The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

Alaska Adventure Film School gains traction

 

Courtesy Alaska Adventure Film School

Budding fillmakers get up close and personal at the Valdez Glacier as part of a workshop with the Alaska Adventure Film School.

Climbing stately glaciers. Kayaking through fjords teaming with wildlife. Flying over the Brooks Range. Climbing Denali. Witnessing thousands of caribou migrating past Venetie. Commercial fishing in dangerous waters. Snowmachining, ski jouring, dog mushing through unmerciful but breathtaking terrain. This is the majesty of Alaska.

In a state that offers every version of outdoor recreation, and unparalleled geography, it makes sense to have an academic program that capitalizes on location, adventure, epic vistas and extreme sports. The Prince William Sound Community College is awaiting approval for a proposed college program in Adventure Filmmaking to correspond with the current associate degree in Outdoor Leadership.

Dr. D.B. Palmer, the director of the Outdoor Leadership program at Prince William Sound Outdoor Leadership program and the owner of Alaska Adventure Film School based in Valdez, has proposed a one-of-a-kind academic program to the University of Alaska that has been a long time in the making, said Palmer. Blending a private program with a university program hasn't been done in this field, said Palmer.

"I'm in an enviable position," said Palmer. "The university is not pressuring me to market for a bachelor's degree, although it is hoped that students will take the path.

If approved, the associate's degree will be transferable to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Theatre and Film for those wanting to complete a bachelor's degree. Palmer said he's had great response from the Board of Regents and UA President Patrick Gambell. Currently, there are adventure film workshops and programs in the United States, but they do not have the support of a big institution or the ability to offer participants a chance to earn approved academic credit in the specialized field of Adventure Filmmaking.

Palmer, the owner of Alaska Adventure Film School, is the lead faculty member for the Outdoor Leadership Studies program at PWSCC. That program results in an associate's degree which can also transfer credit toward a bachelor's degree.

There are multiple paths you can choose to take advantage of the outdoor leadership program and the film school. You don't have to necessarily be a student enrolled full time at the University of Alaska, said Palmer.

For example, Palmer is offering an Alaska Adventure Film School course in Cordova from September 25-27. No experience with filmmaking is necessary, but students should expect to leave the intensive course with good basic skills. The course, formally named ODS 293 Adventure Filmmaking Field Seminar, will draw upon the experience of filmmaker Sky Rondanet from Lake Tahoe.

Students do need to be approved by Palmer because he has to be sure the participant can cope with a self-driven, fast paced course.

The group will stay in the top ranked Orca Adventure Lodge for three days, then return to Valdez to edit the film. For local people, Palmer said, film editing and the final work could be done from their own location so they only have to spend three days in the field away from their jobs and lives.

Making all of the courses accessible to working adults or people who cannot commit to two years in Valdez is important to Palmer.

"Most of our courses are available through live streaming," said Palmer. "We also plan many of our intensive courses for three day weekends to make it possible for more students to attend."

Palmer said one of his goals was to train Alaskans for jobs that are currently going to people from outside with the needed skill set.

"We've worked closely with Michael Brown from the Adventure Film School in Boulder, CO," said Palmer. "We wanted to make sure we were developing a program that provided training in areas the industry actually needs, like protecting equipment, how to deal with fog, emergency medical training and wilderness safety."

One student, majoring in film at the University of Alaska Fairbanks said having access to an award winning cutting edge filmmaker like Michael Brown drew her to the Alaska Adventure Film School seminar in Thompson Pass Last March.

"The program had an impact on my career," said Colleen Stymeist-Wood. "By going through this process with a mentor like Michael Brown, made me decide to forget everything I thought I knew and to give Brown's techniques a try."

Stymeist-Wood said she fought change hard at first, but then embraced Brown's methods. She said it seemed that every time she hit a stopping point in the filmmaking process, Brown was there to help her through it.

"Students in the program have continued access to their mentors which is a big deal," she said.

Stymeist-Wood said the expansion of the adventure program so that it can integrate into the existing UAF Film program is "much needed."

"There is an endless supply of adventure in Alaska," she said. "Going to the grocery store here can be an adventure. I think this program has huge potential."

This summer, Stymeist-Wood is taking advantage of the mentorship of Michael Brown. She's in California shooting a documentary about a donor organ family and Brown is still mentoring her.

Students with diverse backgrounds and motivation find their way to the film school. Lisa Pierimarchi isn't an aspiring filmmaker. She does have experience mountaineering, but her love of the outdoors isn't the only reason she enrolled in one of Palmer's workshops.

Pierimarchi also camped at Thompson Pass for an 11-day filmmaking experience. She sees herself as a storyteller and photographer at heart.

"I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005," said Pierimarchi. "I wasn't sure what my future held and I wanted to find ways to tell my story. I wanted to capture today."

What she learned from her winter camping experience was that everyone has a story to tell. The group of workshop participants came from widely different backgrounds, said Pierimarchi. Some were 20 years old and some 50.

"I loved being part of the whole ride," said Pierimarchi. She said finding a new medium to work with just motivated her more to tell her story. She was looking for a way to inspire other people with multiple sclerosis or challenges because they are often without hope. She echoed the sentiments of her camping mate Colleen when she said the Alaska Adventure Film School is about all types of adventures. Sometimes just life is an adventure and sometimes it has a rugged or beautiful backdrop like Alaska. She said there were more traditional outdoor adventure students in the group, but they still had a story to tell. She said the school expands the field; it doesn't put adventure in a tiny box.

In addition to the adventure film school program proposed, Palmer is finding success with the PWSCC outdoor leadership program already offered at PWSCC. The program includes courses for expedition leaders but those skills are now being integrated into the film school as they apply to filmmakers in treacherous locations.

"Students come out of these programs well rounded and functional, able to go straight to work," said Palmer. "I've had a lot of filmmakers tell me they wish they'd had training to deal with the specific challenges in Alaska."

Palmer said that backdrop is important to filmmaking because even if you are telling a story, not necessarily making a film about landscape, you have to have great background.

"In Alaska, everywhere you turn, there is amazing scenery, which lends itself to all kinds of filmmaking," said Palmer.

Data back up Palmer's observation. The State of Alaska Office of Film Production started tracking the film industry in 2010. Last year, the Department of Revenue took over management of the film industry.

Because a permit is not required to film in Alaska, the industry is tracked using tax credits. In 2010, approximately $244,000 in tax credits were approved and film companies spent approximately $744,000 in the state. In 2011, $6.2 million in tax credits were approved and film companies spent approximately $19 million here. In 2012, the tax credit approval rose to $19 million and spending by film companies increased to almost $58 million. Through June 2013, $13 million in tax credits were approved and $40 million was spent by film companies. Since the Department of Revenue took over tracking the industry, for the past 13 months, 52 applications for tax credit have been received and $15 million in tax credits have been approved.

The adventure travel industry nationally is also on the rise. The Adventure Travel Tourism Association reports that gross revenue for adventure travel companies is up 21 percent over 2013 on average with 71 percent of companies reporting expected growth in 2014. Since 2009, the ATTA found that the adventure travel market had increased at a rate of 65 percent yearly since 2009.

In Alaska, tourism data is collected but there is no category to distinguish "adventure" from other types of tourism. The Alaska Travel Industry Association also does not collect data specifically for the adventure sector of the market, but ATIA's Sarah Leonard said anecdotally she knows the product offered here is "solid" and shows no sign of decreasing interest. In particular, said Leonard, the "green" tourism market is growing and that often includes adventure packages.

Brown, co-owner of Adventure 60 North in Seward, said his company is moving in a "professional" direction which includes training and education.

"We have a lot of really skilled and talented people," said Brown. If they added filming to their skill set, they would be able to market themselves better and educate people.

Brown said Adventure 60 North just purchased nine arctic oven tents and new winter accessories that would be perfect for filming expeditions.

With a growing number of outdoor adventure companies in Seward, D.B. Palmer said Seward will be an important part of the success of the film school and outdoor leadership programs.

"We need to draw on that expertise and we are going to focus on providing internship opportunities when the new program is up and running, "said Palmer.

Dr. D.B. Palmer

Earlier this month, Palmer was the featured speaker at the Balto Film Festival in Seward, a film event tied to the restoration of the historic Jesse Lee Home and development of a charter school. Host Dorene Lorenz, president of the board of directors for the Friends of Jesse Lee and anchor for Good Morning Alaska television, said Palmer delivered a simple but powerful message to filmmakers in Seward.

"I think his message was unexpected," said Lorenz. "He said, even if you are shooting an adventure film, you still have to tell a story."

Lorenz said Palmer reminded filmmakers that people watch movies because of the story. This year, five residents of Soldotna, using an Iphone, won an award at the festival, said Lorenz, because the story they told was "brilliant." This served as an example, said Lorenz, that you don't have to have the best Go Pro, bells and whistles. The message, that you can tell great stories and move people as an industry, is the message she thinks Palmer is championing. He just happens to be doing it in an adventurous way.

 

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