Banff School Days

The Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival is one of the most respected (if not the preeminent) adventure and outdoor film festival in existence. It is held for nine days every fall in Canada’s oldest national park, Banff. Afterwards, select films are screened in forty countries during their World Tour. I have been attending the World Tour in Pasadena for the last few years looking forward to a time when I could attend the festival itself (hopefully as a contributing filmmaker). With the release of G.O. Get Outside, this seemed like the ideal year to take that step.

While reviewing their site for submission information, I stumbled across their Adventure Filmmakers’ Workshop—an intensive 8-day program during the festival focused specifically on outdoor and adventure filmmaking. I decided to both submit G.O. to the festival and to apply for the workshop. The application process may have been more involved than my college applications and was the first time I have written a resume in several years. In the end, G.O. was not accepted to the festival largely because it was too rudimentary and instructional for the festival crowd. I was, although, one of the students selected for the workshop.

November 1st was a busy day. I woke early for a 12-hour shoot, went immediately to a Day of the Dead party afterwards, and then directly to the airport for my international flight to Alberta, Canada and the beginning of 10 long and fantastic days at the Banff Centre, an arts school situated in a national park. Each day there was as busy as that day before I arrived, packed full of some combination of classroom time, festival screenings, socializing and parties, and churning out a short movie. It was like being in college again—little sleep, lots of fun and productivity (and a little stress). I had been unsure about whether the workshop would be a valuable investment of time and money. In the end, it may have been one of the best decisions I have made in years. The instructors (Michael Brown and Keith Partridge) were extremely knowledgeable and all-around great people. My fellow students were also awesome people—everyone was eager to help each other and share knowledge. I hope to work with many (or all of them) in the future and I look forward to seeing what they all create. We also had access to facilities and festival events most attendees do not. I left with an inundation of pertinent information and valuable contacts it would have taken many years to accumulate.

As part of the program, we were broken into six groups and tasked with creating a short movie (everything from shooting to final post production and screening) within two days (while also finding time to party in town at night). Unbeknownst to us, a panel of judges incorporating festival filmmakers and employees of Red Bull and National Geographic were going to screen our shorts alongside of us and then choose their top three to play during the actual film festival. My group came in second place. G.O. didn’t make it into the festival, but our two-day student film did.

I’ve already started working on my submission for next year.

Canyon Complacency

 am embarrassed to share this story, but I hope it will keep others from making the sort of egregious mistake I did.

I have been canyoneering for roughly four years without incident. I know many people with more intricate technical knowledge than I have, but overall I am recognized as a knowledgable and reliable person to have on a team. I have made multitudes of good decisions that have ensured the safety of others and my own. Yet, none of that matters if one critical error is made. Canyoneering is not a dangerous sport, per se, but it can have drastic consequences.

Last night, nine of us ran a short canyon in Big Tujunga with three rappels and minimal hiking. A cakewalk. As seems to often be the case, this is when mistakes are made, when things are so simple we let our brains shift into auto-pilot. The first rappel was roughly 50 feet down a sloping, slightly curving face. A baby rap. Hardly worth a second glance. I didn’t consciously think those things, but deep in my subconscious I had made that assessment and deactivated crucial brain mechanics. I was last man down. Before clipping in, I noticed what appeared to be a slack loop crossing through the carabiner and across the gate on the pull side of the rope. It looked to me like there was a potential for the pull line to pinch the carabiner against the rock and introduce a pull issue. I pulled the free end of the rope through the carabiner to remove this “extraneous” loop, tied a pull cord to the end, clipped the rope bag to my harness, and clipped my descender onto the rappel side. I leaned back to begin my descent.

Pop! Whiiiiiiiiiiizzzzzzzzzzz!

There was enough time for my brain to process what was about to occur, to think “so, this is going to happen, is it?”, but no time to react. Airborne. In my right hand, a non-tensioned rope swung free. The world in front of my eyes a blur. The curvature of the face and my backpack met. Next, my right arm kissed the face. The surface area of my body and backpack produced friction as it brushed down the sloping wall turning my immediate fall into a decelerating semi-vertical slide. Oddly, I was calm, my thoughts seeking a solution to stop my slide. I extended my arms, my body turned slightly and for a moment I halted. A tiny moment, long enough to think, “I stopped.” But. I was off again. Scraping down the rock, fighting to keep my body from rotating sideways. Unable to visually identify anything around me. Then I slowed to a halt. I was at the bottom, on a ledge above a five foot downclimb, the rope still attached to my descender. I had slid down onto my feet and I stood. I was befuddled. Members of the group called to me, asking if I was okay. I was. My left ankle was a little tight, my right knee was scraped and bleeding, my right elbow bruised, and the right arm of my jacket torn. But, that was all. I couldn’t believe my luck. Had I began the rappel further left, had I twisted backwards in space differently, had any number of tiny variables varied, the outcome could have been quite different. I pulled the rope. It fell, followed by a loose carabiner. I ran the rest of the canyon and here I sit typing the next day with no discomfort. I made a fatal error. Dumb luck saved me. I can’t expect to be so lucky a second time. None of us can expect to be so lucky a single time.

It took me some time to piece together what had happened. What had looked like a loose extraneous loop running through the carabiner was likely a loosened vital twist in the clove hitch holding the ‘biner block together. I should have inspected the knot after pulling the rope through. Better yet, I should have re-rigged the rope as soon I saw a potential pull issue. I should have tested the rope before weighting it. These are stupid, moronic mistakes. I know better. A beginner knows better. Hell, people who have never heard of canyoneering probably know better. I have never let another person rap down a line I’ve rigged that I haven’t inspected multiple times. Why was I so irresponsible with my own life? I assume it must have been complacency. We all suffer from this to some degree. We grow so accustomed to certain activities we stop thinking about them, we cruise through on auto-pilot. Sometimes this is fine, we don’t need to think about everything we do. This does not apply to canyoneering or any activity that can have substantial consequences. Learn from my mistake. Don’t let your brain slip into auto-pilot, treat every drop with respect, check everything you or someone else does multiple times. We all know this, but apparently I forgot. Don’t be like me.

I owe everyone in that canyon an apology. Our safety in a canyon doesn’t just affect us. It affects everyone in the group. My stupidity could have turned this into a rescue situation (or a body recovery). The group would have then become responsible for my evacuation. Because I didn’t take a few seconds to check a simple setup. If everyone in last night’s group said to me, “I still like you, but I don’t feel comfortable running canyons with you anymore,” I would understand. The decisions we make in a canyon affect everyone in the group. There is no room for selfish actions or complacency.

Thank goodness for friction.

Deluge Time

Jumping off rocks don’t pay the bills. Sitting at a computer making things move does. It’s that time again—the time when I bury you all in a torrent of video links and embeds of various projects that went live in the last few months.

More game trailers for Gamevil. Party Slots was a fun one with lots of compositing people I know into goofy game scenarios. Ocean Tales and Dynasty Warlord are a couple of others we put together that rely more on motion graphics and animation. I contributed a few motion graphics to Perfect Inning, Luis and Travis handled everything else. Then, there was the hard one:

Mark of the Dragon was tricky. It involved using Element 3D and C4D Lite inside of After Effects in ways they weren’t intended to composite a bunch of individual 3D game elements into a story. It was essentially one big workaround that turned out pretty well considering. I had done some similar hoops-jumping for Pocket Gunfighters, but that one was not nearly as complex.

I was responsible for the visual effects in three of Nerdist’s Terror Twins episodes: The episodes starring Doug Jones, Brian Huskey, and Greg Sestero. I also did VFX for a few of their JLA episodes such as the Cinco de Mayo episode. There were a few other VFX things like Warp Zone’s Smite series : episodes 1, 3, and 4, but this should be more than a large enough video inundation for anyone’s attention span.

Havasupai in the Fall


Many aren’t aware of it, but most have seen photos of the falls and creek. Havasupai is an Indian reservation in Arizona on the western end of the Grand Canyon. The waters are saturated with travertine, a mineral that gives them a surreal bluish tint and make a desert creek look like a secluded island paradise.

A week ago, a group of us made the 10 mile hike down into the canyon to camp for a couple of nights and explore the various falls in the area.

Taking Steps


Exploration, adventure, and the outdoors have always been of interest to me. Growing up in Louisiana, I spent a fair amount of time outdoors, but adventure sports never seemed like an option. Climbing was something I saw on TV or in magazines. Besides, Louisiana has no mountains or boulders. I had to settle for trees. Surfing was something I longed to do, yet it was also out of reach. I wanted to try backpacking, but never did, even though I joined a club in High School that could have shown me how. I told myself I couldn’t afford it. Louisiana is known as Sportsman’s Paradise. The sports this encompasses are hunting and fishing. I knew many hunters and fisherman growing up, but not a single person who could have shown me how to tie a figure eight or paddle into a wave. The outdoor activities that interested me seemed complicated, expensive, and out of reach. I would finally learn otherwise at the age of 29 after living in California for four years.

I think this is the norm. I think most of us suspect that outdoor and adventure sports are something reserved for the elite, something beyond our capabilities.  They aren’t. You just need the personal drive and directions to the starting line.

Today, we at Butcher Bird Studios released a four episode web-series called G.O. Get Outside. If you want to get into caving, hiking, surfing, or canyoneering, these episodes can help you get started. Hopefully, there will be more episodes focusing on other activities in the future. It took me nearly three decades to find the trailhead. I hope these episodes can help you get there sooner.

ALS, Ice Buckets, and Grandmothers


    The above is me with my great-grandmother & grandmother in 1997.

The internet has been inundated over the last week with videos of people dumping buckets of ice water on their heads in support of ALS research. Like any trend, it has had its staunch supporters and vocal detractors. Criticisms range from cries of wasted water, slacker activism, and that this inane activity is distracting people from more pressing concerns. I even came across a comment where someone asked why we care about a disease that afflicts so few.

In the summer of 1998, ALS killed my grandmother. She essentially drowned in a recliner when her lungs ceased to function ending her healthy mind’s imprisonment in a functionless body. She was 55. The best case scenario for someone with ALS is to end up like Stephen Hawking—completely paralyzed (unable to move, unable to speak), but mentally alert and alive. The most likely scenario is to become increasingly paralyzed until the body can no longer support itself and the patient dies. Usually within 2-5 years. ALS is death in slow-motion.

My grandmother was a fiery Cuban immigrant who struggled to raise six children while adapting to life in a foreign country. She was tough, feisty, and loud. She was loud when she was happy and loud when she was angry and she adored all of her grandchildren even though I came along sooner than she would have liked (She was 36 when I was born). She’d ask you to buy “hamburger bones” and to put “the shits” on the bed. She had a nice couch in the dining room no one used covered in plastic we weren’t allowed to sit on and ceramic frogs with genitals. She always had a closet full of 3-Liter Pepsis. If the city would have converted the kitchen tap so it dispensed Pepsi, I’m sure she would have been ecstatic. She drove a huge Buick and refused to take crap from anyone. She was tough and she loved to laugh. Loudly.

We watched her body deteriorate and no one could do anything to stop it.  A woman who could bean you with a slipper from across a dark house with a sniper’s precision became unable to feed herself. My mother and aunts had to bathe her. On multiple occasions, as her teenage son lifted her onto a portable toilet I would duck out of the living room so she could have some semblance of privacy. This tough independent woman became dependent on other people for every tiny aspect of life the rest of us take for granted. She insisted on signing her own checks for as long as she could, but eventually that too became impossible. ALS stole away her body and her dignity. Eventually all she could do was sit on a recliner and watch Spanish TV. Many years later, I appeared briefly with Moodoo Puppets on a Telemundo station in Los Angeles. It saddened me that my grandmother was no longer around to see that because it would have made her so happy. When I started pursuing filmmaking, She constantly encouraged me to move to Mexico where I could make it big on Univision “like Erik Estrada.”  She also constantly pestered me to go to Spanish dances with her when I was a teenager. I regret that I never did. The last time I saw her, she was sleeping in the recliner. The next morning I was startled awake by the phone. I ran to it already knowing what I was going to hear. For years, I dreamed she could walk again. She would barely be in her 70s if she were still alive.

ALS doesn’t just affect a small number of people, it affects everyone that cares for those people. I hate that my grandmother had to spend the end of her life confined in a useless body confined to a chair. I hate that my great-grandmother had to watch her only daughter slowly wither away powerless to stop it. I hate that her youngest son, Steven, had to shoulder this experience during his high-school years. I hate that the world is a little less loud now.

Regardless of any qualms you may have with the Ice Bucket Challenge, it is working. A week ago, most people wouldn’t know the difference between ALS and anti-lock brakes. As of this writing, over $40 Million has been raised. If people get to have a little fun at the same time dousing each other, I’m okay with that.

Nerdist asked me to work on their Ice Bucket challenge video a couple of days ago. As I was compositing Chris Hardwick onto Tatooine I realized it would be ridiculous for me to accept payment for the job. I asked them to instead donate additional money to the charity. They gladly did so in my grandmother’s name. A few hours ago I received a video from Steven (my younger uncle) challenging me. It wouldn’t be right for me to walk away from that challenge, would it? Where’s my bucket?

Across Oceans

The Emerald Isle. The Alleged Milligan Motherland. The Land of Frightening Backroad Driving. The Realm of Numerous Castles and Cattle. The Place Where My Aunt Discovered Castle Beds Eat iPads. The Island Wherein Erika Passed 30 Years. The United Kingdom. The Even Larger Island of Castles and Varied Accents. The Place Where My Father Celebrated 55 Years of Life and 37 Years of Marriage With My Mother. The Kingdom of Impressive Universities, Fabled Rock-piles and Butter-beer Tours.

Two weeks. Good Times.
Even more photos on Facciabook.

Slack Tactics

It has been over two months since my last update. I feel like all I have been doing during that time is working, but that isn’t necessarily true. Above is a teaser for a web-series I have been working on with my Butcher Bird Studios partners. We completed most of the photography in the last couple of months, but I still have plenty of post-production to keep me busy on top of paying gigs.

Besides shooting all four episodes of G.O. – Get Outside in the last two months, I have managed to do some other stuff after all. One of my favorite climbing events, The Red Rock Rendezvous was a few weeks ago. I’ve run a few canyons and lead a few routes since my last check-in. I also got my Wilderness First Aid certification and took a Mountain Athletics Training course from Conrad Anker and Mark Jellison. There have been a few cool shoots in there as well. So, I guess I haven’t been slacking as much as I thought.

A Glimpse Behind the Hike

I’ve been working on this piece in my “spare” time for a few weeks now. It is hopefully a prelude to many more Butcher Bird Studios outdoor videos.

In addition to our other productions, Butcher Bird Studios is moving into outdoor and adventure video. The quadcopter is the latest tool we’ve adopted to aid in that pursuit and our other production work. In September of 2013 we ventured into the Ansel Adams Wilderness to test the copter and our own abilities.

Aerial Footage shot with GoPro HD Hero 3 on a DJI Phantom.
Behind the Scenes footage shot with Canon 7D and Sony FS700.
Interviews shot with Panasonic GH1.
Audio recorded with Tascam DR100.

Additional aerial footage shot in Joshua Tree National Park and Texas Canyon.