Atka DocumentarY | my rode reel 2017


We were warned getting to and from Atka island was no easy task, and were they right.

With a film concept in the making with JSR Architects based in Tucson, Arizona and then plenty of time for it to percolate; I believe it was approaching two years, finally all the pieces came together.

We had a film concept, several clients, funding, permission from the various powers that be in these situations and most importantly a purpose - to highlight what healthcare looks like in such remote areas and the people of Atka's dire need for a new healthcare clinic; if there was any choice, no-one would set foot in that building again.

Based out of Denver, Colorado we set out on our journey full of optimism, which lasted through our first leg of the journey: Denver to Seattle with an overnight stay and just enough time for our first interview with Doctor Galbreath with South Central Foundation; the organization who sends Doctors and Dentists to remote locations such as Atka. Immediately following the interview we were setting off to Dutch Harbor with another quick overnight stay. So far so good.

Then of course the foretold cautions inevitably came a calling; the following morning we set out to the airport to catch our flight to Atka island, only to discover that not one, but two volcanoes had erupted and halted all air travel in the area for an indefinite amount of time!

Our filming schedule was already tight and didn't leave too much time for delay, but there was absolutely nothing we could do about it; we were stuck on Dutch Harbor until the volcanos stopped spewing ash into the atmosphere and it cleared for safe air travel.

It did however allow us to spend some additional unplanned time on Dutch Harbor, which turns out to be the mecca of the American bald eagle, a small group of wondering wild horses; which we were lucky enough to find and offers very easy mountain hiking with rewarding panoramic views - it was a great place to be stuck for a couple of days, but if we couldn't get to Atka soon the entire project would be cancelled.

Dutch Harbor: eagles, mountains, wild horses and erupting volcanos

After adventuring around Dutch Harbor for two days, thankfully, the volcanic ash had blown out of the area and our next increasingly smaller plane was at last allowed to set off. The plane was so small that some of the filming gear had to catch another flight and I had the honor of sitting in the co-pilots seat; a first for me.

The eight seated plane journey provided from Grant Aviation from Dutch Harbor to Atka is a real treat. The panoramic views from the co-pilots seat were exhilarating as was the landing on Atka's tiny runway which is flanked on both sides by mountains.

Arriving on Atka we were immediately greeted by smiling faces who helped unload the copious amounts of film gear into a truck and then proceeded to hand us the keys and told us to follow them to the newly constructed apartment that they were allowing us to stay in for our duration.

The only way to get around the island is by truck, or more commonly four-wheel atv's and boats. There are very few roads on Atka, it seemed mainly from the landing strip, there is no airport, to the town and back.

Once shown the apartment we immediately set out to find the locals who were holding a fishing competition.

Our island contact showed us a map of the island and said "follow this trail, cut through the side of the lake to the beach"

Obviously my response was what? "You want me to take the truck through a lake"?

Obligingly we put the truck into four-wheel drive and headed to the side of the island our contact had shown us to a beautifully secluded beach where there we several groups of islanders fishing for salmon.

Initially we hung back to film some establishing shots and then headed onto the beach to meet the locals. Within minutes of meeting people the entire crew were all involved in several conversations with incredibly welcoming people and it wasn't long until we were given a king salmon that had just come out of the water minutes before, told to come over to the house where they cooked the salmon for us and offered to take us out the next day on the atv's and boats. We couldn't have received a more gracious welcoming.

Since loosing two days of filming, our schedule was incredibly crunched. We quickly arranged interviews with the islands elder, the chairman of APICDA and the community wellness advocate and set out to film in several locations over the island for contextual images as well as the health clinic itself.

It wasn't all plain sailing; we had hoped since a good portion of the initial films concept was to include APICDA as they were our sponsors and also provided the vast majority of economic growth to the island as the largest employer at the seafood processing plant located on Atka. Unfortunately, timings of filming and sea food processing did not align and we were left with an empty sea food processing plant. It did however serve the final film as to intensify the austereness of the island as a whole. 

Our reduced to two day filming schedule quickly went by and we were greeted on our morning of departure by an increasingly growing storm that was impacting visibility. 

There are no planes on Atka; the plane from Dutch Harbor periodically comes back to Atka to pick up anyone who wants to leave and we were told that the conditions were not stable enough for the plane to come over. The forecast calling for an increasingly worsening storm system set to anchor itself in the area for some time. We could now be stuck on the island for days or weeks.

The hours that day seemed to go by very slowly as we anxiously awaited weather updates from the pilots on Dutch Harbor. We loved the time spent on Atka, but we all had families and other projects waiting for us back home.

Later that afternoon we had word from the pilot, he was coming to get us and we should meet him down on the landing strip. He was over an hour late and there had been no further contact with him since his departure, everyone was getting a little anxious. At last we heard the plane and then saw it drop below the clouds to make a perfect landing on the tarmac in front of us. We loaded up and quickly got out of there. Later learning that this had been the penultimate flight off Atka for the next three weeks due to the bad weather. 

The last step for us was to put all of the content together, hand it over to the clients and submit the resulting film and the bts film to the Rode Microphone competition.

It was so close; we were finalist for best documentary, judges film and best cinematography and won best location.

We truly hope that this short film can make a difference and that the City of Atka and APICDA can use it as a promotional piece to aid in securing funds for a well deserved new clinic.

This was an unforgettable journey filled with fond memories and lovely people.

Atka: small planes, short runways, king salmon, amazing people

Producer | Director: Ross Cooperthwaite
Cinematographer: Christian DaCosta
BTS Photographers: Connor Robertson | Ross Cooperthwaite
BTS Cinematographer: Connor Robertson
Clients: City of Atka | APICDA | JSR Architects
Produced Content: Documentary Film + BTS Film + BTS Photography
Awards: My Rode Reel 2017
Winner: Best Location
Finalist: Best Documentary | Judges Film | Best Cinematography

Life on Atka can be tough! Atka is one of the larger volcanic islands that form the Aleutian Islands chain. Located in the Bering Sea eleven hundred miles from the coast of Alaska, to say it is remote is an understatement! The current population fluctuates between fifty to sixty people, and for those islanders, as one can imagine, day to day living can be extreme and hazardous, and as such, considerations to injuries and healthcare are paramount. This short film depicts islanders day-to-day life, current healthcare procedures and health clinic challenges.

Filming on Atka is somewhat of an exercise but manageable with the use of capable four wheel tucks, UTV’s and boats; the real challenge was getting to Atka! The voyage was a total of eight days with only two of those days for filming. We were warned of strong possibilities of delays for days, if not weeks due to inclement weather. In the case of our outbound trip, this was due to not one, but two volcanoes erupting which grounded us on Dutch Harbor Island for an additional two days. We barely departed Atka on our planned departure day, as a strong weather system rolled in; we would later read that this was the penultimate flight for the next twenty days due to stormy weather. Our production style and technique for this film was to keep camera movement simple, yet as cinematic as possible. Although we travelled with a gimbal, vest and slider, we opted for mainly using a tripod with one or two handheld shots, as we felt that the natural landscape of waves and tall grasses moving in the wind added natural motion to our compositions. The audio to accompany our film was, as always, paramount and we used a plethora of Rode equipment that included (and can be seen in the BTS film): Rode NTG3 Microphone, Rode Blimp Windshield, RodeLink Newshooter Kit Digital Wireless System, Rode Boompole, Rode VideoMic Pro and Rode Lavalier Microphone.