We recently shared the short film PURPLUK from Bjorn Olson, featuring artist Kim McNett. Here we share an interview with Bjorn, a lifelong Alaskan, about filmmaking in the 49th state. -Kid
SALSA – What first sparked your interest in making films?
BJORN – In 2007, a buddy and I attempted an original fat bike route down the frozen Kuskokwim River through Western Alaska. On that trip I learned from the locals in each of the small Yup’ik villages we passed through, that a very large, open-pit gold mine was in the early stages of development. When I returned from the trip, I tried to find out more information about the proposed mine but could discover very little other than the fact that if the mine were to be developed it would become the largest open-pit gold mine in the world. This mine, it turns out, is in the mercury belt of Alaska and would unearth more mercury than gold, likely with a profoundly negative impact on the watershed and the countless people in the region who depend on clean water and healthy renewable resources for their sustenance and ways of life.
Around this time, I was in the process of forging new friendships with wilderness adventurers Hig and Erin, who had just completed a 13-month hike and packraft expedition from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands. I soon joined their nonprofit called Ground Truth Trekking. The mission of the nonprofit is to educate and engage the public on Alaska's natural resource issues through a combination of wilderness adventure, scientific analysis, and the creation of Web resources. I had a burning desire to make a documentary, by human-powered means, about this enormous and very under-reported open-pit gold mine. With the support and collaboration of Ground Truth Trekking, this resulted in my first documentary, Where the Heck is Donlin?
SALSA – Are there common themes running through your work?
BJORN – My hope is to not become overly myopic in the topics that intrigue me as a filmmaker, but there absolutely are themes I gravitate to, and I do have certain principals that I refuse to compromise on. In a general sense, my main themes are Alaska-centric. I love using my filmmaking as a way to enrich and deepen my understanding of issues and topics, as well as hopefully inspire people. Whenever I can achieve these by human power, all of my boxes are checked.
SALSA – How has Alaska played into your development as a film maker?
BJORN – So much so that it can’t be separated. Far and away, my life as an adventurer has been within Alaska. These adventures have enriched my understanding of the unique indigenous cultures that span this vast state as well as deepening my appreciation for the variety of landscapes, wildlife, natural resource issues, the environmental changes, and much more. Filmmaking has been a way for me to attempt to share some of these insights I am in the process of discovering about Alaska, and about myself as I figure out how to navigate through its vast landscapes.
SALSA – Many of your films have been created on quite intensive bikepacking, packrafting, or sea kayaking expeditions where volume and weight constraints come into play. Can you describe your typical expedition filmmaking setup?
BJORN – How much and what sort of equipment I carry is always trip- and project-dependent. I spend quite a bit of time fretting about this before heading out. I’ve been reminded over and over that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I have often returned home regretful that I didn’t do a better job capturing the experience. However, sometimes the strenuousness of particular expeditions means that I have to compromise.
At the very least, I always carry my Canon 5D Mark III, which shoots 1920 x 1080 HD video as well as RAW stills. If I’m only going to carry one lens, I typically bring my 24–105 mm. I also often carry a small audio recorder and a shotgun mic. Sometimes I bring an actual tripod, but when I’m trying to cut weight, I will use a telescoping monopod that double duties as a center pole for my shelter.
When I know that the focus is to really capture a story, I will bring my better audio recorder and mic, several lenses (24–70 mm and 70–200 mm, plus a 1.4x extender), a real tripod, my fancier camera, a Canon 1DX Mark II, a grip of batteries, chargers, and memory cards.
SALSA – You have experienced parts of Alaska, and probably more of Alaska, than 99.999% of humanity, and documenting the environmental changes has been part of your mission. Is there a message you would like to share with our audience?
BJORN – There are many, but the number one is that climate change is no joke. We have 31 communities here in Alaska that will soon have to be relocated because of this unnatural and rapid warming. We are seeing summer temperatures so unnaturally high that salmon streams are sometimes unable to support their spawning. This high heat is even causing mature salmon to die of heart attacks in huge mortality events. Our winters are coming later, spring comes earlier, and mid-winter thaws are becoming more regular. Alaska is warming more than twice the rate of the mid-latitudes and more than three times faster in winter. It’s frightening to think that after thousands of years of indigenous people traveling across Alaska’s vast landscapes in winter, that I may be part of the last generation of people to reliably experience this.
SALSA – What is your advice to the folks out there who have always been curious about filmmaking, but have yet to pull the trigger?
BJORN – There has never been a better time to get into the field of filmmaking. The sheer volume of online tutorials, from equipment to technique, is staggering. This is what I recommend: watch tutorials, experiment, and watch more tutorials.
There’s a quote I really like from musician Tom Waits: “Life is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.” I believe that we need more storytellers, in whatever media they are most drawn to, to put their ideas and creative expressions out there. Finding an inspired, artistic outlet may or may not ever pay the bills, but quality of life isn’t measured by money. I can’t underscore enough how much filmmaking has enriched my own life, and the process of improving the craft appears endless.
I had no idea what I was doing when I made my first documentary, but I really wanted to make it. Since then, I have tried to steep myself in the discipline of filmmaking and am constantly learning new tricks and tips. I’d like to believe it’s a formula that anyone with a desire to create something can apply. I feel the same way about wilderness adventure. The first few might be real suffer-fests, but the more you throw yourself at them with the humility to learn, the better they get.
SALSA – Where can people view more of your films and photography?
BJORN – I try to catalogue most of my work on my website - mjolnirofbjorn.com
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I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.