Howie Burbidge’s senior project focuses on how dying isn’t losing
Attending class, completing assignments, raising a child and enduring extensive pain were routine experiences for Howie Burbidge when he found out he had stage four cancer. Now healthy and in remission, he is a graduating directing major in the Department of Theatre and Media Arts. Burbidge reflects on his experience of discovering his passion at BYU while fighting a vicious disease.
A few years ago, while sitting in an industrial design class, Burbidge had two epiphanies. He realized, one, he was unskilled at drawing, and two, he could not stop thinking about making his own little films. This realization came after being an international relations major for exactly one day. Burbidge also tested the waters in entrepreneurship before settling on a major he was passionate about. While participating in these different classes, he checked out cameras from the library and created little films. Burbidge withdrew from the industrial design class and signed up to take photography the next semester. He continued to check out cameras and shoot his own films, but found photography was still not the perfect fit.
A couple of weeks into the photography class, Burbidge realized he could see images in his mind before he would shoot them on camera. This was with still photography, but he wanted to practice this with motion. He applied to the film program, coincidentally, using a documentary he filmed about one of his friends who had just beat cancer. He got into the program. Burbidge said, “I chose this major because film is the most powerful form of storytelling. There's no other way to give someone an experience quite like combining video and audio together into film. I was nervous to go into the industry, it has this scary stigma. My wife told me, ‘Don’t be afraid. Be confident enough to chase your dreams.’ “If you’re passionate about something, you’ll work hard enough and you’ll be good at it. Plus, it will be better than choosing something you’re not passionate about in the long run. So, I did it, I chose the thing I was passionate about, and I’m glad I did.”
As he looks back on his time at BYU, Burbidge said the hardest and most-rewarding class he took was TMA 285. In this course, designed for directors and cinematographers, students create one film a week. There are only ten students in the class and they switch off being a director one week and a cinematographer the next. “It was the hardest class in the film program because sometimes you have to produce a film and then the next time you write it,” said Burbidge. “You have to find the location and cast all within a matter of three or four days. Then you shoot the film, edit it, turn it in on Monday and restart. The paperwork of going through every single shot for just one film alone was a huge learning curve. At the end, I had a ton of confidence because I had just directed seven films in a short period of time and gained lots of practice during the process. It really pushed me creatively. I already knew I wanted to direct but those experiences were validating because I could see shots in my mind and then execute them in the way I saw it in my head.” Burbidge said completing that class is amongst his biggest accomplishments at BYU. This accomplishment is made even greater considering he was battling cancer at the same time. “That same semester, I started feeling some major pain in my body. It was on Thanksgiving that I woke up in the middle of the night and my back hurt so bad, I couldn't breathe. During the next few weeks, I experienced tremendous back pain every night. As I was experiencing this weird pain, I was also doing this really hard class and having to shoot my final film for the course. I started seeing doctors and none of them could tell me what was going on. I had to shoot my final and I was so worried my back pain would return during shooting.
“I shot my final film, went and saw some doctors and got some scans. After returning from Christmas break, I was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma in January 2017. Academically, I’m proud of myself for not just getting through that class, but honestly doing my very best. I’m proud of the films I made in that class. I didn't know I had cancer while I was doing it and I’m proud of myself for having the grit to push through.” As a 25-year-old college student and father, Burbidge received chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin Lymphoma from January through July of that year. “I would go into chemotherapy and sit next to others getting their chemo,” said Burbidge. “I know that some of those people aren’t alive today. When I found out I was in remission, people would say ‘Hey, congratulations you beat cancer. You did it. Good job.’ and I would think about the people that didn’t live and think, ‘Well, they still beat it. They beat it too.’ Just because they didn’t live and just because I lived doesn’t mean I beat it. Living doesn’t mean you beat cancer and dying doesn’t mean you don’t. I was thinking about that and wanted to write a story about someone who had a difficulty and didn’t live but still communicate that they beat it and that dying isn’t losing.”
From those thoughts, Burbidge created the storyline for his senior capstone film project titled “Gather.” In this film, a widower frontiersman and his 10-year-old daughter are trying to gather enough provisions and food before the ensuing winter. Ultimately, they die, but that is not the end of their story, or the film. After several drafts, Burbidge finished the script for “Gather” during the month of September. “I had just finished chemo,” said Burbidge. “I had done so many rounds. My chemotherapy was so powerful because I was at stage four. At the end of it in July, I felt dead — I just felt dead. I find inspiration for my films through my personal experiences. This man and his daughter, they don’t live, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t beat their trials. They’re able to have this completeness in the afterlife that they didn’t have on earth. That’s how I got the inspiration for this. “It's so easy to be scared and it would be so easy to live in fear but we can’t let ourselves do that. It makes me value every single day so much more and makes me not want to waste my time. I’m so glad I chose filmmaking — what I was really passionate about — because life is too short to do something that we aren’t passionate about doing. Yeah, having cancer was hard, but I feel so blessed in a way. I am able to live everyday with this new gratitude and able to do what I love. I’m so excited to share my films, whatever they are, with everyone.”
“Gather” will have a world premiere in September 2018 and tour festivals until its public release in fall 2019. As the director of “Gather,” Burbidge’s biggest lesson he has learned is that filmmaking is a team sport. He said there is so much collaboration that goes into bigger projects and putting one person’s name on a film does not give justice to the hundreds who contributed to its production. He said there is no way he could have done the film by himself. “Looking back,” said Burbidge, “I used to think filmmaking was big budget movies or nothing. Since being in the film program, I have learned you can make beautiful five-minute Youtube videos. As I look forward to my future, I don’t want to limit myself, and there is such a huge possibility in making internet movies right now. It would be constricting to limit myself to making ‘movie movies’ and not letting myself explore the medium and do shorter internet stuff. I think it would be fun to work on smaller crews and do Youtube movies.”
Burbidge said he also loves Youtube and internet movies because of their capability to be shared. He does not want to waste time not sharing the stories he wants to tell, and if he can upload a film in an hour and share it with everyone, that is a powerful way to live his dream. “I want to share stories that will inspire people to not be afraid to chase after their dreams and to not be afraid of failure. I want to share stories that will lift people up and empower them. I want to share my story through filmmaking one day. I feel that I’ve been given unique experiences in life that will help me help people and maybe shine a little bit of light in their life, even if it is through a screen.” To view Burbidge's current and future work, visit his Instagram, Youtube channel and website.