Camp (2015) 

[WINNER] BEST Documentary - San diego international kids film festival 2015

A summer documented at a camp where kids are removed from technology for seven weeks, and are immersed in nature to cultivate friendships and build independence. Whether venturing into the wild or competing in sports, it's all about camp

Camp movie poster by Valentino Valdez

CAMP was our first attempt at a feature film. With 60 minutes of running time it's a feature documentary, and also our most ambitious project to date. Ten weeks of on location production along with twelve weeks of editing and post production, plus all the promotional elements that went along with the Indian Head Camp project. 

I suppose the seeds for Camp were planted back in 2005 when Producer Matty Layman invited me to be a counselor at Indian Head Camp during my college summer. He saw photos of me of rock climbing and hiking and thought I would love working on the OPT (Outdoor Adventure) Team at Indian Head Camp. He wasn't wrong.

I spent two summers teaching campers about the outdoors and taking them on trips to the Adirondacks where they rock climbed, hiked, cliff jumped, caved, kayaked, and camped. I would have stayed longer but unfortunately those pesky loan collectors wanted me to start paying back my college loans.

Still, two summers left me with lifelong relationships from camp, as well as a new appreciation for what summer camps all over the country provided to young people. Seven weeks with no access to technology, cell phones, or the internet, and experiencing basically every fun activity a kid can do all in one place. I knew there was a story there—I just didn't think I would be the lucky one to tell it.

Miguel Drake-McLaughlin and Rufus Lusk capture one of the film's best scenes and do their best from laughing into the shot. 

Fast forward ten years. Lauren and Joel Rutkowski, the owners and directors of camp wanted to give Indian Head a branding facelift and reached out to me about leading up those efforts.  After a year of back and fourth discussion, we convinced Indian Head that their story simply needed to be told (not sold), and instead of commercials we agreed upon a feature documentary and short branded documentaries to go with it. It was a very different approach from what all the other camps that they were competing with were doing, and to be honest we all were a little nervous.

The shoot was going to be tricky. Camp is a living, breathing thing that never stops moving or making obscene amounts of noise (noise isn't awesome for film productions). With 600+ campers and 300+ staff running camp everyday, our film team would have to be strategic and nimble in capturing all of the best stories in an authentic way. To do that, we decided to remain small. No more than a three person team shooting on a Canon C300, with supporting footage on Canon 70Ds, 7Ds, drones, and GoPros. 

Scene breakdowns, storyboards, and scene cards trying to be turned into a documentary

We had ideas about what Camp should be, but we never wanted to draw any lines in the sand. It was a balance of capturing what we'd hoped to capture, but also being agile enough to let the camera go where the best stories were happening. It took some getting used to not being in complete control, but eventually I learned how to let go. 

What we realized was that more than anything, the camp experience is about growing up, from the youngest divisions to the oldest and everything that happens in between. So we followed the different ages and tried to determine what the stakes were for each kid. Homesick? Nervous to swim in the lake for the first time? Having trouble making friends? Winning an important competitive game? Nervous for the camping trip?

Rufus Lusk hanging off a cliff to capture a camper rock climbing over a lake in the Adirondacks

Whatever the milestone or roadblock was, we wanted to authentically capture how the camper, their friends, and their counselors worked together to get through it. We also wanted to really showcase how refreshing it was to see hundreds of kids walking around and enjoying the outdoors without cellphones or computers in their hands. Finally, the experience of being on their own was super inspiring to watch. Being a kid and growing up without Mom and Dad can be a tough challenge at camp, and we were lucky enough to share that experience with the campers through the lens. 

Josh the Moo Crew intern and Director Dan Zelikman

We shot everything, every day. For three weeks we filmed counselor orientation and witnessed 300 strangers from all over the world turn into an efficient team that was ready to welcome 600 campers to the best summer of their lives. Then we filmed seven weeks of the fantastic camper life. 

Once we wrapped we reluctantly left camp and moved into our editing studio at a WeWork in New York City, and started watching, documenting, and noting all the scenes, events, and stories we captured. I thought with the production being over that the hardest part was behind me—little did I know how stupid I really was.

The Camp film could have gone in a thousand different directions. There was enough footage to make a variety of different versions of the film, and most of them would have probably made a great film to watch. But we had a deadline to start applying to film festivals, so we started making hard cuts and turning our 250 hours of footage into an hour long documentary.

The editing bay at WeWork New York City

Once the film started coming to life, we realized that authenticity wasn't an issue at all. It took a few days of the kids getting used to the camera, but eventually they forgot we were there and continued playing camp. That's when we captured the best shots, and the most valuable scenes that we used in the documentary. It certainly was real, and now we had to put it together so it made sense narratively. 

In the end, we hoped that people enjoyed the film, got a sense of nostalgia for their childhood, and also remembered what it was like to grow up as a kid without all the tempting distractions of technology carrying us adrift.

Perhaps Camp will inspire some families to send their own kids to a camp experience, or at the very least—to put down that iPad for a bit, and go build something with their kids outside instead. Maybe they'll even get a little dirty or scraped up—but we can promise you one thing after watching 600 campers do it for an entire summer, they'll have the time of their lives. 

Director Dan Zelikman with one of the stars of Camp

A packed house at the Camp premier in NYC

Our two stars who open Camp to show what's it like to experience camp for the first year