Steve Utaski Finds Magic in Mentors and Mountains

Jul 29, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

How does one go about capturing the essence of a years-long relationship in three minutes? For Seattleite Steve Utaski, the answer is simple: focus on the little picture to give the audience a sense of the big picture.  

My shoot was aimed at capturing a week of that 12-year period to help donors understand what it was the Friends of the Children does on a daily basis.

Steve recently filmed a mentor/mentee relationship for the Seattle arm of Friends of the Children, a national non-profit which pairs underprivileged kids with professionally-trained mentors.

Tasha and one of her mentees

Steve has a friend on the FOTC board and is a regular guest at the outfit’s annual gala. One year, after a conversation with an FOTC higher-up, his role morphed from supporter to storyteller.

The Executive Director [Steve Lewis] and I got to talking about the need for a video that captured the story better to educate attendees. That’s when I started to get involved. In a way, I was the perfect target audience since I had been to the fundraising gala several times but wasn’t fully aware of what Friends of the Children did day-to-day.

Steve began collaborating with Communications Director Latima Charboneau, and the pair quickly agreed on the most effective way to tell this story in a short amount of time. 

Right from the start, I proposed the idea of not shooting any talking head interviews — the old 'show, don’t tell' adage. I felt like we could just let unscripted footage and audio capture the story best.

FOTC employs a large number of mentors and, at the outset, Steve's goal was to feature as many of them as possible. This proved untenable, however, so Steve focused solely on mentor Tasha Soine for the project.   

Very early on into shooting we abandoned that in favor of sticking with Tasha, just so viewers would really get an idea that these were professional, trained mentors doing a job day in and day out. It was tough abandoning some of the other mentors I had filmed, but ultimately it was the right call.

Tasha with two of her mentees

Over the course of a week, Steve shadowed Tasha and her mentees as they explored Seattle and took part in recreational activities. The shoot was completely unscripted.

The kids almost instantly forgot I was there. It’s always tricky filming in public spaces – people can get very nervous with camera rolling – so I built as discreet of a kit as I possibly could. It really was a blast to shoot. 

The energy of the kids was incredible. It was such a treat getting to see Tasha nurture and guide these kids. From making smart eating choices, to working on reading skills and homework — she even focused on mindfulness with these kids, which was amazing.

Filming the oversized Jenga game was particularly memorable. I was quietly panicking [because] I didn’t want to miss the moment that the tower came tumbling down, since there would be no second take!

By the end of the week, Steve had compiled hours of compelling material. Then came the hard part: distilling the work into a concise yet complete three-minute video.

My assistant editor, Heather, did a great job of culling all the footage down to a few hours of selects, but from there I had to get very aggressive in cutting. There were some wonderful moments that had to go — but paradoxically what remained just got stronger.

Once the piece was ready for primetime, it made its debut at FOTC's annual fundraising gala and was met with acclaim. The film was shown on eight screens simultaneously, blanketing a ballroom teeming with guests and donors. By the end of the night, Friends of the Children, Seattle had raised more than $800,000. Steve attributes the success of the documentary in part to the way it was structured.   

An old boss of mind used to say, 'when the work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.' I’ve always subscribed to that, which is why I wanted to see if we could tell this story visually. No narrating, no talking heads. I’m so thankful Latima and Friends of the Children went along with that approach.

In that same vein of visual storytelling sans narration comes the enchanting "Equinox," a short film shot around the Columbia Gorge, which is about 180 miles south of Seattle. Steve’s goal was to showcase the transition between winter and spring.

For most of the editing process I was calling the project ‘Verge’ as in 'Verge of Spring,' since that’s really what I was keen on capturing — the browns and greens mingling. But I worried that title might be too abstract, so I shifted gears to ‘Equinox,’ which just seemed to fit. 

As you’ll notice, most of the footage comes courtesy of a drone, the use of which, Steve says, “motivated the whole shoot.” Considering the way Steve worked his expensive toy, it’s a miracle there’s a final video at all.

I live in Seattle, which has very few authorized flight areas, so I went to the Columbia Gorge just to log hours and see what my drone could do. I abused it! Crashed it once, sent it up in the rain — which you’re not supposed to do — and came very close to losing it while filming the tug boats.

Yummy drone shot

[At one point,] it was way downstream and when I finally turned it around to bring it home, a squall kicked in and the drone was flying into a very stiff headwind and rain. Then, the low battery alert started blasting at me! I scurried up the river banks as far as I could to save flight time while it was flying back and barely got it down with about 2-3 percent battery left. Lesson learned. 

This is usually the part of the post where we discuss and display the photographer's most treasured shot, and there are no shortage of options in "Equinox." Ironically, Steve’s favorite was the one that got away.  

I was in a farm area shooting when, suddenly, I spotted a tumbleweed bouncing along and headed my way — fast. I did everything I could to reset the camera and frame a shot, but the tumbleweed — which was easily three-plus feet in diameter — just bounced past me, and I got nothing usable. Hilarious and frustrating at the same time. I’ll get it next time.

Despite the fact that drones are among the most advanced pieces of technology available to the public — what with their ability to shoot 4K video in ostensibly inaccessible locales — Steve is reminded of old-school photography when using his drone.

Shooting with drones brings back faint memories of shooting with film in that you have practical limits to deal with. With film, you only had 36 exposures. With drones, you only have about 30 minutes before you have to change batteries.

Would you rather have your drone flying over water or land?

It’s really great to work with a limitation like that, I think. You have to spend more time prepping and planning before you fly rather than just filling up card after card. I think there’s a lot to be said for shooting with more mindfulness.


Friends of the Children:
Editors: Heather Byington/Steve Utaski
Colorist: Jeff Tillotson/Lightpress
Sound: John Buroker/HearBy
Graphics: Loaded Pictures

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