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Spotlight: An Interview with Steve Hall ("In Search of the Tallest: A Redwoods Adventure")




In the enchanting world of nature documentaries, Steve Hall, the visionary filmmaker behind "In Search of the Tallest: A Redwoods Adventure," takes center stage after clinching the Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Awards.


In this exclusive interview, Steve unveils the intricate process behind his awe-inspiring creations, sharing personal anecdotes from his quest to discover the world's tallest trees. From the highs of triumph to the lows of disappointment, he provides a glimpse into the challenges and rewards of capturing nature's wonders.


Join us as we unravel the mind of a filmmaker driven not by financial gain but an unwavering love for the beauty of our planet. Discover the man behind the lens and the stories that breathe life into his documentaries.


Steve, congratulations on winning Best Documentary for In Search of the Tallest: A Redwoods Adventure. Before we take a deep dive into the film and your process with it, we'd love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?


Thank you very much. I was so happy to learn that In Search of the Tallest had won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Awards.  As far as my personal story, I grew up with a love for outdoor adventures.  Filming these adventures became a way of sharing the beauty of what I was seeing with others.  My focus is on unique places that are off the beaten track or not that well known to other people.  I enjoy these places for the solitude that comes from being somewhere beautiful that is not overcrowded with other people.


This is not your first rodeo: your debut film was 'Last Chance Solo: A Death Valley Adventure", and then came "Baffin Island: An Arctic Adventure". When and how did you become interested in filmmaking, particularly in nature documentaries?


I started out with an interest in photography and capturing beautiful places in nature with photos and written trip reports.  But I really felt like that limited my ability to showcase these places at their best.  And thus I slowly moved into capturing them on film.  After I put a lot of time and effort into learning how to edit films properly, the nature documentaries really started to turn out well.  My focus in this regard has been filming in the Arctic, South Pacific, Death Valley, and other beautiful wilderness places such as the redwood parks seen in this film.  The two films that you referenced each won multiple awards at film festivals worldwide and started me on a path to success.  Over 180,000 people have viewed my Baffin Island film.



What inspired you to shoot this film, and what were you hoping to achieve with it?


I wanted to take viewers inside the world of tree searching and really get a sense for what the entire experience is like for those few people in the world who are involved with it.  And then I also wanted them to gain an appreciation for the world's tallest trees and what it is like to visit them in person.  Along with that, I wanted to emphasize the importance of protecting these trees from harm and respecting and supporting the NPS efforts to do so.


What are some of the technical aspects that can be a challenge when shooting in nature?


One of the biggest challenges is dealing with wind noise.  Over the years, I've gotten good at dealing with and minimizing the impact of wind on narration or dialogue.  But it can totally ruin a production if you're not prepared and experienced in that regard.  Another issue is dealing with low lighting, which can happen in the forest, in canyons, and other places where the sun is blocked out.  And also during early morning and evening hours.  Rainy days can present a whole additional challenge.


In the film, you say that you went on a journey to find the tallest trees in the world. What is interesting is the fact that the few people who did find these trees did not tell anyone where they were located. Is there some kind of hidden competition where whoever finds a unique tree prefers to keep the information to themselves? And we'd love to hear about the search process. Sounds like an adventure in itself!


I'm not sure if it's a competition as much as it is an effort to protect the trees from too much visitation.  When too many people visit a particular tree, it can cause the root systems and vegetation to become damaged and bring harm to the tree.  Good examples of this are what happened with the Grove of Titans and what happened to Hyperion.  If you do a little reading online, you will see that the park service has made it clear that these places were damaged by too much visitation.  One newspaper article referenced biologists who said that when lots of people trample the ground around a tree, this damages the way redwoods take in oxygen and nutrients.  As far as the search process itself, that all starts with putting in the necessary work at home.  When you are trying to find a particular tree, you need to first spend time gathering up clues from books, magazine articles, web pages, and satellite imagery.  Many first-time tree searchers were inspired by reading the book The Wild Trees by Richard Preston.  There was actually an obscure clue in there which helped me to find Hyperion, once I combined what was written along with viewing satellite imagery.  Once all your clues have been gathered, that's when it is time to go out into the forest, bushwhacking and measuring trees.  This is very challenging and can be dangerous for someone who is inexperienced.  So it is not something that I'm recommending for the general public.



You became the 3rd person or group to find Hyperion, the tallest tree in the world. It happened one year after your son Stefan was born. Can you take us to the moment you saw it?


To answer this question, let me share with you the words that I wrote at that time.  I said:  Exactly five years to the day after Hyperion was first discovered, my brother Jim and I were packing our bags and preparing to head back to old growth redwood country in Redwood National and State Parks for another search.  Things did not go well for the first couple of days.  We searched high and low, up and down hillsides in quite a wide area for 14 hours and came up empty.  We were battered and bruised and our willpower was fading.  We prepared ourselves to accept failure and began discussing how we could just appreciate the rewards of the forest itself.  But we weren't ready to surrender just yet, so we made a decision to take a risk and it ended up paying off.  We found Hyperion, the tallest and most majestic of all trees.  I will never forget that moment as Jim and I approached the tree from different angles and I yelled out: "I'm making the call... this is it... this is Hyperion!"  We celebrated and got some photos, all the while walking carefully around the tree, not wanting to damage its root system in any way.  It truly was a special moment in our lives and something we will always treasure and remember.


You also tell about disappointing moments. You've already traveled to faraway places, only to discover that the special trees really aren't there (or you couldn't find them). Were there moments when you said to yourself: that it wasn't worth the whole journey?


What you describe is indeed a very frustrating and discouraging experience.  For all of the highs of finding special trees, there are a lot more lows when failure is encountered.  Especially because hiking off-trail through forests is a very challenging endeavor that takes a heavy physical and mental toll.  I have experienced these lows many times.  Even within this film In Search of the Tallest, I was at my complete breaking point in trying to get to Orion, as seen in the second half.


Once you reach Helios, the second tallest tree in the world, you say a sentence that makes the viewers understand how complex this journey is: "You can forget how difficult it can be, going through the forest."  At that moment, you look exhausted and satisfied at the same time. Add to all this difficulty the camera, tripod, and the complexity of film production, and the challenge becomes even greater. As a tree searcher and a filmmaker, what makes this story important, and what message would you like to convey?


To answer this question, let me once again share with you some words I wrote back when I was searching for and found Helios.  This ties in with your other question well.  The account I wrote said:  Along the way, my leg collapsed into a pit once and my feet nearly gave out another time because the slope dropped off at such an extreme angle.  I was not in the mood to go sliding down a hillside, especially not bushwhacking solo in an area where nobody would probably ever find me.  At this point I said to myself: "What the heck am I doing out here?  This is not worth it.  I am beating up my body and for what?  In the hopes of finding a tree which could be located anywhere.  I'm getting out of here."  One year earlier, I had uttered similar words to myself, yet I ended up persevering instead of giving up.  But this time, things were even more challenging.  I was out in the forest alone, the weather was not cooperating, and the terrain proved to be much more difficult.  When I reached the small grove of trees, I quickly realized that they were not what I was looking for.  But instead of turning back, I pushed on and continued hiking and bushwhacking through the forest.  Perhaps after hiking and bushwhacking through the forest for another hour, I stood up on top of a very slippery fallen log and looked curiously at a tree in the distance.  Something about the tree I was looking at captured my interest.  I thought to myself: "Maybe that is Helios.  No... that can't be it."  I stood on the slippery log for several minutes just staring at the tree and thinking about it some more, debating it in my mind.  Finally, I slid down the other side of the log and went over to the base of the tree to take a closer look.  It didn't take me long to soon realize: "Yes, indeed, this is Helios!"  Against impossible odds, I had found the world's 2nd tallest tree standing tall on Helios Hill.  And it was such a pretty tree.  An awesome ending to an incredibly difficult journey, both hiking in the forest and at home thinking about clues for a year.


In the film, I was simply returing to Helios and that was hard enough.  So you can imagine how much harder it was when I was searching for it the first time.  When I didn't know exactly where it was, like I do now.  But I think the overall story and message of the film goes beyond simply searching for a special tree in a forest.  It can be anything which is important to you in life such as a dream or goal that you want to achieve.  It might be extremely challenging to get to your end destination and require great sacrifices, but the rewards for doing so make it all worth it once you have achieved it.  Everyone has their own "Helios" that they are hoping to find and achieve in life.



How did your son Stefan, who joined you on the film journey, summarize the experience?


He absolutely loved spending time in Redwood National Park backpacking for three days along Redwood Creek.  As he says in the film, "It was good".  That being said, he was not a big fan of the bushwhacking and tree searching aspect of the journey.  That is definitely not for everyone.


One of the ways to keep the right energy and flow of the story, is the use of montage in editing. Tell us about your post-production process - from editing to final mix- how long did it take, what were some of the challenges there and what are you most proud of?


Post-production took a couple of months or so.  I think the hard part is trying to keep the narrative flowing and dropping unnecessary footage.  The story needs to keep moving and fortunately the way things went during filming naturally resulted in a compelling story arc.  You could say that the first half of the film ends in failure.  And that leads into the second half.  Can this failure be overcome and what can be done about the disappointment?  At the same time, using montage to showcase nature shots helps remind the viewer that we are in a fantastically beautiful place.  So a lot of the editing is combining the story arc with montages of natural beauty and striking that perfect balance between the two.


What do you wish people knew about your work as a filmmaker?


That my films are done out of a love for the beauty of nature and not out of financial gain or personal success.  And that seeing such beauty while visiting these places to film reminds me that we have a Creator who loves us and they didn't appear by random chance.  As Romans 1: 20 states: "For his invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world's creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made, even his eternal power and Godship, so that they are inexcusable".


What is your dream project?


I would love to spend more time in the Arctic filming in Sirmilik National Park, Gates of the Arctic National Park, and on Svalbard.


What's next for you and what's next for the film?


Next up I will be filming in the Havasupai portion of the Grand Canyon this spring and then heading to Guam and Palau to do some filming in the South Pacific this summer.  This film In Search of the Tallest is now released and available for the public to watch for free on my YouTube channel.  All of my national park films are completely non-commercial.


Is there anything you'd like to add or someone you wish to thank?


I'd like to take a moment to thank fellow redwoods tree searcher Mark Graham as he provided valuable assistance in putting this film together.  Because I had been away from the redwoods for several years before deciding to do this film, he was able to update me on the current state of the redwoods and remind me of information I had forgotten.


Where can our readers follow more of your work and support it?


I can be found on my YouTube channel at youtube.com/stevehalldv and also at stevehallfilms.com




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