The CineStar 6 looks more like an enormous flying spider than a helicopter. Six plastic rotors on spindly arms spin wildly, the whir echoing across Missoula's Dornblaser Field. The machine hovers for a few seconds at eye level, teetering back and forth in the late afternoon breeze, and then, in a flash, it shoots straight to the top of a grove of pines. If the Sony NEX camera fixed to its belly were recording, the footage would be a wild roller-coaster ride.
Jesse Spaulding plays his thumbs over a pair of joysticks on a hulking remote controller. The CineStar zips south, then east, cutting across blue sky and a pale moon. If he wanted, Spaulding says, he could send the thing two miles away—over the South Hills, maybe farther—before it would drop out of range. The Federal Aviation Administration limits the height he can fly it, to about 400 feet. Still, he's been able to get aerial footage of climbers on jumbled boulder fields, slack-liners on the University of Montana campus, a mountain biker on Mount Jumbo, even his girlfriend strolling across open fields in full hunting camo.
A decade ago, technology such as this was largely out of reach for filmmakers in western Montana. Now it seems the sky's the limit. Cameras boast increasingly higher quality at lower cost and come in smaller sizes that can shoot both still photos and video. Anyone can get their hands on the basic equipment needed to make a film.
Succeeding as a filmmaker, however, is a different story.
"It's a field which requires innovation at every turn," says Doug Hawes-Davis, a documentary filmmaker in Missoula. "Montana-based producers, independent filmmakers, perhaps have to rely on innovation as much or more than everybody else, because funding is limited."
Spaulding, 24, is trying to innovate by investing in new filmmaking technology that will set him apart. He owns two of the CineStar helicopters, each valued at around $5,000. The other has eight rotors, but it's not quite as stable and doesn't break down for easy travel like the one at Dornblaser Field. He's been at this for just over a year, honing his technique through practice and personal projects. The CineStar is eco-friendly, he boasts on his website, and far cheaper than hiring a manned aircraft. So far, though, he hasn't been able to market his aerial cinematography skills very widely. "I wanted to get into more of the commercial world, just 'cause I thought there was a lot of money there and a lot of potential," he says. "But that's super hard in Missoula because nobody wants to pay for that kind of thing."
Spaulding's work regularly takes him across the country, from deer hunts in Sitka, Alaska, to squirrel hunts near Apalachicola, Florida. When we met up to take the CineStar for a spin, he'd just returned from filming a python hunt in the Florida Everglades. He's managed to find a niche in western Montana's budding filmmaking community as a freelance videographer for Barrett Productions, a film production company specializing in adventure travel and outdoor programming for networks such as ESPN and the Outdoor Life Channel, but it wasn't easy.
Spaulding, a 2010 media arts grad from UM, only heard of Barrett Productions last year when he eavesdropped on a Barrett videographer talking about a shoot in Africa. "Finally I went up and talked to him, asked him, 'What do you do? How do you get to travel to these places and film?'" he recalls. "He told me about his job at Barrett Productions and said, 'Yeah, we're actually hiring another film guy.' I went in the next day, brought them my resume and film reel...I had no clue Barrett Productions existed."
Despite the travel and excitement, Spaulding is still trying to realize his filmmaking dreams in Montana. He doesn't use the CineStars for Barrett. The job only occasionally calls for his other specialized cinematic flair: painstaking time-lapse reels involving motors, a homemade dolly system and infinite patience. He has his hopes set on making documentaries about climbing and skiing.
His first real venture into filmmaking came during a lengthy break from his initial chemistry studies at UM. He and a crew of climber friends traveled to Thailand, where he filmed their trip using a DSLR camera purchased with money from summer firefighting work. He later compiled the footage for a class project in editing and screened it on campus. The experience motivated him to stick with filmmaking; he gets excited simply retelling the story. The only time his mood drops is when he mentions a trip he was supposed to take to Italy for Barrett Productions. They finally wanted to tap his aerial expertise, he saysbut the trip fell through, leaving him "bummed." The CineStar will have to wait.
Leveling the field
"The camera on your cell phone is probably better than the camera I made my first documentary on," Doug Hawes-Davis says, nodding at my Droid Incredible. We're at a coffee shop on North Higgins and the place is packed. Cell phones litter nearly every tabletop. "Everybody in this room right here has the technology to make some kind of media right now, in their pocket," he says.
Hawes-Davis, 43, is part of Missoula's old guard of documentary filmmakers. He got his start in 1992, filming a project based on his graduate thesis from UM. Cameras were scarce in Missoula then, he says. The quality was "not that great." He financed the project out of pocket, estimating it would take about $1,000. He had "no idea how to shoot, no idea how to edit, none of it really," and when the woman he was working with disappeared, he found himself "sitting there with this box of tapes, 20 hours of VHS footage." Left with no real alternative in a town with no filmmaking infrastructure, he headed to Missoula Community Access Television and learned how to edit the hard way. He walked away with his first short film, The Element of Doom.
Two years and a string of odd jobs later, Hawes-Davis was back at it. His second project brought him together with Dru Carr, a friend from UM. The two founded High Plains Films in 1992. Twelve years later, they went a step further, founding the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Many Missoula-based filmmakers these days consider the festival key to western Montana's growing film community.
"When the festival started nine years ago, I don't think there were many local films or filmmaker-types," says Damon Ristau, who debuted a version of his nearly finished documentary The Bus at the festival last month. "Every year it's getting more rich and there's more people doing this type of work. It's this ever-expanding group of people that are really talented and able to bounce ideas off each other."
Missoula's filmmaking community has grown exponentially in the past 10 years. Part of that is due to increased exposure through high-profile events such as Big Sky or the International Wildlife Film Festival. But Hawes-Davis says the technology—now cheaper and better—has made the industry far less restrictive. Independent filmmakers are no longer the "rare breed" they were in Hawes-Davis's early years.
The flashy advancements are the most obvious: the CineStar choppers, GoPro's mini high-definition cameras, fish-eye and zoom lenses that magnetically attach to camera phones.
Ristau used several GoPro shots for The Bus, mounting the camera to the undersides of cars or driving over it. The big revolutions for independent filmmakers are a tad more subtle, though. DSLRs such as Jesse Spaulding's Canon 5D Mark II go for a few thousand dollars—a fraction of what the equipment necessary for quality productions cost a decade ago. Throw in a laptop with good editing software, and the minimum budget for a full-length film is still far more affordable.
"It's leveled the playing field," Ristau says. "A guy like me, scraping by with a tiny film and production company, now that I have this technology and these tools, I can make a film that can be projected on the big screen at the Wilma Theatre and you can't tell it wasn't shot on a $40,000 camera or a $200,000 camera."