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Student artist captures feelings through film

Ty Olson said this shot of an actor in his film "Indians -- La Femme," "embodies how [he] sees things."

In the seven-and-a-half-minute short film “The Examined Light,” a reporter sits down at a table across from a burly student who has been accused of pushing his girlfriend off of a balcony. The room is lit only by an open window in the back and a single lamp on the table, providing just enough light to cast shadows that add to the eeriness of the scene.

“Do you believe in justice?” the reporter asks.

Ty Olson said this shot of an actor in his film "Indians -- La Femme," "embodies how [he] sees things."
Ty Olson said this shot of an actor in his film “Indians — La Femme,” “embodies how [Olson] sees things.” (Courtesy of Ty Olson)
“Depends on what you mean by justice,” the student answers, his voice deep and brooding. “Revenge is the act of passion. Vengeance is the act of justice.”

If you want to know how this story ends, though, you’ll have to ask the writer and director, Ty Olson ’14, to show you.

Olson has been making films since September 11, 2001.

“I was 12, and I guess I wanted to record that feeling,” he said. He downloaded news clips —“That took forever on dial-up”—and edited them together with music. Although it was more of a slide show than anything, the short film—titled “The Examined Light”—was a beginning.

“I don’t know if I wanted to be a director,” he said, “but I knew I wanted to keep capturing those feelings.”

Today he’s hidden “The Examined Light” from public view on his Vimeo account because he believes it doesn’t reflect how he’s matured as a filmmaker. He’s also removed another eight-minute film called “Snow Burnt,” a dream-like sequence of scenes that cut between a desolate, snowy forest and the liveliness of Mexico. Both feature him as an actor, a characteristic that is absent from his more recent work. In an email statement to The Daily with links to the videos, he said, “Be nice…I get a little embarrassed.”

In fact, Olson seems to want to detach himself as much as possible from his acting work, save for the credit line. My interview with Olson took place over Skype as a phone call, not video. When asked for a picture of him that could be used for this article, his response via email was, “I hate to suck, but I like to keep this as much about the images, the art, the feeling, as possible.”

Initially, this aversion to the public seems strange considering that he used to model for Ford Models, the same agency that signed actor Channing Tatum. While he’s no longer signed with Ford, he’s still signed with an agency in Europe and another one in the United States. He says he hasn’t done any modeling for a year, though, and refuses to say much at all about that part of his life.

“It’s not exactly what I want to be known for, and I do it for the money,” he said. “And it’s fun sometimes. A lot of models justify it as art, but it’s not art.”

What is art—and what Olson does want to be known for—are his films. After watching a few, one can easily begin to understand Olson’s desire to push all focus onto his work. Olson is extremely good at creating a mood through profound lines, arresting imagery and exaggerated dramatics.

“They’re always about feelings,” he said.

Take his film “Turner Dune” for example. “A couple years ago, I was driving home from California to North Dakota, and I was driving through the desert in Nevada,” he said. “I hadn’t ever been in the desert before, and it was very just expansive and wide and open, and the road—in that film, I wanted to capture that feeling.”

His biggest project to date, however, is the one he is working on right now: a 20- to 25-minute movie for his American studies honors thesis project about the Norwegian American experience.

Olson himself is a Norwegian American, with a family that rooted itself in America several generations ago. He is from North Dakota, a state that has the fourth-lowest population density in the United States and the highest percentage of Norwegian Americans. He describes North Dakota as “a really weird version of old Scandinavia,” where Norwegian pride reigns strong.

“[The film] is a personally inspired portrait,” he explained. “[It’s] my own personal interpretation of how I see my ancestry and my hometown.”

In order to get a better understanding of Norway and Norwegians, Olson decided to spend this quarter in Oslo, Norway. Richard Gillam ’65 Ph.D. ’72, Olson’s American studies advisor, believes this is an important element of Olson’s project.

“You benefit by rooting yourself in a place that’s relevant to what you’re doing,” Gillam says.

Gillam said the distinctions between talking to Norwegians and talking to Norwegian immigrants will be “unpredictable, but it’s going to make a difference in how [Olson] thinks about the film and how he lets the plot unfold.”

According to Gillam, what Olson is taking on with this project is huge.

“Certainly it doesn’t sound like it’s a lot, but there’s an enormous amount of work that’s going into a project like this,” he said, pointing out details such as casting people, getting equipment and dealing with financial issues.

For someone with the talent, motivation and ambition that Olson has, however, these obstacles shouldn’t be an issue. He didn’t, for example, let money stop him these past few years at Stanford while he tried to take on more serious film endeavors.

“As a new director, you are always freaking out about money and how to finance some projects,” he said.

The summer after his freshman year, Olson worked as a waiter every single day, all day. He said he knew his art was inhibited by his lack of capital, so he tried to make as much money as possible and spent every dime on equipment.

The hard work certainly paid off. Those who work closely with Olson have only praise for his diligence and final products.

“Ty has extremely high standards and a strong drive,” said Adam Tobin ’93, Olson’s technical advisor and screenwriting instructor. “His visual sense is impressive, and the production values of his films are high. They’re often beautiful.”

Even more remarkable, Olson has managed to shoot four music videos for two different European bands, despite the fact that he has yet to graduate, did not go to film school and is completely self-taught. But it wasn’t some magical opportunity that just fell into his lap; Olson took it upon himself to email one of his favorite unsigned bands, Postiljonen, links of his work.

One thing led to another, with another being Olson making a music video for them. Then the band signed to a real label and reached out to him to direct its first official music video, bringing him one step closer to his long-term goal of creating a feature film.

While the spotlight on Stanford these days seems to focus mostly on young entrepreneurs with hot start-ups, it’s students like Olson who help remind the Stanford community that the same spirit students put towards software engineering can also be put towards artistic endeavors. His advice for aspiring filmmakers is simply to “shoot something,” much like how successful founders often recommend students to “build something.”

And when you ask him what his plans are if things don ’t work out, you get an answer with the same kind of determined confidence you’d expect from anyone trying to convince you that their app is the next Snapchat—“No. It’s gonna work out.”

Contact Lindsey Txakeeyang at ntxakee ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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