Months of research, many more months filming and editing, this movie tells the story of the Wall and its impact on the flora and fauna spanning over 1,200 miles along the Rio Grande bordering the United States of America and Mexico.
The latest film by John Aldrich, “The River
John’s website gives more information on feature documentaries he has worked on. These include, “An Unreal Dream,” and “Audubon,” as well as a number of short films and music-themed works including the “Geo Sessions,” a music series he produced, shot and edited for National Geographic.
In This Episode
- 00:08 – Cirina introduces John Aldrich, a producer/editor/DP based in Austin, Texas. He has worked on several feature-length documentaries, among them The River and the Wall, An Unreal Dream, Audubon, Let The Fire Burn, The Russian Five, and Above It All.
- 05:30 – John talks about the people involved in making the film The River and The Wall.
- 10:26 – John shares how they managed to work with the cold weather while camping in West Texas together with the crew.
- 16:07 – Cirina and John describe the feeling of finding motels and mini grocery stores to get the necessities in remote areas while in production.
- 21:04 – John shares the mic systems and equipment they used for The River and The Wall.
- 27:08 – John highlights the advantages of using DaVinci Resolve and an experienced colorist for high-quality color correction in a film.
- 32:15 – John shares one of the most challenging parts of production and post-production of The River and The Wall.
- 38:51 – John tells an exciting story of how he met Larry O’Connor, the owner of OWC.
- 43:19 – John talks about his experiences working with Al Reinert in making the documentary film, Unreal Dream. He also shares how Al was a very brilliant man.
- 49:03 – Follow John Aldrich on his social media accounts, and watch the film, The River and The Wall, a story of five friends who descend the Rio Grande on bicycles, horseback, and canoe to examine issues surrounding the border wall.
This is Cirina Catania. I have John Aldrich on the line. He’s a producer and editor and a fellow adventurer. And I’m really excited to talk to you, John because I’ve heard some stories about what it took to film this last film that you were involved with called The River and The Wall. How are you doing? Have you survived?
I’m doing great, Cirina. Yeah, production wrapped a little while ago, so I’ve had a chance to recover. Great, great to talk with you.
Yeah, you too. Tell everybody a little bit about what The River and The Wall were when you first started. And then we’ll get on to what it was for you by the time you were done. When you first started the project, how do you feel about it, and what kind of prep did you do? Let’s go under the hood a little bit.
You bet. So The River and The Wall, for those who don’t know, is a feature documentary that follows five friends as they go down the Rio Grande, from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico under their own power. First on bicycles, and then on horseback through the Big Bend and then on canoes through lower canyons and other sections of the Rio. Because the Rio in some sections doesn’t have water, and you actually have to be on foot or on horseback. And so they ended up going all the way down the Rio Grande to Boca Chica, which is the [mouse of the Rio de Arte, the Gulf of Mexico. And along the way, they encounter folks who tell them about what a potential border wall would do to the environment, how it would impact immigration, how it would impact things like private property. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Texas is about 95% of all private land. In the West, you tend to have a lot of public lands, but in Texas, we don’t have that much. And a lot of that land alongside the border is private. So folks who have land along the border there could have their ranches bisected by a border wall, could have their farms bisected by a border wall, and cut them off from really the only source of water. And some places that are very desert-like.
So that’s what The River and The Wall are about. And I was lucky enough to kind of be there from the beginning with director Ben Masters. He and I had been working together for, I guess, probably about three years prior to a series of short films about a variety of subjects, but almost all of the wildlife conservation related. And so we were working at the time on a film about mountain lions in the mountains of West Texas, and most people may not know, but there are mountain lions in the mountains of West Texas. In California, they’re a lot more common, but in West Texas, there’s probably only between 80 and 150 or so. And we were talking with these wildlife biologists at the Borderlands Research Institute that we work with on occasion. And we were kind of positing the question, what would happen if a border wall is built? The folks of BRI told us, “Well, that would pretty much be the end of our mountain lion population because they all come up from Mexico. And that would be kind of a shame.” And we kind of thought about it and just realized that a boardwalk could be really disruptive to a lot of things for first and foremost among them the environment. Ben, in particular, cares much more about animals than he does for people. And so he was far more concerned about the impacts on the environment and on people. And so that sort of started conversation from there; we were lucky enough to get invited to work on a contest that was sponsored by National Geographic and RED.
An old colleague of mine from National Geographic had emailed me about this contest, and said, “Hey, are you interested?” But part of the rules of the contest was that you could not have been shooting on RED prior. Well, I own a RED, and I shoot on RED all the time. But Ben had not shot on a RED and did not on one. So he applied for the contest and was accepted, and then spent three months out in West Texas filming all manner of wildlife. Bighorn sheep, bears, all kinds of stuff, all kinds of examining what the impact of a border wall would be on the environment out there. And so we turned that into a short film called Wildlife in The Wall. And from there, we raised money on that short that got picked up by Geographic, and it placed second in the contest, which was great. And we kind of put together a team of folks then went out and met all of these folks who are on the journey. Some of them had not met before until the morning that we showed up there in a parking lot in El Paso to get on bikes and ride.The most creative people are a little bit nuts, aren't they? We are all a little bit crazy to do the work that we do. Click To Tweet
Awesome. How far did you go?
Have you ever met J.J. Kelley in your travels around National Graphic?
No, but the name is familiar.
J.J. and I were working at National Geographic at the same time. And he started out originally with a film that he had done with a partner where they built their own kayak, and they went thousands of miles on the ocean along the coast. And you remind me a little bit of him. He’s had an amazing career. I mean, I just love people who do the kind of work you do because you edit, but you’re also out in the field. So you met everybody in El Paso, they had their bikes, they were getting ready to go on this journey. Who was involved? Can you talk about who went on the trip?
We had five folks who went on the trip. There was Heather Mackey, who is an ecologist specializing in ornithology. And she was at the time a graduate student at–I hope I don’t get this wrong– Caltech, Pasadena. She has since gotten her master’s degree and is doing biology fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest and Oregon, I believe, right now. And then we had Jay Kleberg. Jay is a conservationist from an old family here in Texas, and he worked for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, which is a nonprofit that raises money for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and to help sort of supplement their budget. So Jay’s whole life is dedicated to conservation. And he was sort of the suburban dad avatar, and he’s got three young kids and is married, and approaching 40, if not there already. And then Austin Alvarado, a river guide from here in Austin, but residing out in Terlingua, and working as a river guide on the Rio Grande. So Austin was our river guy who had spent years and years on the Rio Grande and was beyond excited to show everyone and to go down certain portions of the Rio where he’d never been before. And then, our fifth member of the group was the absolute wildcard on National Geographic Explorer by the name of Filipe DeAndrade. And Filipe is originally from Brazil. His family emigrated to Cleveland, of all places, when he was six, I believe six or seven, he actually went to my alma mater, the University of Florida as an undergrad and studied filmmaking there. And so he and I had a lot to talk about with regards to rooting for the Florida Gators, and all that sort of thing. He has a show on National Geographic and is now residing down in Costa Rica. And boy, all of these folks have great followers on Instagram, by the way, but Fil, in particular, has just a fantastic following on Instagram because he’s got all of these wonderful shots of sharks and hummingbirds and cats, and he is just an absolutely fantastic ambassador for the wildlife.
What’s his handle on Instagram?
Let’s see. I think he’s absolutely @filipe_deandrade.
By the way, what is your handle on Instagram?
So my handle on Instagram is just @johnny_aldrich. And I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t mention the ringleader in this whole crazy mess, Ben Masters, who had done a previous feature film called Unbranded that was almost I mean, it was kind of a template for this.
Yeah, I saw that one. It was pretty awesome. Did you work on that one with him?
I did not. I met Ben after he had completed that. Most of the production on that and all of the posts took place in Montana. One of the directors on it was a guy who also worked as a camera on River and The Wall. So most of that took place in Montana. But Ben is a dreamer and a crazy person who has fantastic ideas, and he’s a great writer and photographer too.
Don’t you think the best creative people are a little bit nuts? Aren’t we all a little bit crazy to do what we do?
I think you have to be. You have to have a wire astray in there somewhere to make it all work.
So you call yourself a producer editor, but you also shot in this film. You carried those RED cameras around. Tell us what sections of the film you shot.
So I was lucky enough to get to go through one of the more scenic sections where we started out in El Paso and ended up in Boca, which is in Big Bend. So I was there for the first, I guess, probably 400 miles of journey or so. And that included periods where they were on bicycles, and then periods where they were on horseback. So I was unbelievably lucky to go on to that section. Because if folks don’t know that part of Texas is stunning and it’s so big that it can be really difficult to do justice too photographically because everything’s really spread out. It’s really special to Texas.
What time of year was this?
So the only time that we could get everybody free and have enough time to do this was December and January. So we started December 1 in El Paso, and we finished February 10 in Boca Chica.
A little cold?
Oh, my goodness.
How did you do that? How cold was it?
Well, we were camping most of the time. You may not think of Texas as cold, but certainly, West Texas gets plenty cold. It’s the desert, after all. We had temps in the 20s and teens at night, on some days, and highs in the 30 some days. But to be honest, most of the time during the day, it was fine; it wasn’t too cold. But I don’t know, would you rather be cold than hot? Because if you’ve done it in July, nobody would have made it.
It was 120 degrees in the shade on Stargate in the film. And there was no shade. Yeah, it could be awful, but in the cold, when it’s that cold, you have to worry about your batteries, although it was warming up during the day, right?
Can you tell us what equipment you took with you at that point? You’re camping out, you’re on horseback, or you’re on foot or on bicycles.
Did you have four-wheel vehicles that were moving in parallel with you so that you would have some assistance if you needed it?
Yeah, absolutely. So I was in one of the support vehicles, my Toyota Sequoia 4×4, and then we had a Ford F-150 4×4 that was Ben’s truck. And sometimes we would swap that out for Jay’s truck, which was a Toyota Tundra 4×4. And they were absolutely fantastic, but they did actually let us down in one section called the Forgotten Reach, through no fault of their own, really. We got hit by what I would characterize as a freak snowstorm because you don’t get a whole lot of snow out in that part of the world. And we were in this section called the Forgotten Reach that there are no paved roads. In some sessions, there are no roads; they had to bushwhack for about 10 miles at one point, just to get from point A to point B, from one campground to another. And so after it snowed there, all that snow melted. And we were on dirt roads, and all of that dirt turned into slush and mud. And the trucks would go about 100 yards, and then they’d get stuck in the mud, and we’d have to dig them out. And rinse and repeat until we finally went out, “Okay, we can’t do this anymore.” And so we stopped for the night and said, “Okay, if the road will freeze overnight, we’ll get up really early.” We figured we had about 20 miles to go at that point on those dirt roads. We’ll get up real early, and we’ll get going before the road thaws out, and we’ll make it to the pavement and be on our way. Best laid plans, we woke up and got going, and within an hour, the road and sod, and we were right back to where we were. And so the cast and our and one of our cameraman Dave Adams basically left our assistant cameraman Alex Winker and me, and said, “We’ll see you later.”
Oh, that’s nice. Okay, so we left you with what? With your truck?
All of the bikes, all of the camping equipment, all of the camera gear, and pretty empty gas tank. So we were pretty low on gas at that point, because on the Forgotten Reach, your nearest gas station is probably Fort Stockton, which is probably from when you leave Fort Stockton and get down the road to the Forgotten Reach, you’re probably talking 200 miles, something like that. I mean, I could be wrong. So Alex and I just pretty much hung out there, not running the cars and trying to keep warm until the road froze again. So we sat in the trucks and huddled together for once.
That’s one of the scariest things to me. There are two things that scare me when you’re in remote locations like that if you have a vehicle; it is running out of gas. And the other thing is communication. Did you have satellite phones? Because I’m sure there are no cell towers very close to you for most of the trip.
No cell towers anywhere nearby.
So how did you work it?
So we had a text device called an inReach. And so we were able to text each other. And that was helpful because when we did finally decide that the road was frozen enough, we’ve gotten texts from Ben about the route that we were about to go on, that was very helpful. “There’s a gate across this, ignore it and just keep on, open up the gate go on through it. It says it’s private property; it’s not, just keep on going, you’ll know you’re towards the end when you hit a monster hill.” And that drive at one o’clock in the morning in two different vehicles, Alex and I follow each other, that was pretty scary. Because we’re on a single track road, and we were kind of sliding around a little bit, and you’re going up and down these really big hills, that if you just slide the wrong way, you’re off into a ravine and that’s pretty much it. So yeah, we finally got to the pavement around probably three o’clock in the morning, and then from there, it was about an hour’s drive to Presidio where everybody was taking a break in a motel. And we finally got in around, probably around four. And unfortunately, Dave Adams, our cameraman, had to be on a flight out of El Paso that morning. And so poor Alex basically got about an hour of sleep and then turned around and drove Dave to the El Paso airport, while the rest of us recovered and did laundry and that sort of stuff.
Isn’t it amazing how, when you’re traveling on a normal tourist trip, you look at these motels we call them the cheap motels and think, “I would never stay there.”
Oh, my goodness. Absolutely. Wow.
There’s running water.
Running water, a real toilet? You’re kidding. A mattress? What?
Oh my gosh.
It’s those little things that you take for granted in your normal Western life.
And the food too. Did you develop a real love of beef jerky? I know that’s a silly question.
Okay, funny, you should ask, the good folks at Epic Provisions company, I’ll plug here for them. Epic Bars are based out here in Austin, and they gave us several boxes of Epic Bars. We got kind of burnt out on them, but they are terrific. And my kids to this day, when we’re in the grocery store, “Dad, Epic Bars!” We ate our fair share of beef jerky. So Epic Bars, they tend to be made of wild game, so they’re venison bars and wild boar bars and all that sort of thing. So by the end of it, we were definitely the kind of like okay, no more Epic Bars. But they are fantastic, and we love them to death.When filming in remote locations, sometimes you don't have any choice. It is best if you are resilient and resourceful. It takes a lot of guts. Click To Tweet
And you gotta have something you have to be able to eat if you can’t, there’s no grocery stores anywhere around.
Oh my god. No, there’s none.
No, there aren’t. I know our crews when we get to the gas station; I didn’t do a 1200 mile trek down the river the way you did, but I have done some crazy things in remote areas, and you finally get to that gas station and what’s your choice? You’ve got Cheetos or potato chips or beef jerky. There’s beef jerky!
Beef jerky is the best. And when you’re talking about this, this particular section of West Texas, the gas stations actually have little mini grocery stores in them because they are literally the places in that food desert. And I always made it a point because sometimes I would have to veer off in one direction or another and break away from the crew as they were traveling. Sometimes I would go and do the grocery shopping, and I always made the point to come back with goodies for everybody and the guests always love to see me show up because they knew that I would have picked up their favorite like Sour Patch Kids or Swedish Fish or some high fructose corn syrup candy that would keep them going.
Oh, there you go. That is adventurer food, dream food. Okay, so let’s take a step back, and I want you to think for a minute. Picture what was in the truck in terms of equipment, like cameras, lights, batteries, hard drives. What did you travel with to do this film?
The production vehicle was my truck, which is a Toyota Sequoia 4×4. Sequoia is roughly the size of a suburban, and it was stuffed to the absolute gills with gear. So we had my RED Epic Dragon, we had a Helium Weapon that was donated by RED to us for the duration of the production. Thank you so much to them. We had a Panasonic EVA1, and we had three different sets of sticks, a couple of tacklers, and my O’Connor sticks. We had a small light kit that we didn’t use a whole lot, it’s a little v mount light panel kit that we could bust out when we needed a little punch during an interview or something like that, but it didn’t come out of the box too much. And then we also had, at various times, drones. So we had an Inspire 2 with a lens package. And that provided some of the greatest imagery in the film. After that, it’s all just sort of various and sundry not a whole lot of camping equipment in my truck, just my own personal camping gear, which was not a lot. A couple of computers, as many hard drives as we could get away with, a buttload of AA lithium batteries to power up the wireless mics and the mixer that all of the wireless mics were feeding into. So we had slapped wireless lugs on everybody and had to change out batteries because they were on pretty much 14 or 15 hours a day. And so we went through a lot of lithium batteries, which is not the greatest for the environment. But that’s sort of what you go through for production.
Yeah, sometimes you don’t have any choice. Do you remember what kind of mic system you were using?
Oh, absolutely. I still have two of them. So we got these wonderful Lectrosonic Wireless, which were weather sealed. And we put those things through the wringer. I actually happened to see their VP of Marketing at NAB this year and told him who I was and showed him a couple of pictures of, like Jay Kleberg in particular, taking a dunk in the Rio down a rapid and said, “We still use that mic to this day, and they were pleased. I still need to get back in touch with them and see if they want to endorse us.
Oh, they should. I mean, it’s hard to find sound equipment that’ll work in adverse weather conditions. Now, what lenses we’re you using on the REDs?
So we use a variety of those. I have a little contact Zeiss package that I just love. So I retrofitted a bunch of those and had them modded at Duclos. We also had a Sigma Art Lens package that we were using basically on the Weapon. So I used my contacts on my Dragon, and then we would use a lot of the Sigma lenses on the Weapon and then on the EVA1 that was sort of the run and gun camera, so that pretty much had a Canon EF 24-70 on it for the most part.
What do you think about the Sigma Art Lenses compared to the Zeiss? You have the whole package of Zeiss, right?
I did. So these are all stills lenses from the 70s and 80s and 90s. I just love them because they have this real kind of organic look, and they’re not too contrasty, but they’re a little bit contrasty. The Sigma lenses were really beautiful and really sharp, and I think they’re fantastic. If I were to choose between the two, I would probably go with context Zeiss just because I kind of like they’re warmth. It just has a nice organic feel to it. The Sigmas are a little more clinical if that makes any sense.
I agree. I’ve tried both. I mean, I’m kind of a Zeiss girl myself; I love the way those old lenses breathe differently than the new lenses. It’s no wonder the film looks so beautiful. I have not been able to watch the whole thing, and I’m actually going to sit down this weekend and look at it from beginning to end because it’s absolutely beautiful.
So how are you managing media? You’re the editor, and you’re the DIT. What was your workflow for the media?
This was a real challenge because we were shooting every day with two REDs, a Panasonic, and then, of course, all the audio mediums. And so in the field, when the journey would stop for the day, our second shift really began. Because then we would use two different laptops to start dumping media to different hard drives. And we would make sure that we had two copies of everything that had been shot that day before anything got written over. Once it came out of the field, it came to our edit facility here in Austin. And really one of the first things that we would do we would copy that media onto our Lumaforge Jellyfish and then copy it off to LTO. So I have an LTO 7 drive in my edit tower. And we would copy that stuff off to LTO drives twice, and then one copy would go to the director’s house, to Ben’s house, and then one would reside here at my office. From there, we felt like okay, now we got three copies of the media. We’re in good shape. Then it was time to start ingesting, and I had cut my previous film, Audubon, in Premiere. The film prior to that I’d cut in FCP 7, I’ve cut in Avid, I’ve cut in FCP 7X, Premiere, Discreet Logic Edit. To me, if you know one nonlinear editor, you know them all. You just have to figure out where the buttons are for each of the different functions.
It’s just like a different language, and it’s a dialect.
Yeah, exactly. “Oh, what’s this idiom?” so you say it like that. “Okay, so I export it like that.”
Yeah. So I’m curious about one thing, and I don’t want to interrupt you, but I’m curious, what format were you shooting? You’ve got all different kinds of cameras with different capabilities in terms of the format. What was your basic production format? Because the Helium is 8K.
Well, we knew we wanted to deliver in 4K, and that our aspect ratio is going to be 239:1. We’d already decided that in the field, so then when we were shooting, we were framing for 239:1. So we’d set up guides on all the cameras so that anybody operating a camera would know that we were shooting in 239:1. It really kind of depends on the situation. So like, if we were shooting an interview, we pretty much knew that we weren’t going to use 8K for that because that was honestly kind of a waste of 8K. 6K is great, 5K is great; it allows you to punch in a little bit or vary up the angle if you need to. And we did that on occasion. So there are a couple of shots in the film and interviews where we’ll do a punch in on an interview subject just to make a cut. But for the most part, we were shooting 6K and 5K certainly with my Dragon, with the Weapon, we were probably shooting 8K only for some really nice scenic, and then the rest of the time it was 6K or 5K. And then the Panasonic shoots in 4K, so that was a no brainer there.
So how did you think the cameras in terms of color? Was color balance a problem?
Well, when you’re shooting raw, you don’t really have to worry so much about color balance. With Panasonic, that was much more of a concern that the ergonomics on that camera are a little bit funky, and there are little dip switches on the side for color balance on that. And we had a couple of shots where our camera operator didn’t necessarily realize that he had flipped from 5600 to 3200 or what have you, and we’d be on the wrong color temperature for a scene or two or three.
That happens when you’re shooting. When you’re shooting this kind of stuff, and you’re tired, and you’re under pressure, you can inadvertently change those settings. That’s why I was asking because I’m sure. Who did the coloring? Did you use Resolve for color?
Oh, absolutely. We did. That’s part of that post-production workflow. So we started out with Premiere, and my assistant cameraman, Alex Winker, was also my assistant editor. And we were sitting there watching Premiere just take forever to ingest this stuff. I mean, forever, we were really starting to get worried there, as we were doing this because it was taking so long to ingest the footage. And Premiere would get crashing, and we got desperate. Alex is a very experienced and talented colorist. He’s a young kid, he’s probably two years out of the University of Texas, but he’s an excellent colorist. And he suggested, “Well, hey, take a look at Resolve. And Resolve had added editing features, I guess, probably around version 11 or so. And I had toyed around with it and played around with it, but had never really taken it for a spin as far as editing anything. And to take the jump into editing a feature with something was that that’s a big deal. But we downloaded the version. I already happened to have a copy of the studio version. So we pulled it down and started ingesting footage, and we ingested it within three hours, which was taking weeks in Premiere. From there, I kind of went.” Well, maybe we should really look at this.” And as I got more familiar with the tools, I was sold. So for our editing, we were in Resolve and then, of course, in coloring that made the handoff to our colorist Robbie Carman, so easy, because we essentially online the film here in Austin before we ever handed it off to Robbie in Silver Spring.
Robbie is awesome. I love Robbie. He’s really good.
He is absolutely the best. I’ve known Robbie since probably about 2001 when he had just graduated from James Madison University. He and I work together in a production company and we’ve known each other forever. So he was a very natural choice when we knew that we were going to finish in 4K and we also wanted to finish in HDR because this is a picture that deserves HDR. And Robbie was an obvious choice for that. So when it came to handing off in Resolve, it was actually really easy for him. I think he basically was able to copy over the footage from the travel drive that we sent him onto his RAID, open up the projects, and really get to work pretty quickly.
So how much footage did you have by the time you were done? Do you remember?
Well, I can’t give you a firm number on exactly how many hours of footage we have. We shot actively for six weeks with three cameras and then we had a guy out in the field shooting drone footage for about five weeks up and down the Rio Grande. And we did other interviews and little pickup things for probably another six months after that. Like, “Oh we need to get more immigration information,” and “Okay, we need to go interview an immigration expert.” All told, I think we probably have somewhere on the order of around 300 hours of footage.
That’s a lot of footage.
Yeah. The edit took about 11 months.
Who wrote the script?
Well in most documentaries, there’s not necessarily a script.
I know. That’s why I’m asking. Everybody works a little bit differently. I use Lumberjack Builder and I actually create a script, I create a story.
Oh, that’s terrific.
And then hand that over to the editor, but that’s fairly new. You probably might not even have tried it.
No, unfortunately. But I’ve followed, who’s the creator on Lumberjack?
Yeah, I’ve followed his work forever. Anytime you’d see his name, you just go Oh, well, here, I’ll get The Straight Dope from Phil. He’s gonna be technically accurate and also know the ins and outs of the program. Great, new info here. So I’ve heard about Lumberjack but haven’t had a chance to use it. Same part because I’ve been working in Resolve.
Of course, of course. But full disclosure, I’m a minor partner in that company. So I’m involved with Lumberjack. I use it every day, I use it for these interviews like if there’s stuff I want to take out, I’ll just take it out using builder. Anyway, back to the drawing board here. I want to talk to you all day. So before we go off of the actual production, post production, I also want to talk about the distribution and marketing because a lot of people want to know about that as well. But we’re still under the hood a little bit. What was the most difficult part for you during production and in post production?
Production, the physical, grueling nature of the production was pretty tough. Getting your hands around all of the data was pretty tough as well. And then once you had a handle on all of that managing the actual looking at all the footage, and because it was a journey, we had a pretty good idea of what the narrative was going to be at least when we started out, but it definitely evolved. So I hesitate to tell you what was the most difficult, but there were demanding parts, all the way through the process. We edited for 11 months, and after about eight months, we submitted to Sundance and thought we were in a really good place in terms of where the edit was. But we spent another three months and really improved the picture dramatically, I think. If you were to see the difference between the Sundance cut, and the cut that ultimately aired, or showed at South by Southwest, it was significant. So all of those things sort of combined, you end up with a story that you just can feel really good about and feel like yeah, we told that story, the way that it was meant to be told,
I’m so proud of all of you because I just admire your perseverance and your energy and your creativity. It’s an amazing work.
Oh, thank you.
It was just was beloved at the South by Southwest Film Festival and you’re winning awards for it.
Oh, we had an easy crowd. That was the hometown crowd, they were gonna like us anyway.
You’re just being modest. This stuff is not easy and it takes a certain type of person to be able to commit to telling this kind of story where you literally have to go out and shoot for months at a time under difficult conditions. And it’s also exhilarating. If you’re the kind of adventure that I think you are, it’s exhilarating, and that wanderlust is something that you’re addicted to.
Oh my god. It’s the sort of thing where you go, we’re gonna stop a wall and you remember it for your entire life your entire career. And it’s something you can show your kids and they go, “Holy cow! That is awesome, dad” and for me, that’s huge.
Yeah. And you did it beautifully. John, tell me, how did you market this film? You have this beautiful piece of work. It took us several months to get it finished, now what?
Marketing for a documentary like this begins when you’re in production. It actually begins when you’re in pre production. So you get the website, you start the Facebook page, you start the Instagram account, and you start posting to all of these things while you’re in production, even while you’re in pre production to start building that audience. And that’s exactly what we did with River and The Wall. So along the way we’re posting behind the scenes production shots we’re posting everything that we possibly can to start to build that audience. I don’t know the metrics on it, I don’t know the numbers, but by the time we get ready to start marketing the film, we probably already got four or 5000 Facebook followers, and probably another two or 3000 Instagram followers. That’s your base, that’s where you start marketing the film. And so that’s where it really began. And Ben is incredibly savvy, so he has a very large Instagram account, that probably has 85,000 followers or so and so he was cross pollinating there. And he’d also along the way, written a book to accompany The River and The Wall. And it was literally The River and The Wall the book. And so that’s a nice marketing piece that goes along there, you get the marketing help from Texas A&M Press.
And we really just started kicking it into higher gear once we knew that we have gotten into the South by Southwest Film Festival, because there’s a deadline. That really crystallizes everything and gives you a day to work back from in terms of finishing the film, but also a day to work from in terms of marketing the film. And Ben had an existing relationship with Gravitas Ventures to distribute the film. They distributed Unbranded, and had been pleased with the work they’ve done there. And so we met with them and heard their plan for the film, and got together with them. And the plan really, was to try and get the film out as quickly as possible. Because the situation on the ground was changing every day, after we had completed production, things like child separation and detention had been going on and we couldn’t really address that in the film, because then it happened ex post facto. So we really wanted people to see the film as quickly as possible, so that they could make informed decisions in 2020. And also, so that they could see what we’re talking about when we talk about building a wall on the border. So we wanted to release as quickly as we could after South by Southwest. And so it was ultimately released on May 3rd. And it was in probably around 150 theaters or so across the nation, but then also released digitally the same day. So you can see it in the theater, which is definitely the best place to see it but you could also see it on iTunes, or on Amazon, and Vimeo, and Hulu and a wide variety of streaming platforms. And that was really our shot there. We really wanted to get it out there so that as many people as possible could see the film. And that was our biggest motivator.It's hard to find equipment that'll work in adverse weather conditions, so if you find a trustworthy brand, don't let go. Click To Tweet
Did Gravitas handle all of that for you?
They did. So we handled the technical side in terms of delivery, but then Gravitas took over with their marketing team, when we signed up with them. And obviously we did what we could but Gravitas has a larger and better marketing team to put that into action. And so they were terrific about it.
That’s awesome. What about the international audience?
So international is actually still forthcoming. We have just finished up the Spanish subtitling for the film. And I don’t know that we necessarily have an international distributor yet but I know that we want that film to get out, especially to Mexico and Central America. For us that is absolutely a goal and we want that to happen as soon as possible so that they can see what it is that we’re talking about and what many of us think about a wall.
Let’s go back to South by Southwest for just a minute. Is that where you first met Larry O’Connor from OWC? Because I met you through Larry O’Connor who owns OWC. So how did all of that happen? And I do believe you are going to become a very important part of the OWC family going forward. Not because it’s sponsored by them. It is sponsored by them because they know that I use their equipment all the time. It’s really some of the most reliable, lightweight, fast drives. The next time you get out in the field and you’re worried about transferring media. I hope you’re using one. So how did you meet Larry?
Actually I’m going out to West Texas in about a week. I need to call Larry up and see if I can get some of their SSDs to take out there and try them out. So I met Larry, through our kids, actually. Larry and I actually ended up living in the same neighborhood. And his son and my eldest son are in the same grade and are good friends. So it’s one of those strange things that turns out like, “Oh, OWC?” “Yeah.” “I have used your gear since day one.” I’m a guy who started out with Final Cut Pro from version one. And myself and Jamie McHale were the first guys hired to edit on Final Cut Pro at National Geographic in 2003. And back then you had to be your own video engineer, because the video engineers didn’t know really quite how to deal with Final Cut. And one of the things that we relied on were products from OWC, because, “Oh, you need to get an external burner” “Oh, you need to get an SSD drive.” And Macsales and OWC were without a doubt one of our big resources from that day forward. And they have been ever since. So when I met Larry, it was like, “You’re the dude.” Ever since we’ve got really, really good friends, our families are really tight. And he’s just hilarious, he’s such a funny guy. A wonderful person, a wonderful family.
He really is, and they do a lot for the creative community. I’m so grateful that they sponsor this radio show, because it allows me to help other creatives talk about what they do, and give them the love they deserve.
I know, I’m probably wearing you out but before we go, can we just tell everybody quickly, I mean, I don’t know how much time you have. But talk about Unreal Dream and the Audubon project and some of the other Al Reinert, who you worked with passed away in 2018. Tell us a little bit about the history of John Aldrich.
My family and I had moved from the Washington DC area in 2010 back to Austin, were both my wife and I had gone to undergrad, I had a client, a photographer, friend of mine, Dan Winters, and he and I had somehow found each other and edited together a couple of different shorts for some magazines for GQ, and that sort of thing. And in fact, I’m going out to West Texas next week to do some more shooting with Dan. And Dan’s a real space nut, he published a book of photographs about the last launches of the space shuttle, and reached out to this hero of his to write the foreword, and the guy’s name was Al Reinert. And Al had made a film called For All Mankind in the late 80s, about the Apollo missions from the footage that NASA had never really let out from the building. And Al was a one of the original writers for Texas Monthly and was just sort of this legendary reporter figure in Texas. And after For All Mankind, he went on to go and be one of the writers on Apollo 13, where the writers From the Earth to the Moon and a couple of other screenwriting jobs there in Hollywood. And in 2011, I guess, he was getting pretty tired of the LA lifestyle and he signed on to direct a documentary called an Unreal Dream, the Michael Morton story. And he asked Dan, “Hey, do you know any editors?” and Dan offered my name up, and I met with Al and we became fast friends. And so I was hired on as an editor on Unreal Dream, and I ended up shooting a good piece of it and co producing it. That’s what won the Audience Award at South by Southwest in 2013. And ended up being broadcast on both CNN and Investigation Discovery, which you can’t ask for a better outlet for that film.
That’s awesome. Wow.
And then Al hired me to do the next film, a film called Audubon, about the bird painter and conservationist John James Audubon, and I was lucky enough to produce and shoot and edit that one. That ultimately ended up airing on PBS, which is the perfect comb for a film like that. And he and I were in the midst of production on sort of a spiritual sequel to For All Mankind called Above It All. And that was to be a documentary about the International Space Station and unfortunately Al passed away on New Year’s Eve day 2018. And it’s going to be difficult to go forward without him, I think. So that project is probably going to have to shutter or at least wait for a while, while I figure out how I’m going to go forward with it.
So sad to lose someone you care about like that. What’s next for you, John?
So next for us, Ben is already at work on his next film, which he is called Deep in the Heart of Texas, which would be sort of a planet Earth look at the various ecosystems of Texas. Texas is wonderful and that you’ve got all these different biomes probably seven or eight distinct different biomes within the borders of the state. And so we’ve already started putting out trail cams and investigating species and that sort of thing to try and investigate that and to and to show people really what is within the confines here, the Lone Star State, I’m also at work on a on developing a music series as well, to try and get out onto a platform sometime next year or the year after.
In the 90s when I graduated from the University of Texas, and was scrambling around looking for jobs, one of the jobs that I got that was steady was with the Austin Music Network. And the Austin Music Network would film live performances, usually festivals and put them on public access TV. It was a city run channel, if you can believe it. And that was great, great training for camera work for live production, all of that. So when I was probably in year five or six at National Geographic, my boss there, got a series approved with the National Geographic music channel for a live music show. And somehow I convinced him that I was the right person for the job. And I ended up producing, shooting and editing 60 episodes of a live music show in two years at National Geographic.
I love that little stage downstairs. Don’t you love that little stage? I just wanted my favorite performance base.
We had so many acts, come through there and show there. I had the best job in the building. Yeah, great. You went to Egypt. Okay, great. You went to Indonesia, I had the best job in the building. Because it was very low stakes, the music channel didn’t have a lot of viewers. But everybody loved the content. And it was a very simple show to produce but it was also a window into the world of what it takes to be a touring artist. And that really struck me and stayed with me. And so I want to try and develop a series about what it’s like to be a touring musician. Because musicians have really found themselves in a very difficult position, they no longer make any money off of their recordings, that just doesn’t happen anymore. Only the point 1% of musicians actually make any money off of record sales. So they’ve all got a tour but the problem is, if you go on tour, you’re leaving behind that familiarity that allows you to be creative. And you’re separated from family or separated from friends, you’re out on the road, and the road is really tough. It’s very monotonous, places start to look the same, and it’s a really tough place to try and be creative. And so I want to try and present a show that gives people a window into that, a window into the creative process, but then also show these musicians on stage and really delivering. Because it’s really interesting the 22 hours that they’ve got to go through to get to those two hours on stage. The two hours on stage are what make it worth it for everybody.
Yeah. Oh, that’s gonna be wonderful. I wish you good luck with that. John, I’m so happy to talk to you. Thank you for taking time out of your busy day. I think everyone’s gonna really love what they’re hearing, it’s awesome. It’s very informative and very inspirational for others who want to do the same kind of work.
Oh, Cirina, It’s been my pleasure.
So I’ve been speaking with John Aldrich, producer, editor, and definitely an adventurer and an incredibly creative person. This is Cirina Catania with OWC Radio, and I want to remind you guys of what I tell you every time get up off that chair and go do something wonderful today. Thanks for listening.
- John Aldrich
- John Aldrich – Instagram
- John Aldrich – Twitter
- The River and The Wall
- The River and The Wall – Facebook
- The River and The Wall – Instagram
- The River and The Wall – Twitter
- The River and The Wall – Amazon
- The River and The Wall – Hulu
- The River and The Wall – iTunes
- The River and The Wall – Vimeo
- The River and The Wall – Book
- Al Reinert
- Alex Winker
- Apollo 13
- Austin Alvarado
- Austin Music Network
- Ben Masters
- Borderlands Research Institute
- California Institute of Technology
- Canon EF 24-70
- Dan Winters
- Dave Adams
- Deep in the Heart of Texas
- Discreet Logic Edit
- Epic Bars
- Epic Provisions
- Filipe DeAndrade
- Florida Gators
- For All Mankind
- Ford F-150 4×4
- From the Earth to the Moon
- Gravitas Ventures
- Gregory Clarke
- Heather Mackey
- RED Helium Weapon
- DJi Inspire 2
- Investigation Discovery
- J.J. Kelley
- James Madison University
- Jay Kleberg
- John James Audubon
- Larry O’Connor
- Lectrosonic Wireless
- Lumaforge Jellyfish
- Lumberjack Builder
- National Geographic
- O’Connor sticks
- Panasonic EVA1
- Philip Hodgetts
- Adobe Premiere Pro
- RED Epic Dragon
- DaVinci Resolve
- Robbie Carman
- Sigma Art Lens
- Sour Patch Kids
- South by Southwest
- Sundance Film Festival
- Swedish Fish
- Texas A&M Press
- Texas Monthly
- Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation
- The Straight Dope
- Toyota Sequoia 4×4
- Toyota Tundra 4×4
- University of Florida
- University of Texas
- Unreal Dream
- Unreal Dream, the Michael Morton story
- Keep searching for untold stories. There’s so much the world has to offer. Every person has a unique story to tell, and if you dig a little deeper, it might be something worthwhile for all audiences.
- Explore as much as you can. Be adventurous enough to chase your dreams and fulfill the production of your dreams.
- Have the courage to traverse uncharted territory. If you want the next big story, you have to be brave enough to overcome all of the challenges. It’ll all be worth it in the end if you know how to play your cards right.
- Stay equipped and prepared. Don’t go in without doing enough research, especially if you’re going into unknown areas. Some rural places don’t have the conveniences you’re used to, such as running water, electricity, or grocery stores.
- Stay physically and mentally healthy. Filming challenging documentaries requires you to be in good shape, especially if you’re out shooting content all day.
- Build a fortified team comprised of highly-skilled people. Filming documentaries usually relies on smaller groups where each member handles multiple roles.
- Don’t be ashamed of your ‘crazy’. At one point, every artist has been a bit nuts to create something so outrageously outstanding.
- Build rapport with your team. Production takes so much time, effort, and patience. It helps to maintain good relationships with your colleagues.
- Take a breather after an extensive production. After everything is done, recharge and restore your energy for the next story.
- Download The River and the Wall on iTunes to learn more about how the US border wall’s construction can affect the wildlife and people in the area.