RICE COUNTY — About a year ago, Matt White’s job was a paramedic/firefighter in Salina. He scrimped and saved his pay and free time to be in the Kansas outdoors with his two brothers and a few friends.
For the next three weeks, White will be deep in the time-forgotten jungles of New Guinea, paid to share the outdoors with millions of people through video.
And this shoot with Jim Shockey’s The Professionals, arguably the highest-quality outdoors show on television, is just the tip of an iceberg that’s been continually growing since he left the fire department in April 2012.
White is one of the most sought-after outdoors videographers in the nation. Earlier this spring he spent weeks in Africa and Italy with outdoors industry giant Benelli. Shockey’s crew has him booked in at least three more remote locations over the next year. Since last fall, he’s shot footage for Mossy Oak, Bear Archery, Sitka Gear and others.
Not bad for a guy raised in tiny Little River, with only a workshop or two’s worth of training in the ways of video and cinematography.
What he knows well, though, are the things that make the outdoors special, and how badly people want to see them.
“It’s not just about killing or catching,” White said from his home-based studio at the edge of the Smoky Hills. “It’s the human element that people are really interested in. It’s the experience and they really enjoy, and understand, being told in imagery.”
He insists that viewers want more after two decades of outdoors programs that jump back and forth from faces talking to the camera in a studio, and show hosts poorly re-enacting portions of a hunt, or overly pushing product.
A typical White scene may capture the bond of hunter and hunting retriever as they silently wait for ducks in inclement weather.
Another may show the humbled satisfaction a fly fisherman feels in the long seconds when he quietly watches as a big, bright brown trout swims through his fingertips as it’s released into a clear, cold Idaho stream.
“There’s a lot that can be told in a few seconds of the right imagery,” said White.
Nobody who knows the family was surprised when brothers Nick, Scott and Matt White got into outdoor videography. Since their early teens, when eldest Nick had ridden bicycles with a hunting bow strapped to the handlebars into the countryside, they’d been some of central Kansas’ most passionate and successful bowhunters.
It was a consuming lifestyle that ran year-around as they scouted for big bucks, ran strings of trail cameras, hunted diligently for trophy bucks in the fall and looked for fallen antlers in the winter. Being able to capture that all on video came naturally.
“Around 2003, we split $2,000 three ways to buy a camera to video our hunts for fun,” White said. “After a while we got to thinking it might be kind of fun to produce some kind of a show ... like about everybody else who hunts with a video camera thinks, too.”
As they had with hunting, the more time spent shooting video, the deeper they got into perfecting their shooting and editing.
In 2010, the Whites started working for Heartland Bowhunters, a television program that utilizes a staff of largely unknown videographers to produce archery hunting shows.
In two years the Whites furnished the company with seven episodes.
By then, Matt White was hooked.
“That really started me taking videography seriously, and the more I studied and learned the more I realized it was something I wanted to do with my life, for a career,” he said. “Fortunately I was working at the fire station, 24 hours on then 48 hours off, so two-thirds of my time was free.”
Some of that free time was spent shooting video and editing, and much of the time was spent pouring concrete and roofing houses to get better video equipment than a fireman’s salary could afford.
Eventually he started making money with that gear, but it wasn’t exactly on outdoors gigs.
“Like most photographers, we really got started with senior pictures and weddings,” White said of himself and Dustin Lutt, his business partner since last fall.
“I shot 13 weddings last year before I moved to Kansas in September,” Lutt said.
“Weddings are basically the boot camp for photographers,” added White. “They provide a lot of experience and there’s a lot of pressure. They also pay.”
Social media success
For White and Lutt, the wedding videos eventually gave them a great start into more lucrative, and satisfying, markets.
“A lot of (our success) is because of social media,” White said. “Weddings get put on Facebook, lots of people see it and if it’s good someone in charge of marketing someplace sees it and they contact you.”
That’s how he landed a promotional video for a recreational vehicle company in Indiana.
White also wasn’t shy about shooting, editing and posting videos to showcase their talents.
“A Family with 50,000 Siblings,” which he shot at last fall’s Oklahoma State-Kansas State football game, got about 60,000 views in three days.
It has also helped White and Lutt develop a working relationship with K-State. A promotional video they did on the school’s aviation program won some of the highest awards in the industry.
Social media is how he met Lutt, a 26 year-old videography whiz kid from South Dakota who moved to Kansas to start RockHouse Motion with White.
White said many of their best outdoors contacts came from online viewings, too. That includes contact from Lee Kjos, one of the most successful outdoors directors and still photographers in history.
“He liked what he saw online, and he invited us to come shoot the video where he’s shooting stills,” White said. “The guy’s amazing, and his stuff is everywhere. That was a really big deal when we got to start working with him.”
Currently their office and editing studio is in a converted master bedroom in the rural house White shares with his wife, Tracy, and their three small children.
Business is so good they’re planning on expanding to a barn in the same yard. The company owners, and White’s brothers, possess enough skills to complete the remodel on their own.
A lack of high overhead allows White and Lutt to continually invest in some of the best equipment on the market.
That state of the art gear, and prices lower than big city competition, makes RockHouse popular with clients.
“It’s just the two of us, and (clients) love talking to the people who are actually doing the work, instead of going through some creative director at a big company that may or may not be at the actual shoot,” White said. “We also bring a lot of creative energy.”
Much of that creativity, especially when shooting for the outdoors industry, is because White lived for the outdoors long before he turned to the outdoors to make a living.
“Why our work seems so authentic, is because we’re both really, really avid hunters and outdoorsmen,” White said. “We know what’s authentic and what’s not and we want everything to be perfect.”
Strong work ethics from rural upbringings also help.
Make no mistake, White’s dream job carries what some would consider nightmarish hours and stress.
The trip to New Guinea will mean lugging heavy and expensive equipment through rugged rainforests. Long days in the jungle will be followed by long nights at camp organizing footage, maintaining and readying equipment for another day. White says he’ll average 16 hours a day.
There could be many days when weather prohibits shooting, and days when the conditions are perfect but wildlife isn’t to be found.
“It’s always tough when you’re dealing with wild animals because they’re just that, wild and unpredictable,” White said. “It’s not like we can bring in a handler that shows up with an animal.”
A goal of storytelling through the lens adds to the work, the pressure and the satisfaction.
“We’re selling a brand, a lifestyle,” White said. “That’s what people want. Some of the best automobile commercials now barely show a car. It’s the same with the hunting shows, they need to show more than just the hunting to portray the experience.”
Last fall, White and Lutt spent weeks in Idaho and Oregon, shooting “A Deliberate Life,” a narrative documentary.
The narrative is articulate but seldom used, with most of the message coming through high-resolution video that chronicles what makes fishing western rivers so special.
A short version of the video is being shown at film festivals. A 50-minute DVD is due out soon.
It promises to sell well, but won’t have the payoff other works have done, though it will provide a lot of personal satisfaction.
“I hope 10 years from now, we’re spending about eight months of the year on advertising and the other four months telling stories about people’s lives,” White said. “Our goal is to make narrative films, where every shot tell its own story.”