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PPD Master Series: Austin Lottimer's Extreme Adventures

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday March 16, 2016

In a lot of ways, filmmaker and photographer Austin Lottimer’s biography reads like a screenplay for one of his own fictional characters: a kid makes his first films at six years old using his parents video camera, he starts participating in and filming extreme sports in high school and by sixteen he’s landed a gig traveling around the world as part of a video-production crew for a major TV network. Only a few years later he starts his own production company and starts writing and shooting his own full-length feature films.

Based in Boulder, Colorado, that Lottimer would end up in the film and photo industries seem kind of like a foregone conclusion. “My brother Maitland and I would try to make little movies with our parents VHS camcorder,” he says. “Those films were absolutely horrible until we were about 12 or so when we started making better films with real plot lines, character development and some ridiculous live FX.” By the time he was in high school, Lottimer had gotten a Digital-8 camcorder for Christmas and, with his extreme-sports buddies, started making skate and bike films. “My friends and I would take turns being the cameraman and the stunt dummy. We were doing crazy stunts that I still look at today wondering how the hell I’m still alive. I started taking photos at that point as well, mainly action photography.”

At sixteen, Lottimer landed a gig as the audio guy on a travel golf adventure show for Fox sports net and was getting paid to travel around the world. “That is really where I started my education in the video realms,” he says. “The years following I worked on a few indie features doing things like being a boom operator and a key grip and gaffer. I eventually created a company called Bujin Productions and started doing some small scale commercial work. I just worked though lots of different projects, slowly teaching myself the tricks of the trade.”

Unlike a lot of filmmakers that start out in still photography and move into films, for Lottimer things evolved in reverse. “I started as a filmmaker and then I became more and more intrigued in the still world,” he says. “A big part of it came with getting my first Olympus PEN in 2011. Once I got the PEN E-PL2 camera I started doing a lot more experimenting and eventually figured it out for the most part,” he says. “I still have a lot to learn in regards to photography. It seems like I am always learning.”

Today Lottimer, along with his girlfriend and his brother own a company called Trine films. His bio at Trine describes him as “Director, Director of Photography and Technical Genius.” And when necessary, of course, he also shoots production stills. Trine’s films range from typical commercial work to action sports to documentaries. Much of that work, however, is done to help fund their real passion: fantasy films written by the brothers Lottimer.

Lottimer, an Olympus Traiblazer  recently took time between shoots to talk with writer Jeff Wignall  about his lifelong passion for film, his most recent feature projects and his continuing pursuit of still photography.

PPD: A film that you and your brother made called “Running Colors” won the Grand Prize in the Olympus PEN Your Short 48 Hour Film Contest at the 2011 Vail Film Festival. How did that idea come about and did you manage to get it done in such a short time?

AL: A friend of ours named Sophie Saxon was an actor and she wanted us to all do a short film with her and put it into a film festival. A week before the festival, Sophie told us she enrolled us as a team in the Olympus 48 Hour contest. So a week later Sophie, my father (who is the other actor in the film) and my brother Maitland and I found ourselves in Vail at the most expensive “cheap” hotel I have ever stayed in trying to shot-list our script for the contest.

Sophie wrote the bones of the script for Running Colors  and we all developed it into something Maitland and I liked. The script was loosely inspired by my father having mentored Sophie in the art of acting and Sophie having re-ignited my father's interest and passion for the art form which was quite ironic because they then played the roles of those characters themselves.

Olympus gave us a quick lesson on the camera and, crack, the timer began. Shooting a film in 48 hours with a skeleton crew, a camera you have never used, and being in an area I was not really familiar with was an arduous task. The camera was simple and we learned it quickly, the locations all worked out perfectly with light, audio and people, and somehow all the pieces effortlessly slid into place.

It was a rather amazing experience, with the exception of one short instance. At 3 a.m. and in the last nine hours of the contest, we finally got a rough final of our film together. With almost perfect satirical timing, the computer’s hard drive with the whole project on it abruptly self destructed and poof it was all gone. So we started over, fortunately we did not format our sd cards so the footage was still intact. Then at 4 a.m. we started over and re-edited the piece and then proceeded to compose the music. By this point we were all hallucinating from sleep deprivation. Needless to say we miraculously made it to the finish line with the completed short and then we all passed out.

There is a behind-the-scenes  video about that experience on Youtube.

PPD: What type of work does your company Trine Films do and how and when did the company get started?

AL: Trine films  is a relatively new entity that my brother and my girlfriend and I formed almost two years ago. Prior to that I was operating under the name Bujin Productions doing commercials, music videos, industrials and a feature documentary. Since we formed Trine we have done a lot of what we call “mark-umentaries” essentially telling a story for a business or a person in the form of a documentary style short film. We also have done music videos, corporate vids, short films etc. In the next few months we are planning to shoot some original shorts and a TV pilot that we already have cast.

The film Bare Knuckle Bruiser  is an example of a short film we shot in a day a few months back when we were sick of the commercial gigland needed a quick break.

PPD: Do you conceive projects in-house and then try to fund them, or do you seek out commercial clients?

AL: Generally speaking we develop a lot of in-house projects and try to find funding for them or pay out-of-pocket for them. The last two years though have been mainly people coming to us with a vague ideas that we then take and develop creatively and then produce and shoot them. It tends to be more of us taking commercial work to sustain us and to help us create more of the art we want to create.



PPD
: How do you decide on which projects you’ll take on? Is it  about which one will pay the bills or what projects will be more creatively challenging?

AL: If I get the option to go to Peru and summit one of South America's highest glaciers while filming and photographing 15 wounded American vets or shooting a 10-year anniversary video for a corporate company, well, I’m going to choose the Peru trip. I try to take on things I generally believe in and that I am interested in. It inevitably makes a better product if you care about what you're doing. That being said, sometimes I do have to take some jobs that replenish the billfold.

PPD: Your action films, like the one about runner Stephanie Howe, seem to have very interesting pacing and use a wide combination of close-ups, close action shots and more distant shots. How do you conceive such complex scenarios?

AL: At this point I have been making movies professionally since I was sixteen. I ended up learning what works by years of F$#!ing up and then using those mistakes as an embarrassing, yet free, education. Editing most of my own projects has also given me a very solid idea of what should end up in the final product, and what shouldn’t. So I have become really good at streamlining how to cover scenes really quickly, creating establishing shots, tight shots of actions and cut aways, and then adding wide-moving shots generally covers most options. But you do need to figure out what is the most important story to tell in any scene and focus on how you can tell it.  

PPD: Are your films heavily scripted when you begin? Do you stick to shot lists most of the time?

AL: When my brother and I write a fictional piece we are super- specific about every aspect of what we want, from every word of dialogue to the type of shoes characters will be wearing. But when we do industrial content we generally have a floating script that is more or less a guideline that is always shifting. Shooting video, like photography, is a very dynamic profession you have to be able to constantly adapt to changes in the plan and problem solve because there are so many moving parts. That is actually one of the reasons I really love filmmaking—you have to be a kind of Macgyver of the video realm.

PPD: What types of fictional films are you trying to develop with your brother?
 
AL: My brother and I develop a lot of films, everything from a sci-fi futuristic mini series for TV, metaphysical detective thriller, action, dark comedies etc. We have several finished feature scripts waiting to be broken down and we have many more concepts we will be developing in the future. Usually we are not able to work on those films as much as we would like to because the commercial work is generally easy to get stuck in and we end up not having enough time or energy to put into the other projects. They still happen, but it seems to take longer.

PPD: What kinds of stories are involved and who are they aimed at?

AL: We are working with Fleet Feet Sports all year to do a web series for them about “The Power of Running to Inspire.” The stories are about people that have changed others’ lives through running. We’re just finishing export on the first one of those. Outside of commercial work our fictional scripts are in several different genres, but we really like drama, comedy and sci-fi the most, but we develop all sorts of projects in between. What do they say, truth is stranger than fiction? I so believe that. There are some amazing things happening and that have happened that deserve to be told, and I love to write them out with my brother and tell them through the lens of film.

PPD: Why did you choose Olympus gear for your film work over other brands?

AL: I was introduced to Olympus after using the PEN E-PL2 at the Vail Film Festival. Then, after having used that for a year or two and liking it, the OM-D E-M5 came out which was a huge jump in quality and performance and the 5-axis Image Stabilization was like mind blowing. That’s when it really started kicking in for me.

PPD: What Olympus cameras and lenses are you using to make your films?

AL:  I have mainly been using the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II on the video side of things and also using the OM-D E-M1 & E-M10 for photos. I like to use all prime Lenses when I can. I love the bokeh on some of those lenses. My favorite video lens is the M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8, but I use the M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 and the M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 quite a bit, also. When I’m doing gimbal shooting I use the M.Zuiko 12mm f/2.0 or the M.Zuiko ED 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO. The M.Zuiko ED 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO is a stellar wide angle lens. I really dig the M.Zuiko ED 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6 for wide moving shots too, but the run and gun stuff, my go-to is always the M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO



PPD: Your ski film “Fresh Tracks” was shot with the OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Did working with small mirrorless cameras make the film work easier?

AL: Yes, when you’re hiking into the backcountry of Wyoming in four feet of snow you really don’t want to be carrying cinema cameras and tripods and all the stuff that comes with those. It is so great being able to have a little backpack with three bodies and 12 lenses it’s still crazy to me how small those lenses can be and how sharp they are. It makes my life so much easier.

Another advantage to small cameras when you are working with  documentaries is that your subjects are usually not actors. Getting them to open up on camera and feel comfortable in order to get a good performance is challenging. Having a small compact camera that does not need a tripod in order to use a longer lens is amazing. The low profile is also good because people think you are taking photos a lot of the time so they don’t really pay attention to the camera. Having the five-axis IS was really helpful too not having to use tripods allowed me to move more freely in the snow and get more coverage in the end. Tracking with a video head in 28-degree weather is difficult because the fluid gets really cold and is hard to move. Being able to avoid that all together is a Godsend. There is a behind-the-scenes film on Youtube showing how me made that film.

PPD:In watching the behind-the-scenes footage, it seems like your crew kind of inflicted some snow damage on those
cameras—how did they handle the weather?

AL: One of the reasons I like working with Olympus cameras is I am super hard on equipment. I have had to bungee jump with cameras, dangle of cliffs, hang out of airplanes, shoot on top of an 18,000-foot glacier in a blizzard, swim with bull sharks and a lot of stupid dangerous situations. So it’s nice to not have to worry about busting the camera so that I can focus on what I’m shooting. When I was in Peru shooting with soldiers on summits in 2013, I had my E-M1 just hanging out the whole time ready to shoot mounted on my chest and it was raining and snowing almost the whole time and there was never an issue and she is still holding up strong.  

PPD: A lot of your action footage has this great follow-cam work that looks like Steadicam—what are you using to keep the shots so steady and flowing so nicely?

AL: I tend to like a lot of movement  in my cinematography, so I like using a three-axis gimbal stabilizer as much as I can afford to. We use a custom rig or a Ronin-M most of the time. In some cases you can’t use a gimbal and need to cover something asap and I can grab an Olympus and get a steady stabilized shot without missing something. I’m not saying the 5-axis Image Stabilization is comparable to using a gimbal but in a pinch it definitely performs better than anything else I have used. I love talking to people about the five-axis stabilizer in the O-MD series and now also the Olympus PEN-F. They never think it’s a big deal for video and it’s so fun blowing their minds when they see what it can actually do.

PPD: You also take on much larger projects, like your 90-minute documentary “Before the Last Drop.” How did that particular project come about?

AL: My cousin Hamilton Pevec is also a filmmaker and we have been saying for years “we need to do a film together” and it never happened, then one day he called me and said, “I met this whistle blower in the fracking industry and he wants to make a movie with us.” Two years and several new grey hairs later we had a feature film. We shot for a year and a half then edited for about five months. It was very much of a shoestring budget from Kickstarter for a feature film. We ended up somehow paying out of pocket for most of the film. The film is available for free on www.beforethelastdrop.com.

PPD: Was that the first time you crowd-funded a film project?

AL: Yes, I have never crowd-funded a film before. It was first slated to be a 10-minute short film and that’s what the amount that we raised was for. Then as we started shooting and putting it together we had so much content that we believed was good we thought “Golly! we almost have a feature here,” so we ended up making our lives exponentially more complicated and added another year or so of unpaid work to our lives. All said and done it was a fantastic learning experience. I also learned way more than I would like to know regarding fracking, which is scary stuff. We shot most of that film with the Olympus OM-D E-M5.

PPD: You’ve spent much of the past year working on another long feature film, a documentary about sculptor James Surls. Can you talk about how that film came about and what the film is about?

AL: We have been working with James for several years now, we also did two short films with him. The first short we did with Surls a few years back was called “The Journey” and that is what started our relationship with him. Then a sculpture project of his came up where a non profit group in Singapore was willing to put up the money to help us make a feature about James called "The House The Hand and The Hatchet" So we followed James through a year of his life while he worked on large scale art pieces around the world. My brother and I got to go to Singapore to shoot James installing a piece in the botanic gardens. It was a great trip. We are really happy with the film. We just wrapped the final export and are now applying to film festivals. We are hoping to be debuting it in the summer of 2016. Up to this point it is the largest and most ambitious film project I have directed and shot, but it is not the largest I have worked on.

PPD: Are stills a part of your film work? Are you shooting stills for the films as you work?

AL: In short yes, it is tricky though because I am usually the main camera and DP so I have to often carry my Olympus E-M1 in my tactical man purse while shooting and then pop off some stills as we go. With most of the commercial videos we always have to shoot a scene and then do parts of it over so that we can shoot stills, as well. Maybe with all the new scientific advancements in gene splicing they could make me a hydra creature that could operate like four cameras at the same time. Then I could really charge what I’m worth.

PPD: Do you continue to do still photography as a separate creative art?

AL: Oh very much so. I am getting more and more into the still world every day. I love compacting a story into a single frame. I particularly like that you have so many options of manipulating light in very strategic manner with photography. I really enjoy wandering around at night playing with long exposures and light painting.

I am shooting video so much of my waking life that I find myself mostly taking stills when I am relaxing in serene places. Thus I generally shoot a lot of outdoor, landscapes, action sports, some editorial, abstracts, star trails, macro, and experimental photo concepts.

PPD: Do you have any thoughts about where you’d like your business to be a few years down the road?

AL: A few years down the road I would love to be writing and directing or DP-ing the large scale fictional films that my brother and I develop. That is really all I would do if I could. I am trying to work my way up to that. I use to think why can’t I just jump ahead and direct a Hollywood film. After working a long time on this stuff it has become very clear that the little jobs however insignificant they may seem are the bricks that help eventually build the platform in which I can truly create my dreams. For example, we did a video in a weekend as a somewhat teaser to a film we want to do and the story has developed a lot since then this was made in 2012. We shot it with the Olympus PEN camera.

Without those little jobs I would never have been ready to tackle the big ones. So my advice to anyone asking would be that everything has something to teach you, so try not to miss it worrying about the future. You will get there eventually.

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