What Can Brown Do For You? Michael behind the lens. Photo: Adventure Film School
Three-time Emmy Award-winning adventure filmmaker Michael Brown originally wanted to be a meteorologist. Having spent his childhood schlepping film, batteries and cameras up into the mountains of Western Colorado for his father Roger, a self-made adventure film director, the Boulder resident thought he wanted something a bit more scientific. But he couldn’t quell his passion for adventure. Here’s how Brown went from being his father’s pack mule to the founder of Serac Adventure Films, one of the most renowned full service production companies in the US, while traveling to all seven continents, summiting Mount Everest five times and participating in over 50 expeditions with camera in-hand.
After helping your father while growing up, when did film making become your own?
After graduating from CU with a degree in geography and having studied meteorology, I slipped into the roll of being the producer for a National Geographic Explorer project with my dad in Mexico. He and the team had to go off to solve some problems on a ski movie shoot in Summit County and I was left alone in the office with the assignment of putting together the logistics for the Mexico trip. That was not a winning moment in wanting to make a career in adventure films. But when I stepped off the plane in Mexico, got three mosquito bites in the first 20 seconds and felt the warm humid air, the sense of adventure was palpable. That was the moment I was hooked on wanting this, documenting adventure, to be my life.
You branched off from your dad almost immediately. Why?
I could only stand to work for my dad for about a year, after which my older brother and I started our own production company in San Francisco. For about five years we did work for ad agencies and behind-the-scenes filming for stage shows in Las Vegas.
I knew John Wilcox and his company American Adventure Productions through my dad. John needed someone who knew how to edit on the new computer systems and that opened the door for me to return to adventure film. It was like a dream for anyone who loved adventure to go work for John – he had 24 Emmys and pretty much was the only guy doing the stuff I wanted to do. So I moved back to Colorado and worked for American Adventure Productions for five years and did fifteen, or more, expeditions all over the planet.
Was there a particular project early on that really stands out for you?
I ended up on a trip to Pumori, right next to Mt. Everest in 1998. Standing with the expedition group we were looking up at the summit of Everest and the leader said she’d never want to go up there. I was thinking just the opposite. So I made it back to summit in 2000. That led to the invitation to work with Erik Weihenmayer (the only blind climber to summit Everest) in 2001 to do the film Farther Than The Eye Can See. That film did really well, won tons of awards, so now I get invited back to Everest every year. If it’s a really good project, I’ll do it. Like last year I went [to Everest] for Eddie Bauer’s First Ascent series.
You co-founded an Adventure Film School with Outside magazine in 2007. When did you realize teaching was a passion?
Early on, while producing and directing these films, I had to teach the athletes, the real climbers, how to use the camera and get the pictures. I enjoyed showing them how to use the gear. Also, I enjoyed the process of sharing with people how I was doing something. I even ran into Galen Rowell on the trail to Lobuche (Nepal) and he had one of his workshops with him and he was talking about the quality of the light and everybody was having a good time. It’s not like all of a sudden a light bulb went off for me, but I started thinking “wow, maybe there’s something we can do with adventure film and make a school.”
What’s magical for me is when I’m walking somebody through something and then they get it in that moment. That’s why we designed the film school to be the best experience it can be. Like being on the cover of a magazine. That’s pretty cool if you can get there. So our diploma is designed like a magazine cover.
I also love seeing people accomplish something. I can remember the happiness I felt when presenting a film but not being able to share everything about how it came about. Watching the students present their films, I know what they are feeling and how excited they are with what they have done. It’s rewarding to be a part of that.
Ed’s Note: Michael offers discounts to non-profit organizations that want to send someone to the Outside Adventure Film School to learn about making films to help promote and tell the story of their non-profit project.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Books. Having never gone to any formal film school myself, I thirst for the knowledge so I can turn around and teach it. I love to read about the process of developing a story. My old boss would tell me to go film someone, say, climbing in Vietnam. That sounds cool, but then he’d say to just take the good pieces and put it together and there’s your film. That’s not a story, that’s a home video. Also, the students are an endless source of inspiration. They will read the same books I’m reading and then will ask questions I never thought of, so we give it a try.
What are you working on now?
The current project is Soldiers to the Summit. We’re documenting 11 wounded veterans on a climb up Lobuche, a 20,075-foot peak next to Mt. Everest. One is blind, three have lost limbs and all 11 deal with the mental and emotional burdens of war. These are some amazing stories of people who have served and they each have different reasons for being on the trip. Erik Weihenmayer and his guide up Everest in 2001, Jeff Evans, led the group. Check out the trailer on our site: seracfilms.com.
What about you surprises people?
That I’m a geek. I play chess at a pretty high level. I love to read. I make up places and maps and create fictional landscapes and environments much in the same vein that J.R.R. Tolkien had detailed maps of Middle Earth. I’m working on one now that from the air is in the shape of a dragon. It includes mountains and lakes, I’ve sketched out the detailed topography, have the natural and geologic history sorted out. I’ve even created the climatic profile complete with high and low daily temperatures over the year along with snowfall and accumulation. The guys at Google showed me how to use SketchUp to create a 3-D model. Pretty geeky.
Do you participate in film festivals?
Oh yeah. I even go to film festivals in Bulgaria. If you think crowds get enthusiastic here, it’s off the chart over there. I also run a week–long workshops at both the Banff Mountain Film Festival and the Adventure Film Festival that happens here in Boulder.
Ed’s Note: Catch Michael Brown as a panelist at Outside in Aspen, June 10-12.