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Alumnus Uses Point of View Filmmaking to Tell Global Stories

Justin Perkinson
Justin Perkinson '01

When Justin Perkinson '01 first arrived at Davidson, he had dreams of becoming a small-town doctor. He enjoyed math and science and the idea of helping people, so medicine seemed a natural fit. A writing class during his first semester quickly changed everything.

"This class was the beginning of a total shift in my career path. I fell in love with writing and literature and storytelling and the creative arts as I never had before," said Perkinson. "I thought, I have the rest of my life to be a doctor and immerse myself in science. Why not open my mind to other disciplines?"

The more he opened up, said Perkinson, the more he realized he wasn't a doctor, but an artist and storyteller.

"Justin walked into Davidson already a stunning improviser with irresistible creative force," said Cynthia Lewis, Charles A. Dana Professor of English, who taught the aforementioned class. "He produced the most imaginative essays in my English Composition I class I've ever received, before or since," added Lewis.

With medical pursuits now a thing of the past, Perkinson focused on creative arts. During his senior year, Perkinson teamed up with then freshman Ty Morse to co-write a rock opera adaption of Mary Shelley's classic novel Frankenstein. They took the show to New York City for a round of fundraising performances, as well as on a regional tour with the American Library Association. They then brought the show back to Davidson and it was presented at the Duke Family Performance Hall.

Fusion on Film

After graduating from Davidson, Perkinson spent a year in Argentina on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship before working in New York City as a management strategy consultant. It was through that role that he was exposed to a nonprofit organization founded by Lowell Bryan '68. Perkinson was driven to raise awareness about the nonprofit's efforts to address the global healthcare crisis and volunteered to travel to their flagship operations in Tanzania and create a film about it.

"Next thing I know, I'm in Mwanza, Tanzania, directing my first movie. The experience had a profound impact on my life. I realized film is the perfect fusion of my interests: exploring, photography, writing, creative collaboration and music," said Perkinson. "I made one other documentary film on my own in Bolivia as a final litmus test as to whether I wanted to devote my life to this path. The test proved positive, and I've never looked back."

Global Filmmaking

Today, Perkinson is a director, producer and cinematographer. He has lived and shot movies in several countries around the world and speaks English, Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese. His film work includes narrative and documentary feature films and shorts, television, music videos and experimental projects.

Perkinson recently spent 15 months living in China, where he produced, directed and shot a documentary web series on "Traditional Chinese Medicine in 21st-Century China." The project was supported by a Fulbright Arts Grant from the U.S. Department of State, one of the most prestigious award organizations in the world.

Raised in a multicultural family (Virginian and Jamaican), Perkinson has always had a sense of wanderlust. While a student at Davidson, he studied in Spain and Mexico. It was those study abroad experiences, he said, that first gave him a taste of using a different language to communicate and build relationships in foreign lands.

"I began to recognize in myself an odd comfort in the space between cultural confines. This comfort slowly evolved into a life imperative for me," said Perkinson. "It helped point me in the direction of filmmaking with the aim of building cultural bridges, and it drives which projects I dedicate myself to now."

From Thesis to TV Pilot

Perkinson recently completed dual MFA coursework in both cinematography and directing at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. His cinematography thesis film, "Random Stop" is a chilling recreation of a true-life police tragedy, told entirely from the perspective of a police officer who pulls over a disgruntled Vietnam veteran. Through the unique use of point of view filmmaking, viewers feel as if they are a part of the story.

Perkinson collaborated with several filmmakers to bring the film to life. Filming took three days, and Perkinson dressed as the police officer while wearing a special movie camera rig on his face and back in order to capture the officer's experience.

The film took about six months of pre-production, including researching new, cutting-edge equipment and technologies, in order to create the powerful perspective.

"It feels like seven continuous minutes in the police officer's life. There are lots of moving parts to the production, including a high-speed chase, glass shattering, firearms and explosive blood packs, all of which needed to be timed precisely," said Perkinson.

Point of view filmmaking is well-established in the video game world, added Perkinson, yet still relatively new within the movie realm.

"New technologies like Google Glass and Oculus Rift are emerging and will eventually become ubiquitous amongst consumers. There is a real opportunity to help define a new cinematic grammar in this space, which really excites me," said Perkinson.

"Random Stop" attracted the attention of people at the History Channel, who asked Perkinson and his team to create a pilot for a new point of view television series. They then worked with the network to find the right story–a true-life Alaskan survival tale.

"When we got the green light to go to Alaska and shoot a crazy adventure movie, we were determined to push the proof of concept into a full-fledged, broadcastable pilot," said Perkinson. "We took a bare bones crew, most of whom were our UCLA film school friends, and headed north up near the Arctic to give it our best shot.

The History Channel responded positively to the material, and the piece aired on national television in September.

"It was a really special experience for me," said Perkinson. "It gave me the opportunity not only to lens a television show as the director of photography, but also to act in the episode."

As Perkinson waits to hear what is next with his television pilot, he's producing and directing for VICE Media and Live Nation TV. He's also shooting an international travel series for PBS, and working with an editor to complete his Fulbright documentary. He'll also be returning to China to create a virtual reality documentary/commercial hybrid production.

"My overall career aim is to tell global stories in innovative ways," said Perkinson, adding he eventually hopes to teach at the collegiate level, perhaps inspiring students in the ways he was inspired while at Davidson.