TheThings recently had the opportunity to talk with Thomas and Shasta Winston, the husband and wife filmmaking team of Grizzly Creek Films. Among the other talented crew members, Thomas and Shasta worked hard to capture breathtaking imagery of Yellowstone National Park and tell the incredible story of what one of the world's most famous national parks is really like from the point of view of the residents who know it best - the animals who call Yellowstone home.
"Epic Yellowstone" is a four-part series that premiered on the Smithsonian Channel. For those who enjoy documentaries about Mother Nature's finest, you surely won't want to miss "Epic Yellowstone." It's as if this amazing park kept a diary and allowed the world to peek inside. We thoroughly enjoyed having the chance to speak with the creators of this heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, four-part series.
TheThings (TH): How did you come up with the idea for this series?
Thomas and Shasta Winston (T, SW): After nearly a decade of filming in Yellowstone for other projects, we were presented with an opportunity to tell this broad, in-depth story in a multi-part series commissioned by the Smithsonian Channel. We jumped at the chance! In these four films, we’re able to feature the diversity of Yellowstone, to tell a story that spans seasons, and to show how this ecosystem doesn’t end at the boundary of the national park.
TH: Actor Bill Pullman narrates. How did the actor become involved in this project?
T, SW: Bill Pullman has long-standing connections to Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He taught at Montana State University in the 1980s and he owns a ranch not far from Yellowstone National Park. He graciously agreed to narrate our series. We’re lucky to have his enormous talent and his genuine knowledge of this place as part of the project.
TH: The series features and follows many of Yellowstone’s residents, such as bison, bobcats, ducks, swans, muskrats, foxes, and river otters. Do you have a personal favorite, and why?
T, SW: It’s hard not to get attached to any animal that you spend hours filming, whether it’s a 600-pound grizzly bear or a tiny bluebird. But the real wonder of Yellowstone is its intact ecosystem, one of the last of its kind on the planet. That means that Yellowstone is still home to all of the species that thrived there hundreds of years ago, before America’s westward expansion and the species and habitat loss that ensued. The chance to document complex interactions between the species is what makes filming in Yellowstone so exceptional.
TH: In the series, we learn that during the winter season, most of Yellowstone’s roads are closed with snowmobile access only, and less than 1% of the park’s visitors are willing to brave the frigid temperatures. What makes it worth it to those in the 1% who visit the park in the winter?
T, SW: A winter visit to Yellowstone is a chance to see the park in what might be its most dramatic season. It’s a time of extreme contrast. Heat rising from the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone meets the frigid air, creating otherworldly scenes. Winter is also a surprisingly good time to observe Yellowstone’s wildlife as any movement is more easily visible in the vast fields of white. For example, packs of wolves move across the valleys, driven by the hunt. Otters, rarely spotted in the summer, fish in the last open pools on the rivers. Trumpeter swans from across the Rocky Mountains congregate near geothermal springs.
TH: How long did it take to compile this incredible footage?
T, SW: Our team of cinematographers filmed in the Yellowstone ecosystem for more than three years, in every season!
TH: How were you able to determine a storyline when you first began following a certain animal or groups of animals?
T, SW: In wildlife filmmaking, you never know how your story will end. You can research behavior and work to get yourself into the right location at the perfect time to get the desired shot. But in the end, you’re a witness, documenting the stories that unfold on their own.
TH: How were you inspired to become wildlife filmmakers?
Thomas Winston (TW): I’ve always spent as much time in nature as possible. Growing up in Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Wilderness was a place where I took many trips with my family. I moved to Montana to pursue an MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking at Montana State University. This is when I began to explore the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and I don’t know if I’ll ever stop.
Shasta Winston (SW): My interest in storytelling grounds my work. My undergraduate and master’s degrees are in literature. And my projects encompass a range of non-fiction forms including social documentary.
TH: Thomas and Shasta, you are a husband and wife team. What is it like working so closely with your significant other on a passionate project like this?
SW: While we do work together, we’re also in the company of a tremendous team of cinematographers, producers, and editors. And we play very different roles. Tom spends months of each year in the field. I spend my time in our offices, where all of our post-production takes place. We’re lucky that our efforts can overlap.
TH: Can you each share your personal favorite moment of the series if you are able to pinpoint it?
SW: There’s a moment in the “Fire and Ice” episode when the bison herd in the Hayden Valley gathers at dusk and forms a long line, beginning a winter migration to a geothermal oasis in the heart of the park. There’s something about the scale of that scene that I love. We’re so close to the bison that we feel their effort as they struggle to move in the deep snow. And the wide-shots of the herd filing into a single line, marching across the valley, embody the bleak beauty of the season.
TW: After filming so many animals for more than three years, it’s almost impossible to pick just one moment. When I filmed the osprey pair arriving at their nest near the lower falls of the Yellowstone River and mating in an April snowstorm, I knew I had documented a moment in time that might never be seen again.
TH: Do you have a behind-the-scenes funny, touching, or interesting anecdote that you can share with us?
T, SW: The bobcat in the “Fire and Ice” episode is one of the stars of the series. We were able to follow it for weeks as it stalked waterfowl on the Madison River. What most viewers don’t know is that bobcats spend most of their days napping, which meant we spent hours waiting with our cameras pointed at a sleeping bobcat. When it finally would wake up, we had to be ready to spring into action. It wasn’t until our last day filming with the bobcat that we got the final shot of the episode. It was well worth the effort in the end.
Thank you so much for your time, Thomas and Shasta!
Readers, be sure to check out the full schedule of the four-part series, "Epic Yellowstone" so that you don't miss a single stunning moment.