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Oregon Lens Filmmaker Profile: John Waller

Filmmaker John Waller

Tyler Gould

This film was featured in Oregon Lens 2011.

John Waller’s career as a filmmaker dates back to junior high when he and a friend attempted to re-create scenes from Hollywood movies. Waller admits, “They were terrible.”

Today Waller runs Uncage the Soul Productions, an independent studio in Portland, and creates documentary movies that define the word “adventure.”

He has two films in this year’s Oregon Lens series: Ascending the Giants, a film about two climbers who set out to climb the world’s tallest trees and Into Darkness, an exploration of the dark, damp world of caving.

Filming in the wild is one thing, but filming inside of a pitch-black cave poses entirely new challenges. OPB Arts & Life sat down with Waller to discuss how he brought the caves to life.

What inspired you to make Into Darkness, your film about caves?

I was introduced to caving by my friend Scott about nine or 10 years ago. He’s an experienced caver and was looking for some caving buddies. He took me to a few caves and I was immediately intrigued by how different it was from the surface.

I wanted to share that [experience] with those who would never go, so I started trying to film it. But I was getting pretty bad footage the first couple of times. Caves are hard to film in: They’re muddy, dusty, wet and full of small spaces. I was drawn to the challenge of making it look beautiful to overcome the challenges of filming in caves. It took seven years to really figure it out. I tried out different lighting techniques and cameras and finally found a really nice combination.

What type of equipment did you use?

I was using a lot of different types of cameras but the footage was grainy and the color wasn’t really bright. You know, bringing light in is not possible.

The first time I used the DLSR [digital single-lens reflex] camera was in an ice cave by Trout Lake. I was just blown away. Even in the low light conditions it created beautiful colors, really saturated film, there was no noise in the blacks. All of a sudden, all I needed was a good headlight to light the film. I was able to get small LED lights 25- 50 watts that we also brought in.

How long did it take to film Into Darkness?

It took about a year to film it. We were at a cave in SW Arizona and New Mexico filming. It was kind of the perfect storm of the right group of people.

Most of that footage is what ended up in it. I set [the film] up as one experience but actually there were 11 different caves. But to create a cohesive story I needed a consistent timeline. So that’s what I do in the editing process to make it all come together nicely.

What do you think draws people to caving?

 Well, I don’t think that a lot of people are drawn to it. It is something that a lot of people like to watch, but if you asked them if they wanted to do it they’d probably say, “no.”

Those who say, “Yes, I want to do this,” get a real sense of adventure going to places few people have ever gone. It’s also a real physical challenge. It takes a unique body movement. I would compare it to dancing because you aren’t just walking and you’re not just climbing, you’re using your elbows and hands and knees and creating all different forms of body positions.
Another incentive is that the rock formations are stunning and beautiful. The cave has such a static environment — you don’t have things like wind, rain and normal erosion. The rock does things that you just never thought that rock could do. It’s a really big reward.


You can watch Waller’s films Ascending the Giants and Into Darkness Monday, August 15 at 10pm on OPB TV.

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