Luke Padgett likes the deeper layers
Luke Padgett is on a roll. Returning to Chattanooga recently after a year on the road, the 29-year-old filmmaker premiered two new short films at Artifact Studios in mid-September. A week later, video he shot for AVA's Capture weekend filmmaking event won the award for best camera work. Padgett contributed images of a waterfall taken from directly above the cascade with his own helicopter-mounted camera.
The waterfall images are striking—they were used in all three very different Capture films—but Padgett's work is not really about beauty shots. He's interested in something deeper.
"I love the transformation that's happened in the city, but part of what's come along with that is this picture-perfect narrative," he says. "And it's a slight to what this place really is. It's much more complicated and deeper and dirtier and ultimately more interesting. I think it's important, as we go forward as a city, to not get lost in the public story and to remember that this place is what it is. And make it better."
He prefers to create what he thinks of as "rogue histories." The two films he premiered at Artifact are examples of this approach. One is a profile of Eric Smith, a blacksmith who shared studio space with him at Artifact before Padgett hit the road a year or so ago. The film is a tightly focused study of a guy who's a bit of a rogue himself, devoted to the very old craft of bending steel to his vision and ignoring the prevailing opinion that pounding an anvil is not a good 21st century career move. I'll have more to say about the blacksmith himself in a future column.
Padgett sees Smith's story as both a tale worth telling in its own right and an entry point into that grittier Chattanooga. He talks to me about how the "tentacles of Chattanooga" stretched up the Cumberland Plateau on 19th century railroad grades to bring coal down for making iron and steel. He is drawn to bridges and railroads and gigabit-per-second Internet because they are tangible physical changes that open into unforeseeable futures.
"Every time I think of stories, I always go back and back as far as you can go," says Padgett. " When I look at something the way it is now, I can't help but ask what layers were laid down to get to this shape. All the social fabric we know is 100 percent dependent on the fact that the land looks this way."
The second short film he premiered at Artifact documents the work he did last year in the Northwest, climbing cell towers hundreds of feet above the ground, which he has also documented in an essay he hopes to publish in a national magazine.
"If it were still the 1800s—in Chattanooga or anywhere else—I would want to be watching the telegraph lines being put up or railroads getting made, whatever it is that's going to change life for the next hundred years," he says. "That's what the cell phone towers are to us right now. We don't really understand it. No one even knows how many cell towers we have."
In the unseen labor to maintain our ubiquitous cell phone network, he found one of those layers to be peeled back and simply a good story.
"It's like being a sailor or any of these weird jobs where you have a bunch of single guys, or a bunch of guys who'd rather be on the road than at home," he says. "Those are the people maintaining our connectedness, people who are fundamentally disconnected from the rest of us."
Next January, Padgett heads to New Zealand for three to six months to co-direct a documentary film with former BBC natural history videographer James Reardon.
"He's got the chops and the experience, and I'm totally new generation, totally digital," says Padgett. "We're feeding each other. It's really taking us both to get this done."
Their subject is the Chatham Islands, a rocky archipelago about 300 miles south of New Zealand. It has a high concentration of species that develop on biologically isolated islands and a human culture uniquely shaped by isolation and conflict.
"It's the wild west but way bigger and with endemic albatrosses with nine-foot wingspans," he says.
Since graduating from Sewanee, Padgett has traveled extensively in Asia, Africa, New Zealand, Europe and the U.S. Film has been a constant, but he says he only began taking it seriously in the last year or so.
"Our generation is so good at being like 'Oh yeah, man, I'm not really trying,'" says Padgett. "It's cowardice. It's because if you fail, you tried and you suck. Well, you have to throw down at some point and say 'I'm going to try to do this.' I've mentored with some great camera people and some amazing businessmen. I grew up with National Geographic specials on TV. I always wanted to do this. Now I feel like I have the tools to give it an honest try. And if I don't make it, I don't make it, but I have to try."