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Spring 2002

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Reel ambitions: A profile of student filmmaker Bob Wilkinson

By Sam Holdren

Bob Wilkinson, a senior at West Virginia State College, defies a conventional assumption about student filmmakers that often results in statements like, “Oh, so you’re going to end up in Hollywood, right? I hope you remember me when you’re rich and famous.” Indeed, Hollywood is the goal for many ambitious young stargazers who leave home with the intention of elevating cinema through their mere directorial presence, only to lose their way once they realize that the final cut of their hopes and dreams ultimately belongs to others. That particular generality hasn’t found its way onto Bob Wilkinson’s to-do list.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to move to Hollywood and try to work my way up (as) the grip, or the production assistant,” says Wilkinson. “I think that I’m going to do my work and that my work should speak for itself.” The Charleston-born Wilkinson has been doing just that. Bob Wilkinson

Like many young filmmakers nowadays, Wilkinson began his association with cinematography by using his family’s home video camera, making what he now calls “little stupid films around the house” that were influenced by his appreciation for horror movies. What was captured on those videos? “Chase scenes, stuff that’s easy to film. . . lots of ketchup,” he says with a grin. “I guess the main thing that grew out of that was just learning how to mess with electronic stuff.”

Eventually, the Nitro High School graduate made his way to West Virginia State College, where he began his academic career as an education major, but switched to Communications (which offers a cognate in film and television) after taking a film appreciation course. In college, Wilkinson began to learn about the basics of photography.

As the years passed, he found outside work as a production assistant with ESPN and with Radical Media, a company that has performed work for ESPN and Nike. “Every time I got on as a production assistant, I ended up in the art department, just getting things ready for shooting and making the set look nice.”

For Wilkinson, such activities beat the normal fate of a production assistant, where “you run and get coffee and you’re away from the set. I got lucky, and I got to stay on most of the sets.” Even now, Wilkinson performs freelance work in Charleston, sometimes as a grip or sometimes as a videographer. Last year, he went on tour with musician and artist Michael Knott to direct and shoot Kill Gerard, a moving and often hilarious documentary about a man who is — as Knott’s own website describes him — “a rock and roll maverick and introspective troubadour.”

“I think I’m more developed as a documentarian as far as ability,” Wilkinson explains. “I enjoy narrative, [but] sometimes I’m a little too picky about my stuff. With documentary, I like to give a feel of this is real life. I’m not real concerned with aesthetics, and things like that.”

Wilkinson points out that he is much more precise with narrative filmmaking. “I kind of pick myself to death, and I don’t like it,” he admits. “And that ends up affecting what I do with [a narrative project] after I’m finished with it, because you know I’m not going to do anything with it, just put it on my shelf at home.”

Every storyteller has a preferred style, and Wilkinson is no different. In a day where most student filmmakers are taught to shy away from long static shots that tend to bring films to a screeching halt, Wilkinson does the opposite. “Most of the stuff that I’ve done, I like a slow pace. I’m not real impressed with a film that just uses shot after shot after shot after shot,” he says while snapping his fingers, “just for the fact that you can do it.

“There’s a built-in pace,” he continues, alluding to his preference on why long static shots are important. “I think it makes a bigger impact on a scene if you build a slow pace in the film and then, you get to the scene where you need it [a faster pace], and pick it up [through the use of shorter shots].”

He used this method to fine effect in his recent effort Cold Cold Ground, a short film about holding on to memories and lost times. The 20-minute project was shot twice — first on Super 8mm, then re-shot on mini-digital video.

When it comes to his preference for shooting on actual film stock versus video, Wilkinson is very clear. “I’m old school, but a realist,” he laughs. “I like film better than video. I can’t afford film, so I shoot video. Some of the people who argue with you [they say], ‘You should shoot film, forget this video stuff.’ Well, you should fund my projects.

“I find it a compliment that sometimes if I do something and somebody says, ‘You can’t do that. What are you doing? This isn’t right, this isn’t the technique you’re supposed to use.’ I think that’s a compliment, because you’re just like, ‘Good, because that’s what I want.’”

Wilkinson will graduate from West Virginia State College in May. His wife Charessa will deliver their first child in April. For now, his plans are laid out. “I intend to stay here now. . . and see what happens maybe three years down the road. I’m not going to run out and try to find a job towing cable for some big Hollywood movie. That’s just not what I want to do. I want to make films.”

However, West Virginia isn’t exactly known for a thriving film industry. Potential filmmakers all over the state wonder every day how to succeed without being located in a metropolis such as New York City or Los Angeles. Bob clears up this confusion by pointing out that “for young filmmakers, this is a great place to shoot. If you want to shoot an independent project, you don’t have to worry about a lot of red tape you have to go through to shoot. You don’t have to block off the street, you can just go shoot on a street-corner.”

And in what probably amounts to the wisest philosophy for any aspiring filmmaker, Bob keeps a realist approach. “I had a job doing road construction. That was a job. When I make films, I have fun.”

Contact Sam Holdren by e-mail at