Earthtalk Studios was founded in 1990 by Daniel Smith as a documentary video production company. We soon evolved into a multimedia development company specializing in website design, interactive multimedia, and video production. Over the years, Earthtalk served many public and private companies in a variety of industries including; Technology/Manufacturing; Tourism/Recreation/Travel; Professional Service Firms; Education/Museums; Nonprofits/Associations; Real Estate/ Construction/Architecture. Over the years we have won many awards for the work we have done in multiple industries. Recently we changed our name to ooLite Media, LLC.
– In 1992, writer Todd Wilkinson wrote the following article about ooLite Media principal Daniel Smith. With tongue-in-cheek, we reprint this article about the “Modem Cowboy.”
Modem Cowboy – the Making of Oolite Media
by Todd Wilkinson
With his own company and a growing list of national clients, Dan Smith and Earthtalk are staking a future in the Brave New World
Daniel J. Smith can feel the momentum of a revolution approaching, but when you step into his plush digs located across Main Street from Perkin’s Family Restaurant, there is an overwhelming sense you have just entered an operation comprised equally of one part Jetson’s, the other of Gunsmoke.
At the world headquarters of Earthtalk Studios, the youthful company founder is watching a herd of horses gallop across his computer monitor but one should note it isn’t a screen saver that commands his attention. Back and forth, hither and yon, at high speed and in slow motion, the equines trot until Smith finds the exact sequence of shots he needs. He inserts a nice rift of music and dubs a narrator’s voice. Finally, after cutting and editing his film digitally on a computer keyboard, he calls it a wrap.
In 1997, thousands of outfitters and backcountry guides across the West will view this new Earthtalk production, aimed at teaching wranglers how to be more environmentally sensitive when entering the wilderness. For Smith, shepherding the project to completion was just another adventure on the frontier of multi-media and the Internet. We’re not a typical advertising agency or production house,” Smith explains one afternoon during a rare respite. “What separates us from other agencies is we’re interdisciplinary. We deal more in high-end, broadcast quality work on documentary and sophisticated industrial videos. One hundred percent of our work is computer generated.”
Albeit unwittingly, most of us in the northern Rockies have come across Smith’s handiwork at Earthtalk: In the span of only a couple of months, for example, he has prepared numerous commercials, films, and written material for the likes of the U.S. Forest Service, Wheat Montana Bakery, Big Sky Resort, World (Snow)Boards and the Museum of the Rockies. But as a modem cowboy and seasoned cybernaut, Smith has also landed an impressive list of nationally-known clients, including ESPN and the University of Southern California.
Last week, Earthtalk’s monitors were wisping with the sounds and images of Winston bamboo flyrods, and a few weeks before they held the striking limited-edition lithography of Livingston painter Russell Chatham, who commissioned cinematographer Ed George and Earthtalk to produce an hour-long feature on how Chatham’s fine art is made.
Butterflying his arms behind his head and reclining his body back in contemplation, the 42-year-old entrepreneur smiles when a visitor asks him about his yen in life. Beside him is a small brochure that explains what his company is trying to accomplish: “Ancient artisans molded clay to express their ideas and culture,” it reads. “Digital information is the clay of our modern information society.” Despite all the hype of the telecommunications age, Smith, (even with a record of success) feels as though he still is manning an outpost on the frontier, teaching inhabitants of the 20th century how to prepare their businesses for the next millennium.
When Smith speaks of what the ramifications are for the two-thirds of Americans who did not grow up with a computer screen in front of them during grade school, he talks of paradigm shifts and the unfortunate social trauma that occurs when people are left behind. He mentions buggy drivers in 19th century Bozeman who refused to heed the arrival of the horse-less carriage, and radio stations who glibly underestimated the impact of TV.
It isn’t so much that Montanans are prosaic in their approach to technology, as much as it is a fear of the unknown and few concrete example to show how the computer age can benefit their lives or their business. Earthtalk was founded in 1990, Smith says, to educate clients about their possibilities.
Compared to most of rural Montana and the West, we in Bozeman are an outpost of technology. On the one hand we’re suffering through the hardships of being isolated from what is happening on both coasts, but we’re also experiencing the wonder of being able to disseminate the new information. I view it as an opportunity to help people communicate better. Some days,” he adds, “ I feel like Lewis & Clark making first contact with the Indians. The capabilities of computer technology, while fully recognized elsewhere, are, not yet old hat in Montana. They’re virtually brand new and that’s what my clients find exciting.”
Near the entrance to the Museum of the Rockies, a movie titled “People of the Hearth” has been playing non stop for the last two years. The project represents perhaps the perfect synthesis of what Smith has tried to do by weaving science, technology, and art into a single message.
Together with Ed George, Smith was assigned the task of recreating a 9,500-year-old Paleo-Indian camp that MOR archaeologist Les Davis unearthed near the Montana town of Alder. From the onset, they had to resolve one major problem: How to show what life in an aboriginal village was like without turning it into an unconvincing (and expensive) Hollywood production.
Long before Earthtalk was enlisted by the museum, Smith had received praise as a digital director. Six years ago, he wrote and produced a short documentary video about the Sheepeater Indians of Yellowstone, a project that led ultimately to a far more ambitious project looking at Yellowstone Pre 1872 that is slated to premier next summer during the commemoration of the national park’s 125th anniversary.
For People of the Hearth, the team settled on an approach that would ultimately prove compelling to museum visitors. Although live actors were used, the camera focused only on their hand and feet. The camera artfully portrays them moving through camp going about their routine, whether hunting for game with an atlatl or scraping an animal skin. They complemented the visuals with original artwork by Kit Henderson.
The reason we did it this way is we wanted to let the viewers interpret the scene by using their own imaginations,” Smith said. “If you give your audience details, they usually can fill in the rest. Sometimes, less is more.”
According to Smith, 50 percent of Earthtalk’s business involves World Wide Web development and the other half is video filmmaking. “The advantage we bring to a client, particularly those who are offering science-related products, is we understand what they are trying to say because we are our scientists ourselves. There isn’t anything lost in the translation. “
Earthtalk has a lucrative niche developing pages on the World Wide Web for businesses and non-profit organizations. Smith says that with the proliferation of the medium, some companies are merely pouring money down a rat hole. He says the chances of a company striking it rich simply by throwing a Web page to the masses willy nilly are about as good as a gambler buying a PowerBall lottery ticket.
You can create a Web page that might float out there in cyberspace and nobody will ever see it. This industry is so new,” he says, “ that a lot of people are producing Web pages with high expectations but few of them are doing it in a strategic sense. Without a marketing plan and an ability to cultivate the right connections so that perspective clients actually see your product, a lot of time and money could be wasted. There is so much information out there that it is easy to get lost in the clutter.”
The first thing Smith does when a client comes to him seeking to rocket a Web page into orbit is he asks them whom they want to reach. Having spent hundreds of hours himself exploring various information search engines (i.e. services on the Internet that specialize in linking customers to products through a series of key words), he knows how to deliver information about his clients onto the laptop of perspective consumers.
You want visibility? In the few months it’s been available to Internet perusers, Earthtalk’s popular “Yellowstone Science Page” has received a quarter of a million hits.
Still, In Bozeman where POTS (plain old telephone service) remains the only means of sending information quickly, the only major obstacle is congestion caused by the volume of users that can result in gridlock. Smith has managed to avoid the traffic by carrying several lines.
There is congestion at all times of the day but it’s different people using the Internet in different ways. A lot of the business goes on in the daytime and a lot of counter culture goes on at night. The night is when things happen and it becomes a time when people convey crazy ideas and put them out there for the world to react. In that sense, the Internet is truly democratizing. It allows artist to show their work and singers to share their songs and writers to publish for all to read.”
Smith doesn’t buy the argument that the Internet is having a dehumanizing, deleterious effect on young people. “There is a danger with the Internet just as there was a danger with television and we are experiencing it to this day. TV has a way of making us passive and withdrawn. The important thing about the Internet is it brings interactivity back to an electronic medium. I would say that it has come full circle. Where you can sit back and watch a television program and become entranced, almost paralyzed, the great thing about this form of communication is you control it, it doesn’t control you.”
Pausing for a moment to reflect again, he begins: “I suppose you could argue that the Internet is dehumanizing in the sense that you don’t have physical contact with someone on the other end yet it gives you an opportunity to communicate with people and cultures you ordinarily would never dream of meeting. That’s the beauty of it for me. It is a vehicle for bringing the world together.” Considering Smith’s background, it is no coincidence that he has become a multi-media translator for those of us counted among the computer illiterate, the cyber-challenged, and company executives who merely want to give their business a competitive edge in the national and global marketplace.
Born in St. Louis, Smith grew up in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania where his father, Daniel W. Smith, a teacher, worked as a television personality on a Public Broadcasting System affiliate. In 1967, Smith the elder brought his family to Penn State University after he was hired to be the announcer for a popular PBS program on world cultures. My father spent the whole year taping segments of his show on big old two-inch-wide video tape,” Smith says in his office at Earthtalk, noting that within the not-too-distant future, video tape could become obsolete as recorders transmit visual images directly onto CDs.
Following his father’s success in State College, the Smith clan moved again, this time to Guam, when the family patriarch was invited to oversee the opening of the 260th PBS affiliate station. Dan Smith then was 14 years old. My dad had been to Guam during World War II. He had landed on Saipan, Iwojima and other islands. He was fascinated by the South Pacific and always wanted to return during peace time.”
The family’s arrival, however, coincided with the massive military build-up of American forces in Vietnam. Guam was a major staging area for the war. During lunch at John F. Kennedy High School, Smith remembers sitting on the football field as B-52 bombers would take off nearby at Anderson Air Force Base.
JFK High School was a literal melting pot of language and culture, Smith says. The campus had students from China, the Phillipines, several South Pacific Islands, Indonesians, Japanese, and Americans from the mainland. Upon graduation, Smith picked up gigs as a folk singer and worked as a photojournalist for a newspaper owned by media giant Gannett. The biggest story he covered occurred in 1974 when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. Thousands of refugees tried to flee to the United States any way they could and the first place they stopped was Guam.
Almost overnight, the island’s population of 100,000 residents doubled. “It was a strange time,” Smith remembers. “The refugees were basically kept behind chain-linked fences on the military installations before they were cleared to come to the states. This was their first stop to freedom.”
A global traveler, Smith didn’t know what he wanted to do. He assessed his options and eventually settled on the idea of moving to Montana. “In my mind, the Rocky Mountains seemed to be the next logical place to go because in many ways this area is similar to Guam. The living is remote, somewhat pure and simple.”
Over the next decade, Smith earned an undergraduate and master’s degree from Montana State University and took several brief diversions ski mountaineering in the Rockies and Cascades, crooning to vacationers at Big Sky, and completing an exhaustive master’s thesis on the geology of the Tetons. Somewhere along the way, Smith heard about the concept of non-linear editing.
For the first eight decades of this century, the driving force behind motion pictures was shoot film, have it developed and then arduously cut and splice to put together a sequence that told a story. Non-linear editing, using computers as the primary medium, allows producers to create a commercial film or documentary without having to cut the raw film to pieces.
Early in the 1990s, Smith bought one of the first digitizing systems that came on the market and has grown his inventory of hardware into a maze of monitors, hard drives, various pieces of other equipment. RM for RM, gigibyte for gigibyte, Earthtalk probably has more storage capacity in one of its suites than 100 other Bozeman computer users have combined. That’s what it takes to make horses run across computer screens and allow for visual traverses of mountain ranges as if you were sitting inside the cabin of a small airplane.
For example, by digitalizing the coordinates of topo maps prepared by the United States Geological Survey, Smith has been able to simulate a trip from the east side to the west face of the Tetons. Besides the obvious applications for federal land managers trying to plan where they will put another hiking trail, logging operation or ski resort, Smith says that mountaineering firms could use it to show their clients the exact route they will take to the summit.
Beginning next year, Earthtalk plans to embark on a novel program that will further distinguish itself from other digital film houses in Bozeman. Smith has added an educational facility where members of the community can take classes and then, after they receive the training, have access to Earthtalk’s equipment for a reasonably nominal fee.
This is just the beginning,” Smith says. “There’s so much terrain still out there to explore. I’m excited by the endless possibilities.”
Todd Wilkinson lives in Bozeman, Montana and writes about the West for a number of national magazines and newspapers.
Oolite Media LLC is a Bozeman, Montana-based multimedia development firm specializing in responsive website development, digital video production, still & motion graphics and archival image and video preservation. We have over 25 years of experience in media planning, design and development.
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