The AAPG and AAPG Foundation-produced documentary, “Rock Stars: Pioneering Women in Petroleum Geology,” enjoyed an enthusiastic embrace when it debuted almost a year ago at the 2017 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition (ACE) in Houston – but since that premiere, only a handful of people had access for an encore viewing.
About 600 people attended the ticketed ACE event, which was sponsored by the Professional Women in the Earth Sciences (PROWESS) Special Interest Group and, in addition to the movie’s premiere, featured panel discussions about the challenges women faced and the historic contributions they’ve made since the birth of the profession, followed by Q&A sessions and a costume contest that celebrated the working styles of women in the petroleum industry for the past 100 years.
The documentary itself was written for and presented specifically in conjunction with AAPG’s centennial celebration.
When it was over, almost as soon as the lights came on, the question was asked: When can we see it again?
Good news: The movie is now gaining a wider audience of AAPG and PROWESS members via a link on the AAPG website. And it’s about to gain an even wider audience of non-AAPG viewers, thanks to an upcoming special screening open to the public April 17 at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas.
Appropriately, the film’s screening is a complementary event for a second special night at the museum: One week later, on April 24, past AAPG President and Honorary Member Robbie Gries, the force behind the project, will be the speaker for the museum’s Arlen Edgar Distinguished Lecture Series.
“The fact is, without Robbie there would be no documentary at all,” said Vern Stefanic, longtime AAPG staffer who wrote and served as the film’s producer. “Her passion to shine a spotlight on a largely unknown part of the profession’s history, and then her amazing and tireless research in gathering hundreds of fantastic stories that honor and extol the accomplishments are at the heart of every second of this film.
“She is the genius behind the content and creation of ‘Rock Stars,’” he added. “It was thrilling to be able to work with her and bring the stories to the screen.”
The documentary was inspired by Gries’ book, “Anomalies – Pioneering Women in Petroleum Geology: 1917-2017,” which also was released at the Houston ACE. She was well into the project in 2015 when she and Stefanic discussed the possibility of telling the story through additional media.
“Robbie’s creative spark came as AAPG approached its centennial, and it started with a question,” Stefanic said. “As she considered the stories of how petroleum geology began and evolved over AAPG’s first 100 years, she wondered … how many women were part of that story?
“I’m not sure anyone at that time realized the answer would be, ‘a lot of women, and their contributions to the profession and the industry were huge,’” he said. “Robbie made that discovery. She was the first to realize the vision, and the more she researched, the more exciting and extensive the story became.”
Stefanic and Gries concluded that a video would be a perfect complement to her book. The AAPG Foundation agreed, citing specifically the film’s intent to further the Foundation’s mission of disseminating science, preserving important data and enhancing the future of geoscience. Trustees approved a grant in late 2015, tied directly to the proposal’s modest budget, and production began.
Telling the Story
“Rock Stars” presents the history of women working in petroleum geology – from the first woman hired in 1917, to modern-day women who are present “from the wellsite to the board room.” Their journey was not always an easy one – women working in the industry have had to overcome societal, cultural, financial, physical and professional challenges in their quest to become “rock stars,” a story vividly examined by the documentary.
“A lot of thought went into how to combine the past with the present to project the future potential,” Gries said. “That way the audience could be led back and forth between the earliest era to the Affirmative Action era when things opened up.”
The documentary was structured in five parts, each about 20 minutes in length, covering the first century of petroleum geology from a woman’s perspective.
“It’s a chronological approach,” Stefanic said, “and each segment captures the dynamics and challenges that women faced in specific decades, as well as recognizing the specific women who led the way.”
Important women were remembered – or, in some cases, officially recognized for the first time. Stories range from those of Helen Plummer (the first woman hired as a petroleum geologist), Reba Masterson, Fanny Carter Edson (as colorful and flamboyant as any male wildcatter ever dreamed of being), Dollie Radler Hall, three discovery micropaleontologists (Esther Applin, Alva Ellison and Hedwig Kniker), Doris Curtis, Julia Gardner (Sidney Powers’ hero and muse), Anny Courey, Anne Robbins Frank (the first woman to lead a seismic crew) and dozens of others.
To tell the story on film, Gries enlisted women of high position and achievement currently working – plus some distinguished veterans of the profession – to appear on camera. That list included, in addition to Gries, Cindy Yeilding, Susan Morrice (this year’s AAPG Explorer of the Year awardee), Michelle Judson, Sherilyn Williams-Stroud, Ione Taylor, Annell Bay, Randi Martinsen (past AAPG president), Marie Gramman, Susan Cunningham, Anne Robbins Frank and Anny Coury.
Gries matched each woman with a historic figure or subject that best matched their own expertise and experience. Since Gries had collected the research, she “knew the material, through and through” and was able to “coach each one during their presentations” to help them prepare.
Each woman typically had a two-session shoot. First, Gries would ask questions that allowed the women to tell the stories of the pioneering women who opened the door for women to succeed in the profession. Next, Stefanic asked about the interviewee’s own personal experience in the profession.
Interviews were grouped and filmed in a handful of multi-day sessions, taking place in Houston, Denver, Tulsa, Louisville and Carson City, Nev.
The actual writing of the script came together quickly over a two-month stretch, which Stefanic survived thanks to “seemingly non-stop bursts of weekend adrenalin.” (The longtime editor of the EXPLORER, Stefanic’s regular duties now are as AAPG’s director of administration and programs.)
Contributing to the film’s look and quality was an impressive team: AAPG graphic artist Matt Randolph was the director of photography; Claire Edwards, a veteran of Ree Drummond’s “The Pioneer Woman” production team, was the editor; composer Elizabeth Smith Curtis provided the film’s original score; and Tulsa actress Dionne White, whose voice has been heard for several years at ACE opening sessions, was the narrator.
Yesterday, Today … and Tomorrow
As an historical document, “Rock Stars” aspires – like Gries’ book, “Anomalies” – to place into the archives the story of how women were able to find their place in the profession. It provides a new perspective in what might be a familiar context – adding some new chapters to a familiar story.
The fact that it does so via intriguing and often entertaining stories about amazing women makes it compelling for today’s audiences. Some will see it as a reflection of their own experience; younger viewers may see it as inspiration.
“I hope Robbie and I have brought some awareness and appreciation to ongoing conversation of women in the profession,” Stefanic said, “and I hope there are young women who dream of a career in the geosciences, who will watch and better understand why they have the opportunity to do what they love.”
Indeed, the film’s final part is written as a montage of observations, advice and encouragement to tomorrow’s geoscientists.
“Hearing our interviewees talk with enthusiasm and passion about tomorrow’s energy opportunities was inspiring,” Stefanic said. “In fact, the entire last montage wasn’t part of the original script, but their words and performances were too good to ignore.
“I mean, they inspired me.”
For Gries, “getting to know my cohorts and so many details and experiences from their careers” and “sharing my knowledge of both the pioneers and the sociology of those earlier eras” were parts of the experience she’ll never forget.
And, like the circles that form and ripple outward when a pebble is thrown into water, Gries hopes that the next generation of petroleum geologists learn from their predecessors.
“I just hope that we can bring them to appreciate our rich and long history and be able to imagine the circumstances that the earlier women worked in,” she said. “And, with this appreciation, maybe there will be times in their careers where challenges require more courage and strength ... they can use this as a resource to buttress their efforts.”