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Dana Johnson wanted a dreamy, film-like visual effect in the documentary, and turned convention upside by down by relying exclusively on DSLR cameras to shoot “My Way Back Home: Caroline Smith.’’ (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

Willmar, Minn., grad produces Pioneer TV’s Emmy-winning documentary

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Willmar, Minn., grad produces Pioneer TV’s Emmy-winning documentary
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Dana Johnson said goodbye to Los Angeles and London and came home to Willmar and western Minnesota to launch her career in video production.


Two years later, she knows how lucky she is to have started here in the first place.

“From here everything is a journey, and journeys really build who you are,’’ said Johnson.

Her journey recently helped lead Pioneer Public Television to win its first Emmy award issued by the Upper Midwest Academy of Television Arts.

Appropriately enough, the award-winning documentary she produced tells the story of a rising star’s own return home. “My Way Back Home: Caroline Smith” is a 30-minute documentary on the Minneapolis-based singer and songwriter originally from Detroit Lakes. Smith, 25, is breaking out in the music world with a new album and R & B sound.

Johnson, who turns 30 in November, is the executive producer of Pioneer Public Television’s arts and history program “Postcards.’’

She grew up in Willmar and Spicer, and is a 2002 Willmar High School graduate. She attended Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and found she wanted something more. While friends partied she spent long, late-night hours applying for admission and scholarships to attend Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

She remembers her father turning the car over to her at the Los Angeles International Airport and expressing the hope she would survive the drive back to her new school. “I was crying, my hands were clinched to the wheel,’’ said Johnson of her first drive in Los Angeles.

She graduated from Pepperdine with a degree in video production.

She studied also in London, China and Japan as part of her experience, and lived for nearly a year again in London before returning to western Minnesota.

Coming home was the right choice, Johnson discovered. She found the fertile ground for just what she wanted to do in Appleton. Pioneer Public TV’s focus is on telling the stories of rural Minnesota and its people.

She is grateful that the station took the risk — and put down the money — to allow her to follow her artistic drive to produce the award-winning documentary. She doesn’t believe she would have found that opportunity at her age at a larger, urban station.

Yet she also knew she was swimming against the current producing the documentary for the rural station. She nixed using the station’s equipment and stubbornly resisted all sorts of suggestions on how to produce it, all in the cause of artistic integrity.

She strived for something totally different in this documentary.

“My important thing I wanted with this was the look,’’ said Johnson. She wanted to create a dreamy look to her documentary, and as she explained it, “walk the line between a dream world and reality.’’

She put together a team with award-winning talent to do it. It included Dan Huiting as director of photography and Kevin Russell as editor. Both are well-known and highly acclaimed for their work.

“Must see’’ is how Jeff Gage, City Pages writer, described the attention-grabbing documentary that Pioneer Public TV aired for the first time last April.

Johnson credits the documentary’s appeal as much to the talents of the crew as the charisma of its subject, Caroline Smith. “She’s a very peppy, funny, happy person that helped carry the piece along just with her energy,’’ said Johnson.

Johnson devoted plenty of her own energy, too. She spent long, hard weekends in the harsh cold of winter to delve into Smith’s story.

Johnson said she expected the best work to come from the shoots in Minneapolis, where Smith lives. She soon discovered that the winter landscape of Detroit Lakes was the perfect canvas to begin painting this story.

The work in Detroit Lake is also where she learned something about her own goals. “That’s when I realized I wanted to make documentaries about people going back to their hometowns and hanging out with their families, and going, seeing that inside everyday life part about people.’’

“The footage they captured was so honest and raw; they did a wonderful job getting an inside view of my family and work,’’ Smith posted on her blog about the documentary.

There are plenty of behind-the-scenes stories to tell about this documentary, but the most important is right in the face of those viewing it. The dream-like imagery that is so evident through the documentary is the product of using Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras to capture it all.

Johnson had done her research, and knew that relatively low-cost, DSLR cameras would best achieve her artistic goal.

She likes the fact that technology is now affordable, and that this is helping even the playing field between places big and small. “It used to be you had to go to the Cities to be creative. But things are changing fast,’’ she said.

To know just how fast, consider the fact that the other finalist for the prestigious Arts and Entertainment category Emmy won by Pioneer Television was produced by Twin Cities Public Television. It has a proven track record as an innovative leader, and has the resources and talent that are the envy of other stations across the country.

A surprised Johnson accepted the award on behalf of Pioneer Television at a Sept. 28 ceremony in Minneapolis.

Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335