Touching Space, A New Short Film for National Geographic

How do you touch space without even leaving the ground? Near Space Photographer John Flaig outfits weather balloons with cameras to capture novel images of iconic landscapes, such as the Grand Canyon.

How do you touch space without even leaving the ground? Near Space Photographer John Flaig outfits weather balloons with cameras to capture novel images of iconic landscapes, such as the Grand Canyon.

From this ethereal vantage, we have the opportunity to not only look beyond our planet, but to also gaze back at ourselves.

Space has never been more accessible to the dilettante explorer; we live in a world where commercial flights beyond our atmosphere are a growing reality. What was once only accessible to an elite band of astronauts, is now at the fingertips of anyone willing. As the number of individuals who have touched space doubles at a breakneck rate, there are a few pioneers ahead of the pack.

John Flaig is a Brooklyn-born software engineer and amateur photographer, currently living in the Midwest. While working at the Grand Canyon National Park some 15 years ago, John developed an interest in adventure, nature, and photography. Since then, John has been launching his “near space” weather balloons fixed with high end cameras to capture a rarefied glimpse of our planet from afar.

Such images were once only thought to come from NASA, now John is on the forefront of a growing movement to reach the edge of our gravitational pull. “Using a weather balloon is attractive because of the novelty and completely unique view it affords of places, like the Grand Canyon, that have been filmed extensively from every conceivable angle, in every conceivable condition, except from the edge of space,” John exclaims.

“My balloons aren’t really operated per se,” John admits. He starts out by deciding where he would like the balloon to land, and then figures out exactly where he’ll need to launch from. “It’s like playing golf with the hole being a hundred miles away.” Using some prediction tools, John can plot a trajectory fairly accurately with his closest estimate being only 10 miles off. That’s not bad when you consider that he is sending a balloon to the middle-stratosphere, which is roughly 22 miles high.”We live in the Troposphere,” John explains.

“That extends to about 10 miles up. Then there is the boundary layer, called the tropopause. The stratosphere then extends to around 31 miles before you hit the mesosphere where meteors burn up. Once in the stratosphere you are essentially above 99% of the atmosphere’s mass. The ozone layer is found in the lower stratosphere; my balloons can easily go above that.” Still, John is careful to comply with the FAA’s rules for unmanned free balloons.

A new short film for National Geographic, join us as we follow John as he attempts to photograph the Grand Canyon from the edge of space.


Photo by John Flaig

Pilot Pioneers Harrowing, Low-Level Wingsuit Flights

WATCH: Fly along with wingsuit BASE jumpers as they show how they determine the optimal course for their thrill-seeking rides.

WATCH: Fly along with wingsuit BASE jumpers as they show how they determine the optimal course for their thrill-seeking rides.

Text by Andrew Bisharat, National Geographic
Video by Dan Gingold and JJ Kelley

During his nine-year tenure in the U.S. Navy, Richard Webb flew F-14 Tomcats. “The jets made famous in Top Gun,” he says, casually.

The only other thing that comes close to the experience of flying fighter jets, says Webb, is wingsuit BASE jumping. “It’s the same level of intensity,” he says. “This sport brings back flashbacks of what I experienced landing a jet at night on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of a storm.”

“That immense mental focus: You couldn’t trip, you couldn’t clutch—you had to dig deep and nail it.”

Wingsuit BASE jumping, an activity that’s little more than a decade old, is considered the most dangerous sport on earth, in part due to the frequency of high-profile deaths of very experienced pilots. The most recent victims:  Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, two of the most accomplished wingsuit BASE jumpers in the world. The duo died together in a wingsuit accident in Yosemite National Park on May 15. (Read about how Potter reinvented climbing and jumping.)

Simply “BASE jumping” is the act of parachuting from “fixed” objects. (BASE stands for the types of things participants leap off: buildings, antennas, bridge—spans—or the earth itself, in the form of cliffs or promontories.) The sport is estimated to yield one fatality for every 60 participants, according to a 2008 study.

Wingsuit BASE jumping, meanwhile, combines a BASE jump with the demanding skill of flying a wingsuit, a full-body rig that resembles a flying squirrel costume. Wingsuit BASE jumpers can reach speeds of more than 100 miles per hour and often fly close to cliff faces and other terrain, which adds to both the thrill and the danger.

There are no official participation numbers for either the sport of BASE jumping or wingsuit BASE. Tom Aiello, the owner of one of the few places that teaches the sport, the Snake River BASE Academy in Twin Falls, Idaho, estimates there might be 3,000 moderately active BASE jumpers in the world.

“Roughly, we’ve seen the sport double in growth over the last decade,” he says.

Matt Gerdes, the chief test pilot of the U.S.-based wingsuit company Squirrel —one of only a handful of wingsuit manufacturers in the world—estimates that there might be as many as 400 people in the world wingsuit BASE jumping.

Lower Cliffs, More Dangerous Jumps

Webb has been BASE jumping and parachuting for two decades but only took up wingsuit BASE jumping three years ago. He feels uneasy to be counted as a member of that elite group.

“I am not that experienced when compared to the level of talent out there crushing the Alps,” he says. “We just happen to have gotten a little attention by being lucky enough to live in Moab and push the limits here a bit.”

Webb, 42, works as an airplane pilot and lives in Moab, Utah, which is regarded as one of the BASE-jumping capitals of the world for its numerous cliffs, endless canyons, and legal access.

In national parks, where most of the tallest cliffs in the U.S. are located, deploying a parachute is illegal, for safety reasons. Still, people do it, and they are rarely caught. There were only four incidents of arrest for BASE jumping in national parks last year, according to National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson.

But Aiello guesses that on any given day of the year, someone, somewhere, will BASE jump in a national park, weather permitting.

Those who choose to jump within national parks reportedly do it at times they are less likely to be caught—during the night, or at dusk, when visibility is low. For example, last year some BASE jumpers privately attributed the death of Sean Leary, a well-known wingsuit pilot in Moab, to flying in low light inside Zion National Park, where he would’ve been fined if he’d been caught by rangers.

For those who don’t wish to break the law, the answer is either go to Europe, where BASE jumping is legal in many places with high, shear cliff faces, such as Mount Kjerag in Norway or the Eiger in Switzerland, or seek out other locations in the U.S. where jumping is legal. That usually means wilderness areas controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

But that also means lower cliffs, which translates into more dangerous jumps.

Short Leaps in Moab

“I don’t have the luxury of being able to take time off work and go on a very expensive wingsuit vacation to Europe,” says Webb. “We have to work with what we have here.”

Across the Moab region, most “exits” (the spots from which BASE jumpers leap) are found atop cliffs in the range of 300 to 400 feet tall—a barely adequate height for BASE jumping, and widely considered much too short for wingsuit flights. (A 300-foot fall without a chute takes only 4.32 seconds.)

Until now.

After years of training, scouting, and planning—not to mention the arrival of vastly improved wingsuit technology—Webb and wingsuit partner Matthew Fleischman have begun wingsuit BASE jumping in Moab.

“Moab is like the mini golf of wingsuit BASE,” says Squirrel’s Matt Gerdes. In Europe wingsuit BASE jumpers log 5,000 vertical feet of descent with flight durations lasting more than three minutes. In Moab, the flights might last between 20 and 30 seconds at most, which means the margin for error is extremely thin.

“These jumps are super difficult and super dangerous,” says Aiello.

Gerdes estimates  that there are only 25 or 30 people in the U.S. who could safely wingsuit BASE jump Moab.

Webb and Fleischman now find themselves in that group. But they say their approach is unique.

“We’re not in the YouTube, GoPro generation of yahoos where it’s like, ‘Dude, go for it, you’ll stick it!’” says Webb. “We were the first people to put the effort into making sure we knew it was going to work. And then actually doing it.”

Webb, who has a degree in aeronautical engineering, approached wingsuit BASE jumping like an engineer. Using laser range finders, GPS devices, and an inclinometer, he and Fleischmann developed a model of data collection that helped them calculate whether flying from a particular exit point was mathematically survivable.

Most BASE jumpers rely on the “rock drop” method for determining cliff heights: drop a rock, count the seconds before you hear it hit the ground, and crunch the numbers. (For math geeks, the exact equation used to determine cliff height, in meters, is to take the time in seconds that the rock falls, square it, multiply it by 9.8, and divide it by two.)

“When the margins are tight, we prefer a laser,” says Webb.

Webb and Fleischman began by scouting potential exit points around Moab. While the sandstone cliffs of this region rarely exceed 500 vertical feet, they do have one feature going for them. They are often perched atop steeply graduated slopes of reddish dirt and boulders that offer up to another 1,500 vertical feet of relief.

The pair realized that if they could fly fast and far enough, they could wingsuit BASE jump in locations that might have seemed impossible.

Using GPS devices to record their wingsuit flights at safer locations such as cliffs in Switzerland, and other places in the United States, jumping from both cliffs as well as hot-air balloons, Webb and Fleischman slowly built up a database of their own flight profiles, including temperature, wind direction and speed.

They also measured how quickly they started flying forward and how far they flew in total, crunching all the data to create charts depicting the precise trajectories of their flights.

Modern Suits Yield Longer Flights

Another enabler of Webb’s and Fleischman’s dangerous Moab jumps: Wingsuits have come a long way since they were first made commercially available in 1999.

A nylon wingsuit contains a series of baffled chambers between the arms and the torso and between the legs. After jumping, the pilot spreads his arms and legs, and an air scoop fills the chambers with air in the first moment as the pilot descends. Once the suit is inflated, the pilot begins gliding forward faster and farther than he or she is descending and has a greater ability to steer through the air by adjusting body position.

The earliest wingsuits flew at a 1:1 glide ratio, meaning a pilot traveled forward one foot for every foot of drop. Design improvements have yielded suits with up to a 5:1 glide ratio, allowing pilots to set records for both distance and duration.

New designs also made suits inflate more quickly. “Just a few years ago, it took four or five seconds to start flying well,” says Webb. “Now we’re flying well in two to three seconds. That was unheard of.”

Quicker start, better suits, and higher glide ratios convinced Webb that “wingsuit technology was rapidly approaching what was needed to wingsuit in Moab.”

After several flights abroad, Webb and Fleischmann returned to Moab and set out to profile the terrain they wished to fly. They used a laser rangefinder, a sighting tube, and an inclinometer to measure and map the terrain as precisely as possible. After gathering this data, they compared the terrain to their own “worst-case” scenarios based on previous flights.

The data revealed that wingsuit BASE jumps were possible. Theoretically.

“Oh, I was terrified. Absolutely terrified,” says Webb of the moment two years ago when he stood at precipice of the first flight. “We emphatically knew, numbers-wise, that it could be done. It was just about digging deep enough to force your body to commit and make it happen.”

Three. Two. One. See ya.

Fleischman jumped first. Then Webb. They spread their arms, and the baffles of their wingsuits became stiff with air. Within seconds they were flying forward at 100 miles per hour, tracking their line, staying calm and focused as the rock-strewn ground whizzed by just a few dozen feet below. Soon the terrain dropped away, and the two men pulled their parachutes, abruptly ending their flights, descending to the valley floor.

Once Thought Extinct, North America’s Rarest Mammal May Bounce Back

The black-footed ferret is returning to prairies, but it still faces steep challenges.

Text by James Owen, for National Geographic
Video by JJ Kelley & Katy Fox-O’Malley, for Dudes on Media

The black-footed ferret, North America’s rarest mammal, is returning to the western prairie 35 years after being declared extinct.

The comeback trail for Mustela nigripes began in 1981, when a ranch dog with a dead ferret in its mouth led to the rediscovery of a remnant population near Meeteetse in northwestern Wyoming. (See stunning pictures of the rarest animals on Earth.)

The last 18 survivors of that population formed the seed stock for a captive-breeding program that reintroduced the species to its former range at 25 sites from southernmost Canada to northern Mexico. Yet numbers in the wild remain low—fewer than 500, according to Peter Gober, recovery coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colorado.

A major hurdle is disease, particularly sylvatic plague, a flea-borne infection that appeared in North America in the early 1900s. Because the disease is non-native, the black-footed ferret—a member of the weasel family—has no natural resistance; neither does its prey, the prairie dog. (Related: [Video] “Why Do Prairie Dogs Do ‘The Wave’?“)

Prairie dogs are “pretty much all the ferrets eat,” Gober says. They also “provide shelter, because the ferrets make use of their burrows.

“There are quite a few prairie dogs in the West still, despite the fact that they’ve been reduced by 90 percent plus since historical times,” he adds. “The problem is that they fluctuate wildly, due to drought and because of this plague.”

The reintroduced ferret populations mirror these fluctuations. They “come and go” like “lights blinking on a Christmas tree,” Gober says. (Read about how scientists decide what species to save.)

Repopulating ferrets over a wide range of their old territory helps manage the risk of disease, but that requires access to suitable land with plenty of prairie dogs. “There’s a lot of raw habitat out there, but it’s degraded,” Gober says. Such habitat is typically found on livestock ranches, where historically prairie dogs haven’t been welcome. Because they compete with cattle for grass, millions were exterminated during the past century.

Wealthy landowners like media mogul Ted Turner are already on board with the program, but accommodating the ferrets’ increasing need for habitat will require financial support for the ranching community in return for tolerating significant numbers of prairie dogs.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so far has provided about a million dollars to a dozen landowners in Colorado, and hopes to expand the program to other states.

New hope also comes in the form of a recently developed vaccine to combat sylvatic plague.

Meanwhile, Gober and his colleagues in Colorado are breeding some 250 black-footed ferrets annually.

The team watches for signs of inbreeding due to the small size of the original genetic pool from those sole survivors found in Wyoming. But evidence from the field suggests that the ferret has been pulled back from the brink of extinction.

Fighting for Brazil’s Stolen Species

National Geographic 2014 Emerging Explorer and conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira is on the front line of Brazil's fight against a thriving illegal wildlife trade.

National Geographic 2014 Emerging Explorer and conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira is on the front line of Brazil’s fight against a thriving illegal wildlife trade.

We had the chance to travel to Sao Paulo, Brazil to tell the story of wildlife warrior, Juliana Machado Ferreira for National Geographic.

Conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira fights illegal wildlife trafficking in Brazil using science, political articulation, professional training, and educational outreach to curb demand, strengthen laws, empower police, and build international partnerships. Every year, poachers take 38 million animals from natural habitats in Brazil to supply all kinds of illegal wildlife trade. The business brings in $2 billion a year.

Machado Ferreira founded FREELAND Brasil to combat the thriving illegal trade, which she fights on many fronts. In Brazil, where keeping wild songbirds, parrots, and macaws is a widely embraced cultural norm, her organization educates the public about the devastating impact this can have on nature. She also helps police to identify, count, and provide triage care for birds seized during raids along with SOS Fauna. She holds a Ph.D. in genetics and has developed molecular markers that can aid in identifying the origins of birds seized by police and help return rehabilitated birds to the right spot in the wild.

"The mega business of illegal wildlife trafficking threatens Brazil’s mega biodiversity more every day. We must turn the tide now—before it’s too late."

“The mega business of illegal wildlife trafficking threatens Brazil’s mega biodiversity more every day. We must turn the tide now—before it’s too late.”

Josh & JJ Featured in National Commercial

Courtesy of Nature Valley

What do we love most? That’s easy! We travel through the natural world and capture the highlights on camera. It’s been our passion for over a decade, and that same desire has taken us to some pretty unusual and far-flung destinations.

It’s quite amazing to think that I met Josh 10-years ago on a hiking trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia. The famous 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) captivated me in my early 20’s. I had this romantic notion that I could put all the essentials in one bag, hop a fence, and walk for months. So with 22-boxes of dried food waiting to be shipped to me, I set off, hiking from the northern end of the US bound for the south.

From a large scale perspective, progress was exceedingly glacial. After walking for 40-days—40 days of walking—I remember looking at a 3-foot map of the AT; I had only covered two inches! I was hiking alone and quickly realized that I might just go crazy if I walked this trail by myself. I mean 6-months in the woods with not a soul to converse; that could easily make me cuckoo.

It was literally that next day when I met Josh. He too was walking alone, and we hit it off right away. At that time, we had never held a camera and really didn’t know what we wanted to do with our lives. We were both content in finding a new horizon to start each day. Fast-forward to today, and we’ve we’ve logged over 8,000 miles either by foot, bike, rickshaw, kayak, and rowboat. We’re both television producers, Josh for Discovery and me for National Geographic. We’ve produced 3-feature  documentaries together and a recent short documentary. It’s been this amazing and completely unexpected ride.

So when we received a call from Academy Award Winner Sean Fine about appearing in a national commercial that he and his wife Andrea would be directing, I was blown away. I didn’t actually think it would happen up until the moment the cameras started rolling. In part it was a very familiar scene, there was Josh, and we were in the woods…in Maine again no less. However this time there was the addition of two world class filmmakers, a commercial ad team, Nature Valley representatives, camera operators, photographers and wilderness guides. It was all very surreal and today I’m honored to announce that the shoot was a success! We’re unyieldingly so grateful that our passion could be turned into a career.


JJ Kelley and Josh Thomas

Historic U.S. Ivory Crush a Call to Global Action

Six tons of seized ivory destroyed in effort to fight global wildlife crime.

Six tons of seized ivory destroyed in effort to fight global wildlife crime.

Text by Bryan Christy, for National Geographic
Video by J.J. Kelley of Dudes on Media

Yesterday the United States government destroyed six tons of ivory, nearly all of the ivory in its possession.

It was a ceremony covered by media from around the world, including China CCTV television, Al Jazeera, HBO’s VICE, CBS, and Reuters. The International Fund for Animal Welfare and the World Wildlife Fund co-hosted the event with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In contrast to the Philippines, which in June used hacksaws, a small roller, and a backhoe to break up its ivory stock before sending it to be incinerated in a crematorium used for stray animals, the U.S. brought in a massive rock crusher capable of pulverizing 150 to 200 tons of material an hour.

A bulldozer picked up almost a quarter century’s worth of seized ivory carvings and raw tusks and delivered these remnants of elephants into the crusher’s maw. Moments later out poured what looked like bits and pieces of seashells you’d find walking along a sandy beach after a storm. The material will go to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which will design memorials for distribution to its facilities around the country.

It is hard not to become jaded by the elephant poaching crisis. I spent three years investigating and writing about the illegal ivory trade. Elephants I watched from a Land Rover in East Africa just two years ago are now most certainly dead. Everyone knows why. Africa lacks sufficient security in the bush to protect elephants. Criminal syndicates smuggle ivory by the ton, but their kingpins have remained invisible for decades. Corruption is rife in the field, at the ports, and in governments from Africa to Asia, where most illegal ivory ends up.

More of the Same?

Recently, several of the world’s largest conservation NGOs teamed up to launch a campaign as part of the Clinton Global Initiative. The campaign’s slogan—”Stop the Killing, Stop the Trafficking, Stop the Demand”—is so patently obvious that I find it insulting.

Supply, shipment, and consumption are the cornerstones of every form of international trade. To present them as a fresh perspective on an old problem is to trigger my worst fears as a criminal investigator: Nothing will change.

Why? Because the same conservation establishment that has presided over the state of affairs we see today can come up with nothing more innovative to address the elephant poaching crisis than saying: We should stop it.

And so I went to the ivory crush without much real hope, and I did my job as a journalist.

“What does your machine normally do?” I asked the man on the rock crusher.

“It takes big rocks and turns them into smaller rocks,” he said. And I wrote that down.

Promising Signs

But then I began to hear things I hadn’t heard before. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Judy Garber announced a one-million-dollar bounty on the head of Laotian wildlife trafficker Vixay Keosavang and his syndicate under the State Department’s Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program. Here was a real crime-fighting technique being applied to wildlife trafficking.

I listened as IFAW’s Grace Gabriel told me a story of how China’s new president’s “Tiger and Fly” anti-corruption campaign has led to a drop in sales of luxury watches, expensive liquors, and other extravagant “gifts” commonly used to bribe officials. During my investigation in China, ivory retailers told me that government and military officials buying luxury gifts for superiors were customers for their best ivory.

I heard several people, including Ginette Hemley of the WWF, call for a ban on the domestic U.S. ivory market. It is illegal to bring ivory into the U.S., but it is legal to buy and sell ivory domestically. Legal domestic markets are a loophole that enables trade in many of the worst ivory trafficking problem countries, especially China.

And then, near the end of a day of speeches, I watched as actress Kristin Bauer van Straten reached into her pocket in the middle of her speech and pulled out an ivory bracelet her father, a World War II veteran, had brought home to her mother.

“This is a thing,” she said, holding the bracelet. “This is not life.” She added her family heirloom to the pyre of ivory to be destroyed.

Kenyan Paula Kahumbu ended the day by recounting her visit last week to Ivoryton, Connecticut, which, she said, once processed 100,000 African elephants a year into combs, piano keys, and billiard balls. Kahumbu said America’s recognition of its role in the ivory trade was a lesson for China. She read a message from Kenyan First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, who congratulated the U.S. and asked the American government to join Kenya in enacting a ban on domestic ivory trade.

As I was leaving, people began discussing the possibility of a nationwide program for people to turn in legal ivory they have in their homes but don’t want to keep in light of today’s elephant slaughter.

This is something many Catholic priests have asked me since my story “Ivory Worship” was published in National Geographic magazine. “Do I have to get rid of my ivory?”

There are even smaller things people can do to help. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe pointed to a U.S. Postal Service truck offering “Save Vanishing Species” stamps for sale.

And so it was a day of more than crushing the teeth of dead elephants. It was a day of turning the big rock of wildlife crime into smaller rocks of human action.

US Crushed Ivory

NEW SHORT FILM — Finding Moose in Maine

JJ Kelley and Josh Thomas

Is it fall already? It must be, Josh just shipped off for another year producing on The Deadliest Catch. As the days get shorter, I think we can all enjoy our day a little bit more imagining that unflappable young man bucking the worst of Poseidon with a smile on his face.

Before Josh took off, we had the great pleasure of returning to Maine. This is significant because the last time we were in New England together was when we first met as thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. It’s been 10 years since we started having adventures, over that time we’ve spent a full year crammed in a tent together traveling to some of the most far-flung places on the planet. It’s been a blast! Today we have 3-feature films together, a National Geographic short film, and dozens of TV credits to our names.

So in the spirit of an autumn adventure, it’s with great pride that we present this little short film. The objective is quite simple: capture the perfect shot of a moose. The result…well you’ll just have to watch!

New Short Film from Dudes on Media

It’s our newest short film and we’re pretty darn proud of it. “Gyre: Creating Art From a Plastic Ocean” is a film we pitched to National Geographic earlier this year. We were honored when they agreed to tell the story with us. The film will be announced in the September issue of The National Geographic Magazine. Here is the trailer and a little more about the film, which comes out August 20, 2013.

Gyre: Creating Art From a Plastic Ocean

Join the Gyre Expedition for a close-up look at how garbage impacts our planet. This team of scientists, artists, and educators journeyed into the Alaskan wild this summer to study and gather marine debris. What they collected will become part of a 2014 traveling exhibit that seeks to bring the environmental harm of trash into perspective. The project was launched by the Alaska SeaLife Center and the Anchorage Museum.

Learn more about the Gyre Expedition and see video from this summer’s expedition:

Gyre Project: What is it?

A Dudes on Media production for National Geographic.

Marine debris — mostly plastic — does not dissolve and stays in oceans for decades. And it kills. Every day, marine debris kills seabirds, whales, fish, dolphins, seals, turtles, and manatees that either mistake the debris for food or become ensnared and often strangled.

We at Dudes on Media believe that caring for our planet is one of the most important things we can do as a species. Our trash is becoming the cultural archeology of our time. Is that how we want to be remembered? We like to share this message with films, but we strongly feel they should never feel like medicine. They should be fun to watch, take you along on an adventure and even celebrate comedy.

In a new series for National Geographic, we’ll follow an international team of scientists, artists, and educators as they launch an expedition to study marine debris in the remote waters of Alaska. Traveling 450 nautical miles, they will stop to observe, document, and collect some of the trash that is changing our planet.

Here is a sneak peek of what’s coming later this year.

GYRE is an original National Geographic Web Series coming September 2013.

Follow GYRE

Filmmaking: A lesson in perseverance

It’s 5 o’clock in the evening, and I’ve been editing for six hours. I’ve watched an interview 15 times trying to dissect it and see how it can become a through-line throughout the film. I have five hours left to edit before I allow myself to sleep. My eyes ache, my head hurts, my tan has disappeared and all I want is to be back on the road living the adventure rather than trying to tell the story of it. Between the cat knocking over the external hard drive, the endless rendering and the feeling of inadequacy, I’m about ready to throw in the towel.

The Highway Walkers” was my first experience editing a feature length film. For 30 days, Josiah and I documented our hitchhiking trip from Iowa to Oregon. On average we filmed for 5 hours a day, which comes out to a minimum of 150-hours of video. That is six and a quarter days of footage! We were inexperienced and eager to film, but didn’t have the wisdom to know what footage was better off deleted on the road. This led me to sitting in front of the computer watching days and days of footage, the majority of which would never see light. We had a great resource in JJ Kelley of Dudes on Media who passed along insight about the filming process and who told us to have an idea of the story we wanted to tell. Little did we know how little we knew.

Darrell Johnston and Josiah Laubenstein hitchhike from Iowa to Oregon in the film, "The Highway Walkers"

Darrell Johnston and Josiah Laubenstein hitchhike from Iowa to Oregon in the film, “The Highway Walkers”

I would sit in front of the computer and become immediately intimidated by the mountain of material I had to trim down to 1:11 minutes. I had to learn to see the film in stages rather than in it’s entirety. I started breaking it down into chapters and beats and moments, chipping away at the mountain, shrinking it into a much more manageable and less intimidating size. The experience was pretty much a reiteration of everything I had learned in Sunday school, boy scouts and every other religious or goal oriented organization.

Not to get overtly spiritual, but there is something transcendental about seeing a project from start to finish. The book, ‘One Man’s Wilderness’ is a collection of journal entries collected from Dick Proenneke as he builds his cabin in the wilderness of Alaska from nothing but tools he made himself. He writes:

“I do think a man has missed a very deep feeling of satisfaction if he has never created or at least completed something with his own two hands. We have grown accustomed to work on pieces of things instead of wholes. It is a way of life with us now. The emphasis is on teamwork. I believe this trend bears much of the blame for the loss of pride in one’s work, the kind of pride the old craftsman felt when he started a job and finished it and stood back and admire it. How does a man on an assembly line feel any pride in the final product that rolls out at the other end?”


The experience of completing the project was laid out before me like a timeline. As I freelance as an actor as my day job, I was doing a fair amount of traveling in those 8 months of editing. I started in a cabin in northern Minnesota where I learned to see the film piece by piece, traveled to Wisconsin where I started to find the voice of the film. It was on the llama farm in Wisconsin that the pieces started to fit together with our new musical score. Then in New York City, Josiah and I learned how to let go. By the time I was in NYC the movie had been cut to 1:50 minutes and I had no idea how 39 minutes of footage was going to be removed. A friend of mine who works in the arts affectionately calls the process of editing your own work as ‘killing your babies’. NYC is where I learned how to kill my babies and trust that the story would still be told. In Olive Hill, TN is where the film had it’s first audience and where the first DVD was burned.

Spontaneous spelunking in Idaho. "The Highway Walkers"

Spontaneous spelunking in Idaho. “The Highway Walkers”

This timeline of locations and memories of toting external hard drives around the country are my scars and calluses that I will carry with me for future editing projects. They are my sense of completion and my link to the journey that is seeing a project through to the end.

All of this to say that while editing a film is no more toilsome that writing a novel, reading all of Shakespeare’s collected works, running everyday or completing a diet. It’s all about enjoying the journey of completion, of being able to look back over the timeline of the project and bask in the sense of accomplishment. I hope that as I grow in the field and have more projects and adventures that I become better skilled at articulating what it means to see a goal to completion. Best of luck to you whatever your journey may be.