Filmmaker Focus: Josh Owens

03 26 2018

Josh Owens and STALKR have quite a history—he was the first filmmaker we signed to the STALKR Library.

Our partnership with Josh got its start from his film, Manhattan in Motion, and our relationship has only continued to flourish over the years. He recently returned from 2nd unit directing Tom Lowe’s film, “Awaken”—a project that took him all around the world, capturing incredible sights and testing out new film technologies.

We got the chance to chat with Josh to ask him more about his unforgettable experience in shooting “Awaken,” the aspects that excite him about filmmaking today, and what exactly he would include in his film go-pack.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
I started out like a lot of filmmakers I know, shooting stills with a 35mm film camera in high school. Shooting on film, for me, was very exciting. The suspense of not knowing what I captured until I see the image fade into clarity in the dark room was almost like a drug. I first picked up a camera about 5 years before digital cameras started becoming good enough to compare to 35mm film, and when I got my first digital camera, I was actually shocked to discover that shooting on a digital camera almost completely ruined this sense of suspense and excitement for me. Something about the ability to see what I shot immediately after shooting it started to change how I worked and how I thought about photography. Knowing that there is a delete button and unlimited frames to shoot was starting to take the magic out of photography for me, so I actually put the digital camera down and continued shooting film for a few years.

That was until a friend of mine let me borrow a copy of a film called “Koyaanisquatsi,” which is full of incredible time lapse photography of NYC shot in the 80s, a lot of it involving motion control, which totally fascinated me. After watching that film, I started looking into how exactly they shot it. I had never seen anything like it. I quickly realized that this is how I could use digital cameras in a way that retained the magic of shooting film—time lapse! Shooting time lapse is a lot like shooting with film for me. I have no idea what I’ve captured in a time lapse until I “develop” the shot afterwords and watch it in motion for the very first time. This process is just as exciting and suspenseful as shooting film, often way more so, and it turned into a complete obsession.

Where do you find inspiration?
I draw inspiration from a lot of sources, but if I had to choose one, it would be traveling to unfamiliar places and interacting with unfamiliar cultures. Making an effort to experience true novelty as often as possible regularly results in extremely inspiring experiences.

You recently returned from working on the film “Awaken,” which took you all around the world. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
Novel experiences and unfamiliar places and cultures is exactly how I would describe shooting “Awaken”. As we were filming, we would describe what we were doing to those who asked as a “portrait of the planet”.

“Awaken” utilizes incredible film technology to craft a tale around humanity and the world we live in. What were some of your favorite film techniques or pioneered technologies used in the process?
We spent years developing a few different one-of-a-kind motion control platforms for shooting time lapse, including an autonomous self-leveling time lapse rover, a 20 foot techno crane modified to move a time lapse camera on 9 axis, custom “deep time lapse” rigs that could shoot continuous time lapse for years at a time powered by solar panels, and many other smaller custom rigs to do specialized tasks. I’d say the rover we developed is probably my favorite technique because it was the most challenging, with the highest reward when a shot was successful. The footage that comes out of the rover ends up looking like smooth steadicam shots because instead of the camera moving down a perfectly level track, it is gliding over terrain. The footage has a unique, dreamy feel that would be impossible to do with any other piece of kit.

How do you think the these new film techniques impact the realm of documentary filmmaking?
I think we broke some real ground with what we did with motion control, specifically for time lapse. I hope the footage we captured inspires other artists in terms of what is possible with moving a camera during a time lapse shot.

What were some of your favorite moments while filming?
Most of my favorite experiences would involve people we interacted with along the way. Showing groups of kids in Yemen our crazy camera robots, eating reindeer dinner with native Sami people in arctic Sweden, watching 10 million people bathe in a river at the same time in India. The people I met and the life long friends I made along the way would definitely be my favorite experiences from shooting the film.

How did your travels for the film shape your work and current influences?
I’d say the biggest influence such a long term, large scale project had on my current work is the ability to remain patient and to problem solve in the field. Shooting time lapse, especially astro time lapse (night sky), is a pretty unique process that requires extreme patience and just plain stubbornness. It would not be uncommon for us to spend a full month shooting the same tree over and over until we got the shot absolutely perfect. “Awaken” also pushed the limits for me in terms of what I thought was even possible with time lapse, it raised the bar quite a bit in terms of what I can conceive creatively. We did things with time lapse on “Awaken” that we used to joke about doing, as if it was totally impossible.

If you’re packing your film go-pack, what’s in it?
My film go-pack would be a small tripod, a Canon 5dm4 and a 11-24mm. As much as we talk about advanced motion control techniques and robots, I still enjoy very simplistic shooting.

What excites you about filmmaking today?
I think the most exciting thing about filmmaking today is how accessible it is becoming. I’ve seen absolutely brilliant photos and films shot on phones! A 12 year old kid can shoot entire films in 4k on his phone in his bedroom now and put them on the internet for the entire world to see. I think the more people get into photography and filmmaking, especially kids, the better it is for everyone. The sky is the limit these days now that basically every person is walking around with a high quality video camera in their pocket.

What’s next?
New York City. I’ve been working on “Awaken” since 2012, and have only been back to New York City for short 2 or 3 week shoots. This summer, I plan on doing a lot of filming in New York City to put together another short film similar to Manhattan in Motion using some of the gear and techniques we developed for “Awaken”.