Rocks: It's a Family Affair

New Film Tells Geologists' Story

They sit on sofas, around coffee tables and on outdoor rocks in the backyard -- sometimes with grandparents and wives and brothers and sisters -- talking the way those in documentaries usually talk.

You hear stories about growing up poor, high school triumphs, business successes and failures; you see the graduation and vacation photos and the grainy ones, too, when fathers had hair and sons had beards; and you watch the pride, bemusement and joy of people working in an often incomprehensible profession.

But in this case a common thread weaves through the stories and the pictures and memories, tying one generation to another: Geology.

That’s the world that Dave Emme wanted to capture on film. That’s the story he wanted the world to hear.

Welcome to “GeoFamilies -- How I Learned to Love the Rocks,” a new documentary made by the son of geologists who remembers lovingly listening to hear his parents’ stories of their profession (petroleum) and their love (geology).

The movie features more than a dozen AAPG members -- seven families -- including two past AAPG presidents, who by reflecting on their careers and family bonds offer a universal portrait of those drawn to the wonders of the earth.

“GeoFamilies,” as the first half of the name suggests, is a documentary about geology; more importantly, as the second half indicates, it’s also about families.

“Mainly I wanted to make a film that the geologic community would find entertaining and also look at with a source of pride,” says David Emme, a Palo Alto, Calif., based filmmaker who both directed and produced the hour-long film.

“I also think that it’s important to preserve the personalities of each generation.”

To that end, Emme has these families reliving what it’s like and what it means to be in the earth sciences.

“I wanted to understand why people got into the field and stayed in it, so the film goes through the whole experience from childhood and school to careers and retirement.”

Image Caption

Left, professor Bob Weimer and young student Steve Sonnenberg; right, the slightly older but still-young professional Sonnenberg with his geologist father, Frank.

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They sit on sofas, around coffee tables and on outdoor rocks in the backyard -- sometimes with grandparents and wives and brothers and sisters -- talking the way those in documentaries usually talk.

You hear stories about growing up poor, high school triumphs, business successes and failures; you see the graduation and vacation photos and the grainy ones, too, when fathers had hair and sons had beards; and you watch the pride, bemusement and joy of people working in an often incomprehensible profession.

But in this case a common thread weaves through the stories and the pictures and memories, tying one generation to another: Geology.

That’s the world that Dave Emme wanted to capture on film. That’s the story he wanted the world to hear.

Welcome to “GeoFamilies -- How I Learned to Love the Rocks,” a new documentary made by the son of geologists who remembers lovingly listening to hear his parents’ stories of their profession (petroleum) and their love (geology).

The movie features more than a dozen AAPG members -- seven families -- including two past AAPG presidents, who by reflecting on their careers and family bonds offer a universal portrait of those drawn to the wonders of the earth.

“GeoFamilies,” as the first half of the name suggests, is a documentary about geology; more importantly, as the second half indicates, it’s also about families.

“Mainly I wanted to make a film that the geologic community would find entertaining and also look at with a source of pride,” says David Emme, a Palo Alto, Calif., based filmmaker who both directed and produced the hour-long film.

“I also think that it’s important to preserve the personalities of each generation.”

To that end, Emme has these families reliving what it’s like and what it means to be in the earth sciences.

“I wanted to understand why people got into the field and stayed in it, so the film goes through the whole experience from childhood and school to careers and retirement.”

Personal Perspectives

Geology, as he was reminded, is a collaborative effort -- even if the collaboration is sometimes a bumpy road.

In the film, there’s a memorable scene where Paul and AAPG member Daryl Stewart, father and son owners of Stewart Petroleum, are talking about their company’s early days in the mid-1980s and how they used to work on a red felt table underneath a Pink Floyd poster in Daryl’s room.

As the business starts to grow, Daryl thinks the new company should get a computer, something Paul vows he’d never use.

“Still,” says Daryl, “we had a friend come over, fed him some scotch, let him bounce on the trampoline we have, and he got us set up on the computer.”

Paul smiles as Daryl tells the story.

You can see it in his eyes: The kid was right on this one.

Also sharing memories and experiences with their son and father, respectively, are past AAPG presidents Robert “Bob” Weimer, who shares screen time with his son, Paul, and Steve Sonnenberg, who joins his father Frank for some reflective and perceptive views of their professional love and personal journey.

Why geology?

“Geologists become interested in geology for a number of reasons, but definitely it is the outdoors and the hiking and the trying to unravel this earth history piece,” Steve Sonnenberg says, perhaps speaking for everyone in the film.

“(It’s) the big puzzle,” he said of the earth, “that sometimes we go to look at because it intrigues and captures the imagination of people -- and makes them geologists.”

Paul Weimer, a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, a past AAPG officer and Distinguished Lecturer who has spoken to groups on five continents, said that another bond felt by geologists is the feeling that “there are no borders.

“As geologists, you can meet people and just instantly be friends -- just hit it off immediately,” Weimer said.

And his father, who in addition to being a past president is also an AAPG Honorary Member, Distinguished Educator Award winner and Sidney Powers medalist, defines the geologic bond succinctly and perfectly:

“It all starts with the rocks.”

Rock On

Emme, who says he wanted to document the character of geology and the characteristics of those who go into the profession, says becoming a filmmaker was not something he had in mind when he graduated from Stanford University in 2006.

Even today, he knows there’s something in his DNA that makes him hard to categorize.

“When it took me two hours to answer the ‘What is your permanent address?’ question from my insurance agent, I realized that I’m harder to predict than most.”

His initial foray into filmmaking was going to be a documentary on the local music scene in Boston, but was contacted by a family friend, Brian Richter, a geologist and AAPG member who appears in the film, who wanted to make a film about multi-generational geologic families.

It was Richter, incidentally, who provided most of the funding for the film, which was completed for less than $3,700.

Emme says it took him about 20 minutes to put the music documentary on hold and begin work on GeoFamilies.

He started DRE Films and, because both of his parents are geologists, says he had an intuitive feel for the characteristics that define geology and the geologist, though he says his appreciation for the profession has grown since doing the film.

As for GeoFamilies, he contacted his subjects, conducted and edited the interviews and was, generally, in charge of every step of the process.

To him, there is geology, literally, in the blood of those featured. Like children, he said, geologists have to keep their sense of wonder and excitement.

And when children are raised in such an environment, you can see the symmetry and connection in a very real way.

“When a geo-family goes camping,” he said, “mom and dad spend all their time doing exactly what the children want to do; wandering around looking at things. Everyone is picking things up and breaking them with hammers to see what’s inside, finding rocks, climbing rocks, even licking rocks and, in general, exploring. At any given point in a child’s life, there is always an appropriate life-lesson that can be taught through geology.

“The bond created by those shared activities is enormous, especially when established over a lifetime.”

A Good Start

Emme is aware that the film, a portion of which was shown as part of the opening session at the recent AAPG Annual Convention in Long Beach, has a certain “inside baseball” feel to it -- but that, he says, can act as not only a balm to geologists and their families, but even as a recruiting tool.

“I would like the film to get out.”

The film, which is being distributed by the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists and also available through the AAPG Bookstore, was recently first screened in Denver for those who were featured, and Emme was heartened by the “energy and excitement” in the room.

“When you get 17 geologists telling stories and talking about how much they love geology,” he says, “it’s hard not to make it sound like a really good field, which could serve as a nice synopsis for somebody thinking about pursuing it as a career.”

And for those who don’t, Emme says the film is for “anybody who wants to understand why their crazy friends and family love rocks so much.”