Taking off 

Spurred by advancing technology, filmmaking is on the rise in western Montana—but can we support all the new filmmakers?

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.

click to enlarge Jesse Spaulding, a Missoula freelance videographer, with his CineStar 6 - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN

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.

click to enlarge Doug Hawes-Davis shot his first documentary in 1992—12 years before co-founding the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Doug Hawes-Davis shot his first documentary in 1992—12 years before co-founding the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

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."

Ristau, 32, wound up in Missoula a decade ago, around the time when independent filmmakers began to congregate here. With the industry's embrace of digital media, it's become possible to eke out a living far from post-production hubs such as New York and Los Angeles. After Ristau did several shoots for The Bus at Burning Man last year, he was recruited by the Burning Man Project to do some volunteer video editing. Then it hired him to do all their internal video work. In today's industry, that job doesn't require Ristau to travel to San Francisco, where the organization is based; he can largely collaborate from Missoula.

Gita Saedi Kiely came to Missoula nine years ago from Chicago, where she'd already established herself as a documentarian through her own work and her collaboration with a local film collective. Her move here came in the midst of a project for PBS, a series called "The New Americans" that told the stories of five immigrants in the U.S. She traveled repeatedly between Missoula and Chicago for work, always finding that the connectivity of the filmmaking community was notably stronger in the latter. "Fifteen years ago, if you loved Missoula and filmmaking, you just knew you had to love Missoula later," she says. "You had to move and get your career going before you could come back here."

Now Saedi Kiely, 42, is finding more of the collective vibe she missed from Chicago, "and 10 years from now, it's going to be here even more," she says. Meanwhile, she teaches at UM, collaborates on projects with local filmmaking friends such as Katy Garton and works with past and present students.

"If we could all rely on each other to watch each other's rough cuts and make sure we finish our films, and get advice from each other and shoot with each other and edit with each other, it'll just make our community stronger and bigger," Saedi Kiely says. "I don't see any reason why we can't make great films here that are absolutely comparable to the films in New York or Berkley or Chicago. I don't think we're there yet, but I think we're on our way."

Paying the bills

As readily available as the technology is, filmmakers still need to make money. Filmmaker Katy Garton sees that as probably the biggest hurdle now for those new to the industry. Garton, 32, got her start in the documentary world about 10 years ago, at Montana State University. The accessibility of new technologies allowed her to buy the equipment she needed. But making a living here, she says, requires a degree of "recognizing what you're worth...

click to enlarge Damon Ristau shoots additional footage for The Bus, which debuted in Missoula last month. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Damon Ristau shoots additional footage for The Bus, which debuted in Missoula last month.

"You get paid less in Montana, and there's no way around that. There's my Montana rate and my not-Montana rate. It's a sticker-shock to people, because a lot of people have no idea what it takes to make a production...People don't understand the time and, therefore, the cost."

Garton, who's currently two years into a personal project on indigenous music in Azerbaijan, considers herself lucky on the commercial front. Much of what she's done has been more in the documentary style, allowing her to hone her artistic skills while making the money she needs to invest in equipment. Getting jobs in Montana depends greatly on who you know and who knows you, she says.

"One thing leads to another. I've never sought out or advertised. It's just a matter of forming relationships and building them and being passionate about the work. Before you know it, it links in a chain. Paths just connect and lead you to the next project."

Damon Ristau has managed to strike a balance between personal projects and the commercial work that comes with a somewhat steady paycheck, though he notes it's not always easy. Making an independent film calls for a level of obsession; otherwise, Ristau says, he'd have a harder time finishing a project. Yet obsession can be a slippery slope, as Ristau's learned the hard way.

"I found myself in a lot of trouble," he says of his personal work just prior to The Bus. "I made a film called The Best Bar in America a few years back, and it turned into this absolutely insane...We just fell down the rabbit hole with it and became all-consumed. I forewent all this commercial work that was coming in the door, and it ended up biting me in the ass. We barely finished the movie, it's still not released. It just spun my life out of control...Even if it may take a bit longer, you have to have a foot in both worlds."

There, too, technology has stepped up to help. The internet is rife with fundraising and networking opportunities for independent artists. Filmmakers don't necessarily have to sink lots of capital into projects. Folks like Ristau are increasingly turning to Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform designed to free artists from financial restrictions. Ristau raised $25,000 on Kickstarter for The Bus, about 95 percent of it from "perfect strangers." Even independent feature films are realizing the promise of grassroots support. Andrew and Alex Smith, brothers and renowned local filmmakers, launched a Kickstarter effort last summer to raise $60,000 for their film adaptation of James Welch's novel Winter in the Blood. They received $67,223 in total pledges, from as far away as the U.K. and Italy.

"It becomes a team effort then, and that's something that's changed the playing field too," Ristau says. "Your supporters take some ownership...I get some emails from my Kickstarter supporters calling it 'our film.' That's great. It's like a big family. And at the same time, when people are giving you money and support, you don't want to let them down."

The breakthroughs even extend to the distribution side of media, Hawes-Davis points out. The collapse of the DVD market was a hit to documentary filmmakers, he says, but the internet has opened untold doors for exposure. Given the limited out-of-pocket expense on The Bus, Ristau is contemplating an online pay-what-you-want model for the release of his film—akin to what bands such as Radiohead have done in the music industry.

For many, the internet has changed the way independent filmmakers gain exposure. The emphasis is no longer on historic broadcast outlets. A filmmaker can create a website, throw up a film reel and show off his or her work to potential clients and audiences alike.

click to enlarge Documentarian Katy Garton on assignment in the Bitterroot Mountains - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"I just think back even to when I was first getting into documentary filmmaking," Garton says. "The topics of conversation having to do with funding, everything was about broadcast. That's how a documentary filmmaker got work shown...on TV. It's still an incredible outlet, but now there's a lot of outlets. Now, people are self-distributing their work."

However, the internet lacks a reliable filter. The amount of available media may be increasing radically. That doesn't mean it's all quality production.

As the volume of media increases, "the more it's necessary to have things like the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where there's somebody who's curating, trying to make sense of it all and provide really compelling, artistic stuff for the public to consume," Hawes-Davis says. "The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival isn't YouTube. There's great stuff on YouTube, but you have to go try to find it. Nobody's curating it for you, except for how many hits something got."

Rampant growth

A few years back, Marc Pierce and his partner Chris Richardson found themselves on the far side of the Mexican border getting shaken down by the Mexican Federal Police, better known as "Federales." They were filming a hunting show for the Outdoor Life Network, now called NBC Sports. The two have trekked far and wide for their Missoula-based filmmaking company, Warm Springs Productions. They've slept in a lot of airports, Pierce says. But Mexico was something else entirely. Neither of them even speaks Spanish.

"That's probably the scariest thing that either of us has dealt with, being accosted at gunpoint by 16-year-old Mexicans with machine guns," Pierce says. "They just wanted to know what the hell we were doing laying out in a field with guns. We were goose hunting, but between the cameras and the guns they were very confused or suspicious and they weren't very friendly. It scared the heck out of us."

Pierce, 50, and Richardson, 41, have over 30 years of filmmaking experience between them. Their company, launched in 2008, has supplied outdoor programming for networks ranging from the Golf Channel to ESPN to Discovery. They film hunting, fishing, skiing, kayaking and pretty much anything else that makes Missoula seem a logical home base. Warm Springs, housed in a modest brick building on Missoula's Northside, produced 82 episodes for television in 2011. It claimed a score of awards for that work this January, including best combo hunting and fishing series at the Sportsman Choice Awards and best overall series at the Golden Moose Awards.

"We just hired our 40th employee," Pierce says. "We're busting out at the seams, buying equipment, hiring more people. We're having a blast."

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."

click to enlarge Videographers with Warm Springs Productions shoot footage for the series “Making Monsters.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS RICHARDSON
  • Photo Courtesy of Chris Richardson
  • Videographers with Warm Springs Productions shoot footage for the series “Making Monsters.”

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."

Rough cuts

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.

click to enlarge Gita Saedi Kiely hopes to one day see a strong filmmaking collective in Missoula. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Gita Saedi Kiely hopes to one day see a strong filmmaking collective in Missoula.

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?

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