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Snapshots of Life


FADE IN — MEDIUM SHOT
Bob Trondson sits alone at his computer, putting the finishing touches
on his second screenplay, “Welcome to the Beautiful South.” Satisfied, he sits
back and presses the button that fires it off to his Hollywood agent.
An hour passes. Bob waits. Suddenly, the phone rings.

BOB TRONDSON
Hey, how are you? Such a quick response! What did you think?

FEMALE VOICE OVER THE PHONE
(Unenthused.) Let me ask you a question. Why am I even reading this?

Bob is crestfallen and slumps in his seat. Camera slowly pans to a book
on documentary filmmaking.

FADE OUT

Life has its watershed moments, and for Bob Trondson, founder and director of Madison’s Clouds North Films, the coldhearted rejection of his 2004 screenplay did not destroy his filmmaking ambitions. Instead, he turned his lens away from fictional characters to focus instead on the life stories of real people who are changing the world in sometimes small but meaningful ways.

“What I love about documentaries and struggled with as a screenwriter was writing authentic-sounding dialogue,” Trondson says. “In a documentary, the narrative and drama are built in, and everyone has an interesting story to tell. I love to tell those stories.”

The documentarian has already told more than his share of those stories since making his first film in 2002 and starting Clouds North in 2017. Most recently, he moved his operations into Garver Feed Mill and filmed several music videos with Madison singer-songwriter Katie Scullen. In July, he shot one of many micro-docs he’s done for the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, this time featuring the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and embarked on another series for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to highlight the UpStart program, a free service designed to develop entrepreneurship among women and people of color.

Trondson, who was born in Waukesha and attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, cut his professional teeth in Chicago both as a musician and fledgling filmmaker. He was the drummer for the “carnival punk” band Blue Meanies and became obsessed with music videos, first as a fan and then as a producer and director. One of his short films, “Range Life,” named after a song by Pavement, was featured in the 2003 Wisconsin Film Festival. It also attracted the attention of Chicago musician Andrew Bird.

Bird, who was fronting the band Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, was unhappy being labeled a Midwestern performer, Trondson says, and “Range Life” struck a chord with him. Bird retired to land he owned in Elizabeth, Illinois, and reinvented himself as a solo musician, eventually becoming an international star. Trondson was able to capture some of that process on camera.

“We were at the right place at the right time,” says Trondson, who then created a film about Bird.

In addition to music videos, Trondson did commercial work and other short-form projects in Chicago before beginning a four-year stint in Los Angeles, which was ultimately unsatisfying. He returned to Madison at the behest of his now-wife, Erin, who lived here. The couple’s first date was at the 2003 Wisconsin Film Festival for a showing of “Spellbound,” a 2002 documentary about the 72nd annual National Spelling Bee. The film remains a Trondson favorite — largely because of his date, he says.

Trondson produced 2015’s “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams,” the 60-minute Wisconsin Public Television film about the groundbreaking civil rights activist and attorney who became Wisconsin’s first Black female secretary of state. With Clouds North Films, he specializes in “micro-docs” — short 4- to 10-minute glimpses into the lives and struggles of everyday people and organizations.

Clouds North Films team members interview someone on camera

Courtesy of Clouds North Films. Bob Trondson (pictured on far right) and his Clouds North Films team (one member pictured center) interview prominent community leaders like Jeffrey Lewis of Natural Circles of Support (pictured far left).

Trondson’s strategy is to embed himself and his crew within the organization he’s filming, creating mutual trust so the subjects become comfortable sharing their stories. The approach has worked well with local groups like the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, the African American Breastfeeding Alliance and One City Schools. Trondson has just started working on a micro-doc about the creation and placement of the Vel Phillips statue slated to be installed outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in 2024.

“A good documentary offers viewers a connection that doesn’t waste their time with superfluous information,” Trondson says. “All good documentaries have a one-sentence throughline and each scene has to address that theme. It offers viewers involvement that makes them more than just flies on the wall. Plus, really good cinematography helps.”

Michael Muckian is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine. Reach him at mmuckian@icloud.com.

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