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 set up our shots and wait for the race to start at 7:00 a.m. The equipment I had with me included the Nikon camera, a tri-pod, and a GoPro. I would officially be a camera operator on the race. My shot was positioned a mile into the course at the top of a staircase off to the side. The GoPro I had was strapped to a tree and would capture the racers coming down the hill I was sitting on.


I checked my watch; it read 10 minutes to 7:00 a.m. The sunrise was hitting Pinecrest Lake and all I could think of were the words from Mike Chastain of team Barking Frogs, “Adventure Racing has let me see things that not many people get to see, like the moonlight on open water, trips to different countries and continents – all with some of my best friends.”



California mountains

I couldn’t agree with Mike anymore. Granted, this was my first experience with Adventure Racing, but there were a lot of firsts to come with it. I never would’ve imagined being a camera operator on an internationally shown documentary when I started college.


The second and final experience I will share is later in the race at approximately 11:30pm. By this hour, half the teams had already made it through the ropes course and we didn’t think that any of the other teams would want to take the risk this late at night. Well, that was just not true. Josh Senor, one of the professionals, approached a few of us. He was in need of camera operators that could trek up to Double Dome where SOAR/Calico would be summiting the mountain. I volunteered.


I went on this excursion with 2015 Electronic Media graduates and good friends of mine Zack Korb and Nick Bartelme. Now, taking into consideration the time of day and being in a rural area, it was extremely dark at this point. We had headlamps on to guide our way, but they only lit up the trail about 5 feet in front of us.


This was not a notable problem until we began to scale the side of Double Dome which was omnipresent with lose debris, roots, and trees. In addition, the only way we knew we were going in the right direction was by identifying little blue ribbons which were strategically placed throughout the rough trail to Double Dome. I slipped and fell many times on the way, always more concerned about the status of my camera.


We made it to the summit and captured the content of SOAR/Calico doing the ropes course. I am proud to say that content did make it into the documentary. I went 2 for 2 on my goals!


Evening sky.

(I wanted to include this shot because this is where our team slept from about 1:00am to 4:00am Saturday going into Sunday morning – under those stars – amazing).


Professor Kevin Burke refers to the doc team as family; he says, “Once you are involved with the project, you are always welcome back whether you’re an alumnus or a student who was involved the year before.” As shown in the statistics above, this is a rare opportunity. I made some of the best of friends on this adventure; we forever share a bond.



Jack with classmates

I am blessed to have found professors like Nancy Jennings and Kevin Burke at the University of Cincinnati. They have changed the course of my college career and possibly even my life. I am grateful for the faith they bestowed in me.


While writing this I stumbled across a quote which read, “The world is our classroom.”The Gold Rush Documentary project is a concrete example of this. This world class project re-imagines the classroom with experiential learning at heart, pairing students and faculty with professionals from differing perspectives. The project will continue next year thanks to the pledged funding of UC President Santa Ono.



Jack and friends at fireside

The 2014 Documentary is scheduled to air on May 27, 2015 on Universal Sports at 6:30pm. Please continue to check our website for updates.

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