You may have already read about Steven Holleran in a recent Fstoppers article. If not, let me briefly fill you in: Holleran is an extremely talented and accomplished visionary behind the lens. He's been commissioned by companies such as Google and Nike, and was the daring cinematographer for the popular Netflix series Fire Chasers and the award-winning Sundance film "A Boy. A Girl. A Dream." Plus, he's a badass.
His current project? Holleran is traveling the globe filming a documentary for the Watson Foundation. Thomas J. Watson, Jr. wanted to give young Americans who graduated college a chance to travel abroad and see the world, and to come back to the US as better global citizens. In doing so, the Watson Fellowship was founded, which is a program dedicated to providing college grads with a chance to see the world while pursuing year-long self-made projects. "If you come back to the States during the year you forfeit your membership and scholarship," said Holleran. "It's a very severe cutoff from the American bubble, but there aren't many opportunities like this for young people in America."
Holleran's documentary follows five Watson Fellows who are studying journalism, sports as a means for change in poverty-stricken communities, minorities through animation and graphic art, music in Islam, and natural disasters' impact on small communities. What makes this project even more interesting is that this year is also the 50th anniversary of the Watson Foundation.
A past-Watson Fellow himself, Holleran knew he wanted to be a filmmaker while attending Bowdoin College but didn't quite know how to achieve his goal. While traveling for a year as a Fellow, Holleran studied the impacts of commercial overfishing in the South Pacific. He worked with fishermen in New Zealand, lived with spear fishermen in Samoan fishing villages and coastline Chile all while documenting the impacts of global fishing on local markets. For the film, Holleran won an EPA Environmental Award.
Rather than traveling as a Watson Fellow himself, Holleran is following five Fellows around the globe over the course of a year, documenting their journey, transformation, and self-discovery. "A lot of these kids have never left the United States, and a lot happens over the course of a year," said Holleran. "There is a lot of culture shock and homesickness while Fellows are forced through the structure of the Fellowship. They have to find a way to deal with and accept their new reality, and they carry those lessons with them for the rest of their lives."
To film the documentary, Holleran is meeting with each Fellow twice throughout the year - once at the beginning of their journey and once toward the end. By doing so, he's hoping to map their change physically, mentally, and psychologically. So far the process has taken him to places like India, Nepal, Chile, and South Korea. All of the traveling can put a strain on the filmmaking process. After traveling for up to 36 hours, Holleran has to shake off jet-lag and be fully-ready to show up prepared to shoot. One specific struggle was when Holleran's train broke down in the middle-of-nowhere India, surrounded by rice patties with no facilities, and water and food filled with parasites. "Sometimes I have to turn the camera off because I have to look for water or other survival-situation needs," said Holleran. "That part of the process can be challenging because I have no backup or support."
While traveling, Holleran also needs to take into consideration the packing of his gear: he has to stay mobile and inconspicuous. "I basically have to take an entire camera team and fit it in one bag in the overhead of an airplane," said Holleran. "But that could mean that the airplane is a jumbo jet or a turboprop commuter." In order to make this documentary possible under such strict packing guidelines, Holleran is fitting the "entire camera crew" into one Ajna f-stop camera bag. In it he's packing a Sony A7s II, a set of vintage Canon Fd lenses, a second camera, the DJI Osmo X5, eight to 10 different types of mics including wireless lavs, a zoom recorder, and on-board mics, four rugged hard drives, a laptop, tripod, suction cup mounts, portable Belkin power strips, and a tilta-cage for the Sony A7s II. "Basically I'm a completely mobile one-man documentary package," laughed Holleran. "The Ajna f-stop bag just fits everything when entirely loaded, plus no one bats an eye when loading it in overheads."
Having only one gear bag for the entire filming process means the value of each piece of gear is crucial. The cinematographer noted that not only does the handheld gimbal offer great tracking shots, but he can control the gimbal remotely with his phone. This means he can suction-cup it to the side of boats or cars which adds a lot of production value to the kit.
Because the cinematographer has been a Watson Fellow himself, he was excited for the opportunity of recording the experience and sharing it with the world. In the final piece, he wants viewers to share the emotional impact of what it's like to be on the road for a year. This means he is more selective in what he chooses to shoot. Some of the footage is semi-run-and-gun while the rest is a stylized poetic piece. "Before I meet with the Fellows I speak with them and have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to film," said Holleran. "But there are also moments I can't plan for which I definitely try to make room for while filming." Other than the trailer, Holleran hasn't started assembling the footage just yet. It's the longest amount of shooting on a single project he's ever done, so it's crucial to have a solid plan for every stage of the process. As an artist, doing so takes away a lot of anxiety, especially while shooting alone. "I really have to start from the beginning with a really good plan and a system to manage the plan," said Holleran. "There's a checklist and things to follow. After a few trips, it becomes a ritual and a rhythm."
All images are used with the permission of Steven Holleran.