Will and Jim Pattiz (left to right), pictured atop South Bubble Mountain in Acadia National Park, where they were filming in 2015. The brothers, who grew up in Peachtree City, are the co-founders of More Than Just Parks. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This Life with Gracie: Capturing our national parks in four minutes and counting

Six years ago, brothers Will and Jim Pattiz decided to take a trip with a few friends to see the Grand Canyon, something they’d never done before but felt a call to the Western landscape.

They’d grown up in Peachtree City, graduated from the Heritage School, and after a year each in college, both dropped out. Will from the University of Georgia and Jim from Georgia Southern.

They’d never visited a national park in their lives, but they had a car. They had sleeping bags and being adventurous millennials, well, why not.

They crossed the Arizona state line and stopped at the Petrified Forest National Park in the small town of Holbrook, Ariz., along I-40.

“It was like setting foot on another planet,” Will said.

How could they have lived to their 20s without having ever gone to a place so beautiful? And how many others were there who’d never seen a national park, either?

There amid the expansive moon-like landscapes, rainbow-colored trees, and the painted desert, it hit them. They had to share these incredible places with as many people as possible to make sure they remained for as long as possible.

Since that June day six years ago, the brothers have produced 14 award-winning films showcasing America’s National Parks, including “National Parks: A Love Story,” commissioned by the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

This is what can happen when we simply follow a hunch. And for all of us who have been questioning how we could let our national parks fall into ruin, what we can do, here are a couple of answers you might want to consider.

Share their beauty with others and, please, support legislation now being considered to fund the $11.6 billion maintenance backlog facing our nation’s 417 National Park Service sites.

“National Parks: A Love Story,” it turns out, was the centerpiece of a bipartisan event held July 31 to raise awareness about the need to fix and preserve national park infrastructure.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke flanked by Jim Pattiz, 26, of Canton and his brother Will, 27, of Portland, Ore. The filmmakers grew up in Peachtree City. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Will, who now lives in Portland, Ore., and Jim of Canton didn’t set out to save our parks. They just wanted to share them with us, to show us what we were missing.

The question was how?

They considered making films of all 59 congressionally recognized parks, then building a website and a project they called More Than Just Parks.

“We came back around to film, something engaging and shareable on social media,” Will said.

RELATED | Study: National parks get fewer visits when pollution rises

But they wanted to meet people where they were. Not many people would watch a 30-minute film or even 10 minutes. Five minutes was more like it.

Time-lapse photography was growing in popularity, but they wanted to make films, not little videos.

If they blended the two — filmmaking with time-lapse photography — it might work.

With money they had from two previous business ventures, the brothers purchased cameras, motion sliders, and tripods and headed first to Olympic National Park in Washington state, a place they’d never been. It had temperate rain forests, rugged wilderness coast, and snow-covered mountains all within three hours of one another.

“We were coming at this with totally fresh eyes and just in awe,” Jim said. “I felt like that gave us an edge.”

Over 15 days, they captured hundreds of hours of footage, edited it down to just four minutes and posted it on Vimeo. They reached out to media, regional newspapers, outdoor publications, anyone they thought would write about their efforts.

The Olympic park video amassed some 30,000 views but little media coverage. They persevered, filming the Great Smoky Mountains and then the Joshua Tree in the Southern California desert.

But it wasn’t until their sixth film, “Zion,” launched in 2015, that they started to get some serious traction. Hundreds of thousands of us were clicking and watching. The media wanted the story.

The brothers’ Redwood, Grand Teton and Death Valley films were recently selected by National Geographic to be featured in their Short Film Showcase spotlighting exceptional short videos. In a recent Outside Magazine article highlighting the best films and shows about America’s national parks, “More Than Just Parks” ranked alongside the work of America’s premier documentarian Ken Burns.

The Pattiz brothers have also garnered international recognition for their efforts, appearing in a London Telegraph article that touted their films as “The Most Beautiful Videos of America You’ll Ever Watch”. In 2016, they partnered with The Weather Channel to do a series of live interviews from the parks as they described their cinematic experiences to a nationwide audience.

RELATED | Georgia parks on path to grow in size, standing in national system

Two years ago, the U.S. Forest Service reached out.

Could they do for the forests what they’d been doing for parks?

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After more than a year of back and forth, the brothers had an agreement to produce “Your Forests, Your Future,” a national campaign to encourage the public to get involved in shaping the future of National Forests. They were also charged with creating “More Than Just Forests,” short films for each of the 155 national forests.

When we talked last week, they’d just returned from Alaska, where they filmed the remote Chugach National Forest. The brothers had also recently wrapped filming Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming and the Dixie National Forest in Utah. Later this year, they will head out to Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota and Flathead National Forest in Montana.

“Since we started this project, it has been such a whirlwind,” Jim said. “Growing up, I would read National Geographic in awe of the imagery. I never thought they would be calling me someday, let alone the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. It’s truly an honor.”

Four years have passed since the Pattiz brothers set out to showcase what makes America’s 59 national parks more than just parks.

Turns out, it’s much more than just stunning imagery or even the Pattizes’ passion for them. It’s about bringing the parks to those of us who may otherwise never get to experience them.

It’s also proof of the good that can happen when we let life lead us.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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