Sierra Film Maker - James Kelly
Growing up in the picturesque setting of the Sierra, it is hard for one not to appreciate their surroundings. For many, the beauty is so overwhelming that they spend much of their time trying to capture it on film. The majority of these nature lovers do this by means of 35 mm or point and shoot digital cameras, preserving wildflowers, wildlife and landscapes onto black and white or color photographs. However, Tuolumne County resident, James Kelly, prefers to take it a step further, capturing these mountain top experiences on film by way of a video camera. In doing so he is able to transport the many wonders of the wilderness onto television sets, allowing those to witness the magnificence of the Sierra from the comforts of their homes.
James, 33, has lived in Tuolumne County for over 25 years and spent most of his early years in Groveland. His high school years were split between Tenaya and Sonora, where his two favorite subjects were drama and art, developing his eye for detail. Yet it wasn’t until he moved across the river to Cold Springs that he really started to fall in love with the beauty of the outdoors.
“When I moved to the area I didn’t really like the snow,” he recalled. “But then toward the end of the season at Dodge Ridge, my friend took me snowboarding…and I fell in love with it! There was only a dozen or so days left in the season and I went every day.”
To say the least, James was disappointed when the season came to an end…but found out that his newfound hobby could continue for several more months after a friend introduced him to snowmobiling.
“My friend took me up to Sonora Pass with a snowmobile and I realized that I could ride most of the spring and summer,” he said. “It was those early days at Dodge and up on the pass that really opened my eyes to the area and the outdoor lifestyle.”
James easily embraced this lifestyle and spent nine years working at the mountain resort as a snowboard instructor, snow park manager and race team coach. He also purchased a snowmobile so he could enjoy the vast expanse of backcountry terrain.
“The last three or four years I have been doing just strictly backcountry boarding through snowshoe access, snowmobile access or both,” he said. “I bought a snowmobile so I can go out, park at the bottom of a hill and then snowshoe up so I can snowboard back down. I have definitely had some years where I have had over 200 snowboarding days in a year. This year I have been able to snowboard around the Three Chimneys, Coopers Peak and Pinecrest Peak.”
Yet James has discovered that when the snow eventually melts, these locations still have plenty to offer, and he spends his summers backpacking and scaling the Sierra peaks.
“Hiking around the pass in the summer motivated me to go to new places to go fishing, and whenever I saw something beautiful I would always try to capture it.”
At first this beauty was captured through a disposable or a 35 mm camera, and he has accumulated a fairly large collection of printed film from those early treks. However, it wasn’t long before his eyes were opened to a method of film that could make his prints come to life.
“Through snowboarding trips on the pass I ended up being filmed by some local movie makers who were filming snowboard movies for distribution and sale,” he said. “They would film on the pass and I also joined them on trips to Oregon and Washington where they filmed some shots for the local resorts.”
Surrounded by the influence of filmmakers it was only a matter of time before James found himself looking through the eye of a video camera.
“This opened my eyes to the world of film and I discovered that I had a lot more options with the video camera,” he said.
In 2002 James bought his first video camera from one of his filmmaking friends, and was constantly documenting his Sierra surroundings.
“The camera I bought was small enough that I was able to take it everywhere,” he said. “So whenever I went backpacking or fishing, I pretty much always had my camera.”
His camera also came with an attachment for a helmet camera as well, allowing him to shoot at a variety of angles.
“The attachment camera has been great, and I’ve incorporated a lot of unique shots into my movies with that device,” he said. “I am able to put it on the end of a ski pole to stick in a cave crack and it allows me to get up close in places where I can’t reach. It also allows me to film myself and other people from the point of view as someone who is right behind them or in front of them.”
For the past seven years James has spent a lot of his free time filming his wilderness treks, stockpiling quite a collection of Sierra scenery and wildlife.
“As my collection grew, I became inspired to plan trips specifically designed to capture wildlife on film,” he said. “Sometimes I will go out in camouflage and set up some blinds, which have been fairly successful, but most of the shots are all about being at the right place at the right time.”
For James, the right place is usually in the most remote place that he can find.
“I basically try to spend most of my time where other people haven’t been in a long time,” he said. “It is in these places where I am truly happy.”
However, exploring these remote places can be a lot of work.
“I am into doing expedition type trips and last summer a friend and I decided to hike the Stanislaus River from Beardsley Reservoir to Camp 9 Power Plant,” he said. “That was pretty hard.”
Although only 12 to 13 miles, this stretch of river snaking through a very isolated section of the Stanislaus National Forest is riddled with cliffs and obstacles, turning it into a very time consuming trek…especially if the water is high.
“It took us five days!” he said. “It was hell. We had planned it a month ahead of time and scouted it a couple times, but the day before we left it started raining and they released a lot of water from the power plant, making the river two to three feet higher than we expected. We had planned on hiking along the river bottom, but since the water was high we ended up doing a lot of rock climbing through poison oak and blackberry bushes. We even had to use ropes and swim in certain sections…it was pretty grueling. Our farthest day of hiking from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. was only 4 four miles…and we were pushing hard! Usually we can do 30 plus miles with full packs on…so as you can imagine, there wasn’t as much filming, fishing and hanging out as we had hoped.”
Although that trip wasn’t what James had hoped for, it can’t erase the fact that the Stanislaus River is still home to one of his most memorable outdoor experiences.
“I have had some great fishing experiences on that river and I will never forget when an eight to ten pound German brown grabbed my 13 inch trout that I had on my line,” he said. “It was flopping it out of the water like a shark after a seal for like two or three minutes right in front of us… while the fish was still on my line! It is one of my favorite wildlife stories. Although I didn’t capture it on film, it is stories like that that inspire me to make sure that I always have my camera in case something like that happens.”
Yet fish tales aren’t all he can tell. James has seen a variety of wildlife during his expeditions.
“So far, I have seen two mountain lions and numerous bear,” he said. “I have never really had a problem with bears and I’ll end up trying to track them down to get some footage if I feel like there is one in the area, or I see some tracks.”
James has taken several geology, geography, wildflower and mushroom classes out at Columbia and spends a lot of time trying to identify different species.
“When I find something cool I’ll usually mark it with my GPS and take some notes to make sure that I can properly identify it,” he said. “I have been creating a collection of photographs with GPS locations…kind of like a guidebook.”
Yet although he has been compiling information and gathering footage of Sierra scenery and wildlife, it wasn’t until recently that he actually started making movies.
“I spent a lot of years filming, but I never actually had the availability or the equipment to make movies,” he said. “But after compiling all my footage, I decided to start putting it together in a movie format.”
The first video James ever produced was about a weekend four-wheeling trip on the Rubicon Trail titled 4X4th of July. Tectonic geology was the topic of his second movie, which he created for a Columbia College class project years ago. Yet it wasn’t until last year that he really get serious about filmmaking.
“I was working as a carpenter but since things started slowing down up here I decided to take advantage of the slow time and go to school and put my energy into something that I really liked to do,” he said. “So I started taking video production classes.”
His first class was Video Production One, taught by Melissa Colon, where he completed his first real film project with a movie called The Rob Movie.”
“Rob is my best friend and my outdoor partner as far as snowboarding and outdoor trips go, so I had about five or six years of collected footage of Rob that I put together for my first school project,” he explained. “I didn’t have any of my own equipment so I probably spent a good four weeks working on it at the school. The teacher was stoked with the final product and she shows it when she goes to talk at the high schools.”
After the semester ended, James updated his video equipment and bought a computer and video making software before enrolling in Video Production Two, taught by Cord Rawlinson.
“Now I use a small Panasonic three chip camera, a Sony helmet camera and a really small flash drive camera that I can put in my pocket and take anywhere,” he said. “I usually use a small ten inch ultra-pod when I am doing my filming. As for the software, there is entry level editing software that would probably meet most people’s movie needs. The professional software is going to be more expensive and require a stronger, faster computer to operate it, but pretty much most computers have some sort of moviemaking program. I was able to make my Video Production Two final project video with my own equipment at home.”
For his final project, James decided to compile his wildlife footage for a film he titled, Fragility. This 17-minute masterpiece of wildlife and landscapes is definitely worth a look. Filled with spectacular footage of flora and fauna from Tuolumne and Inyo Counties, as well as some shots of beaver and salmon from an Alaskan excursion, this short film truly displays James’ talent and his love for the outdoors. The photography, cinematography, art and editing was all done by himself, and if one didn’t know any better, it would be easy to believe the film was an episode from the Discovery Channel.
“This film took me a little longer to complete than my first one, but I am happy with it,” he said. “I figured if I could make a movie that I am stoked about, that showcases the area that we live in, then it is a success.”
After the completion of his film, James donated 30 copies to the Central Sierra Environmental Research Center (CSERC) for distribution among their donors.
“I figured that anybody involved with CSERC would really be able to appreciate the movie,” he said. “I am hoping in the future we will be able to do more projects together.”
For those interested in watching this film, it has been broken down into eight different chapters that are available to watch on CSERC’s website at www.cserc.org.
After his Fragility film, James soon found his camera at work again, and he is currently in the middle of another project working for Foothill Collaborative for Sustainability (FoCuS).
“I am working for FoCuS as intern through the college and basically I am volunteering my time and recourses to produce a movie that they will be able to use for grants and sponsorships,” he said. “That will be finished in the next month or so, and I am looking forward to many more projects that I have on the backburner right now.”
These include a fishing video, a mountain biking video and another music video of his three-piece band, Valdamitt.
“We have been together for about a year and have a recording studio in Mi-Wuk Village where we record audio and we also shoot videos,” he said. “We have one music video out right now and the second one is in the works. The first video was fun to make and we spent three or four nights at the studio just hanging out and having fun. Yet whether something gets made of any of my footage or not, they will still always serve as my memoirs and I will always have them to enjoy.”
James plans to continue in the art of filmmaking for years to come and hopes to turn it into a career.
“I would be stoked with anything that has to do with the outdoor video production field,” he said. ”Wildlife and nature is at the top of my list, but I am at the point where I am ready to make movies about anything…all different subjects. I am planning on continuing my schooling in this field and I hope to enter film contests in the future. Hopefully I will be able to make some type of living in this field…whether it’s in the filming, editing or producing part of the business. Since I am unemployed right now, my main motivation is to work on my movies and get them off the ground. I try to spend 70 percent of my time doing it. I can’t say that I spend all my time doing it, because it’s not realistic, but that is what I plan on doing for as long as I can.”
For copies of any of James’ movies, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.