Flying over Yellowstone National Park in a helicopter last August, David Arnold fed television viewers a visual feast of bison and bears, geysers and hot pools.
His take-home thought about the four days of live aerial feeds for National Geographic’s “Yellowstone Live” series was: “It’s hard to find wolves.”
Arnold will return June 23-26 along with about 200 other camera operators, technical assistants and scientist commentators to broadcast again from the park. Finding wolves that will top last year’s broadcast will be difficult, he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
“People spend their whole careers and never see the behavior we saw,” he said. “It was flabbergasting.”
His camera captured a wolf stashing pups, then coming back and taking them hunting.
“To see the wolves show so much love and affection, it was really touching,” Arnold said.
He guessed that episode may have been the most watched or liked because viewers could relate to the wolves, since they resemble dogs. Last year’s broadcast reportedly drew 13 million viewers.
From his airborne electrical command center Arnold, 47, operates a $500,000 gyro-stabilized camera for the company Aerial Video Systems. The camera is mounted outside the helicopter but controlled by Arnold, who is perched in front of what appears to be a confusing array of electronics. It’s a job he’s been doing for 23 years, working his way up in the company after starting out sweeping floors.
“I grew up in Florida, so the places I go to work … to see the mountainous volcanic wilderness and the primordial beasts” of Yellowstone “never gets old,” he said.
Other shows he’s helped film include “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” and the 1999 movie “James Bond, The World is not Enough.” He’s also filmed at the World Series and Super Bowl.
Although now living in the Los Angeles area, Arnold has ties to Montana. His sister, Sondra Arnold, is the controller for the Billings Gazette.
“He was always a gadget nerd,” she said. “When he was in high school he was saving up his money to buy video equipment.”
Sondra added that her brother’s energetic work ethic has been an asset in his position because the Aerial Video Systems crew will often be very busy day after day while on assignment.
Call of duty
That was the case last summer in Yellowstone. Taking cues from the producer, Arnold and the helicopter’s pilot would fly to different parts of the park to provide aerials of wildlife and geothermal features on command.
“What’s interesting about it is we could go anywhere,” he said. “The helicopter can travel so far so fast. It has an amazing capacity to do that live. It’s just a really neat way to celebrate the things people love about Yellowstone.”
On one of those days of live broadcasting a Yellowstone law enforcement dispatcher contacted the pilot close to dusk to see if he could search for a lost hiker who had been able to phone for help. With clearance from their producer they flew to the region and began circling in hopes of seeing the man. Just before darkness fell they spotted a flashing LED light. Landing close by they were able to pick the hiker up and transport him back to their base at West Yellowstone, just outside the park.
“When we took off, it was pitch-black dark,” Arnold said.
The base included the company’s 53-foot tractor-trailer that’s packed with electronic equipment to aid in collecting the live feeds at a range of 60 miles. That wasn’t easy in a place that didn’t even provide electrical outlets, what Arnold referred to as “the middle of nowhere.”
The video might then be mixed with graphics, music and commentators’ insights.
“It’s like watching an orchestral symphony,” Arnold said. “We have to do everything at just the right time to pull it off.”
In comparison, other television productions may have two years just to film, and another year to splice in the graphics, voiceover and music, he said.
“It’s an amazing achievement to do a big live broadcast television show in the middle of the wilderness.
“Any time you’re shooting live there’s lots of pressure,” he said. “It’s like having millions of people looking over my shoulder.”