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With a new Emmy and clear focus, John Barnhardt's latest adventure is rolling
Before the black tux and gold statue, before the long walk from the back of the Emmy Awards hall in L.A. up to the winner’s podium last June, John Barnhardt’s brief moment of fame entailed another walk. A very slow, silent walk in a 2011 slow-motion film in which Barnhardt costars with Bill Murray, Les Cinéastes (The Filmmakers). You probably missed it. Most of us did—it’s only a 58-second flick sans dialogue, a faux trailer, just four local filmmakers walkin’ the walk with the Big Hollywood Star. But if you’re one of the few who have caught this funny little Barnfly Production gem on Vimeo, then you’ve seen Barnhardt’s cool swagger. His mocking, sassy eye contact with the camera, the way he wags an assured finger at the viewer as if to say, “Look out dudes, here I come...” and in so doing subtly upstages Murray.
The mock-trailer may have been a joke, but John Barnhardt’s career as a filmmaker is serious business, and becoming bigger and more serious by the day. As cinematographer for Born to Explore with Richard Wiese—part of Charleston-based Litton Entertainment’s Saturday “Weekend Adventure” block on ABC—Barnhardt has traveled the globe, filming thrilling footage nearly face-to-face with gorillas in the Ugandan jungle; slogging through pools of pigeon poo in Morocco; wrestling with alligators, elephants, and bears, oh my. And since winning the Outstanding Achievement in Single Camera Photography Emmy for that work, Barnhardt’s dance card has been rapidly filling up. In addition to prepping this fall for Born to Explore’s third season of taking viewers into the wild, exotic reaches of the world, he’s been on the road, shooting for several new national television shows that are all part of Litton’s expanding repertoire, which now includes a Saturday “The CBS Dream Team, It’s Epic!” block on CBS.
“Tomorrow I get to meet Cal Ripkin; we’re interviewing him for Game Changers,” says Barnhardt, calling in from Baltimore where he’s shooting one of the new shows that will tell the stories of professional athletes who make positive impacts on their communities. Barnhardt is director of cinematography, as well as editor and producer, for Game Changers with Kevin Frazier. “Cal Ripkin! It’s unbelievable, really. Pretty heady times.”
Scoring an Emmy may have been a game-changing career moment for the Park Circle homie, but the gilded winged statue hasn’t changed Barnhardt’s work ethic (relentless), or his favorite neighborhood watering hole (The Mill), or his sense of humility and gratitude (sincere and deep). It has, however, affirmed his belief that sometimes you’ve simply got to go for it. That walkin’ the walk (with or without Bill Murray) and paying your dues ultimately pays off. That the gamble he took several years ago to leave his secure teaching job in the film department at Trident Tech to strike out on his own was the right move. “I loved teaching. I loved my students, but I felt too caged in. So one day I gathered my students around me and said, ‘Guys, this is my last semester. I can’t keep telling you all to go out there and give it everything you’ve got and not do that myself,” says Barnhardt. “So I left, without knowing what would come next. I’m a big believer that sometimes you’ve got to bite off more than you can chew.”
Eat, Drink, Sleep, Breathe Movies
The truth is that Barnhardt has been biting off big chunks for a long while, as an adolescent movie buff devouring every film and every genre he could get his hands (and eyes) on, as a film student who’d stay late after class and take on extra projects, as a gonzo skateboarder and top lacrosse goalie way back when he was a kid in Colorado. “I’ve always been competitive. My friends and I are always pushing each other. We don’t live complacent lives,” says Barnhardt, who’s dreamed of a film career since age nine, when he watched The Road Warrior with his father.
Most testosterone-laced young boys emerge from Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic blockbuster wanting to be Mel Gibson; Barnhardt dreamed of being Mel Gibson’s director. “I want to make movies,” Barnharndt announced to his father as they walked out of the theater. “Good,” his dad replied. An engineer by trade and avid photographer, Barnhardt’s father put a camera in his son’s hands and from that moment on fueled his hunger. “My dad was a true forward thinker, an artist; he saturated me with movies. We’d watch The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now; my dad didn’t filter what I saw. He loved the classics, too. We’d see everything and then talk about it.”
Barnhardt credits his father for his affinity for the lens, his natural eye for composition. At the Emmy Awards, which happened to fall on Father’s Day, Barnhardt hoisted his shiny statue high and offered a heartfelt “thank you” to his dad, who had died suddenly only a few months before. “He encouraged me to eat, drink, sleep, breathe movies,” says Barnhardt, who did just that.
After graduating from Colorado State with a degree in English and poetry (there was no film program), Barnhardt followed his heart (i.e. a girl, long since gone) to Charleston, where he began a slow crawl up a steep ladder, starting on the bottom at the Channel Four newsroom where he ran the teleprompter, earning 500 bucks a month. “I’d tell the camera guys, ‘Hey, I’ll carry your gear if you’ll answer some questions.’” Barnhardt plugged away in the newsroom—the first place he got his hands on a professional video camera—and before long was promoted into the production department. During his six-year stint at Channel Four, Barnhardt won about every local news industry award there is to win.
A Steep Climb
While he was working his way up the ranks at Channel Four, Barnhardt was taking classes from Russell Schaaf at Trident Technical College—the only two-year college in the country that trains students on 35mm film equipment—producing The Citadel football show, and filming anything and everything he could get his hands on, including gore-drenched, god-awful (but well-shot) horror flicks, many staged in his Park Circle house, that he might now wish were not on his IMDb profile. His Barnfly Productions company was slowly expanding its portfolio.
When Schaaf, his Trident professor and mentor, mentioned that they needed someone to teach a 16mm film class, Barnhardt jumped at the opportunity and spent the next eight years teaching—first as an adjunct, then full-time faculty member, amassing an entourage of appreciative students while honing his own technical expertise. “Pretty much anyone in the industry locally who is younger than John studied under him,” says David Walton Smith, one of Barnhardt’s former students who now edits for Born to Explore.
“I was just biding my time for something bigger,” Barnhardt says. In 2005, when folks at Trident got a call from someone at Litton Entertainment, who was looking for a cameraman to try to salvage a TV show they were developing, Barnhardt got the nod. The show was called Exploration with Richard Wiese, a geography-oriented show for the adventure lover, hosted by Wiese, who had a TV news background and the notoriety of being the youngest person ever to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (at age 11) and the youngest-ever president of the prestigious Explorers Club (in his early 40s). Wiese had the movie-star looks, the adventurer cred, and pedigree (John Kennedy, Jr. was a friend and adventure pal). He had Barnhardt behind the camera and a capable crew, but the show was short-lived.
On the flight back from filming their final segment, Barnhardt told Wiese he was sure they could make this work one day. The two went separate ways—Barnhardt back to teaching, and Wiese to climb Mount Everest, which is where he was when he got a satellite phone call announcing that Exploration with Richard Wiese had been canceled.
Born to Shoot
For Barnhardt, being back in the classroom was rewarding but also confining; he knew there was something bigger out there for him. “So I called Wiese and told him, ‘I’m going crazy; I’m thinking about quitting my job.’ I asked him what he was doing, and he’s like, ‘I’m going crazy too, man.’” Wiese was about to accept a job at a museum, but Barnhardt convinced him to give the show another go, this time with a more “savvy rawness,” a more up-close-and-daring approach. “I told him, ‘Be this guy,’” says Barnhardt, suggesting a rugged and ultra-fit nice-guy daredevil. “So Wiese hit the gym and got shredded in about two months.” Barnhardt shot the pilot with aggressive, fresh camera angles—an element of danger. If there was a good close-up of a black bear, he went even closer. When they finished the pilot for Born to Explore, also the title of a book Wiese had just published (HarperCollins, 2009), it garnered interest from several syndicators, including National Geographic, but it ultimately came full-circle back to Charleston’s Litton Entertainment.
Within a month of sealing the Litton deal, Barnhardt and Wiese were off to film in Belize then back for four days before leaving for Australia then Iceland and then… it was onward to film in some 15 countries and on every continent but Antarctica over the next year and a half. “We’re sleeping in mud huts and tents, shooting in politically volatile lands, sometimes surrounded by guys with AK-47s protecting us,” says Barnhardt, who thrives on the intensity and outdoor aspect of the show. (“I grew up in Colorado; we were outside all the time,” he adds.)
“I’ve been in the trenches with John,” says Wiese. “We’ve seen at least six continents together—looked at gorillas and lions, raced camels, and sat in Labrador and watched the Northern Lights. We’ve shared these incredible moments that never make it to the screen. It’s great to know that someone like John has your back.”
They got up close and personal with rhinos in South Africa, mingled with nomads in Morocco, and explored the Grand Canyon, “the most overwhelming thing I’ve seen in my life,” notes Barnhardt. At one point, he got so close to a polar bear that the animal ate his Go-Pro camera. The show became a hit in Litton’s Saturday morning ABC block, alongside Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown, and with Barnhardt’s Emmy win (Litton’s third), it helped crystallize the company’s major-player status in the education/information segment of the television industry.
“Born to Explore has made me 100 times better as a producer. My shooting has changed. I am more confident now, more spontaneous; I can frame, focus, and roll—you might only have a few seconds to catch something,” says Barnhardt, who still regrets missing a shot of a cheetah taking down a kudu (“I was busy cracking a joke,” he confesses.) “My goal is to apply a cinematic grammar to a rough and rugged show. I’m not there just to cover something; I want people to see what I’m seeing, to feel what I’m feeling.”
By all accounts, including those of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters, Barnhardt is achieving his goal. “John’s eyes work like cameras. He sees everything as an editor, sees it as a finished product as he’s shooting, which is extraordinarily rare,” says Dave Morgan, CEO of Litton Entertainment. “He gives the audience an experience every time he turns on his camera. There’s a big difference between a camera operator and an artist, and John is an artist,” Morgan adds. “The Emmy is an exclamation point on his hard work and validates his talent, but I never needed John to win an Emmy to know how talented he is.”
John Barnhardt’s June 2013 Emmy Award acceptance speech:
“John’s storytelling and artistry truly distinguish his programs, and his recent Emmy Award reflects his extraordinary talent and dedication. We couldn’t be happier for him,” notes Pete Sniderman, COO of Litton Entertainment. But never fear, if the Emmy has given Barnhardt a sense of affirmation and much-deserved pride, the encounters that he’s experienced in the far corners of the planet, with people of all walks of life and all religions and nationalities, keep him humble. “I’m a different person now. Traveling for this show has changed my perspective on religion, on culture, on everything,” says Barnhardt. “There’s this sense of pure spirituality that all of us are connected at some basic level. What I see everywhere we go, no matter what culture or what location, is that family is the most important thing.”
What hasn’t changed is Barnhardt’s no-holds-barred approach, his relentless push back against mediocrity and complacency, his deep gratitude to his father and his friends. He may now be shooting Game Changers, but the irony isn’t lost on him that he’s playing a changed game himself, and he’s quick to say that you can, too. He is the prophet of perseverance whose gospel message is simple: “If you’re hungry for something, if you want to be something, you can do it. Just keep going—it doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a marathon; stick with it.” In retrospect, thanks to an obscure Vimeo clip, it seems that early ultra-slow walk alongside Bill Murray was just Barnhardt’s warm-up for the long, game-changing run ahead.
Born to Explore By the Numbers
Countries visited: 15
Locations shot: 20
Miles traveled: 85,000
Cameras eaten by bears: 1
Cameras nibbled on by Anatolian puppies in Namibia: 1
Came within 2 feet of: wild cheetahs, charging rhino and calf, and stampeding elephants
Wild animals ridden: 1 mule
Born to Explore (littonweekend adventure.com/born-to-explore/) airs Saturdays at 10 a.m. on ABC.