LIGHTS, CALIFORNIA, ACTION: A STUDENT’S EXPERIENCE FILMING A DOCUMENTARY IN THE SIERRA NEVADAS


Written by Jack FitzGerald (Communication major, BA graduation date 2017)


In an article published on gallup.com on April 8th, 2015, the Gallup-Purdue Index data shows “only 32% of students worked on a project that took more than a semester to complete, 27% of students felt that their professors cared about them as a person, whereas just 22% had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.”


HERE BEGINS MY STORY…


Jack Fitzgerald

The summer of 2014 I became a Celti-Cat! I participated in Children’s Media Around the World study abroad program travelling to Ireland. Communication Associate ProfessorNancy Jennings , founder of the program, states, “Students learn about children’s media from around the world with an appreciation for culture, child development, and media production.” Our journey across “the pond” came with experiences such as touring production company Sixteen South and RTE, Ireland’s National Television and Broadcast network.


My fascination with media professionals and the program overall led to a college changing conversation with Dr. Jennings. Following the Ireland trip, Nancy connected me with Electronic Media Professor Kevin Burke . Kevin would be traveling to California during the fall 2014 semester to film the third and final Gold Rush Documentary . Gold Rush needed a representative from the Communication Department to be on the project and I was going to be their guy.


Fall semester came, plane tickets were bought, vans rented, and bags packed. I went home September 4th with an extension cord, tripod, a Nikon camera, and much anticipation. I set my alarm for 3:30am and would be on the other side of the United States 12 hours later.

What was I getting myself into? Well, let me tell you.


Our adventure began 8 days prior to the race in Yosemite National Park. These 8 days would give us time to prepare and train for the filming of the 2014 Gold Rush Adventure Race. The race is a 30 hour expedition based in Modesto, California. The race includes a combination of endurance disciplines, including orienteering navigation, cross-country running, mountain biking, paddling, climbing, and related rope skills.



Gold Rush campground, September 2014

Our fleet of white rental vans arrived in Yosemite by nightfall on the 5th of September. Upon our arrival, we pitched our tents, received a briefing from a park ranger on the necessary precautions to prevent bears from visiting our site, and prepared the “Natural High” dehydrated dinners, our main food source for the next 4 days – the beef stroganoff was a hit.



The next morning, we began documentary practice workshops with the professionals.


There were 6 professionals in California with us; Brian J. Leitten – an alumnus, TV producer and director, Electronic Media Professor Kevin Burke, photographer and Olympic hopeful Kaori Funahashi, Executive Producer from New York Josh Senor, and camera operator/filmmakers Vivian Smith and Erik Nachtrieb from Australia.


Each professional had a unique skill set to bring to the table. In just a few short hours I became skilled in the basics of pre-production, post-production, interviewing, and camera operation. It was during the camera operation workshop that I remember Professor Burke saying to me, “Jack, if you get some good shots out here, they could end up in the documentary.” Professor Burke’s words stuck with me throughout the week, and it became my mission to have one of my shots make it into the documentary.



Jack and other students with Professor Burke, September 2014

On our 5th day in California, I had an opportunity to work exclusively with Professor Burke. I told him I was seeking to be a camera operator on race day and asked if he could help me become more competent with the camera. We spent the afternoon working on “pan-shots,” “close-ups,” “wide-angle shots,” when to adjust the “ISO,” proper use of a tripod and yes, the most important of them all – do not forget to leave your lens cap on!



Professor Kevin Burke and friends, September 2014

Day 6 and 7 were both invigorating and action-packed, especially with the Gold Rush nearing. Day 6 focused on a 5-mile hike around the beautiful Pinecrest Lake. The purpose of the hike was for us to get a sense of where we would be setting up some of our shots come race day and to become familiar with the course in general.



The professionals created “mock race day” situations where we would set up our shot and they would run by as if they were the racers. This practice was great for me because it helped me become comfortable with the “live” component of filming – it all happens so fast, especially when you are looking through a lens.


Day 8 – Race Day! There are many colorful memories I have from the race I could share with you all, but there are two in particular that paint a good picture of my experience.


The first experience starts 4:00 a.m. when my team led by Professor Burke arrives at Pinecrest Lake. We take the time to s