purpose

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Ted Dintersmith

 

As a child who played a lot of baseball in rural Virginia, Ted Dintersmith wanted to be a Major League Baseball pitcher. By serendipity, he says, life took him on a completely different path, when he got a job at a high-tech startup. For 25 years, he made a name for himself in the venture capital realm, before leading the charge in America as an advocate for transforming education. He is Executive Producer of the documentary Most Likely to Succeed and a co-author of the book by the same name. In the 2015-16 school year, Dintersmith visited all 50 states to meet with parents, students, educators and politicians, and encouraged communities to work collectively to re-imagine school and its purpose.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, May 13 at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Ted Dintersmith Audio

 

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Transcript

 

So, you start to realize, what is the point? Is the point of school to weed people out and to rank people on relatively irrelevant measures, or is the purpose of school to help every individual, every child develop their full potential? I think right now, in American education—this is not a Hawai‘i statement, but a fifty-state statement, the purpose of school is to rank kids’ potential on a very artificial limited measure that gives outsized advantage to the affluent. And we have to do better than that.

 

He’s on a personal crusade to bring about change to the American school system. Ex-venture capitalist turned champion of education reinvention, Ted Dintersmith, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. After a career as a highly successful venture capitalist, Ted Dintersmith of Virginia found a new calling as a crusader and philanthropist committed to seeing the reinvention of our education system. He’s been traveling eighty percent of the time, and dedicating millions of dollars of his personal finances to bring about change and innovation in the U.S. school system. To show how classroom education could be more effective, Ted Dintersmith produced a documentary called “Most Likely To Succeed”. Starting in 2015, Dintersmith took the film to all fifty states to encourage communities to rethink how children are educated in this country. Among the states where he’s found real promise and breakthroughs in innovation is Hawai‘i. More on that later. Ted Dintersmith grew up in a small town just twenty miles from Washington, D.C., but the family wasn’t much interested in the political scene. The family struggled to make ends meet with blue collar wages.

 

Oh, my dad, you know, for most of the time I was growing up, was a carpenter. You know, my mother stayed at home. She was really the intensity in our family. And so, she was the one who, in a fierce way, fought for her kids and wanted life to be better for us. Had a lot of good aspects to it, it had some things that might not be entirely positive. But we were just sort of, I’d say, fairly, you know, lower income, lower middle income. We didn’t have a lot of money, for sure. And you know, it was one of those neighborhoods where there were no fences. People just rolled out of the back. Every family had two, three, four, five kids. And we would just play all the time. Back then, school was maybe a third, maybe less than half of our life, and the rest of the time had nothing to do with it. You know, very little to no homework, just kinda do things.

 

You didn’t have play dates?

 

No. No. You know, it was like, it was just random. And you know, you realize the incredible value of growing up in a situation where you just are given that kind of space to go figure out yourself.

 

You learned something about your father after you grew up.

 

Yeah.

 

And it made all the difference in understanding him.

 

So, my dad was in World War II. And he enlisted in the Navy before he was eighteen years old. So, didn’t finish high school. And within a month or two, he was on a destroyer in the Pacific Rim, and he went through six combat exchanges. You know, the really bad one. People blew up around him, he came close to dying multiple times. But you name a major Pacific Rim exchange in that window, he was in it, and affected. And in number six, something happened. I obviously wasn’t there. And he was discharged with a partial nervous breakdown.

 

What was the battle?

 

I think that was Iwo Jima. And so, he came back home, and met my mother, and they got married. You know, in the postwar, you know, euphoria, they got married. And you know, then they had kids. And he was not easy to be around, growing up. You know, angry a lot. You know, my mother pushed him a lot to do more with his life. You know, there were some difficult things as a kid in that family. And my siblings, we talk about it, and I think we’d all share that perspective. You know, we grew up the whole time knowing kind of that he was in World War II, but nothing about being discharged with a nervous breakdown.

 

Even your mother?

 

She knew. But this was not to be talked about. Now, what that dynamic was, whether they both agreed never to talk about it, or whether … well, I don’t know. And only when he died, did we find—now, he died twenty years ago. So, I was forty-five-ish when he died, and then we found out. And for all of it was like, oh, my gosh. You know, like had we known growing up.

 

Had you known, what? I mean, what would you have done differently?

 

You know, as a kid, when you’re seven years old and your father is furious at you, you don’t think: Oh, so he’s got an issue going on from his past and it’s not me. You think: What did I do? Like, you know, like it ripples down generations.

 

Did you feel he thought you weren’t good enough?

 

I think I probably felt that at some level. I certainly felt enormous pressure to do well on behalf of the family. And I felt—you know, it’s like always feeling so nervous around the house, because you never knew what would trigger something.

 

Was he violent, as well?

 

Never hit; nothing ever physical.

 

Your father, you say, was a carpenter.

 

Yeah.

 

And I believe your grandfather was bricklayer.

 

He was.

 

Were you expected to follow in the family tradition of, you know, blue collar work?

 

Well, no. And I actually speak about this a lot, because I think we underestimate the power of learning by doing. We underestimate and don’t give kids a chance to do more. My vintage was vocational education or career and technical education, so I actually today have sort of come full circle. But when I was growing up, my mother was crystal clear; all of her kids were going to college, period. And in those years, right, college was, you know, kind of an equalizer. I mean, my college tuition, senior year—so, I went to a public college in Virginia. for the entire year, the tuition was two hundred and fifty dollars. Not for an hour, not for a course, not for a quarter or semester; two hundred and fifty bucks. You know, I mean, I could make that much money easily in the summer, you know, minimum wage. I bagged groceries in a grocery store. You know, today, it’s a totally different story. But for my mother, that was really an important value. And we all did go.

 

What about your dad? Did he want you to go to college?

 

Honestly, in our family, with our dynamic, my father wanted what my mother wanted. You know, it was pretty clear who the CEO of our family was. And it was my mother; no question about it.

 

So, you went to college.

 

I did.

 

And majored in?

 

I majored in, which people will say, Ah, he must be a Gemini; I majored in physics and English. I did. And I am a fierce advocate for the liberal arts. Those are great vehicles for developing the skills and the mindsets that help you later in life. I often tell people that majoring in English helped me a lot more in a career in business and technology, than the physics ever did.

 

Well, what did you do after attending your college?

 

I got into a graduate program in physics at Stanford. I said: Don’t know if I’m really gonna want to stay in physics, but California, that sounds pretty good. And they have a lot of different things, so it would give me different options. Best decision I ever made. And I got there, and I’d say within a month, I said: Uh-oh, you know, like, these people that I’m in graduate school with are way smarter than I am in physics, and far more interested than I am in physics. That’s not a good leading indicator. And I just said: I’m going to be a mediocre physicist if I stay here. Then I started just meeting and talking to other people, and I found this different program that was, for me, very interesting. It was sort of math modeling, applied math to real problems. Switched into that, got my PhD there. And I was just happy to be in Silicon Valley, where every month or two, a new building would pop up for Intel, or Apple, or you know, all these companies, many of which have disappeared at this point. And I just kind of said: You know, this high tech stuff sounds interesting, like maybe I should do that.

 

Ted Dintersmith of Virginia pursued his interest in high tech, and was hired at Analog Devices, a company at the forefront of the digital revolution. In 1981, he made the move from Palo Alto, California to Boston, Massachusetts, and at age thirty-two, Dintersmith became the general manager of one of the company’s businesses.

 

But I was miserable, and I wasn’t good at managing people, and I didn’t like it. And I did it for like, three and a half years, then I finally just said: Oh, I just can’t do this anymore. And that’s how I ended up in venture capital.

 

Well, okay, that’s not a natural. How did you end up in venture capital?

 

When I joined them, they were pretty small, Analog Devices, and they just got bigger, and bigger. I had some ideas to start a business. And then, somebody said: Oh, if you’re gonna start something new, you ought to talk to these people in Boston called Venture Capitalist. And so, I put together a little outline of the business, and used some friends and connections, and started meeting with some. And in one of the meetings, kinda like this, somebody said: You know, your business, that might be interesting, but have you ever thought about being a venture capitalist? We have a search underway to find a new associate, and you’ve got a really good background for it. It was one of those where I said to myself: Do I be honest and say, honestly, I don’t have an idea of what—I mean, I don’t know what a venture capitalist is, I know nothing, or do I say, which I did, you know, that’s always been something I’ve thought about and wasn’t sure whether this was the right time, but that would be a discussion I’d like to have.

 

It was kind of a fake it ‘til you make it.

 

Yeah, yeah; a little bit. Try not to say something totally dishonest. And I ended up joining this group. And you know, as difficult and as unhappy as I was as a manager of a business, it was just a totally different world for me in venture capital. I just loved the business. It, you know, went well, and those were great years for me.

 

So, you were shaping businesses, even though you hadn’t really owned a business yourself?

 

Right; right. Oftentimes, this is kind of the kiss of death in venture is, you fail every single time if your attitude is: I want to work with people that will listen to me and do what I tell them to do. You want to back people who know what they want to do. I mean, it’s great if they listen, and they should be open-minded, but I always said to people: If you don’t reject nine out of ten of my suggestions, I’ve backed the wrong person. Because if I’m making a bunch of suggestions to you, somebody else is as well, and somebody else is as well.

 

Talk about a judgment call on your part. Because the money is big.

 

Yeah; sometimes. And I did feel like, you know, I picked people well. I mean, if I have any claim to fame in venture, I think I did over forty early stage, kind of one to three person startups. And I don’t have these exact, it’s been a while, but eighty-five percent were successes. You know, it’s an industry where if it’s one-third that succeed at that stage, that’s pretty good. So, my hit rate, my success rate was really quite good.

 

And it’s the Charles River …

 

Charles River Ventures. And so, our eighth fund, which we raised in 1997, on a fund, not on a given investment, but we raised a hundred million bucks, and we returned twenty times that. It’s one of the best funds in the history of venture capital. And it was a cross of a bunch of different companies.

 

As a partner in the Boston-based firm Charles River Ventures, Ted Dintersmith became one of the most successful venture capitalists in America during the mid to late 90s, funding innovative startup companies. High risk, high reward; it was a great run. After a quarter century as a venture capitalist, Dintersmith shifted priorities.

 

My kids were like five and seven. And I said: You know, like, I can either keep doing what I’ve done for the last twenty-five years, and knowing that there’s way too much money in the industry and it was gonna be really tough, or I could just say I’m gonna really spend time with my kids.

 

And how old were you at the time?

 

I was about fifty.

 

Okay.

 

Yeah; fifty, fifty-five.

 

And did your kids go to public schools?

 

I figured if they charged money, they’ve gotta be better. Big mistake. They were in this private school in Central Virginia. Then I got this note to parents saying: Brown bag lunch, come listen us, we’ve got these new programs to teach your kids important life skills. And it got me thinking. Like, why do you need a new program? Isn’t it obvious that schools should be preparing kids for life? I mean, a new initiative to teach kids life skills? I mean, isn’t that what school is all about? And I went to the program, and it was about, you know, like we’ll teach kids to drive safely by showing pictures and videos of car crashes, we’ll teach kids not to smoke by showing them tar-infested lungs and people who’ve had their larynx removed. And it’s like, you know, like I get that, but you know. But I made this list, and I said, you know, like important life skills, irrelevant life skills, and started paying attention to what my kids were doing in school. And very little, almost nothing was falling into the important life skills category, and a lot was falling in the irrelevant. But I had to add a new column, which was: harming them. What was actually going to damage my kids going forward? Because I knew, having lived and breathed innovation, how kids need to be prepared for a world where everything’s changing on a regular basis. And I knew, you know, you ask a million questions, you know, learn how to learn, think outside of the box, question everything. You know, like certain things that I just had seen over and over were the success predictors for people in these innovative companies. Not that they had to start the company, but just to be part of it and on the team, and do well.

 

M-hm.

 

You need to have certain mindsets. And I said, these are all disappearing, right in front of my eyes, for my kids in this school process. And this was a school most parents thought was great, certainly was expensive. I said: Whoa, you know, if this is going on in a school people think is great, what’s going on in other schools? And that just sort of led to complete immersion. I wasn’t feeling like they were doing good things, and I went in and met with the headmaster, and sort of laid out my concerns. And to his credit, he was honest with me. He said: I agree with you completely, but if I tried to do this, my board and the parent community would fire me. And as I say, I joke, but it’s not really a joke. That’s when my life turned into a cause. You know, like a lot of the things that normal people do, certainly at a point where they could retire, I don’t do anymore. And I just sort of am, this is the issue, and I feel it’s the most important issue of our ages.

 

Ted Dintersmith of Virginia put to use the analytical skills and out-of-the-box thinking that made him a successful venture capitalist, and he observed and reimagined what he calls an obsolete American education system.

 

I think one of the most misunderstood things in education is, what’s it mean to learn something? Lawrenceville Academy, which is extremely exclusive, very expensive, feeds all the Ivy League schools, and they took kids who had done really well in courses in a year, and when they came back in the fall, they gave them a subset of their final exam questions. Just the essential concepts they thought every kid had mastered. In two years across all these students, the average grade went from a B-plus to an F, and not one kid retained every concept that the faculty thought every kid had retained. And you start to say, the best of our best students in a school that’s on most people’s list of the top twenty private schools in the country, if they’re not really remembering …

 

I’ve heard that, too, from Ivy League grads who said they retained information as long as they had to.

 

Yeah. I think the main skill that gets developed in a lot of schools is short-term memory. We don’t even give them courses on memorization techniques. A teacher in high school in Minot, North Dakota related to me this. He said he told his high school juniors, one class period a week you can work on whatever you’re interested in. He said over half the kids did a Google search: What should I be interested in? And you know, when I relate that anecdote to audiences, the pattern is always the same. Lots of laughter, and then it settles in. And people realize, my gosh, are we hollowing out all the passion and interest, and joy from the kids, all in the sake of covering every possible smidgen of content that some committee has decided they need to know.

 

And how did all of that happen with our school systems?

 

Well, I think the short version is, thoughtfully invented a hundred and twenty-five years ago to prepare people for a world of routine worked well in manufacturing, from manufacturing to paper processing and shuffling, and bureaucracy still worked well.

 

But that was a long time ago.

 

Long time ago.

 

During the covered wagon era.

 

Yeah; long time ago. And then, I’d say over the last twenty years, we sort of made a choice.   And I frame it this way. Do we do things better, or do we do better things? But instead of saying: Let’s reinvent, let’s reimagine, let’s do something really different that makes sense for a world where content is at your fingertips and where you’ve got to solve big bold problems, instead, it was a lot easier to say: Hm, test scores are flat, let’s do everything we can to get test scores to go up. Five years later, ten years later, with No Child Left Behind, they’re not budging. Oh, I know; let’s hold teachers accountable to those test scores. Ah, still not going up; what do we do? And so, doing things better, or I always say doing obsolete things better, you know, doesn’t do anybody any good. We need to reimagine education.

 

To help inspire innovation in American education, Ted Dintersmith funded and produced an education documentary called “Most Likely To Succeed”. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, and Dintersmith took the film across the nation, all fifty states, for community screenings and discussion. He wanted to convey the value of project-based learning, and yes, the need to rethink how to educate children.

 

I mean, after I came to this epiphany about life skills, and were my kids really being prepared for life, and then saying not only are they not, they actually may be damaged through this process, it may be actually harmful, I said: I gotta do something. And so, I went through a process. I said, so I’m anonymous. You know, like I’m not famous. I’m not Bill Gates; I’m like, Joe Bag of Donuts. And I said, like, I could write a book, and you know, like, yeah, maybe somebody would read it. I just sort of thought of like, I’m telling you what you guys know so well. I mean, how do you change people’s mind? Visual, something with emotion. And so, I said: This could fall flat, it could be a waste of time and money, but if we could somehow come together and produce something really remarkable, that would have a chance to sort of start changing the discussion broadly.

 

The things I think in life that give us some of the greatest satisfaction is making something that wasn’t there before.

 

I can’t wait for that moment, when it does work and I’m completely done with it. And it’s like always, it’ll be…

 

Kids have that feeling that’s transformative; I made this, and everyone’s going to look at it.

 

We filmed for two years, six hundred hours, times two, two cameras. And just got lucky with something that really does kinda get people energized about what could be done in school, and shows them kids learning in a way that doesn’t look like normal school, that they ordinarily might view as summer camp, you know, that you know, you watch these kids and they’re building things, and making things, and working in teams. And if I’d written about that, people would say, “that sounds good.” When they see it, when they see how it affects those kids, when they see teachers trusted to teach to their passions and do what they entered into the profession to do, it just makes an indelible mark on the audience. And so, we only do community screenings, we’ve done two here with you guys, which have been great. And we wanted to bring people together for discussion.

 

And you’ve had many discussions.

 

Yeah.

 

All over.

 

Over four thousand around the world, four hundred in Hawaii alone. And you know, but it’s what you guys know; right? It’s what’s so special about what your work is all about. It’s community, it’s family, it’s bringing people together.

 

In 2016, Ted Dintersmith made his first visit to Hawai‘i to show the film. He also met with local leaders, and visited a variety of island schools. He saw a fertile field for change, and he’s come back again, and again. His national crusade was intensive, and he’s not yet.

 

And so, this was not just like come there and have a meeting or two. I mean, I had for nine months, fifty states, every day from seven-thirty in the morning ‘til ten at night, meeting, after meeting, after meeting, after meeting. You know, from governors to commissioners of education, but lots, and lots, and lots of school visits, meeting with teachers, meeting with parents, meeting with students.

 

And out of those fifty states, you find yourself revisiting two states.

 

Two states.

 

Would you tell us about that?

 

The two states which are very, very different states, and I’m on the plane tonight to the second one, but North Dakota and here. And for very different reasons. But North Dakota, tomorrow I’ll be there, it’ll be the eighth time in two years. And I’ve gone all over the state, and working really closely with their governor and their superintendent of public instruction. And you know, we’re funding some things that they find helpful, and they’re just very all-in at the state level for preparing their kids for a world that’s really different. And they’ve got a lot of things that I think are great, and I think they’ve got a real chance. And I did almost every town, and we had community events. But with me on all these events were either the superintendent of public instruction or the number two, one of the top two or three from the teachers union, one of the top two or three from the chamber of commerce. You can go to a lot of states where those two people won’t even be in the same city.

 

And you bring money to the table, as well as insight?

 

I give some grants. And so, you know, I don’t charge for any—I mean, it’s always an embarrassing thing, because, you know, when I give these talks, what I know is that I’m doing it all on my own nickel, and I’m actually supporting things. And it sounds braggy to say that. But then it gets like, when you come to North Dakota or Hawai‘i, and you say: You guys can do amazing things, you know, I’d hate it if people in the audience say: Well, somebody must be just paying him to say that. You know, what drew me back here, honestly, I wouldn’t keep coming back if it weren’t for this guy Josh Reppun.

 

And he’s a former educator.

 

A former educator, and now just passionate about his state, about the heritage of the state, about what people can do about giving these kids opportunities. So, that first week was unbelievable. You know, they did a documentary on the visit. And the reason I keep coming back here, you know, the people here doing the innovative work in education—

 

In Hawai‘i.

 

In Hawai‘i. Are the best of the best. I would challenge anybody to go to any other state in the country, and I’ve been to them all, and find other examples that are better. You’ve got remarkable innovations going on in your schools here. But if you want to get really energized about education, you know, go to, you know, Waipahu. See what Keith Hayashi’s doing there. I mean, it’s just like, whoa, this is like, education at its finest.

 

And he is the principal of Waipahu High School, who, you know, left the number two position in the DOE, because he wanted to be at his school.

 

Yeah. Go to Waianae, go to Candy Suiso’s, you know, media arts program. I mean, you sit there and you talk to these students, and if you ask them: What are you working on, and why does this matter to you? They have great answers; right? Most places I go to, if you say to a student: What are you working on? They’re not even sure. You know, you go observe a lab and you say: What are you doing? They’ll say: Step 3. What’s more inspiring than what these kids have in this state? And so, I just say, like these people, they just care about it. So, for me, it’s tiring ‘cause I travel all the time, but it’s inspiring.

 

Former top venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith says he’ll continue to be a change agent for education by personally funding and gathering resources for innovative learning approaches such as those shown in his film, “Most Likely To Succeed”. Mahalo to frequent Hawaii visitor Ted Dintersmith of Earlysville, Virginia for sharing your story with us. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I was in West Maui, and I’m talking to these kids. I said: Well, tell me what you’re interested in. When I ask kids even in sixth grade that question, the question they’re often hearing is: What career should I have? And I always say: Don’t worry about that. Right? You’re in sixth grade. You know, and I tell them, you know, that I did fairly well in business, and if you’d asked me at age twenty-eight what a business was, I didn’t know.

 

 

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Paul and Grace Atkins

 

Filmmakers Paul and Grace Atkins have never shied away from adventure. Partners in both life and career, their acclaimed natural history documentaries have told the stories of our planet in breathtaking, never-before-seen ways. They have worked with National Geographic, BBC and Discovery Channel, as well as some of the most well-known directors in the film industry. This special Valentine’s Day episode spotlights a couple that has boldly embarked on a life full of adventure and purpose, supporting each other every step of the way.

 

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Paul and Grace Atkins Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

PAUL: Many times, I’ve been filming something, and especially if you’ve got a wide angle lens, ‘cause that something, if it’s a shark or if it’s wave, it’s usually very close to the camera, and you’re inside this movie, and suddenly you take your eye away, and you go, Whoa!

 

GRACE:           Yeah.

 

PAUL: I’m doing that? You know. Suddenly, reality hits you. There’s a desire to get images that no one’s ever seen, there’s a desire to tell a story.

 

You’re very goal-oriented.

 

PAUL: Which is very goal-oriented.

 

Outcome-oriented; right?

 

PAUL: I’m not an adrenalin junkie. I wouldn’t be climbing mountains or diving deep, without a camera in my hands. I wouldn’t do it, normally.

 

GRACE:    I would think also, too, it’s not that you also, too want to tell a story that’s gonna have an effect on the planet. Because, I mean, both of us really have a science background, so we want to tell these stories that we think will do good. We both grew up on Geographic, we grew up on all these wonderful natural history documentaries that really had a mission of trying to better our world and better the planet.

 

Paul and Grace Atkins blaze their own trail as filmmakers with their natural history documentaries. The duo has delighted a global audience with rare footage of exotic and often dangerous environments, and the forces of nature. Paul and Grace Atkins, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. For over three decades, filmmakers Paul and Grace Atkins of Honolulu have traversed the globe, documenting breathtaking natural events, little-know rituals of wildlife, and spectacular imagery for National Geographic, the BBC, the Discovery Channel, and PBS. Paul and Grace, affectionately known as Gracie, are not only a team in filmmaking, but in life as well. This married couple discovered they had a common passion for natural history documentaries, and set out together to follow their passion.

 

Paul Atkins was just five years old when he first got interested in nature while watching fishermen pull up stingrays, crabs, and eels from the muddy waters of his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. He pursued his interest in zoology, which took him to the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the 1970s.

 

PAUL: I was determined to be a marine biologist, and I was working on my doctorate. I just started to feel that even as much as I loved the ocean, and I loved the people I was working with, I loved scuba diving, and I loved being out in the field, the idea that I was going to eventually end up getting a job and being, you know, on a faculty somewhere was not really my dream of the sort of life that I wanted to lead. And then, I picked up, you know, the department’s movie camera, because we used to use the camera to film fish underwater for the research that we were doing, coral reef fish. We were like, doing research on what happens on the coral reef when it changes from the day to the night shift. ‘Cause there’s a whole switchover underwater that happens with the fish. So, we were using lowlight cameras and a lot of cool technology to study that, and I started taking some of these cameras and just training in on grad student friends of mine and getting them to act, and making little home movies, and then, I got an editing table. And it wasn’t long before I started to realize that this is what I really want to do. And actually, I remember the moment when I decided, because … I cut together a film that I’d shot with the department’s Super 8 camera, and we had done some shark fishing off Waikiki as a part of a research project. This was back in the 70s. And I was intending just to document it. And then, I recreated some scenes, and recreated some dream sequences and turned this thing into a movie. And I took the sound track to Jaws, the movie which had just come out, and I took that music, and I cut it up into this dramatic music, and I made something else out of it. And I showed it to faculty and grad student friends of mine at a party we had. And I showed this, and I got this amazing, you know, enthusiastic response from my grad student buddies, and faculty. They were like, Wow, can we watch that again? [CHUCKLE]

 

That’s what creates a career. [CHUCKLE]

 

PAUL: Until that moment, I had no idea that something I’d created was gonna have that effect on an audience, and I was just hooked. I was hooked.

 

Filmmaker Grace Akins grew up in Oregon, California, Virginia, Austria, and Hawai‘i. Much like her husband Paul, she was fascinated with anything outdoors, the ocean, and animals.

 

Your father was a fisheries biologist.

 

GRACE:           Yes, he was.

 

And your stepfather knew the ocean, and he was an expert diver.

 

GRACE:           Yes, he was. He was a Navy SEAL. And my real father was a fisheries biologist who actually worked here in Hawaii for a number of years. I’d been mostly a university student. I’d been seven years at San Francisco State University studying, was a pre-med biology major. And then I got very interested in broadcasting, and so, I went through the whole broadcasting undergraduate program as well as the master’s program there. I knew I wanted to do natural history, or I wanted to do science documentaries. And at the time I went to school, there was really no definitive program that taught you how to do natural history films. I think it was Stanford that had one graduate course that I took in science communications, but other than that, it was a field that was wide open.

 

Before they met, Paul and Grace Atkins both dreamed of creating natural history films. Their chance encounter at Hanauma Bay, Oahu in the 1970s would launch them into their field of dreams.

 

PAUL: I was actually at Hanauma Bay scuba diving with a woman. I wasn’t dating her. I’d just met her, and we decided to go scuba diving together. And I had come out of the water, and so, we had our scuba gear, and we were starting to trudge up that hill. And then, the woman I was with saw the lifeguard and said, Oh, there’s—what was the lifeguard’s name?

 

GRACE:           John.

 

PAUL: John; John. She said, Oh, there’s John, I want to go say hello to John. And I thought, Oh, no; come on, really? And so, I followed her back over, you know, to the lifeguard stand, and then, I saw this beautiful blond in a yellow bikini there at the lifeguard stand. And … that was Gracie. And so, we put our scuba tanks down, and the woman I was with started talking to John the lifeguard, and I struck up a conversation with Gracie.

 

GRACE:           M-hm.

 

PAUL: And I was startled, because we had a lot of the same interests. So, we started talking about making films together.

 

GRACE:           Yeah.

 

PAUL: You know, from the get-go, we just started talking about how this is kinda what we wanted to do. And the conversation just kept going on, and it went on so long, you know, that the woman I was with wanted to leave, and she was getting sort of irritated. And so, we traded uh, phone numbers. And then, the funny thing was, is after that, after we traded phone numbers, I’d give Gracie a call, and we’d have like a forty-five-minute conversation on the phone. And I would go, Well, this is going really well. And then, at the end, I would ask her out. She would always be busy. She’d say, Well, no, I’m sorry, I can’t, I’m busy. And then [CHUCKLE] …

 

What’s the story there?

 

GRACE:           That’s true, actually. [CHUCKLE]

 

Because you were busy?

 

GRACE:           I was busy. Yes. I really enjoyed talking to him, too. We had some of the greatest conversations, and then all of a sudden, he stopped calling. And I just thought, Wait a second, Paul hasn’t called. And I went to look for his number to call him to say, Let’s go out. And I couldn’t find his number. And the next day, he called. And I was so thankful he called, because I would never have been able to reach him, ‘cause I didn’t know where he lived. I just knew his name and his phone number, and that he lived in town. So, we went out, and that was it. We went out on a date, and we actually haven’t separated since, except for when you’ve gone on shoots. [CHUCKLE]

 

And you did exactly what you talked about doing.

 

GRACE:           Oh, yeah; we did.

 

You started a wildlife film company.

 

GRACE:           We did.

 

And did documentaries.

 

GRACE:           Yeah.

 

The relationship of Paul and Grace Atkins blossomed, and they pursued their passion for each other, and their dream of producing natural history documentaries. They began their filmmaking partnership with Paul as the cinematographer and director, and Grace as the producer and sound recordist.

 

GRACE:           At that time, there just was nothing that really would define how one made these kind of films and went about creating a career in that. So, when we started, we were really kind of like forging our way into a newer … world, a new way of making films, and basically had to do it all on our own.

 

PAUL: And I think it was the combination of, you know, just having the courage, really, to try it. Because now, you were a team. Now, you were two people.

 

GRACE:           M-hm.

 

PAUL: And Gracie brought in a sense that I didn’t really have, which was a business sense, about finances, how to use a credit card. I didn’t even have a credit card, or just know how to use one, you know.

 

GRACE:           [CHUCKLE]

 

PAUL: And I brought in this desire, you know, and vision about shooting and making films, and I was sure I could do it, even though I barely knew what I was doing.

 

GRACE:           Our first shoots were in Palau. And that’s when we were starting to evolve our career. We figured that the only way we were gonna get our career started was to make a film and present it to somebody to see.

 

Find a client later; right?

 

GRACE:           Yeah; find a client later. And so, we raised money to be able to go to these places that we wanted to do films.

 

PAUL: M-hm, m-hm.

 

GRACE:           And basically started—

 

PAUL: But a lot of things during this period kind of came together and happened.

 

GRACE:           Yeah.

 

PAUL: You know. I was dreaming about doing this, I met Gracie, and we talked about being a team. And about the same time, I was introduced to Arthur Jones, who was a billionaire inventor of Nautilus exercise machines. And he was spending a lot of his money that he was making on Nautilus exercise machines on a television studio in Lake Helen, Florida. He was going all over the world just filming things. And he showed up in Hawaii, and Bruce Carlson at the Waikiki Aquarium introduced me to him. And so, Arthur hired me for a couple of days to be a grip.

 

GRACE:           M-hm.

 

PAUL: And I started to learn a little bit more about video cameras, working for him. And so, Arthur … the name of his company was Nautilus, because it was based on the cam of his exercise machines, which was based on the spiral design of a nautilus shell. Arthur decided he wanted to mount an expedition to go to Palau to bring chambered nautilus back to be at his studio in Lake Helen, Florida so he could have them in a big aquarium there. And expense didn’t matter. He would pay whatever. And so, I got to know him, and I talked him into—I said, Well, why don’t you do a documentary about this trip, about the expedition to catch live nautilus. And he said, Fine. And I said, I want to shoot it. And he said, Sure. [CHUCKLE] We barely knew what we were doing, but over the course of a couple of trips down there, we managed to get enough footage to put together, you know, a semblance of a documentary.

 

Wasn’t that an award-winning documentary?

 

GRACE:           Yes.

 

PAUL: Yeah.

 

GRACE:           Actually.

 

PAUL: But not until we showed it to Jim Young, who was, you know, the executive director of Hawaii Public Television at that time. And Jim became a big supporter. And he became, you know, a believer before we had a lot of footage, when he saw the first footage. And he basically said, you know, I will donate editing facility and services to you to edit this show, and we’ll make sure we get it on Public Television and broadcast it. So, that was a great deal.

 

Because you had a billionaire in your pocket.

 

PAUL: Yeah. Well—

 

GRACE:           Actually, at that point in time, no.

 

PAUL: He abandoned us.

 

GRACE:           He abandoned us.

 

Oh, did he?

 

PAUL: He abandoned.

 

GRACE:           He gave us the footage [INDISTINCT].

 

PAUL: After the first expedition, he said … You’ll never make anything out of this footage. That’s what he told us. He said, Nobody wants this kind of documentary. He said, But, he said, I’ll give you the rights to this footage. He said, I’ll have the rights, you have the rights to see what you can make out of it. And so, we took that, and then got KHET’s support.

 

GRACE:           And some more grants.

 

PAUL: And then, we wrote some more grants and went back to Palau, and embellished it and shot more of the expedition, and actually did a better job. You know, that film was like our film school. We were learning along the way.

 

Learn by redoing.

 

GRACE:           Yes.

 

PAUL: Learn by redoing. Oh, that didn’t work, let’s reshoot that. You know. And then, a good friend, Mike deGruy, who’s also a resident of HawaiiH, you know, he several years ago was killed in a helicopter crash. But he did a lot of films for KHET as well during that period.

 

GRACE:           M-hm.

 

PAUL:             And he was our partner, and we were—you know, some people called us the Three Musketeers. We did a lot of work together.

 

And you were just feeling it out as you went.

 

PAUL: Oh, we totally were.

 

GRACE:           Yes.

 

PAUL: Oh, yeah.

 

GRACE:           Completely. [CHUCKLE]

 

PAUL: There was no …

 

GRACE:           That’s an understatement, to say the least. [CHUCKLE]

 

PAUL: There was no model—

GRACE:           There was nothing.

 

PAUL: –having to do this at all.

 

GRACE:           Yeah. There was no YouTube, there was no internet, there was no online courses. And very few productions that were going on, too. Yeah.

 

PAUL: And there weren’t that many natural history films being produced. This was the very beginning. You know, cable had not exploded yet.

 

Through the success of their award-winning nautilus documentary, filmmakers Paul and Grace Atkins of Honolulu continued their journey into documentary filmmaking. They traveled to little-known locations across the world, capturing forces of nature never seen before on film, such as the feeding rituals of great white sharks and killer whales.

 

PAUL: Killer whales feeding on seal pups, actually. Yeah; and yes, we shot this. Mike deGruy was involved in this, too. We shot it in Patagonia, Argentina for a BBC series, a David Attenborough series called Trials of Life. Which back in the 90s, that was, you know, the Planet Earth. You know, that Planet Earth is still well-known today, but that’s how well known Trials of Life was in the 90s. Anyway, we were there for five weeks in Patagonia, Argentina on a beach, and the killer whales would slide up the beach and grab sea lion pups off the beach, and then wiggle, and back into the water.

 

What are some of the other adventures you’ve had together?

 

GRACE:           I think one of our most difficult and challenging films, and yet one of the most satisfying in a long time, because it turned out so well, was the one we did on dolphins for Geographic. When we started that film, we wanted to take a film that looked at the opposite of what the public perception of an animal was. For example, like dolphins. Dolphins are always thought to be sweetness and light, and everybody loves a dolphin. So, we wanted to look at the darker side of dolphins, which meant we were not only just looking at tursiops, but we were looking all the dolphin family. And killer whales are a part of them, and certain kind of whales and things. So, this allowed us to expand our stories that we wanted to tell. And so, we started making this film. So, we went out to a location called—what was that place?

 

PAUL: Cape Peron.

 

GRACE:           Cape Peron.

 

PAUL: We camped out.

 

GRACE:           Yeah.

 

PAUL: Camped out for weeks with the flies.

 

GRACE:           And that was …

 

Waiting for a scene.

 

GRACE:           For the scene of the dolphins.

 

PAUL: M-hm.

 

And that’s really part of a documentarian’s life, isn’t it?

 

GRACE:           Yeah.

 

Waiting.

 

GRACE:           Waiting; waiting.

 

PAUL: Yeah.

 

Just waiting.

 

GRACE:           So, we went out to this location, and we built a camp there, and the scientist was with us and said, This is the best time of year for you to be able to see dolphins herding fish. And we had never heard of dolphins actually coming and herding fish onto shore, just like the killer whales had done in Patagonia. So, we set up our camp and our tents and everything. And for weeks, we were trying to, you know, see this action happen. And it wasn’t happening, so the scientist said, Well, something must not be right, we’re not at the right time of season. I can’t tell you what it takes to get an expedition all the way out to a remote location like that. The weeks and the months of planning, and then also, the physical actual moving out there and setting up your camps, and getting all your gear ready, and then doing the shooting.

 

PAUL: ‘Cause there’s not power.

 

GRACE:           M-hm; yeah.

 

PAUL: You need to bring all your food, your water, you know, solar showers, generators, all of that out there, charging batteries, all of that.

 

GRACE:           ‘Cause there’s nothing out there. So okay, so we’re there for two weeks and decide, oh, well, this is not gonna happen this time, so we’re gonna have to come back at another time. We lived out on this location for like, two months. And you become connected with an environment like you never would, because there’s nobody out there; just us. And the dolphins sure enough came in, a family of dolphins. And they would come in, and they would herd the fish. And we were on this huge, long beach, maybe three hundred feet of beach. And those dolphins would come in and herd the fish, and Paul would be out there with his camera. Ann Marie, our assistant, who was working with us, she and I would be up on the hills spotting and telling him where the dolphins were coming, and where they were going. And he would run up and down this beach trying to film them, because as soon as he would get up to film, the dolphins would see him and would go to another section of the beach. [CHUCKLE] And so, there would be Paul with his camera gear, humping it all the way to the other side of the beach. And finally, you know, we got the footage.

 

PAUL: After two trips.

 

GRACE:           After two trips.

 

PAUL: Yeah.

 

Had anyone ever gotten these photos?

 

GRACE:           No; no.

 

This film before?

 

PAUL: No.

 

GRACE:           No.

 

In 2003, Paul Atkins used the skills he honed shooting documentaries to work on a Hollywood feature film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe. The film’s director, Peter Weir, wanted authentic footage of stormy seas. So, Paul Atkins boarded a ship for a forty-two-day expedition around the treacherous waters of Cape Horn to capture storm footage.

 

PAUL: We were on a replica of Captain Cook’s ship, which was built in Australia. It had been sailing around the world in various places, but it’d never sailed around Cape Horn before. It’d never been to these kind of conditions. We were with an Australian captain; his name was Chris Blake. Great guy. But he had never sailed around Cape Horn either. So, we’re sailing around the most dangerous waters of the world, and we’re approaching them, and no one on the ship has done this before. So, it was really scary.

 

I mean, they were huge waves; right? I mean, what about keeling over?

 

PAUL: We were in the open ocean, and the swells were about fifty-foot swells. And some of them were breaking. And there’s no land out there, there’s no rocks, but they were breaking on the open ocean. And the winds got up to about seventy-five knots. And the ocean, I’ve never seen anything like it; it looks like just sculptures, it’s foam-swept, it’s just foam everywhere.

 

Okay; what is there about you—and you too, ‘cause you were ready to go on this trip, that would submit to that risk?

 

GRACE:           Yeah. Well, you think of it as a risk, you think of the adventure, you think of what you’re getting to film, what you’re gonna be, you know, making.

 

But then, nature; I mean, there’s some factors you can’t plan for or control against.

 

GRACE:           Well, that’s true, too. But you try to plan for everything that you can, and over-plan. You know, so far, we’ve been always pretty successful, ‘cause no one’s really ever gotten hurt.

 

PAUL: Ooh, wow; that is hot. It’s like hot water to my hand. Let’s get suited up.

 

GRACE:          For our science documentary, it hasn’t been this been this thrill-seeking thing, it’s been more about telling a story that will do something better for the world. And it just so happens that some of the things involve a little bit more risky, you know, endeavors.

 

And I think you’re curious, too.

 

GRACE:           Yeah.

 

PAUL: You’re curious.

 

GRACE:           Yes.

 

So, you want to follow that thread.

 

PAUL: You’re definitely curious. And then, there’s one other aspect to it that I realized as well, is the exhilaration of knowing that you were afraid, and you did it anyway.

 

GRACE:           Yeah.

 

PAUL: And you came through the other end, and everything’s okay. There is an exhilaration to that. It might be dangerous exhilaration, but there’s a feeling of, you know, like for example, I used to have a fear of heights. And even today, if I stand on a vertical cliff and look straight down … it’s a mild case of vertigo. And so, to film on cliffs, which I’ve done a lot of, and to film from a helicopter, I had to get over that. I had to really get over it.

 

Master and Commander won an Academy Award for cinematography in 2004. At the same time, Paul and Grace Atkins began to expand their work beyond documentaries to commercials and narrative films. The pair struck up a relationship with acclaimed film director Terrence Malick, and Paul worked with him as a cinematographer on films such as The Tree of Life and the IMAX film, Voyage of Time.

 

PAUL: I’m in love with camerawork and visual storytelling, no matter what it involves. And I did at one point in my career, you know, get a little … I don’t know if tired is the word, but I needed to expand beyond just doing wildlife and sitting and waiting, and that kind of thing. But now, I enjoy flipping back and forth. I think it’s good. You take lessons from one discipline, and apply them to the other. It’s great; I love it. You know, I love working with actors, and I work with a lot of directors like Terrence Malick, who give their actors a lot of freedom both in dialog and in movement. So, as a cameraman, it’s not like you have marks on the floor.

 

Then your background is great for that.

 

PAUL: My background is like, I know how to do this, ‘cause I’ve filmed animals before.

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

Paul Atkins says that film director Terrence Malick shared one of the most important lessons in his life, telling Paul not to play it safe, and to give yourself permission to fail. Otherwise, you’ll never rise above mediocrity. As for overall wisdom, Paul credits Gracie as the most influential person in his life.

 

PAUL: In our personal relationship, you know, Gracie, I always say, taught me how to argue. I’m born and raised in the Deep South.

 

GRACE:           Very non-confrontational.

 

PAUL: And very congenial sort of social structure there. People don’t argue, in public at least. They want to put on a good impression.

 

They refer to the war as the Great Unpleasantness.

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

PAUL: Right; yeah. Yeah; exactly.

 

GRACE:           Exactly. That was your mother.

 

PAUL: Yeah. M-hm; yeah. And I didn’t know how to argue, and also, if somebody got angry with me, I kept it bottled up.

 

GRACE:           M-hm.

 

PAUL: And I retained it, and I resented it for a long time. Even the next day, I’d still be like, angry or hurt about it. And Gracie, you know, I don’t know how, just beat that out of me.

 

GRACE:           [MIMICS WHIPPING SOUND]

 

PAUL: ‘Cause we would get into an argument, and Gracie would be very direct about the way she was feeling at that moment. And then, it could be over for Gracie, ‘cause she’s finished with it. And then, she’d try to move on to something else, and I’m still like, Wait a minute.

 

And you haven’t really spoken about it yet.

 

PAUL: Yeah; exactly.

 

GRACE:           But maybe that’s the artist in you, where you actually are still thinking about it, while I’m more the action person. I get in there, and I figure out what has to be done, do it, and move on to the next.

 

PAUL: M-hm; m-hm.

 

GRACE:           And that’s just the way of a producer, I think. You’re the creative type, and you sit and you think about things. The years that we worked together doing the kind of films that we did and how we did it; everything he was really good at, I was not good at.   And everything I was really good at, he was not good at. So, we were actually really a perfect team.

 

Do you ever think about how lucky you are?

 

GRACE:           Yeah.

 

PAUL: M-hm.

 

GRACE:           I think about it all the time.

 

PAUL: Oh, yeah.

 

GRACE:           Yeah.

 

PAUL: Definitely. Yeah. You know, I definitely feel that way, and then again, you know, as we all like to talk about a lot, it was meant to be. So, is it luck, or is there something guiding us?

 

GRACE:           Was this something that was meant to happen? Were we meant to meet, or was it just happenstance? I like to kind of think that we were somehow meant to meet, and that we created this life because it was meant to be together.

 

As of this conversation in December of 2016, Hawaii-based filmmakers Paul and Grace Atkins were gearing up to work with an environmental foundation called Global Mana to educate people about the effects of global climate change. Paul and Grace feel this is likely to be one of the most important stories of their careers. Mahalo to Paul and Grace Atkins of East Honolulu for sharing their story with us. And mahalo to you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

PAUL: I hear so many couples say, We never argue. And I just think …

 

GRACE:           Ah.

 

How well do you know each other?

 

PAUL: Sorry, I do not believe that. [CHUCKLE] Or, you should.

 

Or you suffer in silence.

 

PAUL: Or you’re suffering in silence. What’s going on there, you know.

 

GRACE:           No, but I think also, too, however you communicate, if you communicate through love and quietness, or through more emotional, passionate and argumentative ways, each has their own purpose in how a relationship goes.

 

[END]

 



INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
The Next Journey

 

INSIGHTS convenes Polynesian Voyaging Society leadership and several crewmembers of the Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe for a live discussion about their Next Journey. Scheduled to appear are the voyaging society’s President Nainoa Thompson, Hōkūle‘a crewmembers Miki Tomita and Eric Co, and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa President David Lassner, who was a crewmember on Hōkūle‘a’s U.S. East Coast leg.

 

Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email and via Twitter during the Live Broadcast.

 

Phone Lines:
462-5000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

Email:insights@pbshawaii.org

 

Twitter:
Join our live discussion using #pbsinsights

 


PLANTS BEHAVING BADLY
Sex & Lies

 

Revel in the ethereal beauty of orchids and examine their exotic flowers, which are shaped for one purpose – to attract pollinators. Many use sex as a lure, impersonating a female bee or wasp.

 

NATURE
The Gathering Swarms

 

Get a look at some of the planet’s great gatherings: creatures coming together in inconceivable numbers — sometimes in millions, billions, even trillions. Included are bats and bees, locusts and ants, butterflies and cicadas, grunion and carp, sardines and wildebeest, and even parakeets and penguins. Some gather to breed or to migrate, some for protection, some simply to keep warm in the cold. But in the process, a kind of super-organism is created in which individual intelligence is superseded by a collective consciousness that shares information and moves with a single purpose for the benefit of all.

 

HIKI NŌ
Episode #820

 

TOP STORY

 

Students from Aliamanu Middle School on O‘ahu tell the story of Jimmy Lee, an eighty-six year old O‘ahu resident who witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor when he was an eleven-year-old boy. Images of the planes and the bombing are etched in Lee’s memory. Even today, when Lee looks up at the sky in the Pearl Harbor area he can “see the planes and hear the bombing.” Lee uses his vivid memories to teach school children about the event that launched the U.S. into World War II and changed his life forever. He also volunteers as a guide for the National Park Service to share his vivid memories with visitors.

 

ALSO FEATURED:

 

–Students from Waiakea High School in the Hilo area of Hawai‘i Island tell the story of an athlete whose most formidable opponent is his own case of Type 1 Diabetes.

 

–Students from Montessori School of Maui in Makawao show us how to make a stress ball out of balloons.

 

–Students from Kalani High School in East Honolulu follow a piano teacher’s long journey to fulfilling her life’s purpose.

 

–Students from Island School on Kaua‘i find out how foreign exchange students at their school compare life in Germany to life in Hawai‘i.

 

–Students from Ke Kula Ni‘ihau O Kekaha Public Charter School on Kaua‘i tell the story of how their new principal – a native of Ni‘ihau – finally agreed to take on the responsibility of running their school.

 

This program encores Saturday, June 3, at 12:00 pm and Sunday, June 4, at 3:00 pm. You can also view HIKI NŌ episodes on our website, www.pbshawaii.org/hikino.

 


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