Heating Things Up: Boise Locals Film South American Volcanoes

By May 2, 2017Blog, Filmmaking
Locals film volcanoes in South America

Three weeks of travel in the cold and rain may not sound like everyone’s idea of a good time, but for filmmaker Zach Voss and photographer Matthew Wordell, it’s all part of the experience.

An Excellent Adventure

In November of last year, Zach Voss and Matthew Wordell traveled to Ecuador and Chile with two geophysicists from Boise State as part of a volcanology expedition. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society, and outfitted by apparel company KÜHL, they aimed to provide footage and aerial imagery of Tungurahua, El Reventador (Ecuador), Volcan Villarrica (Chile), and Llaima Volcano that Drs. Jeffrey Johnson and Brittany Brand could use in their studies.

While Voss, who produces film as Retroscope Media, captured video, Wordell shot aerial footage from a drone purchased by the BSU Geosciences Department. An imaging technique called structure-from-motion, where images are stitched together to create a 3D model, will be paired with infrasound recorded by Dr. Johnson. Combining the two will allow the researchers to use sonar to locate magma inside the craters of the volcanoes.


Left/top: Preparing the drone for flight at Tungurahua, Ecuador // Right/bottom: Wordell with the drone at Llaima Volcano

Where It All Began

Voss’ affair with volcanoes began well before the trip to Ecuador and Chile. Two years ago, when Voss was in Quito, Ecuador, the stratovolcano
Cotopaxi was erupting. He was able to film the volcano from a nearby hilltop. Voss cut that footage into a short video which was seen by Dr. Johnson, who invited Voss to accompany him to Guatemala to film a workshop he held there. Voss accepted, and when that collaboration came to an end, told Dr. Johnson he’d like to continue working with him in the future. Dr. Johnson soon called on him again, this time to shoot Reventador and Villarrica.

Locals film volcanoes in South AmericaVoss and Wordell were looking for the perfect project with which they could combine their respective talents. “Over the years we’ve had a number of opportunities to collaborate and support one another in our creative efforts here in Boise, but it wasn’t until last year that we really got serious about pursuing a project to tackle together,” says Wordell. When Voss was approached about shooting active volcanoes in South America, they knew they’d found what they were hoping for.

Preparing for the trip was a multi-layered process. They contacted several potential sponsors, which meant creating a pitch deck and sending it out to over 50 outdoors companies. A handful of those businesses partnered with them, which helped pay for their gear, but also added responsibilities, emails, and requests to prepare and fulfill.

Physical preparation was just as tedious. For a journey that spans across several different environments, being ready for everything is key. “When you’ll be in the jungle one week and on a glacier covered volcano flank the next, you really have to pack gear that spans a wide range of uses… all while fitting everything into a single bag weighing less than 50 pounds,” says Wordell. “That’s when you start asking the hard questions in life, like – ‘How badly do I really need this extra pair of underwear? Hmm.'”

Voss was also mindful of readying his stock of equipment. “Once you leave you’re pretty much never going to see any opportunities to fix the system or replace something, at least when you’re going to the Amazon. You can’t anticipate to see a BP-955 battery ever again,” he says.

Into the Wild

Roughing it in the wilderness of South America presented plenty of challenges for the technology used and the adventurers themselves, both physically and mentally.

Wordell found the environments unpredictable, which made shooting with a drone difficult. “Every volcano came with its own kind of ‘weather personality…’ At Reventador, a parade of clouds came charging through the valley, engulfing everything around us. Inside the caldera of Villarrica, giant swells of air pulsing along with the lava lake inside would cause the drone to move erratically and drop randomly from the air.”


The view from the campsite at El Reventador

But having each other constantly in close proximity kept Voss and Wordell grounded. “For this entire three week period, I can’t imagine there was more than an hour or two that [Wordell] was outside of arm’s length,” Voss says. “We leaned on each other in a big way. To be able to look to someone and stabilize when you’re feeling upset about the situation – to have that person smile and remind you [that] we’re in the Amazon right now and this is amazing!”


Voss (left) and Wordell (right) in the caldera of Villarrica

The experience itself also helped when times were tough. Wordell likens it to camping and gazing up at the stars. “Sitting on our small log bench, lights out, watching a volcano erupt is like that but instead of looking out to the galaxy, you’re looking at the inner workings of our planet. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.”

Back in Boise

Locals film volcanoes in South AmericaThe footage Voss collected from the trip won’t just be used for BSU. He’s creating a narrative web series that he thinks will resonate with the adventurous lifestyle of Boiseans, as it does for himself. “I’ve certainly had an interest in the natural world, mostly from a recreational standpoint,” Voss says. “It hasn’t been until the last two, maybe three years that my videography work has overlapped with the outdoors.”

As for future work, Voss says, “There might be a time in my life when it might not be realistic to do both narrative and documentary work, and at that time I will make the call.”

Both Voss and Wordell are active creatives in the Boise art and film scene. Voss has been featured by Nat Geo and has produced videos for Treefort and festivals like i48 Film and Telluride Mountainfilm, and Wordell heads up Treefort’s marketing photo team. Wordell also shoots for various local businesses and organizations like Speak Your Silence and has several projects, including his most recent series “Portraits for Public Lands,” a collaborative effort to showcase Idahoans in support of conservation of public lands.

You can view teasers for KÜHL from their South American expedition on Voss’ Vimeo, and follow Retroscope Media on Facebook and Instagram.

To see more of Wordell’s photography, check out his website and Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Matthew Wordell