How to Make a Documentary: Interview with Gary Yost

Moon rising over a radar station.

Gary Yost’s recent creative work has focused on Mt. Tamalpais, a mountain that dominates Marin County just north of San Francisco. Mt. Tam, as it’s known by locals, climbs 2574 ft (785 m) and offers sweeping views of the bay area and Pacific Ocean. Yost first received wide recognition while working as a fire lookout on Mt. Tam. His time-lapse video received a Vimeo staff pick recognition and currently has 167k views. Yost recently finished “The Invisible Peak,” a twenty-one minute documentary about abandoned military structures that continue to mar the top of Mt. Tam decades after a base closing.

Yost’s primary career has been in software development. He’s probably best known as the leader of the team that created 3DS Max, which he sold to Autodesk in the late 1990s. Since then, Yost has been able to devote more time to photography and filmmaking, which was his original passion.

Photographic Beginnings

Yost’s interest in photography began in high school where he first took photography classes and dreamed of being a photojournalist. After high school, Yost took classes at an extension college in San Francisco and did some work photo-illustrating books. However, he soon found photography wasn’t going to support his new family and he turned to programming computers for a living.

During this time, Yost had the good fortune to meet Ron Fricke three years before Fricke worked as DP for Godfrey Reggio’s groundbreaking “Koyaanisqatsi” film. Yost was able to tour Fricke’s machine shop and see all the rigs that would allow Fricke to capture time-lapse in a way seldom used before Reggio’s film. This experience put the possibility of time-lapse in Yost’s mind for over twenty years before he was able to begin shooting time-lapse on his own.


Move to Time-Lapse

In 2010, after nine years of shooting with various levels of digital cameras, Yost took a Canon point-and-shoot to his part-time volunteering job as a fire lookout on Mt. Tam. Over the next couple of years, he experimented with taking time-lapse shots of the Bay Area from the tower.

As frequently happens with time-lapse photographers, Yost found that his equipment wasn’t able to capture his vision and so he gradually upgraded to cameras capable of astronomical time-lapse. His current gear includes a Nikon D800, a Nikon D4, a BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera, an eMotimo TB3, a 6’ Dynamic Perception rig, and a 2’ Kessler slider.


Preparing for his Documentary

Yost uses what he calls “The Tom Sawyer method” of project management. He realized he couldn’t handle all aspects of production for “The Invisible Peak” and had to ask for free help because there was no budget. The number of “yes” answers he received speaks to his organizational talent and preparation–a local helicopter pilot donated his time and even well-known actor Peter Coyote lent his voice to the narration. Yost relied on StillMotion’s filmmaking book, “Know,” to learn how to write a treatment that he presented to friends and area residents in various fields in order to get help with 3D effects, narration, and music.

How Yost Promotes His Work

For “The Invisible Peak,” Yost sent out a formal press release to media outlets. He picked about 30-40 people based on their location or interest in his subject matter. For his other work, such as the fire lookout video, Yost said getting mentioned by a major blog can make all the difference. When Laughing Squid shared his video, writers of dozens of other blogs noticed and shared the video.

Milky Way over Mt. Tam

Where is the Future of Time-Lapse?

Yost feels that the majority of time-lapse videos on the internet today are in a rut of purposeless eye-candy. He finds even the prettiest four-minute videos difficult to finish because of the lack of narrative. Instead of stand-alone videos, Yost hopes time-lapse will gradually be integrated into classic storytelling methods by seamlessly blending with conventional cinematography. He feels this will allow storytellers to connect with their audience on multiple levels, both emotional and intellectual. This was his goal for “The Invisible Peak” and he points to inspiration from Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Ice” and Ron Fricke’s newest movie, “Samsara,” which use time-lapse to advance the story without getting bogged down in meaningless visuals. Yost says “these films go beyond using time-lapse as technical shtick and create a new genre of filmmaking. Instead of just beautiful images of bristlecone pines in the White Mountains, talk to the people who are trying to protect those trees or the scientists who are studying how air pollution is killing them. Rather than just beautiful time-lapse of the aurora borealis, interview the people who live with that phenomenon and find out how it affects them as human beings. Make time-lapse a part of the story of the world.”

Yost’s website:

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