Like many career-minded professionals, Dillon Novak admits he once entertained rock-star dreams.
"I'd been playing guitar for years, and I was completely into music," he says. "Music was my life. I was at concerts all the time, and that was probably what really drew me to music videos. I would sit on my couch and watch them all day."
But Novak wasn't just watching — he was studying. Today, he can lay claim to a handful of music videos he's directed, as well as short films, commercials and nonprofit promos; camera work for local activist Dave Gardner's 2008 City Council campaign and film Hooked on Growth; a commercial project with Haze documentary director Pete Schuermann; a screening and Q&A for the music video "Sweet Talk" at the Indie Spirit Film Festival; wins for "Best Music Video" at Denver's Daffy Film Festival in 2008 and 2009; and now, a music video for Brightwood, an emerging Portland, Ore.-area indie rock band.
Though he's obsessed with the medium, Novak can barely remember the days when music videos reigned on the airwaves. As he puts it, "I caught MTV on its downslide." He's just 17.
"Basically," the soon-to-be high school senior explains, "I don't promote my age because I would never want the professionalism to go down the drain or for clients to think differently of me.
"It's not like I'm lying ... to get an older girlfriend," he deadpans. (Though his girlfriend does happen to be a 19-year-old film student at Florida State University.)
Jeff O'Brien, who teaches Novak in video classes at Cheyenne Mountain High School, says he believes Novak's youth may actually impress prospective clients more — and maybe convince them they've found someone special.
"You can teach the techniques and the theories," he says, "but a lot of it has to do with the drive of the student, and Dillon is one of those kids who just has a lot."
Before Brightwood, Novak's music videos had been covers rather than projects contracted by the musicians. But that work was strong enough to convince Brightwood to listen to Novak's pitch when they traveled through town to play at theLoft this past March. Novak says he discovered the band on MySpace and was especially drawn to their tune "Swan Song."
"I wanted to do a video at [Great] Sand Dunes National Park," says Novak, "... and I knew that I wanted it to be a story of lost love, so that's basically what I told them."
Brightwood liked his interpretation of the song and agreed to travel back to Colorado for the video shoot. Meanwhile, Novak began preparations. He launched a fundraiser among classmates, paid the location fee, hired actors from Denver, assembled wardrobe and props, found a make-up artist, lined up lighting guys, reserved hotel rooms, gathered gear (including the best camera he could find) and rented a trailer to haul everything — sinking $1,800 of his own money into the project in the process.
The night before the shoot, Novak says he struggled to sleep. But it turns out it didn't matter.
"It was my day," he says. "It was probably the most fun I've had in my entire life. Just the fact that all those people were there because of me." Of course, "fun" is relative. First, Novak and crew hauled almost 2,000 pounds of gear a half-mile from the parking lot to their shooting location (a spot that took some pleading with the park ranger to acquire). Then the shoot had to be filmed in shifts, because their permit allowed only 10 people on site at all times. All was going well — until weather hit.
"This giant sandstorm came out of nowhere," Novak says, "and I'm so glad that I'd brought a bunch of tarps to cover equipment. The wind was blowing sideways and sand and rain were hitting us so fast. It was entirely painful ... but it was totally worth it."
In fact, Novak thinks the storm may have been an unexpected plus: "Originally I thought I wanted the color palette for the band to be overcast," he says, but when the weather cleared, "it was amazing. We brought the reflectors out and got some amazing light out of it ... and the sandstorm cleared out all the tourists that were in the background."
Novak arrived back in the Springs at 2 a.m., then stayed up until morning downloading footage so he could return the camera — wrapping up the 36-hour effort.
"The band was incredible, and the people that helped me out were amazing," he says. "They hauled stuff and pushed stuff, and I worked them so hard."
Brightwood posted the finished video, "Swan Song," on its Web site in June, and iTunes is expected to release it this week. Though the Indy was unable to reach band members — they've been in the studio recording a third EP — they posted the following comment via Twitter: "@dillonnovak You, my friend, are phenomenal."
Seeking to continue improving his work so that he can get into film school next fall (and make even more challenging videos for three Denver bands he's approached), Novak reached out to his filmmaking idols at Pittsburgh-based Endeavor Media, a music video production company headed by Steve Hoover and Danny Yourd, for feedback, too.
"They know me now, which is nice," says Novak. "A long time ago, when I started making 'Sweet Talk,' I sent them an e-mail with the idea and a picture of the set. ... Then when it was all done, I showed it to them."
That earned Novak a positive reply from the film company responsible for music videos from bands such as Anberlin, Owl City and TobyMac. And the response to Novak's latest video was even better: "Steve said, 'I think I remember you asking to come out on set with us sometime, and if you still want to do that, you can ...'"
According to Gardner, a filmmaker of 30 years who connected with Novak when the student approached him for advice, that's where he belongs.
"In terms of his work," Gardner says, "he can compete with professionals in the field."
Schuermann puts it more colorfully.
"He gives me sleepless nights," the 44-year-old director says with a laugh. "I'll probably be working for him someday. But I love to encounter someone with real raw ability, and he's got it."