Eau Claire’s creative scene is now including film

Filmmakers have been popping up across the Chippewa Valley

Annemarie Payson

More stories from Annemarie Payson


© Annemarie Payson 2019

Downtown Eau Claire Micon Budget Theater where Eaton’s Jaywalking film was premiered.

Once a young kid who would go to a local Wisconsin mountain to create snowboarding film with his friends, Kyle Lehman is now the owner of his own photography and filmmaking business.

Eau Claire is known for its prominent music and art scene, but recently a new creative practice has been establishing a foothold in the Chippewa Valley: filmmaking.

“I have seen a number of new photographers and filmmakers emerging,” Lehman said. “The biggest area for me was the concert photography and video. There used to be only a few kids who shot. Now each city that has a venue has two to three working artists.”

Tim Schwagel is an independent filmmaker from Eau Claire who has put out several narrative short films over the past two years. Schwagel credits new and cheaper technology for allowing the access to filmmaking tools to those outside of the big film cities.

“It’s easier than ever to make your own stuff and get it out there due to higher quality cameras being cheaper, and just the ability to post whatever you create online,” Schwagel said. “You don’t necessarily have to move to Los Angeles, New York or Atlanta to make films. There’s definitely higher quality stuff coming out of just the Chippewa Valley than there was before.”

Peter Eaton, a filmmaker from Eau Claire, is currently working on film production projects in Los Angeles, California. He has seen the shifts in technology over the years and how it has helped those in the industry.

“Independent filmmaking reached different benchmarks over the years -film to beta and VHS to dvd and the birth of the digital 24fps- but something happened around 2008 that changed the game,” Eaton said. “DSLR’s started offering 1080p HD video in a high end format. The Canon 5D Mark ii was a new era. Soon followed by iPhones with 4k capabilities. Indie filmmakers have so many tools at their fingertips now.”

Websites such as YouTube and Vimeo have been instrumental in allowing filmmakers from all across the world to present their creations to an audience. Before websites like these were used, filmmakers would often need a theater slot to show their films to an audience. Now, anyone can upload to an audience.

Vimeo prides itself on having a channel dedicated to Independent Filmmakers that “is designed to showcase the talent and hard work of Vimeo’s independent filmmakers.” This access to an audience has created more career opportunities for filmmakers around most of the world.

“Both of those sites (YouTube and Vimeo) are a godsend when it comes to giving our stuff a home,” Schwagel said. “Vimeo in particular has its staff picks section which is a great place to find short films that would probably get buried otherwise. Instagram is another hero when it comes to getting interest in your projects.”

While access to technology and an audience has made it easier over the years, filmmakers in the Chippewa Valley are still having to overcome an obstacle: the weather.

According to The George Washington University, filmmakers started moving to California — Hollywood in particular — at the beginning of the 1910s and 1920s. Weather was a driving force to relocate west, it offered better weather year round. Filmmakers didn’t have to worry about rain or snow.

Lehman described how the winter months in Wisconsin can make it difficult to sustain a career in filmmaking. The long and cold winters can be unforgiving and they diminish the available locations and times for shooting, but it also motivates him, he said.

“That challenge is what drives me and keeps me moving forward,” Lehman said. “I find myself being creative in a number of ways I would have never thought to be creative.”

Since Eaton works in Los Angeles, he gets a different sense of support when working back home.

“Working in the Midwest is great because everyone is excited about your project,” Eaton said. “They’re not jaded. Out here I see a film set everyday. So it’s rare to back home, and people support it.”

© 2016 Annemarie Payson 
Behind the scenes of “Jaywalking,” a local short film directed by Peter Eaton.

Both Lehman and Schwagel also agreed that the Chippewa Valley community is very supportive in different ways to the filmmaking business.

“The Valley has been supportive in many ways, but some of the moments that stand out are the locations,” Lehman said. “When weather delays hit, we somehow always have someone to allow us to shoot in their space.”

Schwagel shared Lehman’s thoughts.

“I think the biggest perk of making films in the Midwest has been how supportive everybody is,” Schwagel said. “Not only when it comes to the finished product, but also when it comes to supporting the product being made in the first place. If you need a location to shoot, most places will let you do it for either free or cheap.”

Not only have the community members been supportive to recent filmmakers but so has the university. Both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire held festivals to celebrate local filmmakers this past week.

UW-Madison held their 20th annual Wisconsin Film Festival which shows international and American independent films, documentaries and Wisconsin filmmakers’ film among many other genres.

Heather Owens, UW-Madison’s audience development and communications specialist, said more than 50 film industry guests were present over the course of the eight-day festival. One of those guests was Phil Johnston, a UW- Madison alum, writer and director for the recent Disney movie “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”

Here locally, UW-Eau Claire hosted its annual 31 Day Video Project where community members are challenged to create a short film in 31 days and submit their 10 minute or less short film to a themed competition.

Natalie Rehbein, the university activities film committee chair at UW-Eau Claire, said there were five entries this year, some of which were solo projects and others that were made by teams of five or six people.

The celebration of filmmakers by these two campus organizations helps showcase local creators. Lehman believes the business has been vital in American history and creators have been the ones to deliver information.

“Filmmakers and photographers are important in many ways,” Lehman said. “They have documented change within the world, historic events and brought what once was campfire stories into every American home.”

While most of the film festival season is over, Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Green Bay is just around the corner. The third annual festival starts April 25.