Q&A With Devin Olson, Theme Park Documentarian
Devin Olson has always loved the theme park industry. The founder and former owner of COASTER-net.com, Olson and his media company, Devin Olson Media, now produce the “From Dreams to Screams” roller coaster documentary series, with his next installment focusing on Fury 325 at Carowinds. Devin took some time to answer some questions for us.
C101: How did you get into documentary filmmaking?
DO: I actually recorded my first digital video on April 1st, 2005 at Kings Dominion. I was really just messing around with an early digital camera and didn’t even realize it could record video. Innocent enough, right? Then, I realized that I could edit with a free program on my own computer that I already had in my possession. I’d felt a call into the world of media just before that and high school newspaper was my main outlet for trying to fulfill that call, but video soon became my means when I realized what a powerful storytelling medium it is, and that I could actually do it myself. When I got my own audio equipment toward the end of college, I could finally really begin to tell some amazing stories. I use the funds that my career brings in to go out and find the most inspiring stories I can to tell.
C101:Do you have any documentary filmmaking influences or inspiration?
DO: For the coaster docs specifically, I can definitely think of at least one source of inspiration. Growing up, I was obsessed with the coaster shows Discovery Channel would put out each year. I’d tape every one of them and I hate to think how many hours of my life I spent watching and rewatching each one of them. I loved the “all-access”-type look they gave the industry I loved, and getting to meet a few of the folks behind the scenes making it all happen. But I also cringed at certain aspects of the production — the same stock shots used year after year, sometimes three or four times in the same show; the same people getting interviewed for every show to make the same generic statements about every ride in existence; the ridiculous factual inaccuracies; the cheesy voiceover scripts; never getting to see an entire ride from one POV perspective; and the general ignorance of the industry from the writers and editors. Don’t get me wrong; this never set me off on some noble quest to right the wrongs in the theme-park-documentary world, but when this career happened the way it did, I definitely wanted to build and improve upon what I’d seen done in the past.
From Dreams To Screams: Verbolten
C101: Why did you want to start making coaster documentaries?
DO: I think, all-in-all, worlds collided. My passion for video and passion for the themed-entertainment industry just naturally came together. I’d built a good network of connections through COASTER-net to allow for some unique filming opportunities, and pretty soon, a media day invite turned into a license to put together more than just a couple POV shots or a few generic B-roll clips, but a larger-scale production. I’d very rarely seen any kind of a theme-park-related documentary with a cinematic-type feel and quality to it, and almost never seen that combined with a narrative-type story. The downside of the success was the natural conflict of interest between running a theme park fan site and getting involved behind the scenes; the two just inherently couldn’t co-exist, and the demands of running a media production company was another reason I had to give up my first love and hand the site over to two good friends and longtime partners in crime, Daniel Westfall and Matt Rydzik, to preside over the COASTER-net empire far better than I could once Devin Olson Media started taking off. To this day, one lasting affiliation is their sponsorship of the “From Dreams to Screams” documentaries.
C101: Are the documentaries usually commissioned by the park, or do you do them on your own?
DO: The “From Dreams to Screams” series I add (on average) one installment to annually is executive-produced by myself pro-bono and apart from any official park commissioning. However, the vast majority of the other productions I do within the themed-entertainment industry is commissioned by the park or company themselves. For that one “From Dreams to Screams” I do each year, I might do another 50 or so official park-commissioned videos. These can range from new ride announcements, to the fun little warning videos you see while waiting in line, to the videos you might see when you sit down to watch a live performance at a park.
Firechaser Express: Lighting The Spark
C101: Tell us your goals for your Fury 325 Documentary, and what you want your viewers to see/learn
DO: I’m shifting the direction of the series ever so slightly with this one toward more of what I think I’ve always known it should be. Rather than saying “Wow, that ride looks incredible,” or even “I had no idea that much went into creating a new roller coaster,” I want the response to be more of, “I really feel like I know the people behind the ride.” It’s obvious that the ride is incredible, and maybe even a little obvious that a lot of work went into it, but the one thing you can’t take away just from looking at the ride or even riding it for yourself is the stories of the people who dreamed it up and spent weeks away from their families to make it happen. Theme parks have become more about the people and less about the rides for me, and whenever I hear that someone I’ve worked with is leaving a park now, it’s sort of like that pit in your stomach when you hear that a favorite ride is getting the axe. So that’s the primary goal — to feel like you know the ones behind the ride a little. And it just so happens that, through getting to know them, you get to know the ride itself.
Image via @CarowindsPark
C101: Explain your documentary technique for our readers
DO: The planning process starts sometimes well before you’d think it would. I started talking with Carowinds in August 2013 a few months after the GateKeeper documentary release. October 22, 2014, production kicked off, with early construction. This month — November — may be a mid-construction shoot, then completion of the track likely around early February, and ride opening likely in March 2015. After that, a couple months of post-production, and the process wraps up with the release around May 2015, almost two years after it started. The most crucial element of the entire process is capturing the soundbites that really drive the story, and being able to track down those stories to begin with. Once the soundbites are in place and the story’s built, the B-roll lays on top of it. As far as the B-roll goes, you’re talking about a few 8…10…12-hour days with 2-4 people capturing footage. And that amounts to a lot of editing, especially when you have a specific story to piece together to go along with it. We’ll be trying out a few new techniques this time around that I’ve never seen done before. One of them involves a 6-second shot that’s going to take an entire day to capture. We’ll see how it all turns out in 6 months!
The Devin Olson Media team
C101: Of your coaster documentaries, which is your favorite?
DO: I know it sounds cliche’, but the latest one. Each documentary has been such a step up from the last and will continue to be that sometimes it’s a little hard to go watch two or three back. What we’re doing with the Fury 325 doc will hopefully make the GateKeeper project — as much as it’s my favorite now because it was the last one — look like Barney’s Big Adventure. The talents of my team keep amazing me more and more, and the level of quality we’re at now since GateKeeper with over four times the video resolution, the techniques we’ve learned the past year, and the mistakes we’ve learned from — there’s a lot to look forward to with each one.
From Dreams To Screams: GateKeeper
C101: What are you most looking forward to about Fury 325?
DO: Aside from the obvious — the height, speed, length, forcefulness, interaction, and my personal favorite — lack of restraints — this ride is really setting a new benchmark for not only its homepark, but its parent company. We’re seeing the continuation in a trend to really solidify the brand from before that magical moment you enter the park, really; and we’re seeing a chain that’s willing to dethrone its favorite child Millie (and mine too, admittedly) of its preeminence on a comparable ride, even if that’s only by 15 vertical feet, 7 horizontal feet, and 2 mph. 2015 is a year of benchmarks, with Thunderbird at Holiday World also breaking some similar barriers for its homepark and manufacturer.
C101: What’s your favorite roller coaster?
DO: My current favorite is Millennium Force at Cedar Point, which ended a years-long reign of Volcano at Kings Dominion. In 2010, the first coaster featured in a “From Dreams to Screams,” Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion, butted in right between the two. We’ll just have to wait and see if Fury 325 lands somewhere between two of those in a few months!
C101: Is there anything else you want our readers to know?
DO: When I was a kid, I aspired to engineer roller coasters. When I got into high school, I realized that involved math, and my dreams were shattered. The job I have now is the dream job I didn’t even know existed (and really didn’t exist) when I was a kid. I love it to death. But I never want it to be what defines me in life. “Theme park documentarian” is never how I want to be remembered. When I let my work define who I am (and I’ve been guilty of this a lot in life), I completely miss the point. My job is simply a means to give back some of what God’s given me that I really haven’t deserved, and I never want to take it for granted. There’s a much greater calling in my life than simply making videos for and about theme parks. I never want to lose sight of that.