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Part III: The Fire Within

After finishing some work on a documentary project through the summer in 2014, I found myself with some free time and a burning desire to produce another time-lapse film. The whole year I felt like the island I grew up on was calling to me, I swear I looked at the clock at 8:08 every single day. It had been three years since I visited back home to the Big Island of Hawaii, so I decided I’d move out of my place in San Diego and spend a little time back home while producing a time-lapse film. I brought my good friend Wesley Young to assist on the project. Even though I grew up on the other side of Mauna Loa, I’d never made the trek to see the lava at Kilauea up close. I’ve explored the National Park and saw the summit crater from a distance but that was about it. So the initial goal was to get to lava and to produce some high quality time-lapse photography.

Screengrab from a time-lapse, peering in to the lava lake within the pit below the floor of Kilauea’s summit crater, Halema'uma'u.

Kilauea has been erupting for over 32 years and in June of 2014 the lava flow from the Pu’uo’o vent diverted itself and started flowing northeast instead of it’s usual southeast direction toward the coast. By the time we got to the island in October the front of the lava flow was about a mile away from the small town of Pahoa which was in the lava’s direct path. This scenario could be another film idea altogether, but we merely wanted to get to the lava with our cameras and produce some surreal visuals. All we had to do was hike through 1 mile of rainforest. Turns out it was almost impossible without a trail, which we were fortunate enough to stumble into after stomping around in the bushes carrying all the gear trying to find the best way through.

Wes checking the map on his phone, this was the “thin” part of the rainforest and before we found the trail.

The trail led us to the side of the lava flow just behind the flow front, to our surprise there were folks there drinking champaign and taking selfies. As soon as they cleared we had a chance to set up and really feel what it’s like in this strange environment. Lava is slowly burning through thick wet rainforest with coqui frogs whistling everywhere. Trees are burning and falling over and large brush fires are starting all over the place. We kept hearing big BOOMs in the distance, we learned that the lava finds methane pockets under the ground near trees and heats them up until they explode, some big enough to shake the ground. The air is super humid and the sky will open up with heavy tropical downpour with barely a moments notice. Of course the Earth’s fire won’t be put out by rain, it just sizzles as the crawling rock slowly but surely burns through the jungle and paves new land.

Lava slowly burns through thick wet rainforest in the evening.


Behind the scenes, Wes snapped this iPhone shot of me setting up the slider rig, trying to beat the lava to the shot.


Time-lapse screen grab, this one was taken from about fifteen feet up in a tree. Wes had the idea of shooting from the tree so I climbed up and wedged my tripod between a couple branches and captured a sequence for about an hour (until it started pouring and I had to grab the camera).

As you may have guessed, this was not the easiest environment to operate multiple cameras and motion control gear with a crew of two. Wes was tasked with clearing space in the brush while I set up the gear and captured content at the flow’s edge. We spent most of the night out there and that ended up being the first of three nights shooting out at the lava flow. We experienced some pretty intense situations while out at the flow, at one point the lava decided to break open and it started flowing right at us with more heat and faster than we had previously experienced. At that time the gear bags were in a small tent we brought out there for rain protection. The lava was headed straight for the tent and fast! Wes was urgently asking me to help him move the tent while I was juggling a bunch of tripods and cameras trying to set them down. We grabbed the whole tent and backed it into the bushes in time to save it from the molten rock and intense heat coming straight at it.

Crude iPhone shot of where the tent was, notice where I’m standing with the three small trees next to me. This was before the flow edge broke out toward us.


Image pulled from the film, this was after we got the gear out of the way of the insanely hot lava breakout. The front of the breakout is right next to where the tent was and would have surely melted it.


During this time-lapse sequence I had to pull the whole rig out of the way because the heat was too intense. The lava was just a few feet from my gear!


My Canon 6D mounted to Emotimo’s TB3 motorized head, silhouetted against the burning forest.

Our experience at the lava flow in the rainforest was really beyond words, it’s impossible to describe just how surreal it was. Many have asked how dangerous it was out there. While it’s certainly dangerous to be hanging out next to a slowly combusting forest, the real danger of our production was at the edge of the crater at Kilauea’s summit.

Lava splashing at the edge of the lava lake within the crater.

Halema'uma'u crater is located at the center of a mile wide caldera at the summit of Kilauea within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In one corner of the crater there’s a giant pit about 600 feet wide. Within the pit is a massive lava lake that has been continuously erupting for around seven years. The level of the lava in the pit fluctuates, it rose up all the way to the floor of the crater in 2015. While we were there in 2014 it was maybe 150 feet below the rim of the pit.

Time-lapse screen grab taken at the edge of the crater showing the ultra bright lava pit and Mauna Loa in the background on the right.

The main reason it’s so dangerous down there is the toxic sulfur dioxide gasses that constantly vent out of the plume and also out of the ground all over the place. There are vents everywhere on the floor of the caldera and they will emit dangerous gasses at any time. Also the wind can shift and blow the plume from the lava lake right at you. This next photo was taken recently from one of the lookouts.

Image pulled from one of my recent time-lapses captured from the eastern edge of the caldera. Notice all the gasses swirling around the rim of the crater where the previous photo was taken. In this shot the edge of the crater is right below the brightest part of the plume. You DO NOT want to be down there when it looks like that.

Of course the gasses are not the only concern while in the danger zone, Halema'uma'u’s lava lake is known for regularly exploding after a chuck of rock falls in from the wall of the pit.

Images captured from Hawaii Volcano Observatory’s webcam showing one of Halema'uma'u’s many explosions. This one happened during the high lava lake levels in 2015, the camera is at the top of the crater looking straight in.

The edge of Halema'uma'u crater above the lava lake is absolutely without a doubt the most mind blowing and surreal environment I’ve ever been in. The sheer power of the lava lake is unmistakable and displayed in many ways. It sounds like the ocean but with loud cracks caused by exploding rocks that echo throughout the huge pit. Sulfur gasses are silently venting out of the ground unexpectedly. We even saw bats fly out of the crater. We were standing about 600 feet above the lava and we could feel the heat from there. It actually felt nice since Kilauea gets pretty cold and windy at night at 4000 feet elevation.

Another still from one of my time-lapse sequences showing the edge of the crater looking down into the pit.

We spent many hours in the danger zone capturing time-lapse and video content for the project. We were fortunate enough to have come back in one piece and with stories and footage that far exceeded our expectations. I put together the 4K edit with help from music composer Stefan Scott Nelson and released ’Kilauea - The Fire Within’ on Vimeo. The short film earned another Vimeo Staff Pick and turned out to be another successful stepping stone in my career of filmmaking and time-lapse production. We went out on a limb and took a risk with this one and it paid off big time. I find great pleasure in knowing I’ve captured the beauty and power of Hawaii’s most active volcano in the best way I knew how.

Kilauea - The Fire Within

I’m currently writing this from the coffee farm I grew up on and I’m in between Kilauea volcano production trips. I have some new volcanic content in the works! In part 4 I’ll go in to some of my newer projects and ideas for progressing the art of time-lapse and astro time-lapse photography.

Behind the scenes on a recent shoot, camping in the moonlight up on Mauna Loa overlooking Kilauea from about 6000 feet up.

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