Winter Cattle Journal 2019: Ranching hits the big screen in Ocean of Grass: Life on a Nebraska Sandhills Ranch

Ocean of Grass, a film by Georg Joutras, features the McGinn family, which ranches in the Sandhills of Nebraska.

Scientists believe the Nebraska Sandhills were formed by an ocean. When polar ice caps melted, the water rose, then receded, forming beaches. The hills that are left are the remains of those beaches and that ocean.

Today it’s grass that undulates in the sun—big bluestem, lovegrass, needleandthread, prairie sandreed are among the more poetic. The “ocean of grass” sparkles with the blossoms of penstemon, pricklypoppy, spiderwort, yucca and coneflower. And around the edges, a froth of wild plum blossoms.

It’s this “ocean” that photographer Georg Joutras captured in “Ocean of Grass: Life on a Nebraska Sandhills Ranch,” an hour-and-a-half documentary about the McGinn ranch in northeast Custer County.

After sharing a gallery in Lincoln with Joutras, rancher and artist Laron McGinn invited Joutras to visit the family ranch near Dunning. “I was going to stay one night, and I stayed a week,” Joutras said.

Joutras initially worked with the McGinn family on a photography book called “A Way of Life,” published in 2007.

“In the back of my mind I thought there was a bigger story to be told, a long-term view of the land, ranchers dealing with the animals in their care,” Joutras said. “I wanted to counteract some of the bad press ranching seems to get.”

The friendship that started with the book idea remained after it was published, and Joutras continued to visit the ranch from his home in Lincoln, helping out as he was able and increasing his knowledge of the ranch, the people, the Sandhills and ranching in general.

In 2014 his family gave him a GoPro camera and with that and his DSLR camera he put together a short trailer about the ranch.

“People really gravitated to the trailer and encouraged me to keep going. I kept getting better equipment. I shot for a year with the first generation of equipment, then invested in a professional-grade camera and drone and shot everything over again,” Joutras said.

He wanted the capture the people, landscape, mentality, how they look at life.

Joutras grew up on the fringe of the Sandhills, in Ogallala.  “I knew people who were ranchers, but didn’t know anything about cattle ranching. I knew they raised cows. That’s all I knew,” he said.

After spending time on the McGinn ranch, he knew a little more. “When I got into the guts of it, you can see what all is involved. Thousands of details, and they (the ranchers) know what all has to happen. Every day is a different day, you never know what you’re going to have to deal with, whether pulling a calf or dealing with water that isn’t there. It’s a myriad of details that I thought was really interesting.”

Laron McGinn, who is a co-owner in the ranch, with his dad, uncle and cousin, appreciates that the film portrays a real view of cattle ranching, especially in light of skewed and negative publicity that has become mainstream. “This genuinely shows how we in this business take care of our livestock. There’s genuine compassion. We do our best in tough times, in storms, we keep them well-fed, doctor them when they’re hurt and chop water every day. There’s never a moment that we don’t try to be on top of the well-being of every creature in our care. Mother Nature throws things at us sometimes, but our heart is in what we do.”

Joutras had more than 100 hours of video when he was done with the videography. He cut that down to 84 minutes.

He credits his background as a photographer with giving him the critical eye to find the most powerful imagery for the video. “Every frame is really important. In photography, you’re trying to tell a story with a single frame. I looked at video production the same way,” Joutras said. “It’s definitely a very pretty film, but it’s more about the details of a certain ranch.”

In video, the story also has a voice. In this case, a lot of voices from the fifth-generation McGinn ranch and the surrounding ranch community.

Laron McGinn spent time studying art and being a professional artist in Arizona and Los Angeles. But he missed home. “Mingling, you discover that, in some places, some people just don’t seem to know who they are. In this part of the world, you really have no choice but to be genuine. Your word is everything. If you’re not honest, it doesn’t take long for people to learn that. Your integrity is probably what defines you. You have to be true to that. It’s nice that we come from a place that a handshake is honored, and your word is your bond. The film brings that out.”

While the focus is on the McGinn ranch, many neighbors make an appearance in the film, simply because ranching is a community job.

“We need each other,” Laron said. “We’d have a hard time making it without relying on our neighbors, and our neighbors are also our friends. They’re the people we socialize with in town. It’s a great big community and everyone’s success is intermingled. I don’t know, this day and age, how often you see that on this scale. I also love the way it depicts how genuine everyone is, how comfortable they are in who they are.”

That observation wasn’t lost on Joutras.

“They’re very interesting, very quirky people,” Joutras said. “They’re all their own bosses. They don’t have to change who they are to get along with people in the corporation.”

It’s that authenticity that tends to make ranchers a little uncomfortable in front of a lens. “Back when Georg first showed up with his camera, in 2003, he was just taking pictures all the time,” Laron said. “It’s natural for most people, to be outside of their comfort zone a little, having their picture taken. He was always snapping away, taking pictures of everything, especially the busy stuff that takes place. We were just a part of it.”

Laron’s dad was most uncomfortable with it, he said. But as they got to know Georg, and when the book came out, and they were able to see how Georg portrayed ranching, it was reassuring.

“Because of that experience, when he picked up a video camera, that’s just Georg being Georg. We were pretty at ease with it. The sit-down interviews were harder to get people to participate in, just because of the comfort level. But it was just them talking about whatever they wanted to talk about.”

Laron said it’s an honor to have been part of the project. “All of us who were anxious to see how he put it together were all very pleased with what he created. It’s a legacy piece for our family, and that’s something we will have forever. Nothing was exaggerated. It’s a very honest portrayal of who we are and what we do.”

Joutras said the film gives viewers a look at how ranches work, but doesn’t tell how to be a cattle rancher. “It shows how they take a long-term view of dealing with the landscape. These ranches have been out there since the 1870s and ’80s. They definitely take a long-term view.”

After 22 months in post-processing, doing editing and color grading, and getting a score written by fellow Nebraskan Tom Larson—four years after he first shot video for it—the film was done.

The film has been screened across Nebraska and beyond, including the Kansas City Film Festival, where it debuted to a sold-out crowd. In Broken Bow, after initially selling out, it expanded into all three theatres and sold out over and over again through the week. Though it resonates especially with rural audiences, it also saw sold-out crowds in Lincoln.

Word of the film is spreading and more screenings are scheduled well into 2019.