they could pull from and craft a really compelling scene.
Neil Bui: Going on both ends of the spectrum here, if there’s reservations you hold or things to be wary of, but also how far do you push the limits of capturing shots like this?
Greg Wilson: My team at V/SPEED work incredibly close together. We all spend a lot of time on the road together and they’re my family away from my family and we have a motto inside our operational team that we assess the risk, but we make it worth it. We make sure that everything is calculated, and there’s gonna be more thunderstorms, the Grand Canyon will be there tomorrow. If anybody is not feeling safe or up to par or somebody didn’t get a good night’s sleep, we don’t go. And the risks are there, but we calculate it, and we work with some of the best aviators in the world. One of our main pilots, John Flanagan is a TOPGUN adversary pilot, he’s a naval aviator, he flew the Tomcat that was in the first Top Gun movie. He was a F-16M driver as an adversary in the TOPGUN Fighter Weapons School. We fly with the best of the best and we approach it from a safety standpoint and also from a shot-making standpoint. We try to mitigate as much of the risk as we can and bring the margin up to where you teeter into where this is not safe, but we never cross the line and if anybody feels uncomfortable, we knock it off and we go again or we go home and it’s a no harm, no foul and everybody wants to come home. So, we push the risk. But we try to never, never exceed.
Neil Bui: That’s incredible. Thank you so much for spending time with me this morning, Greg. And speaking through the experiences of you as a cinematographer or DP as well as the experience working on America the Beautiful.
Greg Wilson: Neil, thank you.
Catch America the Beautiful from National Geographic on Disney+ starting July 4.
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