Every summer, a million or more salmon swim from the ocean up freshwater streams and rivers, including those in Alaska’s Katmai National Park.
For travelers, it's the chance to witness one of Mother Nature’s fascinating phenomena. For filmmakers, it’s the chance to capture an iconic shot: fish leaping right into the mouths of hungry brown bears.
“That sounds easy,” said Brad Ohlund, director of photography at MacGillivray Freeman Films. “But it takes so much work to get that shot.”
Ohlund offered his behind-the-scenes insights on filming the salmon run at Katmai, where he, assistant camera operator Nick Savander and photographer Mark Emery dug in for days to capture the experience. This is one of many incredible scenes that will appear in a giant-format film about America’s national parks. And like all masterpieces, this shot came together with time, planning and just a little bit of luck.
There are no roads into King Salmon, Alaska, the town closest to the park. There are definitely no roads into Katmai itself. That means all the equipment required to make a giant-format film about U.S. national parks had to arrive by commercial plane, then float plane.
That was the easy part. The bigger challenge? Trying to film with a slow-motion, high-definition camera while camping out in the wild.
“Our slow-motion camera shoots 400 frames per second, and the files are huge,” Ohlund said. “Every night, Nick had to fly back to King Salmon and stay in a hotel to download all the data. The warm bed sounds nice, but he didn’t get much sleep. He had to wake up every couple of hours to change cards, and then he had to get back to us to help shoot every morning.”
There’s a lot of heavy lifting involved, too. Every day, each team member hauled around 32 kilograms of gear anywhere from 16 to 19 kilometers from location to location. Camp carts certainly came in handy.
So did the team members’ knowledge of bear encounters. They wanted to see plenty of bears — from a distance — when they filmed at Brooks Falls in the heart of the park. They ended up seeing some closer than they would have liked.
“We ran into one, maybe a 600-pound [272-kilogram] bear, coming down the trail right toward us,” Ohlund said. “He looked like he was considering us for lunch. But we started making noise and breaking branches, and he went the other way.”
Capturing this iconic shot of a grizzly bear catching a salmon was no easy feat. But to the MacGillivray Freeman Films crew, it was worth the trouble.
When the filmmakers first arrived at Katmai in August, they were met with discouraging news: There weren’t many fish this year. And because there weren’t many fish, there weren’t many bears.
But Ohlund has learned the value of waiting in his years as a filmmaker. By the fourth day, things started to look up for the team.
“Everything came together, and we shot for hours,” Ohlund said. “We got any number of shots of fish jumping into bears’ mouths and swimming up these small waterfalls. It also happened to be sunny that day, so everything was perfect.”
That perfection comes from patience, Ohlund explained. If you want to get the right shot, you have to spend hours with your eye in the viewfinder just waiting and persevering, and ignoring the tricks your eyes and mind start to play.
“When that magic moment happens, if you’re not perfectly composed and focused, it’s all been a waste,” he said. “The day we got those shots, it was incredibly satisfying.”
See this and other spectacular scenes of the U.S. great outdoors in the film America Wild: National Parks Adventure: Presented by Expedia and Subaru, in theaters around the world in 2016.