It's called an "intervalometer."
That's the device Steve Moraco hooked up to his digital camera, enabling it to snap a photo every 30 seconds for five days to capture the worst wildfire in Colorado's history. The resulting timelapse became some of the most compelling video of the Waldo Canyon Fire's assault on Colorado Springs, and propelled the 20-year-old student and his "footage" to the national stage.
"I uploaded it just hoping it would just be something that just got passed around a little bit by my friends. Maybe a couple people would see it," says Moraco, who, sitting in a local coffeehouse, looks as unassuming as he sounds. "... That evening I had received a call from CNN, the Denver Post, I had been interviewed by News 9 in Denver — like, they had a van in my house at 9 p.m."
The 16-minute video (watchable at tinyurl.com/WCFtimelapse and below) would go on to reach millions of people on TV, and almost half a million online. Thrillingly for the aspiring photographer, it earned both play from journalists and praise from locals. But it also attracted a hail of YouTube trolls and accusations of disaster exploitation.
In short, it became a case study in the tricky business of seizing opportunity amid a figurative and literal firestorm.
Moraco began shooting from a tripod on his parents' deck in Monument the day the fire started, Saturday, June 23. But he doesn't take credit for the idea of generating a video from still images — that came from a friend who'd seen Moraco do similar projects before.
"I had actually posted one of the pictures I took to Facebook already," he says, "and I think that reminded my friend, and she just suggested that I timelapse it."
On Tuesday, June 26, his camera snapped away while the foothills filled with smoke and fire. Moraco figured there'd be some striking images on there, but had no idea exactly what he had until two days later, when he sat down at his computer to compile the 10,000-plus stills into video form.
Even then, no one knew how many houses were lost or when evacuees might be able to return — in fact, Moraco himself had friends from the fire-threatened area staying with his family. He quietly went about his business, compiling the footage and setting it to music with the help of friends in the film program at Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design, where he goes to school.
"When I decided on 'Air' [by Hans Zimmer, on the Angels and Demons film soundtrack] as the first track I would put in the timelapse, I dropped it in and it fit just freakishly well," Moraco recalls. "And the song right after it on the soundtrack fit the next half of the video perfectly."
The fit is indeed freakish. Billows of smoke glowing orange from the flames rise and fall in sync with the music.
"After I watched it the first time after editing it, even watching it there in Adobe Premier it made me cry," he says. "It was just unbelievably moving."
Soon after Moraco put it online Friday, June 29, the video caught the attention of national networks. The peak of the exposure was a clip on Good Morning America — the country's No. 1 morning show, with 4.6 million viewers.
Traffic crashed Moraco's personal website, generated almost half a million hits on YouTube, and allowed him to establish a foothold in the contracting market for news reporting jobs. "Getting calls from news agencies means that there are folks out there who've seen my videos and know my name in the newsroom," he says.
In short, Moraco was getting the break every photojournalist dreams of. But since it came via tragedy, he soon saw YouTube skeptics, armed with anonymity, accuse him caustically of creating "disaster porn" (see "The anonymous analysts" below).
Experiencing all this in a matter of days, he says, "can seem kind of conflicting." So he contacted one of his professors, photographer Tom Fischer, for advice.
"He said one of the first pictures he ever sold was of the earthquake in San Francisco when he was really young," Moraco says. "And initially he felt bad for making money off such a tragedy. But he said he realized it had to be documented. Someone had to do it."
Fischer wanted Moraco, and all young photographers, to know the value of their work.
"We certainly don't want to exploit other people's pain," Fischer tells the Indy via e-mail, "but it is also important to tell the stories of our time. The key is the value we bring to the world by telling the story with clarity and honesty."
He adds, "While it is somewhat romantic, he is not sensationalizing personal tragedies."
Here's how Moraco puts it today: "We have to be aware of things around us that are possibly dangerous, just to deal with them. So our tendency to watch something dramatic and horrible is there, and I have no doubt that was the reason the video was so successful."
It's not lost on him that a follow-up video he posted, of the smoke cloud dissipating between June 28 and July 3, has received only a few hundred views.
Future in focus
As Moraco preps for his junior year of school, the fire still weighs on his creative mind.
He and Tom Holsteen, a fellow Colorado Springs Christian School grad who's now an English major at Louisiana State University, are embarking on a digitally self-published project they're calling the Waldo Canyon Interviews (waldocanyon.org). Using Moraco's camera and Holsteen's pen, they'll chronicle the journeys of stakeholders of all types in the "Waldo Canyon Fire event, not just the fire, as it were," explains Moraco.
The idea came to fruition when Holsteen saw photos of the firefighters catching rest in the shade between shifts. "It had just gone through my head that, 'Well, Steve could do a better job of that picture,'" Holsteen recalls.
They plan to tell the stories of firefighters, local and out-of-state, volunteer and full-time, as well as homeowners, police officers, even insurance claims adjusters — "the whole spectrum of the various people involved in this," Moraco says.
Along the way, he'll gain some new experience, exposure and a healthy perspective of the role of a journalist in tragedy.
"I think it's important that it's documented," he says. "Taking on the validity of the documentation afterward is fine — it just shouldn't keep you from doing it in the first place."
The anonymous analysts
To give you a feel for the reactions Steve Moraco's video inspired, here are a few unedited comments from its YouTube page.
wow, using such a catastrophic event - to get more views on YT?! Shame on you
Thank you for this, Steve. This is true art. Cried all over again. Being an evacuee, I cannot tell you how helpful this was when explaining to people out of state and farther away in the city how horrible and devastating this fire is.
We as humans have a morbid curiosity gene, that goes without saying. Adding an overly dramatic music score to this smacks of a blatant yet ultimately weak attempt at commercialization.
oh my god. this is amazing. this is so terrifying. this is so haunting.