It is almost June on Swan Lake Flat, a vast expanse of sage and juniper at 7,300 feet in the northern end of Yellowstone National Park, and John Shier is crackling with energy. His knee jitters like a cold-turkey smoker's, accompanied by a staccato of snapping bubble gum. The fiercest winter in more than a decade has come roaring back to the northern Rockies for Memorial Day weekend, erasing the high peaks and burying the tender shoots of young grass under drifting snow. The wind howls as we sit in Shier's jacked-up 4x4 utility van in a pull-off along the park road, a hundred grand in digital-film equipment packed in the back. Shier scans the swirling emptiness with a pair of ultra-high-definition Leica binoculars, cursing under his breath. "Where did she go?" he asks. "Goddamn nothing out there."
Shier is in Yellowstone for four weeks to film a segment for Untamed Americas, a series debuting this spring on the National Geographic Channel. He's on a tight shooting schedule, and the weather is making Shier's already difficult job nearly impossible. In recent days dozens of cars and RVs have slipped off the roads between here and Old Faithful, and a rock slide has cut off an immense corner of Yellowstone from the outside world. The snowpack is so deep that hundreds of bison have turned to park roads for their migration, backing up traffic for miles.
Shier is here to record, in high-def glory, a species interaction that has rarely been captured on film. Each spring Yellowstone's grizzlies descend from their high den sites to dig up the caches of ground squirrels and eat fresh grass on the lower slopes. At the same time, herds of elk follow the green spring growth up the valleys from their winter range in Montana, the pregnant cow elk looking for a good place to birth their calves near their summer pasture. As has happened for thousands of years, bear and elk converge on Swan Lake Flat, and the newborn calves, unable to outrun the grizzlies — who can run up to 30 mph — become the bears' main course. The elk hunt occurs only a couple of weeks each year and often in places out of sight of where Shier is filming. The bears aren't hunting for the cameraman's benefit, so a huge number of variables have to converge to get a shot. "You can see a bear one minute," Shier says, "then it'll walk behind a tree and disappear for hours." Shier has 20 days for the shoot and can't spare a single one of them. He sets himself an unrelenting pace: 5 am to 9 pm every day. If something happens, he plans to be there to film it.
With the rising popularity of Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and a host of National Geographic offerings, viewers have come to expect an ever-increasing degree of closeness to the violence and poignancy of wild animals' lives, with little sense of the colossal amount of work that goes into capturing those images. "Very few people ever see a grizzly chase an elk, let alone catch one," says Shier. "To be able to film that is asking quite a bit."
The bear he hopes will be his main subject is a female grizzly nicknamed Quad Mom. She gained her name, and considerable fame among bear aficionados, by spending the summer of 2010 hunting the flat with four adorable cubs in tow, including a runt named the Nub that would sometimes ride on her back. The grizzly and her cubs have been spotted up here on the flats, but the snow is keeping the majority of the elk herd down in the meadows below the snow line. Shier hasn't seen Quad Mom for two days and has been obsessively scanning the flat since sunrise, looking for a sign. "They're out there hunting all day, relentlessly," says Shier. "We have to have the same patience to get the shot."
Shier is among a new generation of cinematographers who are elevating wildlife documentary far beyond the Disneyfied reels of the past or the sensationalist theatrics of many new shows. He takes inspiration from the dreamlike visions of art-house recluse Terrence Malick and the unnarrated abstractions of nature seen in films like Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi. He has filmed around the world, from Mongolia to Tasmania, from the Andes to the Canadian Rockies, but his most important work has been here in Yellowstone, the 3,472 square miles nicknamed the American Serengeti. Shier was a principal cinematographer for 2009's Yellowstone, the BBC's three-hour special on the park, and his best sequences reveal a vision of nature that is both intimate and majestic. A pack of wolves harry a bull elk in an icy creek. Bald eagles fend off a skulking coyote from a carcass. A red fox dives for mice in deep snow. On a scree slope, a mother grizzly battles a larger male that threatens her cubs. Time-lapse shots reveal storms boiling up in valleys, shadows gliding past Yellowstone's striated peaks, steam skirting across its innumerable thermal features. It is hard to watch and not feel utterly awed that such a wilderness still exists, the caldera of a still-active supervolcano, teeming with extraordinary creatures.
Shier is a burly 33-year-old with close-cropped brown hair and bright blue eyes; his upturned nose and broad features give him a somewhat ursine appearance. Unlike his omnivorous subjects, though, Shier is a strict vegetarian. He grew up in Wisconsin and now lives with his wife, Sara, and two young daughters in nearby Livingston, Montana, an hour from Yellowstone. After a stint at a software company in Seattle, Shier got a master's degree in natural-history filmmaking at Montana State. His first film, edited by Sara, was shot in Yellowstone over a period of three years with a camera borrowed from school. Unable to afford campground fees, he would leave the park each night and sleep in his car with his dog, wet and miserable. Each day he'd rise in the dark, make coffee, and stalk the grizzlies from the park roads until nightfall. The grueling routine taught him the near-obsessive persistence and superhuman patience required to successfully film wildlife. One astonishing shot of his, never before filmed, shows a brash young grizzly attempting to bring down a wounded bull elk. His filmmaking career was launched from that project, and a fortunate disaster derailed a brief foray into filming weddings: At his first and only gig, he drove away from the reception with the wedding tapes on the roof of his car, returning the next day to find them fluttering, unspooled, in a ditch.
Grizzlies are, he claims with all the eager sincerity of a young boy, his "favorite animals." He sees them as ferocious survivors, a living connection to the boundless prehuman wilderness of the Pleistocene, when woolly mammoths, giant beavers, and saber-toothed cats shared their landscape. Grizzlies survived to the present with a combination of aggression and wits but now exist only at the mercy of our protectionist whims. "Grizzlies have been wiped out from 99 percent of their original range," he says. He talks animatedly about a pre-American continent crawling with Ursus arctos horribilis from the Mississippi to the Pacific. "Imagine 30 grizzlies feeding on a whale carcass on Venice Beach," he says. "Today the only grizzly in California is on the state flag."
Shier's assistant cameraman Dawson Dunning pulls up next to us in a beat-up green Jeep Cherokee with a cracked windshield. Dunning is 28, sporting a camo hat and a goatee, with a quiet drawl. He's a fifth-generation Montanan, the son of a rodeo steer roper who still operates a 2,000-acre ranch. Dunning is an experienced hunter whose skills play well on a shoot. "He's an amazing spotter," Shier says, and he'll often shoot second angles with a smaller camera. The weather appears to be clearing for the afternoon, and Shier decides we should scout the area where Quad Mom and her brood were last spotted. "Of course, ‘last known direction' when talking about bears is completely useless," says Dunning. But there are few other options.
Shier and Dunning divide their camera gear into packs. The tripod alone weighs 20 pounds. Shier shoots with a Red One, a cutting-edge digital-cinema camera designed by Jim Jannard, the billionaire founder of Oakley sunglasses. His lens, on loan from National Geographic, is a $50,000 Canon capable of fully framing a bear from 120 yards out and capturing a chase from as far away as a half-mile. We strap snowshoes to our packs and canisters of pepper spray to our belts. Shier chuckles as I carefully read the instruction label on my pepper spray, which contains a compound a thousand times hotter than a jalapeño that can stop a bear charge from 30 feet. "If you have to use your bear spray, it means Dawson and I have already used ours," Shier says. I offer to just toss mine to him and curl up in a fetal position. Despite spending thousands of hours filming grizzlies, Shier has never had a dangerous interaction and never needed to use his spray. He's extremely careful to maintain a safe distance; ideally the bear is unaware of his presence as he films. The killing of two tourists in grizzly attacks over the summer — the first such occurrences in Yellowstone in 25 years — underscores how cautious Shier must be as he works.