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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
© 2000 The Washington Post
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