Getting to Know Olympia Film Collective

by John Longenbaugh

While Olympia’s arts and entertainment scene definitely punches above its weight, no one thinks of this town as being a filmmaker’s mecca. It lacks the professional infrastructure of LA or even a secondary market like Atlanta, and both Portland and Seattle boast more filmmakers and more commercial opportunities.

Assistant Director TJ Tenari holds the clapper for Director of Photography Ben Nelson and Camera Assistant Riley Gibson for “Basket Lady.” (Photo by Adeena Chamberlain)

But there’s one group that’s been working to change that: the Olympia Film Collective, which since 2012 has helped create a steady production of short films by local filmmakers, often shot in and around well-known Olympia locations and businesses.

First time Inter-Tribal Youth Film Project Director Dominique McFarlane, Director of Photography Ben Nelson and Assistant Camera Riley Gibson set up the next shot.  (Left to Right, Photo by Sean Trani).

Founding board member Jeff Barehand explains the group’s “origin story” goes back to 2012, when a Craigslist ad from one local filmmaker drew a small cadre of three others to a downtown coffee shop. In that first conversation, not much was determined — they couldn’t even come up with a name for their fledgling organization. But they all agreed on one thing:  they wanted a group that made films, not just talked about them.

First Assistant Camera Riley Gibson speaks with Production Assistant Mikaela Garcia. (Photo by Adeena Chamberlain)

Choosing one of Barehand’s scripts from film school (“The Sweet Sorrow”), they asked a couple of downtown businesses, the Brotherhood Lounge and the (now closed) Volcano Vapor Café, if they could do some location shooting, and when they got a “yes,” began recruiting a production team and actors.

One of these actors, in gratitude for being put up in Barehand’s place during filming, asked to design the still-unnamed group a website. “He needed a name,” he recalls, “and we wanted to keep it simple, so Olympia Film Collective was what we landed on.”  

Assistant Director TJ Tenari consults with Boom Operator Talia Kallappa.  (Photo by Adeena Chamberlain)

Despite this somewhat off-hand nomenclature, “Collective” is central to the group’s identity. All-volunteer and with a wide range of age and experience, there’s a strong “let’s get it made” ethic that’s helped produce more than 52 short films in the past 11 years. There’s also a strong belief in rewarding participation. “You have to give into this group for us to give back to you,” says board member Isabel Nixon Klein, who’s been involved in no less than 10 short films (five of them as an actor) since moving to Olympia just two years ago. At 19, Klein is one of the group’s younger members, and a good demonstration of their clear commitment to gender and age diversity.

Jeff Barehand

Klein’s move to Olympia in 2021 coincided with an explosive growth in both interest and participation for OFC. Many people have changed careers or life focus in the post-pandemic years, with some deciding to follow up on lifelong artistic dreams like making films. There’s been exponential growth in social media followers for the Collective, and often more than two dozen attendees at their monthly production meetings at Sky Bear Media. These gatherings help introduce new filmmakers and their projects to a community of people ready to jump right in and get films made.

(The author can attest to this enthusiasm, having brought a short script to the October 2023 meeting which is preparing to shoot later this month, fully crewed and cast with OFC members.)

To match this growth the Collective has added several new programs and services, including a Production Closet of props and furniture (searchable online), a December Open Call Audition attended by dozens of local actors and filmmakers, and a series of informal talks with visiting industry professionals, including two of the writers of the Netflix hit series “Reservation Dogs.”

Isabel Nixon Klein

Barehand and OFC also have a longstanding relationship with the Intertribal Youth Film Project, and recently hosted an open house for local Girl Scouts looking to fulfill their filmmaking badges. It’s all evidence of a group working hard at outreach. “Our educational arm is a bit ad hoc,” Barehand admits, “but we’ve been really amazed at how generous people are in sharing their knowledge and experience. We’ve also had members hold free classes about acting for the camera, VFX after-effects — whatever they feel like sharing.”

The Collective works with everyone from veteran filmmakers to absolute novices and believes everyone’s got something to contribute. “We don’t want to just cater to beginners, but I do want to have a space where they feel welcome and appreciated,” says Barehand. “Everyone starts somewhere, and something like a PA position on a short film is a great place to start, because that’s going to be basically the same job here or in Hollywood. Even just doing something like fire watch [looking after the set when everyone goes to lunch] or carrying lights, you learn a lot about what work is like on a set and the level of collaboration it requires.”

The true value of collaboration is what Nixon believes is the group’s best lesson. “A lot of people think they know how to make a film without knowing how to involve everyone,” she says. “What you can learn working with us is why that’s not true, and how what makes film so great as how you can involve so many people in one piece of art.”  

Heading into 2024 the Collective is on overdrive, adding casual meetups called Fun Film Fridays to their already busy schedule (the next one is at the Spar on Friday, January 18), a revamped monthly podcast, and a new quarterly “micro-grant” to cover the cost of craft services for a shoot. They also have an ambitious plan to shoot their first feature-length film this year, drawn from local submissions. “There’s a huge push right now in the Industry to find new stories, ones that haven’t been heard before,” explains Barehand. “And those stories come from places like here. Feature films get made all the time. Everywhere. Why not here? We have the experience, the talent, the equipment, and so now it just takes the effort.”  

Olympia Film Collective


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