A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings In Oregon: Local Filmmaker Aaron Moffatt Is New and Old School, All At Once
Local filmmaker Aaron Moffatt both has a foot in the “old”—as is, the thousands-years old nature—and the new—as in, virtual reality. He is currently filming and producing a series of virtual reality films about butterflies to be used for school curriculum. Although often remote in the wilderness, he caught up by email to answer a few questions from the Messenger.
Rogue Valley Messenger: How did you start working with film? Do you remember how you were first inspired?
Aaron Moffatt: Years ago when I attended Ashland Middle School, there was a program called WAMS – Watching AMS, run by Rick Shaw. (Please look up more about this program if you can, as it was quite an extraordinary thing). Through this program, students took part in each step of producing a morning TV show and broadcasting it to every classroom in the school. In my eighth grade year at AMS, I was (unwillingly) put into this class as part of an arts rotation. I wasn’t excited at all about learning to make videos. But it would turn out to change the direction of my entire life and career path.
RVM: How did you start making “nature films”?
AM: As a very little child, my parents would take me—in a backpack—to the different wilderness areas of southern Oregon and northern California. As I got bigger, I began to carry my own backpack. These early years introduced me to many places throughout the Klamath-Siskiyou mountains. Through this time, PBS was one of the 4 channels available to watch on the TV it my house. I ended up seeing many, many PBS nature documentaries. When I was older, I wanted to see a documentary this quality made about the Klamath-Siskiyou, which are scientifically treasured for the combinations of lifeforms here, but are rarely seen to the wider public eye. This obscurity has left them vulnerable to many forms of extractive exploitation.
This was the beginning of my journey to create such a documentary with the resources I had available.
RVM: In the film “Klamath” that I saw there were both soaring aerial shots as well as underwater filming. It seems like an exciting time to be a filmmaker with all of the different cameras and technology available.
AM: Yes! The Klamath mountains are challenging to capture on camera. They are not like Yosemite or Glacier park, with drive-up sunset views of high, rocky tetons. While they do have their own granite batholiths and sparkling subalpine lakes, that is not what these mountains are about. They are about the contrasts—the dark eerie forests woven together by tiny streams and very old rivers. Poison-oak ridden canyons, by winter, too cold and soggy to pass; and in summer, too bitterly hot. But the life that survives here despite being well beyond or fathomable human comfort zone – that is what this place is about.
These things are very hard to illustrate with a camera, but the advent of reliable, portable drones with high quality cameras gave me the ability to share glimpses of these mountains and rivers, and how they fit together. Many of these shots were literally impossible to get two decades ago.
In regards to underwater video—again as a child, each summer I was mesmerized by the world beneath the surface of a stream. My parents and I would spend our summers hiking as far as we could up beautiful little rivers. And at each riffle and deep pool, we would dive in with a mask and snorkel to see what was there. Sometimes a school of young trout. Sometimes three-foot salmon lingering in the shadows 20 feet down.
RVM: You also are a violinist? Are these completely different disciplines—or is there crossover?
AM: All the art forms share something very deep down in common between each other. I can’t say what that “thing” is, but a vibrating violin string, a well composed painting, a good film transition, the microcosm in a handful of soil, the nanoscale structures of a butterfly wing—all share something. And while we can’t define it, we can feel it when we hear it.
RVM: Favorite documentary to recommend?
AM: The first documentary I saw when I was a teenager that changed how I viewed documentary, adventure, and what you can capture with a lens: Chasing Ice.
RVM: Favorite blockbuster film?
“Batman Begins.” The beginning of the Marvel “in the beginning” films.
RVM: What is the goal for the films?
I want to give children the ability to see into a world we physically cannot with our own human senses. And I want them to be able to take that and do something beautiful and life-changing with it, much like how Rick Shaw did when he gave me the chance use a video camera for the first time.
We live next-door to one of the world’s most pristine and biodiverse ecoregions—the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains—but our schools have limited resources available in their classrooms to teach their students about the dynamic ecology here.
In these films, I am combining my work in Virtual Reality/VR technology as well as film. So far, hundreds of hours have been spent out in the field with a slow motion camera, capturing the world of pollinators at their own timescale, because when you can see a butterfly or bee slowed down five or even 10 times, you can begin to see their personality. You see their grace (and clumsiness) in a way which you cannot when we see them at the timescale we experience the world at.
At the same time, I have also been working with a partner specializing in 3D laser scanning. We have used this ground-based LiDAR technology to take 3D photos of forests and meadows. Photos, which in a VR headset become something like an impressionist painting – which you can walk through.
Together we are working on the first steps to combine these 3D photos and traditional slow motion video to share a bigger picture of how the whole microcosm of a forest or meadow fits together.
I hope for this to be just the introduction in a long stream of cinematically produced and education multimedia. In turn, I hope most of all that our work helps inspire upcoming generations to venture into the outdoors with a magnifying glass.
Ultimately, I hope that students will be the future producers of these films.