Beyond the Garden Gate (DVD) Washington Post article

By Sue Kovach Shuman
Washington Post Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2000; Page H09

Three years ago, Victor Rook was a highly paid Northern Virginia computer consultant and Web designer, clocking long hours. There was little time to stop and smell the roses. But he did. And it changed his life.

While relaxing on a wooden bench near his rented Manassas cottage, he realized that his landlord's sprawling garden was alive: A flower had bloomed overnight. Turtles slumbered in the pond. Goldfish swam lazily.

Birds flitted from apple to cherry trees. Rook wondered if he could capture the dance on film.

He roamed the entire three acres, now with a sharp focus. He learned that some flowers bloomed in minutes; others lazily, gently spreading their petals to the sun. Hummingbirds came to the feeder on a preordained schedule.

A film hobbyist, Rook, 36, decided to quit his job and resolved to make a documentary of the garden, and the natural world that inhabits it. He began planning days around the opening of magnolias, hunting for baby praying mantises, watching a family of brown snakes visit a pond.

He spent a total of 800 hours filming, from the spring of 1998 until last December. The result is "Beyond the Garden Gate," a 40-minute film that chronicles the life cycles of more than 300 kinds of trees, shrubs, perennials, birds, insects and wildlife.

Strictly inspirational, the film is set to music and carries no narrative. Its message is tacit: Look for nature's beauty and magic in any back yard, and you will find it.

Rook had thought for several years about making a digital film on a subject that took his fancy, but "I was waiting for the technology to catch up with what I wanted to do," he said.

He bought a digital video camera ($2,500) and a 40-gigabyte hard drive for his computer ($3,000) that could work in sync, transferring time-lapse images from film to screen for editing.

It helps too if your landlord is an avid naturalistic gardener. John Nicol, who lives in a 1906 frame house on the property, has embellished its rustic character during his 26 years there, even as Manassas has changed from a rural to suburban area in that time.

Nicol started with an apple orchard on the fringe of a hayfield and has planted a rambling, English cottage garden dominated by a 250-year-old oak tree; two large raised ponds and smaller water features where lotus and water lilies bloom; loads of ornamental grasses; and perennials and shrubs designed to provide habitat for wildlife.

The hens and peacocks were given away--new suburban neighbors were drawn to them--but geese still live in the wildflower field. Two wild turkeys reside in a shed. In warm weather, a large cage with two macaws rests in the shade. In cool weather, the parrots inhabit the greenhouse, as do the more than 400 orchids brought outdoors in the summer, hanging from an arbor.

Getting it all on film became Rook's mission.

For all the idiosyncratic qualities of Nicol's garden, Rook wanted to show images and events that were universal, hence the emphasis on detail and individual flowers.

If nature programs look easy to make from the comfort of your armchair, Rook now knows otherwise. "You can really lose your sanity," he said. "I'd say to friends, 'I can't do that today, the peonies are going to open.' "

He had to protect his camera from winter freezes, spring rains, summer steam baths. Humidity became a stealthy enemy.

Sometimes, changes in the garden simply happened too fast. "I had a time lapse set for the magnolia and the thing opened within one minute, so the time lapse couldn't be used."

He spent two days following the aimless flight of dandelion seeds. Insects frustrated him, adhering to their own schedule for appearances.

"I saw a walking stick bug while I was on the phone and told my friend, 'Gotta go!' " It was easy, though, to find ticks; they attached themselves to his socks.

"At times I couldn't get out of the cottage because of the big spider webs," he says. When he saw a gigantic gray spider, "My first thought was, I could get this on tape." He grabbed the camera and got close. "My second thought: I realized the thing could jump."

There were other challenges: "Birds were extremely difficult," forcing him to crouch still for long periods of time, then sending him dashing through shrubs with camera held high.

Once, a clap of thunder frightened him so badly he nearly dropped the camera--but not before filming dark clouds and rustling leaves.

"It was a challenge shooting in a torrential rainstorm. I covered the camera with plastic," he says. "I came inside and had slugs crawling up my pant legs."

As he edited more than 200 hours of film, melodies danced through his head. He asked Emmy-nominated composer Matt Ender, for whom he had designed a Web page, for works from his "Ancient Isle" album of Celtic music. After seeing film snippets, Ender also composed two pieces for the documentary.

Rook recently won a Telly Award for the film (the equivalent of an Emmy for non-broadcast film and video), given to cable and other non-network television work. He's elated that all that hard work paid off.

"Beyond the Garden Gate" ($19.95) is available on the Web at or from

2000 The Washington Post Company

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