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The Leader

Alumni Filmmakers

By Kerry Brophy
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2002, Vol. 18, No. 1

Trailblazers: This issue’s trailblazer series proves that the skills you learn on a NOLS course really can take you anywhere — from the top of Denali to the set of an Emmy-winning HBO series.

  Jason Dittmer
  Jason Dittmer
Jason Dittmer
Documentary Filmmaker
Jason Dittmer’s ability to get himself, and his camera crew, to high places is what helped launch his filmmaking career. Always drawn to big mountains, Jason has climbed in Nepal, Tibet, Peru, Alaska, Mexico, and Argentina, as well as the American and Canadian Rockies. A graduate of a Pacific Northwest Backpacking course in 1991, a Waddington Range Mountaineering course in 1993 and an Instructor course in 1995, Dittmer was a climber long before he knew how to operate a camera. Lucky for him, he brought his birthday present — a brand new camera — along on a climbing expedition to Denali with two other NOLS grads. Dittmer came back with over 25 hours of footage and a new passion for not only climbing mountains, but filming them as well. After years as a NOLS Instructor and film school at the University of Southern California in 1999, Jason joined up with a documentary filmmaker to produce an adventure film that won an Outdoor Life Network (OLN) award. He was on his way.

“I once talked to this director who said to me, ‘you really haven’t been in this business very long — what makes you think you can make it?’” remembers Jason. “I replied that all those years working for NOLS in the backcountry was where I learned to see the world, now I just have to learn to photograph it.”

And he did. He started his own documentary film company called Sierra Media LLC and soon the requests began to flood in for documentary work in remote locations where most film crews wouldn’t dare to go. Dittmer’s early prize-winning documentary, “Climbing into Cloudbase,” won him wide acclaim from the outdoor world. Today his work has appeared on ABC, CNN, ESPN, HBO, MTV, NBC and OLN.

“I got the feeling that I loved taking the skills I learned at NOLS and using them to capture footage in remote locations,” he recalls of his early filming days. “I also realized that filming is more about communication than images.” He says when filming in the mountains climbing is the easy part — it’s leading and communicating with the film crew that can be tough.

“Being an instructor for NOLS taught me about people and communicating,” he says. “A lot of my work is about leadership, on the set and off, and that’s the stuff I learned from NOLS. I wouldn’t be nearly as effective at my job if I hadn’t had those experiences in the backcountry.”

  Ed George
  Ed George
Ed George
Freelance Cameraman
A typical day at work for freelance cameraman Ed George is anything but typical. In his over thirty years as a cameraman, he’s strapped himself to the tops of trees, moving vehicles, sailboats, and, most recently, a steam locomotive in India to capture footage. George, who does work primarily for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, be-gan his career at about the same time he took a Wind River Wilderness course in 1970 with NOLS founder Paul Petzoldt and a host of legendary instructors in-cluding Steve Gipe and Rob Hellyer. The following summer he hitchhiked out West to begin the first of two summers as a NOLS instructor.

Today George’s work takes him all over the world filming interactions between wildlife and the scientists who are studying them. He does both underwater and terrestrial camera work and has filmed crocodiles, whale sharks, Anacondas, electric eels and venomous snakes. He’s shot a film on Golden Eagles in Mongolia, traveled 9,000 feet underwater to the bottom of the ocean on a Discovery Channel assignment, and traced the origins of bamboo fly fishing rods in Japan.

George’s career as a cameraman gives him a chance to put into practice all the backcountry living skills he taught at NOLS. Days in the field, he says, are long, and the weather, and even the wildlife, can be unpredictable. NOLS, says George, was the foundation for the kind of work he wound up doing — filming wild creatures and places and the people trying to protect them. Most of his work promotes an awareness of biological diversity and educates the public on the status of endangered species. His most recent project has taken him to Madagascar to film a scientist taking tissue samples of lemurs in order to create protective wildlife corridors for the species. Wherever in the world George goes with his camera, his work shows that, when it comes to protecting the environment, a picture is worth more than a thousand words.

  Scott Buck
  Scott Buck
Scott Buck
Supervising Producer for HBO Series "Six Feet Under"
The subject matter of HBO’s original series “Six Feet Under” couldn’t be further from a NOLS course in Alaska. It’s about the Fisher family, a semi-dysfunctional clan who own and operate a funeral home in Los Angeles. But the show’s supervising producer, Scott Buck, who took a 25 and over Alaska Sea Kayaking course this summer, believes any experience in a group provides fodder for his work. “Anything you do as a writer,” he says, “forces you to examine every experience you have.”

Buck’s adventure in Alaska was his second NOLS course; he’s also a graduate of a 1983 Spring Semester in the Rockies. That course almost steered his life down on a very different path — after the semester, he wanted to become a NOLS instructor. “The first two weeks of my semester,” he says, “I constantly thought ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ Then after awhile I settled into a rhythm, and when I got back to L.A. I thought what the hell am I doing here?’”

Writing, however, proved to be Buck’s true passion. He started working his way up on sitcoms before eventually becoming a writer/producer for “Six Feet Under,” his first drama. The show has become a huge success, winning multiple Emmy Awards and wide acclaim for its compelling plot and unusual cast of characters.

Like most NOLS grads, Buck uses the leadership skills he gained on his course more than anything else. “Simply making decisions in the wilderness has helped in what I do,” he says. “Everyone needs to rely on himself to be a leader, not the person in the kayak ahead of you. This translates into making your own decisions.”

On the set of “Six Feet Under,” Buck gets to produce all the episodes that he writes and is currently working with actress Kathy Bates on an upcoming show. It’s hard work and his NOLS course this summer was a needed break. “In my business you work such long hours and are around the same kind of people that it’s nice to be out with people from all over the world who do completely different stuff,” he says.

Will the cast of characters on his most recent NOLS course ever take form in “Six Feet Under’s” world of dark humor? “At some point in the future,” he says, “I’m sure my NOLS experiences will come up in my material. Every single person you meet influences the characters you create.”

  Noah Harlan
  Noah Harlan
Noah Harlan
Independent Film Producer
Noah Harlan believes any successful career in independent filmmaking requires two things: good luck and the ability to know a good opportunity when you see one. Harlan, who lives in New York and produces independent “film noirs” must have a lot of both. His first feature film “Apartment 5C” went to the Cannes film festival, an honor most young filmmakers only get to dream about. And his short film “Last Supper” has won best short at a number of national and international film festivals.

Harlan is a five-time NOLS grad — he’s done a 1990 Wind River Wilderness course, a 1991 Rock Climbing course, a 1992 Whitewater River Expedition and a 1994 Semester in Kenya.

All of this adds up to a lot of lessons in NOLS wilderness classrooms learning skills you wouldn’t think would translate to the dark world of “film noirs.” But Harlan would tell you otherwise. “Running a film is all about leadership,” he says. “That’s what it really comes down to. Producing a film is not that difficult, it’s not like advanced physics. In making a film you need a basic skill set but a lot of it is leading and planning. That’s just NOLS 101.”

Harlan also says that working on a film is very similar to being on a NOLS course. You have to work in tight spaces 24 hours a day with people you’ve never met before. “Each day you have a certain amount of things to accomplish,” he says. “So it’s a wide range of logistical issues — how you get from point A to point B with all your vehicles is like making a travel plan each day on a NOLS course. There’s a lot of pressure and mistakes are costly, just like leaving your stove going when you’re in the field.”

As a producer, Harlan has to act a lot like a NOLS Instructor, motivating people when they’re tired, fostering their trust and building teamwork.

At 26, Harlan is well on his way to an exciting career as an independent filmmaker. And he thinks someday his NOLS education and his film career might collide on screen. He’s been looking for an script ever since his NOLS semester there. “I’m drawn to showing other people what I’ve done and seen.”

  Michael Lowe
  Michael Lowe
Michael Lowe
Freelance filmmaker
Freelance filmmaker Michael Lowe’s most recent project is a very important one for NOLS — he’s making the school’s new promotional video. NOLS, says Lowe, “is sitting on endless possibilities for good stories.” Part of his job in the last year has been to capture all of these possibilities and turn them into realities on screen.

Lowe, who took an Outdoor Educator course in 1994 and became an instructor in 1996, specializes in making outdoor documentaries. He’s won a Cable Ace award, and his work has appeared on the National Geographic and Discovery channels. His documentary “Young at Heart” went to both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. Lowe’s latest work on the NOLS video is part of a larger pilot show on expedition skills. The pilot will take the NOLS curriculum and turn it into a series of “how-to” shows to air on channels like Discovery and the Outdoor Life Network.

A self-proclaimed storyteller, Lowe’s favorite projects are those that depict human experiences in the outdoors. He’s filmed a number of adventure races, running the ground crew and following teams as they race to the finish. In this realm in particular, Lowe’s NOLS skills proved invaluable as he raced alongside the teams, often working harder than the racers.

Now he’s following NOLS students and trying to capture on film what most would say is uncapturable — the NOLS experience. The video is a combination of his team’s and NOLS Instructor Andrew Chapman’s footage of NOLS courses in the field learning skills and talking about what it’s like to live in the wilderness for an extended period of time. His goal is to come away with a documentary that isn’t what he calls “canned” but rather allows the NOLS story to tell itself naturally. As one student in the video says, “I wrote a letter home to my parents trying to explain what I’ve been doing everyday. There are hardly words to describe what it’s like to wake up everyday and think, something crazy cool is going to happen today.”



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