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Montana has proven a major asset for Warm Springs for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the unlikelihood of Pierce and Richardson running afoul of any Federales here. Pierce says UM provides a growing pool of qualified, competent graduates. Many of their employees started as part-timers while studying at the university in journalism or media arts. And being a production company from Montana has "brought us sort of a cachet" in bigger markets, Pierce says. "I was in Los Angeles with TNT, a major network, and they just love that we're in Montana...We have a different perspective, we have a different flavor to our storytelling. People love the whole imagery of Montana."
The only downside?
"The plane tickets are expensive."
Still, Warm Springs is growing by leaps and bounds for a very good reason. Pierce says the company has been quick to adopt the latest in digital technology. They were one of the first companies in the outdoor space to start using DSLRs consistently, he says. Pierce even has a crew constructing a specialized camera rig, with 15 GoPro mini-cams fixed to a single board. They got the idea from some filmmakers in the surf world. "You get this cool slow-mo effect as all these thing go off," Pierce says. They plan to test it at Moonlight Basin this month, while Warm Springs shoots a pilot for a program on ski patrollers.
"My partner, Chris, is a camera geek," Pierce says. "Every week it seems like, he tells me about something new we have to have. But all kidding aside, it's what's really helped keep our product fresh and high quality. He's relentless in his pursuit of the next cool technology that's going to make beautiful TV."
To that end, Warm Springs has teamed up with a group of filmmakers in Florida to make use—jointly—of a pricey CineFlex helicopter. It's a full-sized helicopter, Pierce explains, retrofitted with a top-of-the-line CineFlex camera. "The footage is as good as Hollywood gets," he says. Warm Springs now collaborates with its Florida counterpart on film schedules, "piggybacking" on their trips to minimize expenditure. "It's just breathtaking stuff," Pierce says. It makes the footage look "network."
Not every technological advancement is something independent film companies can immediately embrace. Warms Springs would love to get its hands on a Phantom HD slow-motion camera that's relatively new on the market. "But it's $100,000," Pierce says. "It's not something you rush out and get."
Warm Springs isn't alone in western Montana's outdoor television world. Barrett Productions, where both Pierce and Richardson got their starts in film, has also taken networks such as ESPN2 and Outdoor Life by storm. So has the Kalispell-based Tahoe Films, which won esteem last year from NBC Sports for its popular daytime program "Eye of the Hunter." Bozeman's Grizzly Creek Films has produced award-winning content for National Geographic, and specializes in commercial work for clients across the globe.
The increased popularity of outdoor filmmaking does have some drawbacks. As the technology gets cheaper, it floods the market with productions of marginal quality, Pierce says—not that hunting shows are known for high production value, he clarifies. Warm Springs started up with the intent of making higher quality outdoor programming, but Pierce finds his business somewhat at odds with folks operating with less overhead and asking for less pay.
"They're cobbling it together with some inexpensive cameras and sweat equity and coming up with an okay product," he says. "They're willing to accept a lot less money for their work, so the supply-demand formula changes and prices for things go down. What someone is willing to pay for an outdoor television show now is a lot less, frankly, than it was five years ago, because there are so many people out there with cameras shooting stuff and not asking much for their work."
Jesse Spaulding grew up in Papua New Guinea. He hopes eventually to return there and film an episode in a series of his own on hunting practices across the globe. But it's going to take more than the CineStars and a time-lapse dolly to get there. He knows that.
"It's still a lot of work," Spaulding says. "You can have some good-looking footage, but it helps to know people in [the industry] for sure. You have to be constantly bugging people, constantly filming and trying to get your work out there. Even though the equipment's out there, it's still not that easy to tap into."
That's the downside. With more people holding the means to make a good-looking film in their hands, having a major network take notice of your work becomes that much harder. But unlike some, Spaulding knows not to take the technology for granted. He's been to classes, he's shot 16mm film, he's processed his work the hard way.
"If you mess up one little setting on your camera, those days that you put into it, you're just going to have a blank roll of film," he says. "That really makes you focus a lot more attention on your set up, your lighting, your camera settings. It made me gain a lot more appreciation for the technology now. With my camera, I can shoot something and then hit play and view it right away. If I don't like it, I delete it, change a setting and shoot it again."
It's those small components, such as lighting and framing, that Spaulding feels will separate quality productions from typical YouTube fare.
Gita Saedi Kiely says she sees a lot of good documentary ideas through her work screening entries for the Big Sky Film Fest. Most have the feel of rough cuts or unfinished films. Making a film is "so much harder than people realize," she says. "So, now that all these inspired people with great ideas have their own cameras and all this guerilla filmmaking is happening, these wonderful ideas just end up being these rough cuts because they don't have the infrastructure of yesteryear.
"That said, this guerilla filmmaking creates an opportunity for the uber-talented 22-year-old who just hits the nail on the head in their first film and ends up being nominated for an Oscar."
For now, at least, innovation and ingenuity in filmmaking seems to be working in Montanans' favor. Ristau, for example, is creating a short film entirely on his iPhone. He mentions Missoula Spaces, a festival founded last year to showcase one-minute films shot entirely on mobile devices. Spaulding is considering launching a Kickstarter campaign so he can film a pilot episode of his own series to send to several networks. And his aerial work could be taking off. He's had some interest from a documentary project that wants him to capture footage of an island in the Pacific. In the meantime, he's traveling around the country filming for Barrett Productions' series "Deadmeat." The show combines exotic hunting with regional cooking.
After stowing the CineStar 6 in the back of his car, Spaulding shows me another outlandish filmmaking gadget, a pair of plastic black goggles with green trim, an antennae and a SIC Visuals sticker (SIC stands for Spaulding International Cinema, his freelance filmmaking company). The goggles have a distinct sci-fi feel; I can't help thinking of the mask Princess Leia wears at the beginning of Return of the Jedi. When Spaulding plugs them into the CineStar's remote, he can view a live feed from a smaller camera mounted next to his Sony on the helicopter's belly. If he tilts his head left, right or down, the entire camera housing follows remotely.
It's pretty freaking cool—which leads to one question: What's next?