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Alumni Spotlight on Justin Shipley ’00: Success in Filmmaking


Call it fate. Call it what you will, but during an afternoon detention, Justin Shipley ’00 opened a closet door. “I found several 16 mm and Super 8 cameras,” he says. “One of them had a tag that said, ‘Looking for a home, $20.’”
He took them.

It wasn’t stealing, not in the traditional sense. The cameras had been long forgotten, and Justin repaid his small debt many times over by converting all of the old Shipley film into the highest quality of the time. “There were all of these movies of the girls back when Shipley was a boarding school. “Silver nitrate film from the ’30s with that Wizard of Oz color, heavy in the reds and yellows and golds,” he explains. The film was from the Bell & Howell Filmo he found in the closet, a pre-war hand crank movie camera, strong as a tank and made to endure battle. A camera, by the way, he still has today.

It was the start of a new course, one that would take him across the country from Shipley to LA and eventually around the globe as a director, a director of photography, and an editor.

A Bumpy Start

Justin’s academic life at Shipley wasn’t ideal. In fact, no one who knows him will argue that he was a devoted student, least of all him. What they might tell you is that there wasn’t a creative department on Shipley’s campus he didn’t touch. “I was in every play,” he says. “I was a studio art major. I was in the men’s a cappella group.” In that way, Shipley, as Justin will tell you, was a great fit.

The Teachers Made It

Justin’s interests were reflected in the lasting relationships he made with Shipley’s faculty. Tony Morinelli, affectionately known as “Doc,” was a major inspiration to Justin. “He and I had kind of a family-like relationship with each other. He exposed me to opera, the high art of theater, set design, and early lighting. Those are still fundamental in the work that I do.”

Chris Wagner played a different role. In his comic, yet insightful way, Justin describes their relationship: “As the eccentric artist overlord, she saw through my B.S. right away,” he laughs. Don’t get him wrong. There was mutual affection and respect. In fact, Justin credits Shipley’s studio art program with giving him a superb foundation. “All the things I learned in that class made me confident enough to walk into any room and have a conversation about composition, form and factor, color science, and movement.”

Steve Baris, the yang to Wagner’s yin, captured Justin’s imagination. “Steve’s type of art, the way he was working with Plexiglas and letting light pass through it—I felt like we were kindred spirits. I stay in touch with him still.”

Justin also spent time with Bob Rowland, then head of Shipley’s music program. “He was a very cool guy and a gifted musician.”

So while Justin’s report card reflected what he refers to as “a lack of effort,” his absorption with the arts laid the foundation for his future career. “I was into photography. I was into music. I was into studio art and collage. I grew up around editing, so I could assemble moving pictures to music. Film was the perfect mix.”

Go West, Young Man

Late in Justin’s senior year, there came a point when it occurred to him that what he wanted couldn’t be found in the halls of a university. “I wanted to shoot and cut,” he says plainly. So he packed up his U-Haul and headed west.

The First Big Shoot

“My first big international shoot was filming a documentary in Ethiopia. I went with archeologists and anthropologists. They were very well educated and they had a way of looking at culture, travel, history, and geo-politics that was mind-boggling. That opened me up, and I became much more interested in the world.”

All the while, he was shooting. And he was cutting.

Shooting

Shooting means filming, but it means more. It means traveling to remote locations to get difficult shots. It means protecting the camera from the elements. It means protecting yourself from harm.

“You don't want the guy hanging out of the helicopter to be thinking, ‘This is awesome!’ You want him to be thinking, ‘Is this in focus?’” When Justin had to capture a sprinting cheetah in Tanzania, he wore a harness and hung out of the side of a helicopter. “I was shooting ultra high-speed footage at 1,000 frames per second. It’s very difficult to capture the animals at that speed while maintaining focus, as there are a lot of things moving around.”

It’s Not All It Seems

Lest his job sound too glamorous, Justin will tell you about the time he cracked his rib on the side of a boat leaning way out to capture just the right angle. Or when he was trudging through a jungle with hundreds of pounds of cameras day after day in the extreme heat and humidity, (both bad for the cameras). Or dealing with a camera malfunction at 19,500 feet wearing an ill-fitting oxygen mask trying to get the perfect shot of the sun as it peeks from behind Mount Kilimanjaro.

Cutting

The editing world is quite different after months of shooting in the field. “The post side consists of a whole group of fellow movie nerds that I get along with,” he explains. “It’s like a dark cave world of computer nerds. But they are also artists and storytellers and musicians.”

While Justin enjoys both aspects, he has been winding down his time in the edit bay, so he can spend more time with his greatest joy.

The Greatest Joy

“The biggest blessing of my life is being a father of three and a husband,” he says, stripped of the dry humor that so characterizes him. “All of this other stuff…it’s so that I can be a father and a husband.”

From Justin’s point of view, having kids has helped him appreciate schools like Shipley all the more. “Now that I see how hard my wife and I are working to send my kids to school, it has shifted my perception. Every single family who sends their kids to Shipley has a different story about how they are working to provide a great education for their children.”

In the meantime, when he wakes up across the globe at 3:30 in the morning to ride out to a remote island chain to wait for the sunrise, he has one thing on his mind. “I think of my wife washing a tiny butt for the millionth time. Her job is amazing and exhausting. She works a million times harder than I do. The best move that I’ve ever made in my life was chasing her.”
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.