Filmmaking and friendship: Seven OHIO alumni created art and life together in Athens

It isn’t overly dramatic to say that on a fated night in 2005, as Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College welcomed its incoming class, seven students formed fast friendships that would influence their lives and shape their careers in ways a seasoned scriptwriter might pen.

Wes Cronk and Justin Lucas lived on the same hallway of Hoover House on South Green. Bryan Cain was on the other side of the floor. John Veleta and Michael Kortlander were one floor up. Tom Wagener and Sean Howlett were in the Read-Johnson Complex on East Green, but Justin grew up with Sean in Central Ohio, and Tom simply sensed this was a group he needed to be part of.

The group, mostly technical communication and media arts and studies majors, had most classes together. Their complementary personalities led to deep friendships outside the classroom, too.

“We quickly jumped on the opportunity to geek out with people that shared our interests and abilities,” said Lucas, who has worked at Moon Bounce Media for 13 years after turning an OHIO internship opportunity into a full-time career. “I think it was when Wes decided to build his own camera in the dorm during freshman year that I realized ‘This is definitely a group to stick with.’ And we have ever since.”  

Learning by doing at ‘weekends of madness’

By the time the group had arrived on campus, the School of Media Arts and Studies had started its  annual filmmaking contest known as the 48-Hour Shootout, which has teams compete to see who can make the best film from start to finish in two days. Groups get a few prompts (genre, prop, line of dialogue) Friday night at 6 p.m. and finished products screen at 6 p.m. on Sunday.

This group of friends dubbed themselves White Crow for their first weekend filmmaking event and stuck together as a team for many more creative endeavors loosely under that moniker. They even got Red Bull energy drinks to sponsor them one year for the event. 

Three students stand behind a camera, circa 2008

Late nights and early mornings, perfect moments and emotions, coffee and energy drinks, laughs and some chaos, set the scene for the creative weekends and everyone played a special part in the production.

“Still to this day, I've realized that my favorite way to make films is the way we did in college – in collaboration with a close-knit group of people who want to have fun and make great work, but don't take themselves too seriously,” said Kortlander, who always considered Athens his second home because his parents met at OHIO and his grandfather, William Kortlander, had been an art professor.

Cronk was the camera operator and editor. Wagener was an editor and music composer. Howlett was the tech wizard. Cain was a director, writer, and comedian. Veleta was the only OHIO film student of the group, so he was the director of photography. Kortlander was the poet laureate of White Crow. Lucas was the producer. 

“Our films were on the podium more often than not, and that was all we were going for … to make something cool, for pride, for glory, for fun,” said Lucas.  “I don’t know about the others, but it was these outings that cemented in my mind the notion that ‘this is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life’.”

All seven members of the White Crow team graduated during an economic recession with degrees that many considered luxury disciplines and not essential, they agree. They all got jobs in their desired fields of expertise as filmmakers.

“HTC was magical for me. It gave me a strong wake-up call in the value of being self-guided, which is a hard transition between childhood and adulthood,” said Wagener, who currently works in pipeline development at Scanline VFX. “Classwork can be very structured, very reminiscent of high school. HTC is different not only because of its student-designed tutorial system, but because it heavily encourages extracurricular work. In my case, that meant work with my fellow students with White Crow, and on independent projects. Both were essential in helping me learn my craft and prepare for the professional world.”

Yet, they all chose different paths because their foundation at OHIO had nurtured their creativity and given them confidence in their individual abilities.

“As a college student, everything coalesced in a magical way. We went through the program at a special time. We went to school with so many talented students – not just in HTC, but throughout the Media Arts and Studies and Theater programs,” said Kortlander. “It was truly lightning in a bottle.”

'Respect the conundrum'

The group of friends gathered in Athens in Summer 2022 to celebrate HTC’s fiftieth anniversary. Though it is nearing two decades since they graduated, they still found themselves pondering lessons they’d learned and ideas they’d been exposed to as first-year college students.

Cain remembers that there was a scholarly, intellectual, and human side to everything they did as HTC students. The discussions on morality and philosophy shaped them.

Then dean Ann Fidler's call to action in her first address to the 2005 class to “respect the conundrum” stayed with all of them.

“She encouraged us to think of ourselves as intellectuals, and to embrace it as part of our identity, and to think about how that would affect how we would live our lives from that point forward,” Cain said. “She encouraged us to get to know each other as honors students. Not only were we supposed to know each other, but she also talked about Athens County, and Appalachian culture and told us we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn't spend time getting to know people that lived and worked outside the campus boundaries. We were encouraged to learn their stories and try to understand them and their way of life. I think all of us did that in our time at OHIO and are better for it.”

Seven Honors Tutorial College alumni pose at a college reunion

They found themselves still discussing that call to action at the reunion all those years later, not as new college students but as successful filmmakers and creators.

“Over 13 years, I’ve gotten to work in 35 states, been on the sidelines at a Super Bowl, and even worked in an Old West town in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s backyard. I’ve been punched by a five-time NFL champion, worked with all four U.S. presidents from my adult life, filmed limb amputations and cadaver head surgery,” said Lucas. “It’s never the same thing twice, and I adore it!  And it all goes back to Athens—to HTC—to that first week in Hoover House with the most interesting group of people I will ever meet.”

October 10, 2023
Tosha Jupiter