Musings on Film-Making

By Elam Stoltzfus


If the pithy saying  “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true, then how much is a video clip worth?

Most broadcast video clips have 30 frames a second. That is 30 pictures a second. That one second of video is worth 30,000 words. Multiply that by a minute. A minute of video is worth 180,000 words.

And this is if we are just talking about silent video! We haven’t even added music, audio, or natural sound. How much is a video clip worth? It is one of the richest mediums humans have to tell stories: pictures, words, music, audio all come together in one place. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an hour of video is worth the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.


Elam with a broadcast video camera in 1984, his start in the industry.
Elam with a broadcast video camera in 1984, his start in the industry.


This year has been thirty years since I picked up a video camera. During that time I have shot both professional broadcast video and film.  Having a career in broadcast has been a thrill, a great opportunity to meet wonderful people, a ticket to travel the country , and the chance to document a collection of fascinating stories.  Each story has an emotional connection revealing heartaches, celebrated victories, exciting thrills, human interest, animal behaviors and much more.

Putting a camera on my shoulder (especially a heavy broadcast camera) was a free ticket to concerts and sports event with a front row seat—and sometimes a back stage pass (literally).

Elam with Joe Wasilewski and an invasive python in South Florida.
Elam with Joe Wasilewski and an invasive python in South Florida.
Elam filming a gator being pulled out of the Apalachicola river.
Elam filming a gator being pulled out of the Apalachicola River.
Elam Stoltzfus filming Joe Browder and Clyde Butcher in the Big Cypress Swamp.
Elam Stoltzfus filming Joe Browder and Clyde Butcher in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

When I picked the first video camera up in 1984, it was a game-changer for me. Before I had documented the world around me with a still camera. Video is no longer just images—it is synthesizing many things into one. With video you put together music, sound, photography, and stories into one unified piece. I soon realized that it is a medium that influences millions and millions of people. Film media has a long history, it is very influential. Film production is a challenging art form because of the multiple disciplines used to create a story.

With film-making you have to know a little bit of something about many things. In my role as an independent producer and film-maker I have to be a jack-of-all-trades.

From the visual side I have to know the composition. Not just static compositions, but moving images. When does an image start, when does the image end? And then not just one image, but multiple images because you have to edit it together the collection of compositions. How are you going to tell your story to your audience? One of the theories of good composition is clues you give to your audience and if you adhere to this structure, this is one of the first things you want to share with your audience.

An example would be to feature a homestead in the film. First, give the audience the setting of the place. Where are we? What does the house look like? Is it in the country? Is it in the city? Decide what composition best tells that story: Is it a wide shot? Giving your audience a wide shot first establishes the setting, but you really can’t engage in the conversation if the scene has people. You would want to do a medium shot, get the audience closer and then do some close-ups. Perhaps you have an argument. You would want to do some quick-cuts, you want to do some close-ups.  It is taking the audience, engaging them in the conversation, pushing the viewer forward and keep pushing them and, in a way, you are pushing someone into somebody else’s face and forcing them to experience this emotion. Compositions that captures emotions.

Then you have music. Music is what allows your emotions to ebb and flow. The ups and the downs. The sweetness, the sour. The love scenes, the anger. Music is that bed that flows and ties it all together. You have natural ambient sounds, you have voices. What kind of voices are you using? Low bass voices, the sound of God, versus sweet-sounding female voices that are enticing and nurturing.

Then you have a script—that is the words. Who is writing this? How are these words woven together to tie in with the emotions and what do you want people to know? What don’t you want them to know? What age group is your audience? What is your target? Who are you trying to reach? You have many, many elements, structures and mediums all coming together. Then on top of all that you put this piece together and then you have an opportunity to broadcast the story to the world. Think about this…. here is the story you worked on and it is being shared with millions and millions of people!  Sometimes they are all watching this piece of art all at the same time. Now is that amazing or what?

Here we are in 2014 with so many new opportunities with the media. We have social media, cable, distribution in ways that we never imagined 10 and 20 years ago. Many new stories and more opportunities are available to educate our world.The world is more intense, and it is going faster and faster and it is becoming smaller and smaller. And we need more material, we need more visual content and we have it everywhere!

But where do all these ideas start? The idea starts in your brain.  It’s those lightbulb moments; emotionally-charged memories that inspire us to create.  We have so many media tools and methods and opportunities to birth these ideas. That’s why the art of film-making is so important.

So, if you want to make a movie—go and make a movie! Capture your ideas, share your story with the world. The world will be a better place with your story.  Tell a story using video worth millions and billions of words. The world will be richer for it.


SoWal Aerial and Night-Time Dune Pics, Part II

The Milky Way with a series of dunes in the foreground. Photograph taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
The Milky Way with a series of dunes in the foreground. Photograph taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.



By Nic Stoltzfus


Intro: Last week Dad and I came down to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to do more work for the upcoming Coastal Dune Lakes project. We accomplished a lot over the four days that we were down: interviewed George Langstaff, long-time resident of Four Mile Village,for a story about the creation of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park; filmed freshly blooming lupine (side note: the deep lavender blue of the lupine is how “Blue Mountain Beach” got its name; sailors would see the flowers along the dunes in this area and it looked like a blue mountain to them); set-up a jib shot of carnivorous pitcher plants in a bog close to Morrison Lake; and went out to Western Lake outfall to get some shots of small plovers scurrying along the beach. I really enjoyed all these things, but my favorite part about this trip was the chance to do aerial and night-time photography.


After we got done from doing an aerial fly-over we ate at the Donut Hole for a late lunch, took a catnap at the cabin, and then hurried back outdoors in the afternoon to shoot Dad’s introductions for the shorts we are working on. We met up with Jeff Talbert, the park ranger, and we told him that we plan on photographing the night sky starting at 2 AM tomorrow morning. We invited him to come and he agreed to pick us up at our cabin at 2.


After coming back Dad and I chatted a bit over a salad dinner, and went to bed early. It took me a bit to fall asleep, but I dozed off finally around 10. I woke up to my alarm at 1:50 and hurried up and got dressed. I saw lights flash and heard a guttural cycling growl outside and knew that Jeff was outside in the “gator” (a beefed-up golf cart, aka utility vehicle).


He picked us up and we headed down to the no-name-lake outfall (side note: this is the first time it has broken through in recent history; this is due to the recent torrential downpour of rain). Dad set up the Nikon D800 on the tripod with the dunes in the foreground and the Milky Way arcing between two of the dunes. It was a nice shot. But…we had a bit of technical trouble at first. It wouldn’t snap the picture! Oh, right, we needed to click the automatic zoom on the camera lens from automatic to manual. Right (We didn’t think of that right away—it was 2 am, after all, and we normally aren’t night owls). We clicked the lens off of automatic focus to manual focus. Okay, let’s try again. CLICK. Pause. It was…blurry. Oh, that’s right. When we switched the camera to manual focus, it didn’t have the foreground in focus anymore. GAH! How do we fix that?! By now our feathers were ruffled and eyes wide with stress. 2 am is not a good time to troubleshoot.


Luckily, Dad brought an LED light with him that he uses for interviews. It has a dial on it and you can change the strength from dim to oh-my-god-don’t-shine-that-in-my-face-bright. I twisted the dial to OMG-Bright and shone it on the dunes and it was bright enough for him to see the dunes in the viewfinder and turn the lens’ focus dial so the dunes were in focus. Okay. Third try. Third try’s the charm. The camera took the picture and we looked through the camera monitor and….Got it! We hooted for joy and clacked our beaks with excitement. It worked! Great shot. That’s the keeper!


Two dunes in the foreground and the Milky Way in the background. Photo taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
Two dunes in the foreground and the Milky Way in the background. Photo taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.


We hiked back a little further and set up to take shots behind a standing pool of water to catch the reflection of the dunes in the water. We took a few shots there and then hiked back to the gator.


As Jeff drove us back the sliver of a first quarter moon was tipping westward towards the end of her journey across the heavens. I blinked twice and yawned, I am no night-owl. We arrived back at our roost at 5 am and the sky was just beginning to brighten from twilight blue to the Berlin blue of Hokusai’s ocean in “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The sky was the ocean and stars speckles of sand.


My body was tired, but my mind was still energetic. I thought of all I did the previous 24 hours—aerial photography, night-time photography—WHEESH! I finally calmed down and soon fell asleep. Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Dunes, Goodnight Moon.

SoWal Aerial and Night-Time Dune Pics, Part I

The outfall of Lake Powell, the easternmost coastal dune lake.
The outfall of Lake Powell, the easternmost coastal dune lake.


By Nic Stoltzfus

Intro: Last week Dad and I came down to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to do more work for the upcoming Coastal Dune Lakes project. We accomplished a lot over the four days that we were down: interviewed George Langstaff, long-time resident of Four Mile Village,for a story about the creation of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park; filmed freshly blooming lupine (side note: the deep lavender blue of the lupine is how “Blue Mountain Beach” got its name; sailors would see the flowers along the dunes in this area and it looked like a blue mountain to them); set-up a jib shot of carnivorous pitcher plants in a bog close to Morrison Lake; went out to Western Lake outfall to get some shots of small plovers scurrying along the beach. I really enjoyed all these things, but my favorite part about this trip was the chance to do aerial and night-time photography.

On Tuesday Dad and I woke up and were having breakfast outside in the screened-in porch of our cabin and it was absolutely gorgeous outside. Crisp blue sky, not a cloud in sight. I looked over at Dad and his lips were scrunched up and his eyes were sparkling. What was he thinking? He grinned and looked over at me. “Hey Nic, you wanna fly today?” I knew what he was talking about. At some point in time we planned on renting a helicopter to do aerial photography. He wanted to do it sometime in the next few weeks before the summer haze set in and decreased the sharpness of the photos, and before the vivid viridescence of spring faded into the duller olive greens of summer.

Dad called Beach Helicopter out of Destin, but they told him they don’t start flying until 10 o’clock. It was 9:30, so we decided to start driving over that way. On our way the manager for Beach Helicopter (hereafter BH), Kim, gave me a call and said that the pilot Mike was on his way to the landing pad and would arrive in 15 to 20 minutes. I told her we were on our way, as well. She remarked that it was a lovely day to fly, and I smiled and agreed with her. We arrived at BH, right in downtown Destin, and walked into the small shack that is combination hanger/waiting room/check-in/observation shack/cat house. Yep, cat house. BH has an honorary rotar-kitty, Boo, who was given to them by a local fireman on Halloween. She is a small cat with bright yellow eyes and emanated the most interesting purr: part meow, part growl, part purr, and wholly bliss.

Boo, the honorary copter-kitty at Beach Helicopter.
Boo, the honorary copter-kitty at Beach Helicopter.

Inside the combo cat house/waiting room we weighed ourselves and our equipment (the max the pilot can take up is 550 pounds) and waited for Mike to arrive. He flew in about 10 minutes later and Dad remarked, “Wow, bet it’s hard to fly in to work every morning!” Kim and I laughed.   Mike came in and asked Dad to come to the computer to discuss the route he wanted to take today: Dad showed him that he wanted to fly around each of the dune lakes and do full 360 degree passes around certain key lakes. Mike said it was doable and we would be up for an hour or more.   He asked Dad if he wanted the door removed on his window and he said yes. Mike turned to me and asked the same question. I looked over at Dad and Dad said, “Yep, he’ll be doing photography, too.”

Here comes the part of the story that I must admit something: I am not exactly fond of heights. And I passionately dislike rollercoasters. I have a certain embarrassing story my sister enjoys telling with relish of a time when we went to Wild Adventures in Valdosta and rode the “kiddie roller coaster” (against my will) and I screamed like a little girl the whole ride. Upon exit, the jeers and sneers of a gaggle of queued rednecks caused me much humiliation (and caused my sis much laughter). Even landing and flying on an aircraft is sometimes a bit much and although I have never gotten sick and thrown up on an airplane, I have grabbed for the barf bag on a number of occasions.

So, I wondered to myself, how would this go? A small airborne vehicle with nary a thing between me and the sky? Wide Open Spaces may be fine for some, but this was not something I desired while 300 feet off the ground.

Boo gave us a final goodbye meow and Dad and I walked out to the landing pad. Dad got in the front seat with Mike, and I was in the back duel-wielding two cameras: a Nikon D70 with an 18-200 lens and a D800 with a 14-18 wide-angle lens. Dad had been very specific about the care of the cameras: Always make sure that you have the strap wrapped around you so nothing flies out. Make sure everything is ALWAYS tied down.

Mike instructed us to put on our headsets and laid down some ground rules: When the ‘copter picks up speed, don’t hang out of it or the wind will jerk you back. We don’t want that. Echoing Dad’s instructions he said make sure everything is always strapped down because we don’t want anything getting sucked up in the rotor. That wouldn’t make for a fun day.   He did a final check with the local air traffic control and started to lift off. My heart starting beating wildly and my stomach began fluttering, likewise ready to take flight, but I kept it under control. It was still a bit much having an open door off to my right and I was terrified of anything flying out and messing up the whole flight.

Elam and Mike talking right before lift-off.
Elam and Mike talking right before lift-off.

We made the run around the lakes and Mike chatted with us comfortably the whole time. He is a local and his parents live around the area. He used to run before his knees blew out. “Look down, we’re gonna buzz over my buddy’s house; I do that every time for him!” Stuff like that. That helped me to relax a bit. As I got used to the dynamics of it all, I began to feel more comfortable and gained a sense of equilibrium; Now I wasn’t constantly teetering towards sheer terror but only mild shock. The longer we flied the more I adjusted to it and, by the time we landed, I wish I could have stayed in the air for another hour or so.

The outfall of Western Lake, the coastal dune lake found within Grayton Beach State Park.
The outfall of Western Lake, the coastal dune lake found within Grayton Beach State Park.


A zoomed-in picture of an outfall.
A zoomed-in picture of an outfall.

As I stepped out of the helicopter after my landing, I arched my back and I felt a dull throbbing pain. My back was tender from moving around from side to side and leaning out taking pictures. There might have been some pain involved in the experience–from the terror of heights to back pain–but the thrill of the experience overrode that, and I can now say that I am an aerial photographer!

Nic, Mike, and Elam after a successful helicopter fly-over!
Nic, Mike, and Elam after a successful helicopter fly-over!

Two Conservationists Speak on the Coastal Dune Lakes

By Nic Stoltzfus



Two weeks ago Elam and I filmed two more interviews for the upcoming Coastal Dune Lakes film.

First we interviewed Manley Fuller. He is the President of the Florida Wildlife Federation. They are a non-profit organization that focuses on “preserving, managing, and improving Florida’s fish, wildlife, soil, water, and plant life.” We interviewed Manley because, early in his career with FWF, he worked with local organizations to protect the land that is now Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.

The FWF office is located right off of Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee and, as we went into the building, a collection of FWF staff were just finishing up a meeting. Manley told us to head on upstairs to the office and wait for him. We went up to say hello to Diane Hines, the Vice President of Administration. As soon as she saw Dad she said, “Elam, Congratulations!” He tilted his head sideways and said, “Um…what for?” She told him that he had been awarded Florida Wildlife Federation’s Conservationist of the Year; she had just sent him the acceptance letter two days ago and figured he had already gotten it. “Wow Dad! Congrats!” I chimed in. He grinned and said thanks. Diane’s daughter taught English in Korea during the same time I was teaching English in Japan and we talked about that for awhile and then Manley came back up and told us he was ready for the interview.

We set up our interview equipment in the FWF conference room which also doubles as the Alliance Française de Tallahassee meeting room. During his interview Manley highlighted several things about his time working in the South Walton region and also gave us some great quotes.


Filming an interview with FWF President Manley Fuller
Filming an interview with FWF President Manley Fuller


“There is a mosaic of habitat types which support quite a variety of wildlife both in the state park preserve and in the state forest. And I have seen, I have personally observed beavers, I have seen alligator nests, gopher tortoises, and then all sorts of marine life, shorebirds, wading birds, largemouth bass, I’ve seen a largemouth bass caught in some of those lakes, and you are right at the ocean.”


“It’s not just members of conservation groups that care about this stuff. I think there is a much broader public support for our national forests, our national wildlife refuges, our state parks, our wildlife management areas, our state forests, our historical cultural sites. There is a great interest in that because these are wonderful resources. They are a part of the natural tableau of Florida and that is something that really draws people here. So not only is it good for maintaining native species and natural biodiversity where people can come and recreate, it is a real draw…we need to be protecting our natural resources and that has natural resource values and it has economic value.”


The next day we headed over to Panama City, close to FSU’s Panama City Campus, and interviewed Jim Barkuloo. He is a former field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He now works with the St. Andrew Bay Resource Management Association (RMA) as a volunteer coordinator of the Baywatch program and does water quality monitoring in the St. Andrew Bay watershed. He has been doing monitoring with the organization for over 20 years. Lake Powell, the easternmost coastal dune lake, is considered part of the St. Andrew Bay watershed and he assists in doing water quality monitoring there, as well.


It was a rainy day and when Dad and I entered his house we took off our shoes so we didn’t get his white carpet messy. As I scanned the room it reminded me of my grandparents’ home—very neat, clean, with a minimalist approach. He had a whole series of encyclopedias on a wall-size bookshelf. When I get old I doubt if I would have hardback encyclopedias in my home. Wikipedia has spoiled it for me, I guess. He asked if we wanted anything to drink, and I requested coffee with a little bit of cream. We sat down and chatted for awhile, in no hurry, before doing the interview. He provided us with some good information about the interaction of the uplands with the dune lakes and also a few thoughts on the dune lakes themselves.


Filming an interview with former U.S. FWS field supervisor, Jim Barkuloo
Filming an interview with former U.S. FWS field supervisor, Jim Barkuloo


“If you keep the health of the bay it will affect the health of the shoreline along the Gulf and it is true with the watershed going into the dune lakes and Lake Powell and if you can keep the upland protected it will help keep the water quality and the habitat in good shape for the dune lakes in the gulf. So, that has been our emphasis in the last many years.”


“Another characteristic of the dune lakes is that they aren’t always open. They close down once in awhile. They have a temporary dams sown up either by the sand or whatever and then they open up and fluctuate back and forth. So there is quite a unique situation there and it’s complicated from the standpoint of biology because it is constantly changing.”


It was nice to get two more interviews “in the can” (a film slang for completing shooting on a piece. In the old days, when people shot movies on film, after a reel of film was exposed/shot they would put the reel back in the can: it was finished and the director had the shots he wanted—hence “in the can”). This brought our total number of interviews for the Coastal Dune Lakes film up to 13. We still have a few more interviews to finish, but we have already completed the bulk of them for the film. The summer, we will do historical and scientific research concerning the coastal dune lakes, make a trip to Australia to do a comparison study with the dune lakes there, and start editing down a rough draft of the script.


For more information on this project head over to our website: 


Thoughts On Basic Photography

By Nic Stoltzfus

April 25th, 2014


A piece of driftwood at the Western Lake outfall.
A piece of driftwood at the Western Lake outfall.

One morning out on Western Lake (one of the coastal dune lakes in Walton County) the falling light of a sunset rippling off this piece of driftwood was too beautiful to pass up not taking a picture of it. I lined up the piece of driftwood using the Rule of Thirds and had the camera aperture set at 8.0 to allow sharpness throughout in this landscape shot.


Photography and cinematography have a lot in common. They bridge the gap between science and art. What I mean by this is that there is a lot of technical things goes into making a camera work. An eye is one of the most complex features of the human body. A camera is similar to the eye, except it is mechanical instead of being organic.

Here is the same image illustrating the Rule of Thirds. As you see the driftwood is off-center and lines up with the second vertical line from the left. It also is beneath the top horizontal third. The sky is not lined up using the Rule of Thirds, but it is okay because the visual interest is the driftwood.
Here is the same image illustrating the Rule of Thirds. As you see the driftwood is off-center and lines up with the second vertical line from the left. It also is beneath the top horizontal third. The sky is not lined up using the Rule of Thirds, but it is okay because the visual interest is the driftwood.


Photographers use math and mathematical principles to capture an image to present to the public as art. The photographer and the cinematographer bridge the gap between the art world and the mathematical/technical world. A brief example of this idea is how photographers use the Rule of Thirds. The camera screen is split into equally into three parts both horizontally and vertically, so you have a grid of nine identical rectangles. A well-framed sunset would have the foreground in the bottom three rectangles and the sky in the top six rectangles (Or vice versa depending if you want to focus on the foreground). This principle is founded on the precepts of geometry. There you have it—a mathematical formula underlying a photograph. Viewers of the photograph don’t have to understand the principle to say, “Oh wow. That is a good picture!” The above photograph utilizes this principle.

Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson
Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson


To make a good photographer it isn’t a bad idea to have basic understanding of maths. Nowadays digital cameras do a lot of the heavy lifting for you and can automatically do a lot of things that took old-timers a while to set up by hand. But, it is still good, in my opinion, to have a rudimentary understanding of how cameras work in order to gain fuller mastery over them. I have two books that I recently purchased that have really helped me a lot on my journey to taking better pictures. The first is “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson. This was the first book I purchased and really provided a good grounding as to how the camera captures light. The camera captures things that aren’t always visible to the naked eye, and it is important to know how to set up the camera to capture these details (For example, a long exposure of the night sky can allow the camera to capture light from stars that are barely visible to the naked eye). Also, you can imply movement through certain exposures. This book does a good job explaining this.


The Digital Photography Book by Scott Kelby
The Digital Photography Book by Scott Kelby

The second book I purchased, about a month later was “The Digital Photography Book” by Scott Kelby and this gets more into digital photography and also recommends equipment that can help you out down the road.


Clyde editing a black and white image using Photoshop. Image by Niki Butcher.
Clyde editing a black and white image using Photoshop. Image by Niki Butcher.

Along with these two books I also watched Clyde Butcher’s “PhotoShop Made Simple” which gives a really good grounding as to how to use Photoshop as a digital darkroom (e-mail for info on how to obtain a copy). There are some ridiculously simple tricks in the videos that most people don’t use because Clyde approaches PhotoShop as an analog photographer (pre-digital, using large film plates) and goes from that point and creates a bridge to the digital world. It is a different approach to using Photoshop, and I have gotten some really great ideas from there.


Along with these three tools the thing that has helped the most is just getting out there. The old saying “practice makes perfect” is absolutely true with photography. But—you must also start the journey by learning what the tools are and how they work. So, read up about your camera and also start talking to other photo-junkies. Look at professional photographer’s pictures on Facebook, Flickr, and other places. Since I am photographing Florida I am most interested in photographers here. Those who I look up and admire include: Mac Stone, David Moynahan, and Clyde Butcher.


The wonderful thing about photography is that, like paintings, it allows each individual artist to provide a unique interpretation of the same thing. Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne may all have stared at the same French landscape but each artist interpreted it differently. Don’t be intimidated by other artists. Each of us sees the world differently and no one sees the world the same as you. So, get out there and get creative!

Earth Day 2014 – Off the Beaten Path

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition 2012

Off the Beaten Path

By Elam Stoltzfus, Film Producer

 (In 2012, four explorers enter the Everglades and, 100 days later, reach the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia. The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition showed that the heart of Florida is still wild–and can still be saved.)

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition 2012 map
Elam with the Kayak getting ready to launch on the St. Johns River.
Elam with the kayak getting ready to launch on the St. Johns River.


For me, a filmmaker, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition was a once in a-life-time opportunity to showcase the landscapes, wildlife habitats, winding waterways and conservation legacies of Florida.  “The Wilds of Florida” was like an epic dream come true.  I guess it is as Dr. E.O. Wilson says, “[our] love for nature [is an] innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world”, that piques my continual interest in exploring and experiencing an in-depth connection with nature.

Media introduced me to fascinating stories and characters across Florida.   What I found in my journeys was a collection of true life stories, a trove of tall tales, dreamers for a better tomorrow, an active sportsman’s paradise and a diverse interaction with the natural world.

Some of my favorite moments during the expedition were early in the morning, especially on waterways with the morning fog rolling in.  One particular moment I recall was when we were on a tree island in the Everglades, and misty shower greeted the morning, followed by the sun breaking through the rainy clouds with a rainbow appearing over the sawgrass horizon.  In a moment’s notice, I quickly set up the camera. The composition was right there, five feet from the tent. Those were great moments of being immersed in a developing scene around you.

Elam on kayak filming the morning sunrise on the St. Johns River.  Image by Carlton Ward, Jr. 2012 copyright.
Elam on kayak filming the morning sunrise on the St. Johns River. Image by Carlton Ward, Jr. 2012 copyright.

Another scene I recall was a flock of roseate spoonbills along the St. John’s River.  It was shallow enough that I could move the kayak with my toes, and I moved slowly through the marsh, keeping the camera mounted on the kayak steady.  Finally I was within a few yards of them and got that really cool shot… to be able to capture those images is a gift.  And you cherish that time, that interaction between the camera and wildlife.

As a filmmaker, having the opportunity to listen to stories shared by the 90 on-camera video interviews with people, meeting with them in their area of comfort, and spending time with them was like having a front row seat in a college class. For many, this was an investment into the greater cause of the corridor concept. A number of them walked with us, some kayaked with the team, others rode horses along side with us and others supported us in their own way. With hours of interaction and recording time, these experts brought so much information to the story that was easily shared to the camera.  And if there is a richness to the whole story, it’s what people gave and shared and invested into the expedition. I’m so honored because that’s what makes the richness of the story–it’s those people and their stories.

During a visit at the Adams Ranch with Rancher Bud Adams
Carlton Ward, Elam Stoltzfus, Alto “Bud” Adams, Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and Joe Guthrie.

As our team finished the odyssey that was the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a journalist asked me the question: “Can you give a sentence of your overview of the journey?”.  My immediate reply was “into the wind, against the current, and off the beaten trail”.  Certainly, our journey was an arduous one, with long days and grueling terrain. We followed spring weather from the southern tip of Florida in the Everglades all the way north to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Over 100 days we traversed 1,000 miles of some of the most beautiful locales of Florida’s heartland. But this journey couldn’t have happened with just us. All throughout our journey, from the moment is was merely an idea, there have been people pushing it to reality. From trail angels to pastors, from professors to teachers, from commanders to generals, from bear biologists to park rangers, from corporations to small businesses, from kids to parents, from people of every walk of life, you have supported our journey. 

As we traversed Florida’s landscape we collected a lot of pictures, video, and interviews. We discovered what brings us together, what we have in common. We all want to preserve the environment for current and future generations. We want to continue to see habitat restoration, endangered species protection, and cross-agency cooperation become a part of Florida’s landscape. During our expedition we experienced the real Florida. And this is what we have learned: Our journey is really just beginning. With your continued support we have the opportunity to bring this idea of the Florida Wildlife Corridor into reality. May our decibels increase as we express our concerns in a unified message. Like many journeys this will be one that is into the wind, against the current, and off the beaten trail.

As you celebrate Earth Day 2014, take time to reflect on some the greatest gifts we have been given, our wilds of Florida.  Engage in the great outdoors, observe wildlife and most of all, renew your spirit with warmth of the sun, feel the wind in your hair and feel the soil in our toes.   

“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” 
― C.S. LewisThe Weight of Glory

Teachers and Art

April 18th, 2014

by Elam Stoltzfus

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck


“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.””

John Steinbeck – American Author


Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein


It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.

Albert Einstein – Theoretical Physicist



My parents didn’t necessarily encourage me in the art world, but they didn’t discourage me. The first step that was really important for me in the arts was my first-grade teacher, Mr. Jere Brady. I still vividly remember sitting in a small wooden desk watching him take a blank piece of paper and pencil and sketch the schoolhouse building. I thought, “Man, how cool is that?! He made something out of nothing!” I wanted to be able to do that, one day I wanted to be able to fill space. At that point I said I want to be an artist and that really never left me since first grade. I knew one day I was going to be an artist. During that year Mr. Brady taught us primary colors, how to use crayons, how to paint, and how to do pencil sketching. He was my only art teacher for three years; first, second, and third grade. Mr. Brady was a mentor at a very early age.

Just as an aside, I still consider Jere a mentor, Jere and his family live in Morgantown, Pennsylvania where he has a art gallery, involved in the community and I still keep in touch with him—we e-mail back and forth at least three or four times a year, share Christmas cards, and EVERY time I finish a new film he gets one of the first copies.

Meeting with Jere Brady in Morgantown, PA
First Grade Art Teacher – Jere Brady

There are several simple comments of advice that I have about creating art and being an artist:

One thing is that practice makes perfect. You have to do it over and over again. It’s like learning to play music, how do you get good at music? You practice and practice. You sing it, you play it over and over and over and over again. Same thing with photography and film-making. How do you take good pictures? You take lots of them and then you do it over and over again. In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in as an artist. There is not necessarily any right or wrong way of doing things. Photography, film-making, music are all interpretations of art. And so that connects into your own emotions. What are you feeling? What are you seeing? What are you trying to put together? What is the story you are trying to tell? These are your experiences and you are trying to put your emotions, your feelings, your insight, your understanding into this film and wrapping it, tying it into a story and putting it out there for the general public to experience. You hope in the end that it is something that this piece of art has been helpful to someone. It really starts from what you feel inside you. My advice is just do it! Like the Nike slogan, “Just do it”.  If you have a formal art education or if you are able to work under a mentor all that is great. Some people give you rules and laws and say do it this way, well that is great to work in that function, or in that structure for awhile, but eventually don’t be afraid to explore and break some of the rules. There really are no rules in art. But if some people want to call them rules or this is the only way to do it, then do it for a little bit, but eventually explore. You know, it is like the little kid with the coloring book: they are told to only draw inside the lines…no, no, no, no, no! Don’t be afraid to go outside the lines!


Elam and Clyde with Broward County art students in Big Cypress Swamp
Elam and Clyde Butcher with a group of Broward County students in Big Cypress National Preserve.


Elam with a kid teaching him camera skills
Putting the film camera in the hands of a young boy along the Apalachicola River while stopping at a local house boat.

There is always somebody that you can mentor, somebody that you can influence. And art can do that. So, when you have opportunities to point somebody in a direction or hold their hand for awhile, or give them an experience in the arts, or an opportunity in a career, be bold and invest in a student. These all become legacy moments because you take a little bit of your time to make a change in somebody else’s life. Or give them an opportunity that they never thought they would have. That is what happened to me. When there are opportunities to give back, I want to invest in students and will do this.

Author with a group of FSU students at Tall Timbers. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.
Author with a group of FSU students at Tall Timbers. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.
The author teaching a group of students how to film outdoors. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.
The author teaching a group of students about outdoor filming techniques. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Several weeks ago – April 12, 2014, my son Nic and I held an outdoor video workshop in partnership with the Florida State University College of Communication & Information at Tall Timbers Research Station.  We had 8 students from FSU attend along with 3 employees from Tall Timbers.  Most of the students had not experienced film-making outdoors.  We spend most of the two hours talking about storytelling. What are the pieces of the puzzle to tell an engaging story?  It begins with a plan, a concept of the objectives of the story, moves on to filming a series of interviews, collecting natural sound and footage of the environment, scoring music, preliminary editing, post-editing—all these steps until a final polished nature documentary is created. Most folks have not thought about all the elements of images, sounds, text, and information that need to be brought together to make an engaging media documentary story.

I’m grateful for the many hours that mentors have invested into my life and allowed me to succeed in my career as a film producer. I hope to share my experiences with others, to share with today’s young minds and enable them to succeed in their future careers.

Brad Henry
Brad Henry


A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning.

Brad Henry – Former Governor of Oklahoma


A Heron at Western Lake

April 15th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

Here is a story from earlier this year about my experience with wildlife at one of South Walton’s coastal dune lakes.


February 17th, 2014

This morning Dad and I woke up and left Seaside a little before 6:00 to head out to Western Lake to get sunrise pictures. This morning we trained our cameras on Western Lake’s famous umbrella-like canopy of slash pines on the southeast side of the lake (located in Grayton Beach State Park). I stationed myself at water’s edge, just at the bottom of a crescent of shoreline at Western Lake. As we were taking pictures a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) flew in to the right of me to come eat his breakfast. I kept taking pictures of the row of pines, but kept a steady eye on the heron. He kept walking closer towards me, working his way along the crescent shape of the shoreline. The sunrise ripened to fruition and the early light of morning filled the sky. I switched positions and focused my lens on the bird. I had my lens zoomed in fully to 200 millimeters (I have an 18-200 millimeter lens for my Nikon camera and 200 is as far as it telescopes in. The scope goes like this: Think of 18 millimeters as wide-angel. 50 mm is what the natural eye sees. 200 is about the strength of a normal pair of binoculars. When you see those spectacular pictures of close-ups of birds, caterpillars, flowers, etc. typically photographers are using a 300mm or 400mm lens). I held my breath. The heron dove in the water for his first fish.



This is a picture of the Great Blue Heron diving for breakfast.
This is a picture of the Great Blue Heron diving for breakfast.


© Lucasfilms, Ltd. This is an X-Wing from Star Wars. Unfortunately, I did not take this image. Apparently the Rebel Alliance doesn't have a huge need for nature photographers in space.
© Lucasfilms, Ltd. This is an X-Wing from Star Wars. Unfortunately, I did not take this image. Apparently the Rebel Alliance doesn’t have a huge need for nature photographers in space.

The above image always makes me smile when I see it. When I see this image, I think of an X-Wing Fighter from Star Wars. This Great Blue Heron is locally famous, and I think a few of the locals have named him “Buddy.”

The heron caught one fish and kept walking closer towards me. My dad was back further, by the road, and he also had his zoom lens on his video camera fixed on the heron. I looked up at him and he held his index finger over his lips, indicating for me to be still and quiet and not spook the heron. I shook my head up and down and continued to breathe slowly and hold still. He continued walking closer towards me. Herons are so fun to watch when they walk. They have this delicate, almost gentlemanly, way of walking. It is as if saying to the world, “Yes, I am avian royalty. I am the largest heron in North America. The indisputable feathered king. I will delicately work my way towards breakfast, thank you very much.”


Heron in mid-walk
Heron in mid-walk


One thing that is so cool about herons is their eyes. They are piercing yellow and slice right through to the depths of your soul quizzing, questioning you: Who are you? What are you doing here? I zoomed my camera back to 18 millimeters to get a wide-angle shot of the landscape with the heron in the foreground.



This gives you an idea as to what was going on. The water was beautiful and still and, with my polarizer on the lens, you can see the sea grasses from eye level.
This gives you an idea as to what was going on. The water was beautiful and still and, with my polarizer on the lens, you can see the sea grasses from eye level.


The Great Blue Heron continued working closer towards me. He kept tilting his head from side to side looking for fish darting in the water. I zoomed my lens back to 200 mm and focused it on the heron. He lunged his neck forward and plunged his beak into the water.





He walked closer until he was about 10 feet away from me. I slowly turned my head to see my dad taking a picture of the scene with his iPhone. I slowly turned my head back around and continued to hold still.



The author taking a picture of the heron. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.
The author taking a picture of the heron. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.


Stillness. A bead of sweat slid down my forehead. I was sweating despite the coldness of winter. Waiting in feverish anticipation. With a lightning-quick strike the heron dove again for another fish and came up with his third fish for the morning. It was flapping from side to side as a single seaweed strand hung down from the heron’s beak.





I continued to hold still and finally the heron flew off soon after he caught his third fish. I walked back up to the side of 30A with a huge grin on my face—what a morning!


End note: I refer to the Great Blue Heron in this blog as a “he” for clarity, but I am not really sure if the heron was a he or a she. Unless you have a male heron and a female heron next to one another it can be difficult to tell the sex of the species. Male and female markings are remarkable alike.

FSU Spring 2013 Commencement Address

Shaking Hands with President Barron By Elam Stoltzfus

Live an active life among people who are doing worthwhile things, keep eyes and ears and mind and heart open to absorb truth, and then tell of the things you know, as if you know them. The world will listen, for the world loves nothing so much as real life.   ― Dale Carnegie, The Art of Public Speaking

If you would have told me thirty years ago that I would have the opportunity to present a commencement speech for the Florida State University 2013 graduating class on a Saturday morning, I would have called you delusional. But, last year, on May 4th, 2013 I spoke to graduating students at one of FSU’s graduations in the Leon County Civic Center. This definitely was an once in a lifetime experience. Here is the speech I presented:

Good morning and congratulations to all of you! When you walk out of this building today, you will be a proud graduate of the great Florida State University.

You may be wondering what in the world a middle-aged guy with a funny last name can say this morning that is interesting or relevant. On the other hand, I am looking out at you —remembering— you’re young and ready to take on the whole world.

You took a step towards a better life by pursuing your college degree and I salute your accomplishment.

Never underestimate the power of one small step in a forward direction. Let me tell you a bit about the journey that brought me to FSU.

At the age of 30, I became a student here — Married and poor with a low paying job, a wife, and a son on the way. There were no Bright Futures Scholarships to help pay my way. You see, I was born Amish and the Amish Mafia was not interested in paying way to attend FSU. As a side note, Amish Mafia makes for great TV—fantasy TV, that is, there is no such thing as Amish Mafia.

In an Amish home in Pennsylvania, learning English only after learning German, one of 9 kids—our life was without electricity, can you imagine? No cars, no TV, no pictures or films of any kind; but we did have National Geographic magazines. It was a life of many rules and working dawn ’til dusk on our family farm.

At the age of 6, I was fortunate enough to enter a small public school— a bit unusual for an Amish kid. This was the first small, but vital step. I was introduced to art—color, Disney movies, and the Beatles. My teacher, and inspiration, Mr. Jere Brady, didn’t seem to mind that I smelled like cows. He taught me about primary colors and basic art designs.

After the completion of eighth grade and part of the ninth, my formal education was over. There was no negotiating—this was the rule— in my home and in my church. At the age of 15 I was working 10 hour days—long, tiring, tedious days—working on a potato and dairy farm. Somewhere in the back of my dreams, there were still memories of creating art — and a sense that there was this big grand world out there just beyond my reach. And so, I left the Amish community. I bought a car, bought a camera, and joined a traveling band; All big taboos in my former world. This was an even bigger step….

Along the way, I fell in love with a a sweet southern girl with a pretty accent, and ended up marrying her and moving to Florida, the place she called home. My wife was a constant source of encouragement as I considered the daunting task of going to college—years after my education was declared ‘finished’ by the Amish church.

Another important small step was when I enrolled at Chipola College in Marianna. There I learned to write english papers and understand Algebra. Through Humanities classes, I discovered the glorious art of Peter Paul Rubins and Picasso and the soul-stirring Eine Kleine Nachtmusik of Mozart.

Chipola was a beginning, but I had a dream of doing something that no one in my family had ever done –– graduating with a Bachelor’s degree. A diploma signed by the governor. I wanted to go to FSU—home of the the Seminoles. This was a BIG step! —and was probably one of the hardest steps of my life. I can vividly remember walking down the brick sidewalk of the Westcott building. Heart pounding, lump in my throat, this nervous ex-Amish man took this big step—and it changed my life. I didn’t know a soul and felt like I didn’t know a thing. But I wanted to learn about communication, about media and film. It was here, at FSU, that I learned how to produce media material, how to create compositions, and how to craft stories that add color to life, stories about nature, stories about people, stories that educate, inform and entertain.

I have worked in the communication world and media industry for almost three decades. The small and big steps necessary to get an education were the tools that helped me become an independent documentary filmmaker.

Last year was one of the highlights of my career—I was one of four individuals who embarked on a 1000 mile in 100 days expedition. From the southern tip of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia we hiked, kayaked, and rode horses throughout the vast state of Florida to create a documentary for PBS-TV. Plenty of small steps to trek across the vast state of Florida, I guess for some people this would be a huge step. The many small steps in my education and career prepared me to tell the stories about conservation issues, wildlife observations, and gave me the opportunity to interview many of the great conservation leaders across Florida.

By creating an in-depth collection of stories, the projects that I produced and worked on reached millions across the state and our country. These media stories are windows of education that can lead others to take steps in creating a better future.

The small steps that changed my life so many years ago lives on in the lives of my two children. My small steps toward getting an education allowed them to continue on to high school and college, an opportunity denied to me.

My son Nic graduated from FSU last spring, and is now teaching English in Japan. He studied Japanese here, and worked with international students to earn a TEFL certificate. My daughter Laura is pursuing a hybrid Bachelor’s to Masters program in Communication here, graduating with her BA a few months ago. Some of you may have had her as a TA for Public Speaking this semester.

My commitment to education provided my children with a future brighter than any I imagined. I would not be here now without the brave steps of those who taught and inspired me, and I hope my journey can teach others the importance of an education and inspire you to reach for your own dreams, even if they seem outside of your grasp.

As you step into a new world of new opportunities, remember, your efforts in taking small steps in a forward direction will continue to open doors and provide new paths for you, as well as those who follow after you. Be courageous. Take risks. Be bold. Take BIG steps. Leave today and go change your world!

Leon County Civic Center
Leon County Civic Center – 2013
Elam Stoltzfus FSU Commencement Speech 2013
Elam Stoltzfus FSU Commencement Speech 2013
Elam with his daughter, Laura
Elam with his daughter, Laura

An Alien Landscape in SoWal

An Alien Landscape in SoWal:

Fog in the Coastal Dune Prairies of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

Taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
What looks like the moon is really the sun and you can see a glimmer of fading light shining out on the Gulf of Mexico. The sun is shrouded in fog and although the direct light from the sun is diffused by the clouds you can see the light from the sun reflecting on the ocean at the horizon.

By Nic Stoltzfus

April 9th, 2014

I have had many great experiences down here at South Walton working on the Coastal Dune Lakes of Walton County (working title) documentary. I worked with my Dad, Elam, and our editor, Joey Dickinson, on filming a paddling event last October on Lake Powell. I kayaked through the Western lake outfall into the Gulf of Mexico. I have photographed many sunrises and sunsets along the area. And it truly is a beautiful area. One of my favorite days so far was in late February when I was assisting Dad as part of the Escape to Create program.


February 19th, 2014

We were busy today: Steve Newborn, a radio reporter from WUSF Public Media, drove up from Tampa to do a story on the coastal dune lakes. Elam, Steve, and I interviewed County Commissioner Cindy Meadows in her office that morning, took a break for lunch, and then interviewed park ranger Jeff Talbert of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park that afternoon.

After the interview with him he took us out on an exclusive “behind-the-scenes” tour of the dunes of Topsail. The four of us loaded up in one of the park’s oversize gas-powered golf cart (in these here parts we call them “gators”). Our destination was the dune lake prairie between Morris Lake and Campbell Lake. We arrived as the afternoon light was filtering in through the overhead clouds. I snapped a couple nice photos in the light and we kept walking through the dunes, headed to the highest dune at the park. As we walked eastward, the sun started arced closer towards the horizon and fog started filtering in. And a blanket of hushed water vapor enveloped the dunes. It was quite mystical—and I got the same feeling I did when I was at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan.

Dad and I went to Fushimi Inari around 4:00 in the afternoon (about the same time we were here at the dunes) and I got a strange feeling. The sun was slowly setting, light of day fading, and the tens of thousands of vermillion torii gates around us formed giant darkened monsters. It began to rain and the oversize cicadas that orchestrate Japan’s summers crescendoed with the arriving water. All around us objects casted shadows, doubt, and I felt strange premonitions of the past breathing down my neck, surrounding me. Lights by the temples struck on, adding to the strangeness. I got this sort of feeling that the past, present, and future were all around and that this moment was stuck—time suspended.

Taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
These are a series of windswept sand live oaks along the edge of Campbell Lake shrouded in fog.

I don’t know why I felt that way then or now. Maybe it was because in Topsail the mist blocked the sunset and the light just hung there, an afterglow of the sunset and the tracking of time was lost to us, we were oblivious to the movement of Earth through the heavens and, for a spell, God stopped time. After we trekked back to the trail we got on the golf cart and headed out to the beach. The dunes had been blocking the sea breeze and when we got out into the ocean I could smell the salty air. As we drove down by the ocean, the cart headed back to the main office, I got this strong sense, an awareness of my own existence, and I wished that this moment could go on forever, this timeless loop that never ends. If I would have taken a series of pictures and stitched them together and run them over and over again as a .gif that is how it would have looked. The light from the golf cart in my left field of vision and the constant roaring and rushing of the waves coming in and the fading light from the day seeping into the ocean. Wave crash. Wave recedes. Over and over again. I held onto the bar of the cart and silently wished that this moment would never end, would span on for the rest of my life.

Taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Elam Stoltzfus and Steve Newborn look over the coastal dune prairies at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.

Perhaps this is what heaven is: when you are on your way up to the pearly gates you drive on a dusky evening past white sand, a salty smell of death and dankness of the human body hanging in the air. In a golf cart you drive heavenward towards St. Peter.

The ocean has feeling of a journey coming towards the end, a spiraling towards the center of a seashell. This concept is hard to capture in words. What I mean is that the ocean has this timelessness to it, this ever-cycling, ever-looping feedback of waves crashing down on one another and it is ceaseless. Waves have been crashing on the shorelines since time immemorial. The dinosaurs heard waves crashing on the shores of Pangaea. The people-groups who walked over the Bering Strait heard it when they spanned out and reached their destinations—the present day lands of California, Florida, Mexico. Columbus heard waves lapping up along the dock as he sailed out into the New World.

Jeff stopped the golf cart for a moment at the beach and we got out. By this time the sun had set and we were walking around in near dark. We walked up and approached a dip in the sand that stretched towards the gulf. With the sound of waves was another sound. Two sounds that are rarely heard together. And that is the sound of the ocean and the sound of a babbling stream. The sound of a stream filtering down through the outfall of the dune lake and out into the ocean. Where else can you hear that? Where else?

Taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Here is a solitary sand pine a midsts fog and dunes.

The four of us paused to take in the scene and then got back on the cart and headed back to the main office. I don’t know how everyone else felt, but I felt like an astronaut returning from Mars or some other alien landscape. An alien landscape right here in South Walton.

Elam and Nic Stoltzfus