ALASKAVIDEOSHOOTER.COM is a blog about documentary filmmaking, video production, and the gear that makes it possible.

The blog is edited by Slavik Boyechko, co-owner of Video Dads LLC, which provides video production in Portland Oregon and in Alaska, as well as Gear Dads, a site about videography and video production equipment.

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All posts in Behind INDIE ALASKA

Behind INDIE ALASKA: Ski Bums

Right now I’m editing the 52nd episode of INDIE ALASKA. That marks a full year of weekly documentaries (!), and boy did we learn a lot about video production in Alaska in the last year.


To continue the chronological behind-the-scenes posts of episodes (that I worked on*), here’s the story behind Episode 5: “I Am A Volunteer Ski Bum.”

On the heels of our first episode on the Ski Train, Travis was working on “I Am An Ice Diver,” and I was going to come along to help shoot. It took a lot of time to pack and get everything ready, so when Saturday morning we found out the ice dive had to be postponed (due to weather), we scrambled.


Although we wanted to feature Arctic Valley Ski Resort eventually, we certainly didn’t intend to do another ski-related episode immediately after our first one. But at the time I was still in charge of member fundraising at the station, so my shooting time was limited, and we had already set aside all day Saturday to shoot. So with our bags packed and ready to shoot, and with no preproduction or subjects contacted, we set off anyway.

Well, on this day there was a huge snow storm. Many of the cars in front of us going up to Arctic Valley couldn’t even make it up without turning back around. So as far as shooting scenarios, this was going to be a pretty grim (and wet) day.

Travis was smart to wear waterproof bibs.

Travis was smart to wear waterproof bibs.

Needless to say, our cameras were soaked the whole time, there was water in front of the lens, and we could barely see what we were shooting. Which was not much, since it was mostly flat white snow.


On top of the shooting difficulties, we also didn’t know who we were featuring or what the story would be (or where we could interview). Very quickly, however, we could see that volunteers were basically keeping the place alive. And then our friend Harry Need, also a volunteer, tracked down a couple people we could talk to, as well as a private cabin where we could interview.


And it also happened to be the Merry Marmot Festival that day, with races and festivities. So in the end, we put together a story that was both about the volunteers, as well as the festival. 50 episodes later, I think we’re a lot better at pre production, but with a weekly series sometimes you just gotta go with the flow!

*I didn’t work on episodes 2-4 – “I Am An Ice Diver,” “Singer/Songwriter Emma Hill,” and “I Am A Native Youth Olympian” – so I won’t be writing about these. And episodes 6-7 – “I Am A Paramotorist” and “I Am A Musk Ox Farmer” were also made by Travis and John. So next time I’ll be going straight to Episode 8, “I Am A High School Indie Rock Star.”…

Behind INDIE ALASKA: Ski Train

Since I’ve just started tweeting this blog (@akvideoshooter) I figured I’d also go back to the older Indie Alaska videos for some behind the scenes.

So let’s go back to the very first one!


The Ski Train is an institution in Southcentral Alaska. Early in the morning hundreds of cross-country skiers board a train in Anchorage, and hours later arrive in a pristine area full of untouched snow, and then party to polka on the way back home.

At least that’s what I heard. Truth is, neither Travis nor I had ever been on the Ski Train before we scheduled the shoot. I always thought it was for serious skiers.


So we didn’t quite know what the story was going to be. This was, after all, our first attempt at an Indie Alaska. All I knew was, polka band, and serious skiers.

When we arrived at 6:30am at the train station, we were immediately offered shots of Jaegermeister. What? These skiers weren’t that serious after all.


Okay so fast forward to the shooting. Some challenges were tight spaces, rocking train, and still no idea what the story would be. We needed interviews, but everyone on the train was partying, and later they would be skiing, before partying again.


When we arrived in Curry, we had already filmed a few hours of footage, mostly of the polka band performing a few songs in each car. And when all the skiers had disappeared into the hills, the polka band stayed behind for beers and cigars. Here was our story.

Thank goodness, because although Travis and I brought some waxless skis, we weren’t sure about lugging all our gear to a remote hill to chase down interviews. And also if you’re not back in time, the Ski Train leaves without you (they leave an overnight survival bag with blankets and food, and maybe Jaegermeister).


Shooting interviews for 3 hours in deep snow…let’s just say once your feet start freezing, they only get colder. Plus, the train was supposed to leave and come back, but ended up staying, making consistant loud engine noises throughout the interviews, as trains end up doing. Plus there were airplaines above, and snowmachines buzzing around. But that kind of “it’s far from ideal but let’s shoot anyway” spirit has prevailed through all of the Indie Alaska videos since.

So outside, we probably looked funny with our LED light on skinny legs, with an umbrella diffuser, camera bags sinking into the snow, shivering. But we had written our questions down in advance, and having those questions when you can’t really think…that was a lifesaver. “How do you think outsiders perceive Alaska?”


From the beginning, the Indie Alaska series was out to portray real Alaska, and the everyday people who are kind of amazing up here. That’s the opposite of what most of the world thinks about Alaska, thanks to the dozens of reality TV shows about hardcore backcountry dudes.

And this difference was made obvious during the very first Indie Alaska shoot. While we were shooting the hundreds of cheerful passengers and independent spirts among the band members, a couple cameramen from a reality TV show were also on the train. They were looking for drama, however. So, the minute a kid was approached by the train security for some minor infraction, these cameramen jumped. And that’s what the story everyone in the Lower 48 will see.


Behind INDIE ALASKA: The Overby Family Band

A few months ago when I was shooting the “Off the Grid Artist” episode in Sheep Mountain, a carpenter came up and asked me what I was doing. He was working on Wendy Smith-Wood’s cabin at the time. I told him about Indie Alaska, and then he told me about his old timey family band. Folks, you just can’t plan for this kind of luck.



In Alaska, the Overbys are renown in the bluegrass scene for putting on the Granite Creek Bluegrass Festival every summer. It’s possibly the most authentic pickers fest in the state – the majority of attendees are musicians, and to preserve the authenticity of the festival, they don’t even announce the concert date until about a week prior on the Borealis Bluegrass Breakdown, a show on KNBA 90.1 public radio.


Unfortunately, I have never made it to the festival (I don’t think my guitar skills are ready for 12-hour campfire jam sessions), but the family story sounded perfect for Indie Alaska. So Travis Gilmour and I drove out to Sutton, Alaska one day, and within 10 minutes we caught Jason Overby driving by. This is definitely a small town.

Travis shooting the fall scene above the highway by Sutton.

Travis shooting the fall scene above the highway by Sutton.

We started at the Sutton Library, where Jason’s girlfriend and sister were silkscreening t-shirts. And then we went to his other sister’s cabin-in-process. Jason and his family embody old timey values, and his choice of an old Volvo, their cabin building process (using only recycled wood from the area), and their gardening all fit into their world views.


After a tour of their homes and livelihoods, we went to record a couple live performances at the home of Charlie Overby, the family patriarch. Travis and I manned two cameras with audio recording from a Lav mic (hidden in the rocks) as well as directly to our cameras via shotguns.

It wasn’t a high end recording, but it worked. The thing I most realized while shooting the Overbys performing is, man, these guys really love hanging out and playing music together.

overby-music-2Afterwards the Overbys started cooking a meal (with all the ingredients harvested locally), and Travis and I set up for interviews outside their shop. The light was quickly fading, so right off the bat we used two battery-powered 500 LED lights instead of our typical one light for indoor interviews.


And then when it got completely dark, the Overbys found some shop lights that we could plug in to long extension cables, to light up the trailer in the background. That way the background wasn’t completely dark. It worked out really nicely, I think.


And here’s what two fully lit lights with umbrellas look like in complete darkness.


After all was said and done, Travis spent the better part of an entire weekend editing 3 extensive interviews into a short 7-minute edit. He basically transcribed most of the interviews, and then we put the story edit together using Stickies. This is pretty essential when you have so much interview material to work with.


In the end, Travis worked the radio edit a bunch more before starting to lay down the B-roll, as well as finding room for the multicam song performances. But it was worth the effort, and we made some pretty cool new friends in the process!


Behind INDIE ALASKA: Touring Musician Marian Call

When Travis and I booked our trip to Juneau, the first Indie Alaska video we thought of was an episode on Marian Call.


I’ve known Marian for a few years now. When I first moved to Alaska 7 years ago and knew nobody here, I remember recognizing Marian in a lot of places – at the coffee shops where I hung out, at the Jazz bar where I worked.

When I went on Craigslist to buy my first piece of furniture in Alaska – an Ikea table – the seller happened to be Marian. She was getting rid of all her stuff before going on tour. This is what Marian does, she tours. A lot. After that, I hadn’t seen her for a few years. And then she moved to Juneau.


So when Travis and I were looking for an Indie Alaska episode idea in Juneau, we assumed we Marian would be out of town during our 3 day visit … but we called just in case. Turns out, she was going to be home for those 3 days. What luck!marian-coffeeshop

Marian Call is the hardest working musician I know. Making music is a small part of her life – the rest is connecting with her fans online and at gatherings and concerts. That might be why her fans are so dedicated – because Marian is just as committed to her fans as they are to her.


Travis Gilmour did all the work on this episode, from shooting, interviewing, to editing, so he deserves much of the credit here. Marian gave us a ton of really great footage from her Europe tour, and in addition to her music catalog she also recorded a few songs for us live. So, a big part of the project was working to reduce a ton of really great stuff to a 5-minute video.

You learn a lot of things about people when you make a video story about them. So even though I’ve known Marian somewhat for a number of years, I think I’m a lot more aware of all the diligence and smart planning that has made Marian Call a household name in Alaska, from coffee shops to jazz bars.

And, I also learned about a secret bakery in Juneau. And also this book store. The lady that owns it, Dee, is a map collector. A quick visit led to a several-hour-long conversation about early new world cartographers.


So if you’re thinking of visiting Juneau, you might as well block out a few hours of your schedule to visiting the Observatory Bookstore.…

Behind INDIE ALASKA: The Mushroom Hunter

My wife is accustomed to my working on weekends, but I think I set a new precedence by combining an Indie Alaska shoot while also celebrating our 1-year wedding anniversary (!), while also shooting photos for a band (!!), while also pre-producing another future episode (!!!).

The way it happened was like this: on a Saturday morning Travis Gilmour and I drove out to Girdwood to meet with mushroom expert Kate Mohatt. While we usually stay away from the more newsy stories for Indie Alaska episodes, this year for some reason mushrooming is really big in Alaska, and we just couldn’t kick our curiosity.

Kate Mohatt was featured in this Anchorage Daily News article by Julia O’Malley – – so we contacted Kate for a shoot on the weekend of the Girdwood Fungus Fair.


While Travis set up the interview with Kate (against a window, which actually turned out nice with only one LED light), I went out with another forest ranger to shoot B-roll of mushrooms and crowds on a foray. It was humid and rainy, so I had to leave all my car windows open while driving around – to prevent the camera lens from fogging up – which made sure everything in my car got nice and soaked.


After dropping off the ranger at the Fungus Fair headquarters, I was then supposed to meet a big group of hunters at the Hand Tram parking lot. But… I mistakenly went to the other Hand Tram parking lot, the one on the opposite side of the trail. After about 10 minutes of waiting for a big group of mushroom hunters to show up, my phone rang, and Travis had finished the interview and was ready to get picked up and go shoot more B-roll with Kate at her secret spot.

So yeah, at this point the story was no longer going to be about big groups of enthusiastic mushroom hunters crowding the trampled patches. Sometimes that’s the way it works – the story is dependent on the visuals you have to match the interview narration. Which was okay by me, because I really wanted to focus more on the mushrooms anyway.


At her favorite spot, Kate showed us a bunch of different mushrooms, while explaining their Latin names and significance. But honestly, it’s hard to pay full attention to those kinds of things when you’re focused on operating the camera and getting a good shot. So at one point, it wasn’t until after I swallowed an edible mushroom that I heard Kate remind me to “chew it up and spit it out, to avoid getting sick.” Oops.


The best part of this shoot was finally getting a chance to try out our Glidecam steadicam. This was the perfect opportunity, and we spent some time earlier in the week practicing to balance it. All of that goes out the window when you’re on the shoot and have no time for little adjustments, so little things like figuring out how to use a wrist strap was no longer priority. And man, did my wrist hurt after this. For a few days actually.

But my wrist didn’t hurt as much as my ego – when, while walking backwards in front of Kate, I accidentally stepped off a wooden bridge and fell into a deep puddle. Real professional.

Anyway after all this, my wife met us at the Sitzmark for some lunch, Travis drove himself home, and my wife and I celebrated our one-year anniversary in beautiful Girdwood with a live performance by one of our favorite bands, Super Saturated Sugar Strings. Since I already had my stills camera, I couldn’t help shooting some photos for the band during their set.


Of course using some of the shot framing principles I’ve learned while shooting video, like using a blurry foreground to bring attention to the subjects.


And after all that, we met some really nice people, shared a bottle of wine with them, and worked on pre-producing a future Indie Alaska episode with one of them. Isn’t it great when life and work can come together in a long day of productivity?

Or maybe it was that mushroom I wasn’t supposed to swallow….…

Behind INDIE ALASKA: The Movie Maven

When Travis and I landed in Juneau, we had a few ideas for Indie Alaska episodes, but we also wanted to get input from the town locals before committing to our entire schedule. So when we asked our friends and colleagues at KTOO for ideas, they all said, “You have to do an episode on Collette Costa.”

Then we asked other folks in town, and they all said, “Collette Costa.” Apparently, Collette is ingrained in just about every part of Juneau’s art and culture scene. So when we went out looking for her, we found her almost instantly.


Honestly, the hardest part of this episode was honing in on one aspect of Collette that we could focus on. When we started the series, we settled on the “I Am A _____” title scheme, to help us better define the person and his/her distinctiveness before going in on any episode.

With Collette, we brainstormed a hundred descriptions for who she is and what she does, and they all fit. My first radio edit focused on all these aspects of her, and I was thinking something along the lines of “I Am A Renaissance Woman.”

But when I showed John Norris a rough edit, he suggested I narrow the story, partly because I didn’t have B-roll of all of these other things Collette does, like her theatrical performances, her music, her MC and radio duties, her life and work on the boat, and her early years in Alaska in the SE town of Pelican.


After I narrowed the focus, the rest of the edit process became a breeze. With both Travis and I shooting B-roll, we had about 10x more footage than we needed, in the theater and on her boat, as well as out in the community as she walked to choir practice. It’s a little time consuming to go through and log all the video, especially knowing I won’t use most of it. But, when it comes down to putting the story together, having all the usable shots ready to go is so important to staying in the “story zone.”

So, what do you think of the episode? I just figured out how to eliminate the comment moderation barrier on this blog, so no holds barred, folks!


Behind INDIE ALASKA: Pelmeni in Juneau

My partner in crime Travis Gilmour and I went down to Juneau last weekend to shoot a few Indie Alaska episodes, in addition to other video projects. In the madness of 3 days of shooting, we pretty much only had time for late night eating, which in Juneau means the Pel’meni place.

Naturally, we made an Indie Alaska out of it. Where else can you shoot a video at midnight?


We first went in and talked to several of the employees one evening, and they all said co-worker Nicholas would be the perfect subject of the episode. The next day we met up with him and made the plans.


For the interview, we wanted a quiet place that we could shoot at night. We tried setting up lights in our hotel room, but it was reallllyy creeepy lookin. So we found a spot in an empty hallway at a mall across the street from the Pel’meni place.

Overall, the B-roll was the easiest shoot I’ve ever done. That’s because the entire scene is enclosed in a small space, there is lots of action (cooking pelmeni), and all the shots were relevant to the what the interview would eventually cover. I wish all videos could be this concrete going in.


Travis shot on the monopod with a wide angle, and I was on the shoulder rig with my handy 17-55mm. Because I’m not a very tall guy, when I do over-the-shoulder shots I have to reach the camera high above me and subject, and this is where the Canon 60D’s movable LCD screen with Magic Lantern’s focus assist is key.

Travis edited this episode, so maybe it seems like the project was easy because I didn’t have to do the difficult story work. One thing I’ve learned is, the easier/simpler the video looks, the harder the editor worked.

Also, I hae to say, Travis miraculously edited this while on an airplane and in close quarters before/after a wedding out of state. We edit on Macbook Pros all on portable USB3 drives (that don’t require AC adapters), so the whole setup is probably less than 5 pounds and fits on an airplane tray, and can run off the Macbook’s battery for a few hours… I can never get over how crazy that is.

Anyway, the best part about this episode is that it inspired my wife to cook pelmeni for my birthday. We get them frozen at the Russian Deli on Arctic and 36th in Anchorage. Mmmm.