What a Time To Be Alive (And to be a Filmmaker)

Written by Kiel Nowakowski, Editor and Producer of The Water Is My Sky

This is the best time in the history of film to be a filmmaker. You can probably extend that to all creative and artistic pursuits, too, and it’s thanks to digital technology and social media. I don’t really need to tell you that; if you’ve ever seen a YouTube video you know this. It still amazes me sometimes that a decade ago, making The Water Is My Sky in the way that we’ve made it would have been impossible. It would have been difficult even five years ago. It makes me thankful to have been born at the right time.

I went to the University of Michigan, and I graduated in 2012 with a degree in Screen Arts and Cultures. I chose to study film because I’ve always been interested in the arts and considered art to be very important. My dad is a painter and my mom is an art teacher; that sentiment has been engrained in me from a young age. In high school, me and my friends made YouTube videos for fun, and in college a couple of them (including Brian) chose to study film; it seemed natural that I follow suit.

I have a vague memory of one of my professors saying that my classmates and I would probably be among the last to learn how to shoot with actual film. I don’t know if that’s true, and I would hate to see it die out completely, but it’s interesting to consider. Film is wonderful to look at, and I don’t think digital video will ever be able to replicate it; but it’s difficult to master. It takes a lot of practice to learn how consistently get high-quality, usable images. More importantly, however: film is very expensive. For a young, independent filmmaker, it’s incredibly daunting.

Consider this: the cheapest Kodak color negative 16mm film costs $176.88 for a 400 ft. roll – this yields 11 minutes and 6 seconds of footage at 24 frames per second (the standard for movies). We currently have about 2.3 TB of footage for WIMS, and through some admittedly very rough math I can say that’s definitely over 30 hours. You can see where I’m headed: if we shot that all on the Kodak film I mentioned, it would’ve cost us upwards of $30,000.

You can take my calculations with a heavy grain of salt – nevertheless my point is valid: we can shoot almost endlessly, and we never have to consider the cost of capturing images.

Again, this may be an obvious thing to say, but if it weren’t for that fact our project would not exist as it is. The costs would be prohibitive. Digital video has only just, within the past few years, reached the point where cinema-level quality can be achieved for relatively little money. This extends beyond the actual video and the cameras we use: I can edit at home using $300 software, my own laptop, and an 8 TB hard drive – a total of about $3,000. Renting a professional editing suite can cost between $1,000 and $1,500 a month.

Filmmaking, even the way we are doing it, is not cheap, and I don’t mean to say it is. The point is that it was never prohibitive for us. Brian had a quality digital camera before we started the project, we both had laptops, and we bought Final Cut and several external hard drives with money we raised during our Kickstarter campaign. We were able to dedicate the rest to the countless other expenses that come up while making a movie. We’ve been able to borrow time, equipment, and advice from friends that we’ve made before and during the project. Filmmaking is, after all, a collaborative art.

Speaking of collaboration, we owe a lot of our success thus far to social media, in particular the Kickstarter campaign we ran two years ago. If you’ve been following this project you’ll be familiar with it; if you donated, thank you, thank you, thank you, once again. One of the main reasons I decided to work on this project was Brian’s confidence in our communities, especially the swimming community at large. He felt, and I agreed, that the swimming world constitutes a large population who cares deeply about their sport and whose story has largely gone untold. We raised over $55,000 and had over 500 donors, and while a large number of those were friends and family from our own communities, so many more came from around the country and around the world. I think this proved that Brian was absolutely right.

Through social media, we’ve created a community around our project before we’ve finished it. Every day I get notifications from our Water Is My Sky Facebook page – dozens of people I don’t know who are regularly liking our posts. It’s kind of crazy to me. We’ve really been able to build something, and I’m really proud of it.

When Brian first approached me with the idea for what was then inspiringly-titled, “The Swimming Movie,” I was living in New York City, having moved there after graduating from college. Brian and I had met in middle school in our hometown, Holland, Michigan, and were good friends through high school. He went to the University of Iowa to swim, I went to Michigan, and we mostly lost touch. We reconnected at a Christmas party while we were visiting home, and here he first told me his idea: a documentary about swimming based on the book Gold in the Water. The book, a childhood favorite of his, tells the story of several swimmers preparing for the 2000 Olympic Games, one of whom is Tom Wilkens.

Brian also told me about his connections to Connor Jaeger, who was already an Olympian and who swam at Michigan. Connor and Tom happened to be from the same small town in New Jersey. I immediately saw very real potential in the project and I knew I wanted to be involved. When I went back to New York, Brian and I stayed in touch, bouncing things off each other until he threw out an idea that he later told me he never thought I’d really consider: move to Iowa City so we could work on the project together.

As I sat with the idea, it became more and more intriguing. I had done several internships during and after college with documentary production houses around New York, but I didn’t feel like I was really going anywhere. I didn’t know how to break into the industry, but I felt passionate about documentary filmmaking. This goes back to my childhood – I spent a lot of time watching National Geographic VHSs, the History Channel, PBS and the like. I interned with a small documentary company in Brooklyn before my senior year of college, and after that summer I knew documentaries were what I wanted to do. Now, I was presented with a real opportunity to do exactly that, with a close friend, and have it be ours from the ground up. I’d just have to move across the country to do it. I won’t say it was an easy choice, but it was clear.

I’d never been to Iowa City before I moved there (though my parents actually met there as Iowa students), but I pretty quickly started to love it. It wasn’t New York or LA or Chicago or anyplace where filmmaking happens on any sort of large scale, but it was the best place for us to be. I’ve since left, but it will always be an incredibly important place to me. We slowly built our project, gathered footage, and successfully met our Kickstarter goal thanks to the support we built there, in our hometown, and amongst swimmers.

Now we’re a month away from Olympic Trials, where Connor will be swimming. I’ve since moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Brian lives in Asheville, North Carolina. We’re less than half a year from finishing the film, and I suppose I’m getting sentimental. It’s going to be intense and difficult, but I’m confident that in the end it will be something that everyone involved will be proud of.

I’ve had people ask me a lot of questions about the project, and it’s hard not to feel like an amateur. I mean neither of us has done anything on our own outside of school before, and never on this scale. I have to remind myself that we’re really, actually doing it, and that, at the end of the day, is all that matters. It has become more possible than ever to create a project of your own: be it a film, an album, a business, an invention – you name it. Make it about something you care about; make it about your community. You don’t need to be in any industry; you don’t need to be in a big city. Be proud of where you come from and of what you do. There are hundreds of brilliant people around you; there is untapped potential everywhere.

I don’t mean to be all American Dream-y, however. I’m not an optimist. Many people who try, fail. All the swimmers who we’ve talked to in our movie repeat this very sentiment over and over. Swimming and life are both about hard work. You work and work and try and try and fail and fail, until that one time out of a thousand that you succeed. If you’re smart, if you recognize potential, take a chance and dedicate yourself to something you can call your own, you can go a long way. It means a lot to me that when this is finished, Brian and I will be able to look at this and say we created it from scratch, on our own. Everyone should have something like that in their lives, and it’s more possible than it’s ever been before.