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From the mountains to Mars, local artist has seen it all

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What Arbanas called his “most basic” time-lapse setup: camera, tripod, intervalometer and sandbag. PHOTO BY BILL ARBANAS

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

GALLATIN GATEWAY – Bill Arbanas helped with animations on the Mars Rover “Curiosity” when he was 65, and prior to COVID-19 halting operations, Arbanas was set to assist with the animation of the next Mars Rover, “Perseverance.” He’s painted murals displayed around the world, taught and produced three-dimensional animation work for more than three decades, including animation work featured on the set of the “Babylon-5” TV series, and even owned one of the first color computers back in the 80s.

However, Arbanas’ favorite thing to do involves a slower pace: Standing still for hours at a time behind the lens of a camera, long enough for the wildlife around him to reemerge after his arrival. 

Bill Arbanas stands next to the utility box mural he created for the Garnet Mountain Estates neighborhood. The style is inspired by ancient Japanese watercolor paintings. PHOTO COURTESY OF MEMORY-LAPSE

Since the pandemic has slowed many industries, Arbanas has invested more of his time in MEMORY-LAPSE, his time-lapse photography business. Armed with a basic camera setup, typically including a Canon camera, tripod, intervalometer and a sandbag to keep it steady, he’ll venture off into one of the many mountain ranges surrounding his home in Gallatin Gateway to capture the subtle movements many individuals may otherwise miss.

Although Arbanas moved to Montana three years ago, staring at the mountains everyday was a lifestyle he’d envied for 41 years.

“The cool thing about time lapses, is you go out with your camera, you find a beautiful spot and then you’re forced to stay there from 20 minuets to an hour and a half,” Arbanas said. “When you’re forced to stay in one spot and not move, the things around you start to move around again. Time lapses force you to stop, and look, and observe.”

Capturing a time lapse photograph involves a steady camera that is set to take a photo every three to 20 seconds, depending on the exposure necessary to capture the subject. Arbanas says clouds are his favorite subjects to shoot—describing that it’s reminiscent of childhood, when you’d lay on your back and imagine the different shapes they’d take above you. With the diversity of Montana’s weather, Arbanas also never tires of taking time lapses of the landscape—he sometimes captures all four seasons in one day.

Arbanas’ artistic passion follows ancestral roots. His grandparents were from a town called Arbanas that existed 400 years ago, a place where many Catholics in the region near what was Yugoslavia sought refuge from persecution from the Turks. 

Everyone who lived there adopted the last name Arbanas, including three of Arbanas’ grandparents. After immigrating to the U.S., his his mother’s parents came to own a portrait studio in Chicago, which his parents took over after his dad came back from World War II in 1945. His mother’s parents, tired of the busy city life, moved to a 300-acre farm in Michigan near Kalamazoo.

Arbanas attended an array of colleges and universities, including Northern Illinois University, Kent State University, Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, the College of DuPage, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois and the North American School of Conservation for post-grad. Since photography degree programs weren’t offered when he attended school, Arbanas instead elected to study journalism, hoping he could gain some experience in photojournalism—his dream was to work for National Geographic or Disney, shooting nature films.

Although he never shot nature films, he did his fair share of traveling abroad after joining the military in 1966 where he attended the jungle school for Vietnam, only to later be stationed in Germany. While abroad, he fell in love both with a woman and the mountains—particularly the Matterhorn.

“I’ve always loved mountains and one of the mountains I wanted to climb was the Matterhorn down in Switzerland,” Arbanas said. “We get a month off in the military, so my buddy and I hitchhiked [to Switzerland] in early June in ‘68.”

Although they never summited, he did meet his wife, Joan, in Switzerland. After marrying, they lived in Manchester, England where Arbanas cleaned and repaired airbrushes and managed one of the largest art supply stores in the United Kingdom.

The couple moved back to the states in 1986 and similar to how he learned photography, Arbanas taught himself three-dimensional animation on the Commodore-Amiga, the first animation-computer. He worked for a gaming company, then for a doctor at an orthopedic hospital where he filmed procedures in the operating room so the hospital could produce educational surgical videos. Over the course of five years, Arbanas says he recorded more than 3,500 surgeries and learned more about medicine then he ever wanted to.

That’s when he and Joan moved to Los Angeles. During his time working on the “Babylon-5” TV series, Arbanas taught three-dimensional animation, eventually getting the job at NASA’s laboratory. Joan passed away over 13 years ago from cancer and Arbanas continued to live in the Los Angeles area, staying in touch with his brother, Larry, as he cared for their father in Phoenix, Arizona. After his father passed at the age of 99, Arbanas set his eyes on Big Sky.

“41 years ago I was aimed at coming up here to build a cabin and say, ‘to hell with the rest of the world,’” Arbanas said. “It took me 41 years to get here. Once [my dad] passed I moved up here immediately and I’m really sorry I didn’t do it 41 years ago.”

He has since done his part to not only capture the beauty of the area, but also enrich its natural beauty. He recently beautified a peeling utility box in the Garnet Mountain Estates neighborhood, his first mural in nearly a decade.

“Every time an opportunity opens a door you really need to go through it, otherwise you really lose out,” Arbanas said of his mural work—a sentiment that could apply to his brimming life as well.

Unfortunately, during his work on the mural, a nagging back injury flared up and he is in need of surgery for a ruptured disk. However, he’s been able to continue his time lapse photography, spending his days along Spanish Creek among the bison herd and the landscape he spent so many years dreaming to reach. Alongside clouds, many of his time lapses feature the night sky—Arbanas is a self-described astronomy geek.

“I’m 75, so that was 10 years ago,” Arbanas said, recalling his time in NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. “I was still an old fart and to have that as a kind of a frosting on my career was just fantastic. I love working on TV and movies, but it’s fleeting. When you work on something like the Rover … that’s there forever.”

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