Introduced by Herb Shellenberger
HD video, 29'
Mountain Fire Personnel is an experimental documentary that explores a wild fire near an evacuated mountain tramway in Southern California. Using amateur footage, internet media and professional camerawork, the film surveys an area occupied by firemen and California State prisoners.
Herb Shellenberger: Let’s talk about the genesis of the film. From what I understand, the first part of the production involved you going along with the crews up to the mountain station and observing their work. How much did you research mountain fires before making the film?
Alex Tyson: The decision to make the documentary was very much on the spot. The night before I shot the film, I was researching Eden Ahbez, the exotica musician. He lived in some caves near Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, CA. I found out that a huge fire was breaking out there. I figured that it might be interesting to shoot these caves if the area was on fire. So I called the Fire Department to ask about area closures. They told me to go to the Aerial Tramway in Palm Springs, which is tourist cable car that goes up a huge mountain range, above the clouds. It was almost like an order that I decided to follow, for some reason. When I arrived the next morning, the Tramway was closed and teams of firefighters were loading in. There were a few TV News cameramen there, so I just started shooting. At that point I realized that I was filming State Prisoners who were there to do manual labor.
After the TV guys left, I stayed there and started shooting a crew of State Prisoners. I filmed them working, and their makeshift camp at the mountain station, which is normally a tourist visitor center. I didn’t conduct any interviews; it was just observational filmmaking. We went out on hikes to ‘remove fuel from the fire’ and to make way for a medical evacuation. Later I befriended some prison guards and ate dinner with them and the prisoners, and continued to shoot. I set up an area to offload my footage and sleep. I was essentially kicked out of the park the next day when the Forest Service realized that I was just a regular guy and not from a TV station.
HS: So after the initial rush, you sourced the other media that you edited in alongside your footage. Perhaps you can explain why you actually chose to use these images and what you think placing them in this different context does to them, or illuminates about them?
AT: Sure. I started ripping these videos about a week after the fire was contained. I found the YouTube channel of John McDonough, who is the man spraying water on his roof in the beginning of the film. Shortly after that, I realized that this type of footage was just as important than the footage that I took. It almost became a preservation/archival effort at that point, trying to track down all of the available media of the fire. As soon as I found something, I would rip it, add metadata and try to get clearance. Some people were impossible to contact or identify; and it was common that I would find something great but it would inexplicably be gone after a few days. So this feeling of urgency to preserve the footage also shaped the structure of the film.
The final work contains about 30 different sources of media. Most of the videos were narrated by people, citizen journalist types. Others were more anonymous: ENG footage, GoPro cameras from firefighters and paramedics, shortwave radio reports, NOAA Satellite Imagery, Weather monitoring webcams, etcetera. There was also a man who recorded a hummingbird feeder amid the smoke in his backyard. When I found that video, I thought that it was the most sublime footage in the world. So that process of discovering new media shaped the edit in a free-associative way.
My footage was narrow in that it was only one snapshot of a particular area and timeframe. The other media helped illustrate the scale of the fire, which was huge (27,531 acres / 11,141 ha). All these different sources enabled me to organize the film chronologically and spatially beyond my own direct experience, and to construct something that appears linear with elements that are not. The found media was also more journalistic in nature compared to mine, which was strictly observational. So my editing approach became democratic. It felt like I was putting together a compilation of sorts—like one of those supercuts you come across while surfing YouTube.
HS: Watching the film, I can imagine that most of these images that you use were created for informational purposes, but they're transformed in the overall context of your work. This might mirror the way that mountain station is transformed from a tourist location to the base camp for the fire crews.
AT: I never thought about that connection—cool. The footage I took of the prisoners had pretty a bizarre duality in itself. Seeing these inmates roam somewhat freely in a nature preserve, feeding squirrels and handling chainsaws and axes and things. The implications of this subject matter was hard to explain up front, especially with the audience not being familiar with the location. So I used footage from a DVD that I bought at the Tramway gift shop, which was like a promotional documentary on the history of the company. The DVD was actually playing in the background in some shots as the prisoners were walking around, so it became an edit point. There is a lot of visual ‘mirroring’ like that going on in the film.
HS: There's a strange humor found in the film overall, definitely in the Tramway promo but also in large part a carryover of the excitement of the found media producers. Even though they're dealing with an environmental catastrophe, we can feel a palpable giddiness behind their cameras. Did you want the viewer to get a sense of this in relation to an otherwise serious topic?
AT: Yeah—glad you noticed that. There are some funny moments in the source footage. Most of it is nervous laughter. I wanted to keep those little bits of dialogue. It seems as though documenting the status of the fire was a comfort to some people. Some YouTubers were making little weird reports while waiting to be evacuated. Others, like the guys in the delivery truck, were narrating an action-comedy, in my interpretation. I love the idea that humor can play into and compound the absurdity of these events.
HS: Across different media, your work broadly deals with the interaction between the natural environment, the human body and technology. Data Garden—an arts group you co-founded—held bio-reactive sound performances and released albums of “plantable music” on printed seed paper. You worked on Gasland (dir. Josh Fox, 2011) which illustrates how fracking irreversibly damages the environment and the humans exposed to its effects. Mountain Fire Personnel focuses on these same three fundamental areas as well, and I wonder what you hope to convey to your audience specifically about their (bodily) relation to the environment and technology through this work?
AT: I wasn’t necessarily trying to impart a theory or value on the audience for this work. The film intentionally gives the audience very little “information”, as to create the same conditions that were present during its’ creation. I was recreating my initial discovery of the event IRL, coupled with the internet’s discovery in staggered time. Who shot and uploaded this media? Why? Where, when, and with what tech? How many views so far? One might conclude that these demographics make up their own “natural environment”. Ultimately the film itself is just another piece of media created during the fire. And I say that not to debase the work, but to consider it within the egalitarian framework of the internet. It will eventually get uploaded to YouTube. I hope that someone rips it.
Directed & Produced by Alex Tyson
Camera & sound recordingJohn Martin, San Bernardino County Fire Dept., Jack Peckham, Idyllwild Fire Protection District, John Mcdonough, Corene Buck, Jon Bernard, Alex Tyson, Mike Cirrus, Heidi Cronshagen, Ray Vreeland, Hans-Werner Braun, Brett Houston, Jeff Carter, Donald Put, Philip D. Poulsen Jr., Frazier Drake, Nicholas Mitchell, Chad Mills, Earl ElPerfecto, Bill Gould / TemeculaCalendar.com, Kenny Hassan Irwin / Microwave Show
Herb Shellenberger, Associate Producer
ScoreTroy Herion, Music for the Radio, performed by Crash EnsembleJeff Witscher, Excerpts from Rene Hell: Meclu & buf. valueAlex Tyson, Electronics
Additional mediaExcerpts from Building On A Dream, courtesy of and copyright © 2002 Palm Springs Aerial TramwayImages created using the ESA and NASA funded Helioviewer ProjectNOAA Satellite ServicesHPWRENSan Diego SuperComputer CenterGoogle Earth
Thank youCalifornia State Prisoners, CalFire, Apache Hotshots, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Jesse & Justin Moynihan, Danielle Davis, Tom Carroll, Kyle Roper, Nicholas Kalikow, Robert Aikens, Matthew Sanchez, Josh Fox, Brent Kiser, Emily Eddey, Jared Dyer, Dorothy Dubrule
Legal services provided by New Media Rights. Additional counsel provided by Donaldson + Callif, LLP.
© 2015 Syntax Error Group, LLC