This is an interview with Levi Allen VanderKwaak, an adventure filmmaker based in British Columbia. His recent short documentary Untethered has been seen hundreds of thousands of times, thanks in part to its jaw-dropping subject matter, but more for the fact that it is extremely well-crafted and was selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick.
Portions of this interview first appeared in The Filmmaker's Process Newsletter, so if you want to see content like this before anyone else, be sure to subscribe today.
First up, here's Untethered in its entirety.
And here's our interview with Levi, where he explains the process of making Untethered on a budget of zero.
First off, tell us a little bit about who you are. What's your background in filmmaking, where are you now as a filmmaker, and how would you like your future in filmmaking to look?
When I was 16 I spent all of my money on building a hackintosh and buying a DSLR. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with how visual stories can move people, how they can make people feel things. I started making videos because I believed that by sharing inspiring stories I could help make the world a better place.
For the first five years with a camera I made tonnes of mountain biking edits and one take acoustic videos. The whole time I was pushing towards tackling a larger documentary story.
This past summer I had just left a full-time job and I began an apprenticeship for a production company in the city. I wasn’t making much money, but I had access to the company gear and editing studio. I knew now was the time I could pull off my first big project. Shooting and editing gigs took up most of my day, but in the evenings I worked on editing my film. I had a rather reckless routine with 12 hour editing days but the money I made from client projects went straight towards funding my film.
What inspired you to make Untethered? Were you already part of the BC slacklining community, or is it something that you stumbled upon?
I stumbled upon it really. Having just moved to Vancouver I really had no idea that a highlining community even existed. I was a slackliner myself and ended up finding out through Facebook that local meet-ups happened pretty much every weekend. I had never seen highlining in person, but I brought a camera to one of the meet-ups and that ended up being the first day of shooting for the film. It was that day I met Spencer for the first time and new instantaneously this guy would be an amazing person to share with the world.
You mentioned in your original email that you started with a budget of $0, and that you essentially bootstrapped the entire film. Yet the finished film has a really professional, polished look and feel. Tell us a little bit about your process for achieving that.
I was flat broke going into the summer but I knew if I lived as simply as possible I could keep overhead low and invest all my money into this project. I really had this sort of blind ambition to make something rad and wasn’t going to let any excuses stop me. I didn’t own much gear myself but through volunteer shoots and the company I was apprenticing with I was able to access some cameras to use.
I partnered with my friend RJ to help shoot the first main 5 days of the film. Having a second shooter freed me up so I could focus on getting aerials and make sure we were actually capturing a story. Production wise ran as light as we could, shooting 80% of the film with mirrorless DSLRS and on board shot gun miss. There was also countless other friends that partnered and helped along the way.
After the main week of shooting I spent the next couple months doing random pick up shoots and interviews. I ended up moving into a Van so I could stay living in the city and still be semi-mobile. Across the rest of summer and into the fall I continued to work ridiculous hours so I could edit the film.
Color grading and sound production were the two components to help pull it all together and make it feel immersive and seamless. A local audio producer really helped me out offering his services at a rate I could actually afford. One of the producers I had been working for through the summer was also an amazing colorist. He offered to work on the film pro-bono because he thought the project was rad.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in making this film, either from a technical perspective or in terms of how you approached the process?
I personally wish the interviews had a bit more of a holistic feel visually. That’s probably what bothers me the most when watching it. I could get picky about random cinematography things, but the reality is I don’t think we could have pulled it off any better than we did with what we had. You don’t get the flexibility when capturing real life moments to re-shoot scenes or have perfect multi camera coverage. That’s part of what makes the adventure documentary style so magical.
What advice would you give to someone who's setting out to make a "passion project" short film like this?
I would ask that person how badly do you want it? Passion projects you are proud of usually come from taking on an idea that initially seems impossible.
To invest yourself wholly into a project you need to be willing to say no to a lot of the rhythms of a ‘normal life’. You might need to say no to hanging out with friends, say no to eating good food, say no to sleep, say no to your inner perfectionist, or say no to wasting your evenings on a Netflix binge. Get used to saying the phrase “no for now, but not forever.” The results of making margin in your life and staying committed to a vision is amazing.
I would say also that you should be focusing 80 percent of your efforts on building relationships and 20 percent on the gear and technical side of things. Keyboard warriors might disagree, but you won’t even have a film if you spend all your time researching the dynamic range of a certain codec or picture style.
Filmmaking is relationship making. If you don’t put yourself out there to uncover a story—you will end up with nothing of lasting value. If you can’t build trust, if you can’t form camaraderie, the road to a finished project will be long and miserable. Not to mention the end results will most likely suck.
What are you working on next, and where can people learn more about you and stay up to date with your latest films?
I am currently trying to focus on offering my style of adventure story telling as a service for clients. I want to be able to work on client projects I love and also produce my own films in the future. That means focusing on the business side of things for now. Always on the look out for the next story!
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