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UC adventure film makes American TV debut

UC’s award-winning documentary ‘Expedition Alaska’ captures the drama of a seven-day endurance race in the rugged Kenai Peninsula. It's available on streaming services now

Documenting an endurance race in one of the most rugged parts of America proved to be almost as big a challenge for University of Cincinnati filmmakers as competing in it.

“Expedition Alaska” chronicles the efforts of 20 teams to complete a grueling 350-mile biking, hiking, rafting and kayaking race over seven days in Alaska’s beautiful and mountainous Kenai Peninsula.

The documentary was filmed as part of Electronic Media Division Professor Kevin Burke’s production master class in UC’s College-Conservatory of Music. The project was recognized at international film festivals and debuted recently on the national cable television network beIN Sports. It’s available on streaming services now.

“Expedition Alaska” is one of several adventure-race documentaries produced by UC students for national television broadcast in Burke’s class, starting with the annual California Gold Rush Expedition Race in 2012.

“I thought, ‘What a great real-world project for my students to sink their teeth into,’” Burke said.

The project demonstrates the real-world experience UC provides as part of the Bearcat Promise, a platform of UC's strategic direction called Next Lives Here.

I learned so much. It really prepared me to be ready for anything.

Mackenzie Houston, UC graduate

The UC film crew dressed in matching orange shirts puts their hands together in a circle to cheer the start of filming.

UC's film crew gets ready to shoot "Expedition Alaska." The team members included, from left, CCM professor Kevin Burke; Sam Medert and Shannon St. George, in CCM's electronic media; Pat Dierker and Ramey Morris from communication design in DAAP; Mackenzie Houston in communication at A&S; DAAP professor Yoshiko Burke; Nelson Mustain from CCM's electronic media and Dani Kokochak from communication in A&S. Not pictured: UC graduate and film director and producer Brian J. Leitten. Photo/Provided

When forest fires canceled the California race in 2015, UC’s team headed north to cover the Alaska endurance competition. Seven UC students joined a crew of professional filmmakers led by UC graduate and producer Brian J. Leitten, who founded Hyperion XIII Productions in New York and helped create the production master class with Burke in 2012.

“It’s one of the hardest productions I’ve ever worked on,” Leitten said. “But I’m incredibly happy with how it turned out. And now for it to get distributed, a lot more people get to enjoy it.”

Burke rented a recreational vehicle that would serve as a mobile base for the production.

“It would shake if you drove over 50 mph,” Burke said.

Before the race, the UC team scouted locations along the course to best shoot the action. The team made good use of drones to capture the dramatic mountain scenery and physical demands of crossing glaciers and rafting down whitewater rapids.

The competitors also wore portable cameras. Students swapped out the batteries and memory cards at designated transition stations where the racers would get safety gear such as helmets and life jackets for the next leg of their trek.

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Leitten said the project gave students practical, hands-on experience. The students were instructed on how to use the equipment and initially were paired with professionals until they were comfortable. They also got training in backcountry safety and bear awareness.

“Slowly but surely they were able to handle things on their own,” Leitten said. “I could trust they knew what they were doing.”

UC graduate Mackenzie Houston, who now works for an advertising company in Louisville, served as a producer on the film when she was a student.

“It was a trial by fire. I had never used the camera before the shoot. But they gave you a few tips on interviewing and threw you in the field,” she said. “I learned so much. It really prepared me to be ready for anything.”

Houston said a degree in electronic media can take students unexpected places. She solicited positions that were not advertised to land her first jobs out of college.

“Sometimes you have to shove your foot in the door,” she said. “There can be a narrow view of careers in electronic media, but it’s applicable to so many jobs. There’s really no limit.”

A line of racers treks across a glacier in a shot taken high above them.

The "Expedition Alaska" film crew used drones to capture dramatic images of racers trekking across glaciers in Alaska's rugged Kenai Peninsula. Photo/"Expedition Alaska"

Burke said the documentary received support from UC Forward, an interdisciplinary program that pairs students and faculty with outside experts to prepare students for the workforce. UC Forward gives students a chance to tackle complex projects like creating a summer wilderness camp for inner-city kids or working with industry to design new products.

“We wanted students involved in production as well as post-production. And that’s where the UC Forward initiative came in,” Burke said.

Students in UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning created the motion-design elements, graphic animations, titles and credits used in the film under the supervision of Yoshiko Burke, an associate professor in the Myron E. Ullman Jr. School of Design.

That’s a lesson I try to teach my students: believe in yourself.

Kevin Burke, UC Head of Electronic Media

“Since its inception in 2012, the production master class has had more than 150 students from 11 different academic programs and five colleges at the university,” Burke said. “It’s been a place for all students to come to work together on these projects to get real-world skills. It’s really grounded in experiential learning.”

UC’s production master class students have several other projects in the works:

• A profile of UC Hyperloop at the 2017 SpaceX hyperloop competition called “The Fifth Mode,” which will premiere in June on Cincinnati public television.

• A feature on Cincinnati’s annual Bockfest.

• A documentary on CCM’s musical theater students as they prepare for the annual New York Showcase.

UC students huddle around a hyperloop pod in the California sun.

Students in Hyperloop UC compete in a 2017 competition hosted at SpaceX. UC filmmakers produced a documentary about the competition. Photo/Jay Yocis/UC Creative Services

“To enter festivals and win awards, you gain confidence in your abilities,” Burke said. “That’s invaluable for students who are just starting out. That’s a lesson I try to teach my students: believe in yourself.”

Since graduating from UC in 2001, Leitten has directed and produced numerous films around the world, including the Emmy-winning MTV self-improvement series “Made.”

“The time I spent at UC allowed me to have a solid base of knowledge when I went into the real world,” Leitten said. “I was able to intern at [a local radio station] and MTV while going to school. So I came out of college with everything I needed to be successful.”

Leitten said working on films like “Expedition Alaska” gives students a big advantage in the job market.

“I would say students that are part of the production master class who really put the time into it are coming out two or three years ahead of their peers,” he said.

Featured image at top: A still from the documentary "Expedition Alaska" shows racers rafting down a river in Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.

Next Lives Here

The University of Cincinnati is classified as a Research 1 institution by the Carnegie Commission and is ranked in the National Science Foundation's Top-35 public research universities. UC's graduate students and faculty investigate problems and innovate solutions with real-world impact. Next Lives Here.