Filmmaking in Montana is Much More Impressive Than You Expected feat. Under the Big Sky

“It’s not the easiest place to live and it is easy to romanticize this place. It’s hard. It’s hard to live here in many ways and can be even harder to make films here. But in the struggle to get things done, there’s a greater reward and sense of accomplishment. To me, things easily done are never quite as satisfying as the accomplishment of hard work done well.” - Shawn Newton, Executive Producer of Under the Big Sky.

Thanks to the ever-advancing nature of film tech, we’re seeing more and more high-quality films coming out of places that historically never had the resources to create them. Cinema cameras like REDs are more accessible now than ever, and accessories like gimbals, monitors, and wireless video have become widespread. Not to mention, the industry has seen a boom in professionals wanting to work in video production. It’s a market that’s flourishing around the world, and that’s something we can all be excited about.

When you think about filmmaking, Montana isn’t exactly the first location that comes to mind. Sure, they have events like the Montana Film Festival and the Big Sky Documentary Festival, but film production in the state is generally limited to the tourism industry and the occasional major production using Montana’s picturesque natural splendor as a backdrop. It’s somewhere you wouldn’t expect to be producing high-level, cinematic films.

But this TV show is proof that Montana can create amazing originals on par with the rest of the world. Shawn Newton is the Executive Producer of Under the Big Sky, a TV documentary series made in Montana by Montana filmmakers. He and his colleague Dillon Davies produce and edit every episode of Under the Big Sky, which gets broadcasted to 96% of TVs all across the state. Just this year, Shawn and Dillon won an Emmy for the series.

Filmmaking in Montana

“It’s not easy to work in film in such a rural place, and Montana is mostly rural. The opportunities aren’t as available as in the big cities like Los Angeles or New York. Once in awhile, we’ll have big projects like the Yellowstone series come here to shoot, and if you’re not working full-time for a production house or TV station already, you make a living off of the few months that these productions come into town.”

“Aside from that, filmmaking in the state of Montana is pretty much commercial-driven. You can find a lot of commercials and branded videos and some original productions from the local TV stations. People who work in the industry here are highly passionate about what they do, the state they love, and the closeness that the small film community has created.”

Back to Life

“We’re employed by the Montana Television Network, which owns and operates all of the CBS affiliates in the state. We are basically a film division within the larger organization. I work with my colleague Dillon Davies [Producer/Editor] full-time, year-round on the show and we shoot in concentrated runs twice a year with a regular roster of collaborators.”

“The show we produce now is a resurrection of a TV program of the same name from the 90s and early 2000s. Back then, it was just a short local news feature produced by this same company and although successful the franchise was later cancelled. The discussion to bring back Under the Big Sky came about after I co-produced a documentary for the company called On The Mountain, a 30-minute piece featuring Our Lady of the Rockies, a 90 ft. statue that stands on top of the Continental Divide in Butte [MT]. Basically, this group of ragtag volunteers in a small mining town got together and built the statue after a man promised to dedicate a monument to women of the world if his wife recovered from a serious illness. She recovered, and the statue was completed in 1985. We did a 30-year anniversary documentary as a look back in 2015.”

“The documentary was produced with a small group, Matthew Wheat [cinematographer], and a small crew. It was proof that we can achieve high-production value with a small team and a constrained budget. So talks began inside the company about how we can really maximize this type of program and keep this talented team of people together. We resurrect the Under the Big Sky series with the a more cinematic approach, we used on On The Mountain. That was two years ago, and now we’re on our 5th episode. Nw we release a new show every three months. Once a story premiers, it goes on our website where it’s free and accessible to anyone.”

The Setup

“We recently had the opportunity to work with Supaman, a incredibly talented Native American hip-hop artist from Montana who combines freestyle performance with Native American dance. He won an MTV Video Music Award last year for his part in “Stand Up” a Standing Rock Protest video, and all of his music conveys an inspiring message about love, hope, and reconciliation. It was an amazing opportunity for us to share his story and he was happy to participate.

“We shoot everything with the same camera package: RED Epic-W shooting in 8K on Cooke Anamorphics. The camera is operated by Matt Wheat [DP] via EZ-Rig, with Bright Tangerine matte boxes and Tiffen ND and Quarter Pro Mist filters to achieve a look in our documentaries we feel renders the landscape and the people in an honest, rugged style. The camera always has a Bolt 500, which sends video to our handheld director’s monitor that I carry on me.”

Rural Needs

Technology, at this point and time, is the only reason we can do this show the way we do it. Whether that’s using Teradek for wireless video transmission or newer battery tech or camera tech, technology allows us to do this show at a level of quality that shows off Montana in a great way. We can achieve a quality as high as any big budget production. Great tools are more accessible than ever.”

“It’s essential when filming in rural locations in such a range of environmental conditions that the equipment just work. And when it comes to a documentary style approach it becomes that much more essential to have the right gear that will perform in the moment. Being able to monitor remotely with the Bolt gives us a huge peace of mind. As you can imagine, wrangling cables through grass, lakes and other environments would not be ideal. We’re a run-and-gun, battery-powered, single-camera anamorphic documentary. Many times, we get just one chance to get the look right.”

“But also - and maybe more importantly - is to have a team that is there with you, with the skill and the talent to deliver. If you can combine reliable equipment with a talented and dedicated team then you’ve set yourself up for success.”

Check out more of Under the Big Sky’s short documentaries at:

IG: @underthebigskymtn


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