An interview with Milwaukee’s Pat Walter

Pat Walter

Pat on set at RDI Stages in Milwaukee (Photo by Bob Gregory)

Having graduated from the same small high school, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Pat Walter for most of my life. Pat’s the kind of guy you knew would always be up to something, that dangerous blend of smarts and a taste for adventure, and I knew he wouldn’t be staying in our little town for long. I was right.

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Pat moved out to Denver this past January after receiving his film degree from UW-Milwaukee. I recently had the pleasure of catching up with him.

Amanda Colborn: How did you first get into the film industry?

Pat Walter: I got my start first semester senior year at UW-Milwaukee. I was doing my “Senior Project” which is like the film equivalent of a college thesis. I actually switched out of the initial course and wound up in a class taught by a guy named Tate Bunker. I had gone to an earlier screening of his film, The Albatross, at the Oriental Theatre and was impressed with his cinematography and artistic storytelling. We hit it off early on in his class, and one day he asked me to “grip” [provide camera and lighting support] on a shoot with him for a local Sendiks grocery store ad. I was stoked and obviously said yes. It was a really small shoot: just me, Tate, and this older guy Steven who was directing the spot. I later found out Tate had asked me to come with because I was the only one in his class actually using lights in my project. Most film students don’t realize lighting is the most important aspect of cinematography. It makes the difference between a good image and a bad one. For the next couple years, I worked a lot with Tate and learned as much as I could about lighting. I actually still work with him to this day. We’ve become good friends.

After I started to get the hang of “gripping,” Tate began introducing me to other industry types in Milwaukee. It was awesome to see such a hard-working community putting so much effort into its passion and how much work goes into what looks to be so effortless on the screen. It’s only when everything is done well that you don’t notice the small stuff.

AC: You specifically work in lighting now. How did you get started doing that?

PW: Very early on, I realized I had fallen into the most physically challenging position in the film industry. Working with lights involves a lot of heavy equipment, and the days are long. A 12 hour shoot is pretty typical and can even be on the shorter side. When I was a PA for American Idol, I worked 18 hour days. I actually started lifting weights just so I could do my job better on set, and you’d better not complain about how hard the work is because there are hundreds of other film students who would kill to be in your position. This was hard because I love to complain. I went on to work on tons of local television commercials and films. I actually tag-teamed gaffing duties with Quinn Hester on my first feature film two years ago called Billy Club, which should be coming out later this year. I volunteered a whole month of my summer to help Nick Sommer & Drew Rosas with it just because I’d heard that they were fun guys to work with.

AC: What is the difference between a grip, a gaffer, and a director of photography and what’s that collaborative process on set like?

PW: Imagine the film set as a hierarchy, and at the top is the director.  Everything you see on screen falls on his or her shoulders, which is why the director also gets most of the credit. Although he may not have done all the work personally, he delegates which individuals are responsible for what on set. Most directors know very little about lighting, but they often have a certain mood they’re going for, and that becomes the director of photography’s responsibility. It’s the DP’s job to translate the director’s vision into the image you see on screen, and he or she does this through various techniques in lighting, camera, and movement.

When it comes to lighting, the DP goes to the gaffer, the head of the lighting department. Usually the DP will let the gaffer know where the camera and subjects will be placed and what is going on in the scene, even including his own suggestions on how he would like the lights, but beyond that, it’s really up to the gaffer. Depending on the size of the production, the gaffer also has a few grips who carry out the his lighting decisions. To be a grip, you need to listen well to directions, pay attention to detail and yes, be strong. Lighting can be dangerous, and safety should always be the number one priority on any set.

AC: How often are you afforded creative freedoms on set?

PW: From my experience, creativity is usually appreciated, so long as you’re speaking from your specific department. If the lighting crew wants to make a specific change, it’s usually permitted so long as it benefits the production. At the same time, I wouldn’t suggest  the lighting crew give their two cents to the camera operator or the make up department, because it’s usually not their place to do so.

AC: Do you work in any other areas?

PW: I have a lot of experience in editing, but the thing with editing is that the industry is changing. There used to be big production houses, and everyone was very specialized in what they did, but editing software and equipment have become widely available to consumers in recent years. And if you can’t afford it, you can download it illegally, so that exclusivity is no longer there. What used to take ten people, hundreds of hours, and expensive studio equipment fifty years ago might now be accomplished with one talented person and her laptop.

Now there are still a few post-production houses in Milwaukee — Independent Studios and Wonder Wonder, for example — and their work is unparalleled. But these days, filmmakers and studios often want an editor who can do more than edit, who’s familiar with programs like After Effects, Cinema 4d, and 3ds Max, not to mention dozens of audio programs. Speaking personally, it’s been difficult to learn a lot of it, much less stay on top of all the innovations.

If you watch modern television shows, everything flies all over the screen with quick pacing and crazy transitions. That’s what editing has become because today’s viewer has a very short attention span. A great deal of classic cinema has a much slower pace when compared to films of today. So much is about BANG! BOOM! and instant gratification. Someone who hasn’t been exposed to early cinema would fall asleep in the middle of a “boring” old movie. It’s a sad reality, really.

AC: What other projects have you worked on?

PW: Milwaukee has a thriving film community, where projects are going on all the time, and there are a few I’m really proud to have been a part of. I had the pleasure of gripping on John Robert’s short “The Wheel” for a few days, which received lots of critical acclaim and is a delight to watch. It has a Dr. Seuss-style of narration and a seamless blend of cinematography and animation. I also spent my 24th birthday in Ohio gaffing on Tate Bunker’s short “Studies In Space,” a dreamy look at dance through slow-motion cinematography.

AC: What are you doing with your career currently?

PW: I moved to Denver in January, and it was like I had my feet kicked out from under me. I lost all my connections that I made in the last few years and was back to square one. I no longer knew anybody in the industry that could vouch for me, and I haven’t been able to get much work out here. Tate still sends me some editing work from Milwaukee, so that’s really cool, but it’s not enough to sustain a living.

There’s the old saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know” and in the beginning that’s totally true. I was really lucky to have someone like Tate who believed in me and gave me a chance. I don’t know if I’m going to find someone like that in Denver. It seems like I’m going to have to make my own connections and shake a few hands. I can troll Craigslist all day for little gigs, but it’s not good work apart from the experience.

AC: Where do you see your career going?

PW: I’ve been working for other people for a while now, doing lots of commercial and corporate work. Some projects are fun, but none of them fulfill my own creative needs. It’s been a long time since I’ve done my own project, but that’s where I am right now, searching for that inspiration.

I bought my first camera to shoot skateboarding videos of my group of friends, and lately I’ve been thinking I’d like to get back into action/sports filming. It might be a good idea to return to my roots and forget about everything else for a while. In the distant future, maybe there’s a feature length film, a documentary, maybe a snowboard film. Baby-steps first. I’m getting there.

Patrick Walter currently resides in Denver, Colorado