Somewhere between Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, just off the coast of a tiny volcanic island called Raikoke, a small vessel bobbed in the chop of the Sea of Okhotsk. An assorted group of photographers, scientists, and filmmakers lined the boat’s railing and stared in disbelief as the landscape came into focus. The island, usually lush and green, smoldered in an ashy gray state of complete desolation. The air was heavy with sulfuric smoke tendrils, and flocks of birds circled in infinite loops overhead with nowhere to land. The sea-lapped shores, once home to a thriving sea lion rookery, had been reduced to smoking rubble.
The volcano had been dormant for almost a century. Colorado-based filmmakers Taylor Rees, 35, and Renan Ozturk, 41, hadn’t planned to pull up to its shores less than three weeks after an eruption. The husband-and-wife team—recent co-founders of production company Expedition Studios in Ridgway—originally designed the trip to the remote Kuril Islands simply to explore, climb, and photograph one of the most inaccessible volcanic archipelagos in the world. But as they inevitably do on the far-flung trips that Ozturk and Rees embark upon, things changed.
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Just before their departure from the port city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, they met a Russian marine mammal biologist whose boat had been destroyed by the ash when the volcano erupted while he was at Raikoke. He wanted to go back to check on the rookery as part of his ongoing studies of the islands’ rapidly declining wildlife populations. He persuaded the crew to let him stow away, a small tweak in personnel that dramatically altered the trajectory of the trip. The biologist’s lifelong goal to protect the mostly uninhabited Kuril Islands became a driving force behind the journey—and ultimately the prevailing theme of the award-winning 2020 film From Kurils With Love. Sweeping cinematography, often courtesy of a fleet of drones, captured the isolated beauty of the Kurils and the wildlife clinging precariously to a habitat under attack, not just by an unexpected eruption but also by climate change.
“[The destruction on Raikoke] was incredibly powerful visually as well as story-wise,” Ozturk says 18 months later. He remembers it like a snapshot, recounting it over the phone from somewhere outside Canyonlands National Park in Utah—just another day on assignment—his voice clicking in and out through the fuzz of a sketchy signal. “In that moment, Taylor kicked into high gear and I started diving into the cinematography with intensity. We were coming together like Voltron. It was a documentary filmmaking combat moment.”
The Kuril Islands excursion wasn’t Rees and Ozturk’s first, nor last, expedition that framed life and death so starkly. Unpredictability and risk come with the territory for people who often push themselves to the limit of human capability to get the shot—and deliver it to the audience in a way that exposes the nuanced relationship between humankind and an unforgiving yet fragile natural world. In adventure circles, the Coloradans are considered to be among the best mountaineers, explorers, and expeditioners in the world. “The best” is subjective, of course, but Ozturk, an athlete for the North Face and former National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, is certainly a world-class climber, having roped up on big walls, first ascents, and summit attempts of the planet’s cruelest peaks with the likes of Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Alex Honnold. In fact, Ozturk was the cinematographer for the award-winning 2015 documentary Meru, which follows Ozturk, Anker, and Chin on a harrowing first ascent of the Shark’s Fin route up 21,850-foot Meru Peak in the Himalayas.
Even before he was known for his climbing, Ozturk felt the allure of the Himalayas, and in his 20s moved to Nepal to complete a language program that helped him forge a connection to the region. He then spent the early years of his artistic career living the dirtbag dream, sleeping in caves or under the stars at the base of whatever slab of granite called to him. “I felt like that was a real need in my life, to be able to wake up and look out for instant inspiration,” he says.
Ozturk is the type of person who says those kinds of things. The bravado one might expect of someone who’s so well acquainted with existing at the edge of death—the Meru summit came just five months after he suffered a severed vertebral artery and cranial fracture from a backcountry skiing accident—is absent with Ozturk. Instead, he is measured, thoughtful, even soulful.
Rees’ reverence for nature runs just as deep, albeit through a different lens. During an evening walk through the woods near the couple’s home in the San Juan Mountains, she reflects over the phone on her long relationship with the outdoors, which she further nurtured by earning her master’s degree at the Yale School of Forestry. “I developed an ecological consciousness that plays into the work I do now,” she says. “The films I make, the questions I ask, come from a place of really deep curiosity.”
No slouch herself on a wall, Rees’ proclivity for adventure may have been preordained; her middle name is Freesolo, a handle bestowed upon her by her climber parents. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Rees and Ozturk’s first date was a 24-hour climb up the Gold Face/Full Exum route of the 13,775-foot Grand Teton outside Jackson, Wyoming. It was an ambitious climb laced with harrowing moments and a giddy release that perhaps only climbers can understand. He admired her rare combination of in-the-moment tenacity and big-picture awareness. She was drawn to his quiet strength—a feeling she calls “home.”
Four years after their first date, they married, settled in Park City, Utah—they moved to Ridgway in early 2020 after an extensive canvassing of mountain towns for the ideal balance of authenticity, community, and outdoor adventure—adopted a husky named Baloo, and continued fusing their respective, often overlapping, passions. At their core, they are storytellers. In screen credits and on paper, that translates to roles as directors, producers, photographers, or cinematographers, depending on the project. In 2020, their work appeared in roughly 120 film festivals. “When it comes to projects, our rule of thumb is to have as many irons in the fire as possible,” Rees says. “Renan and I are compulsive doers. It’s almost unsustainable; it’s not healthy from a longevity standpoint.”
Healthy or not, their work ethic has earned them sponsors (Adorama, Sony, Thule, Leatherman, and Red camera gear, among others) that help outfit trips and execute assignments, and commercial clients (Apple, Google, Nike) that not only pay the bills, but also help fund expeditions—both commissioned and passion projects—that can run up obscenely high tabs. Their combined portfolio is peppered with documentary features, shorts, and photographs that capture the trips: a climbing quest deep in Nepal to document villagers who hand-harvest psychedelic honey from the world’s largest bees by scaling rope ladders up sheer cliffs (The Last Honey Hunter, 2017); a journey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Yellow Brick Road, 2017), where they were held at gunpoint three times, to highlight the shadowy world of Congolese gold extraction; and an Everest mission (The Ghosts Above, 2020) to search for the body of a climber missing since 1924, in an attempt to solve the mystery of who was truly the first to summit the famed mountain.
Such a work environment is as demanding of physical togetherness as it is of creative freedom. And it can thwart the equilibrium of both a marriage and a professional partnership. Recalibrating that harmony is one reason the pair decided to separate from the Salt Lake City–based production company, Camp4 Collective, that Ozturk co-founded in 2010 and start fresh in the San Juan Mountains. They wanted to re-evaluate the frenetic pace of their work. “Moving to Colorado was intentional,” Rees says. “We were falling apart—as much as privileged, healthy people can fall apart.” They arrived here just as the pandemic hit and set to work building Expedition Studios.
The idea is to manufacture a creative force inclusive of local communities, trusted adventure colleagues, artistic visionaries, clients, and social and environmental change agents across the globe. While they haven’t yet figured out the finer points of how the studio will fit into the community, they hope to tap into their new Colorado surroundings by partnering with regional film events like Telluride’s Mountainfilm, Carbondale’s 5Point Adventure Film Festival, and the Ridgway Independent Film Festival (for which they already served as judges in 2020). They plan to hire local talent for shooting, editing, and office management. They want to host bike-in movie nights and weekend workshops on topics such as film, adventure photography, and environmental storytelling. And they intend to bring in—when appropriate and responsible—commercial work that can give Colorado towns an economic boost. They’ve already begun building out a physical studio space that will serve as a “mountain sanctuary” where they can host, as artists-in-residence, the types of collaborators (editors, music composers, climbers, interns) who tend to need weeks at a time immersed in fine-tuning a film. As both will tell you, there’s no singular model for producing films with so many moving parts. “You have to be fast and light and pivot to come away with the most powerful story,” Ozturk says. “I don’t sugarcoat it at all. It’s complete chaos.”
The studio launch may also allow them more space to pursue a different type of storytelling, one they’ve already started to tackle. Take one of Rees’ most recent films, Ashes to Ashes (2019), which was featured on the New Yorker’s documentary site in January. No gnarly crags, no dense jungles, no bone-chilling winds—not even a passport required. In this instance, Rees and Ozturk, who directed and shot the film, respectively, grappled with the idea of death—in this case, murder—from an entirely different angle.
The filmmakers were drawn to the story of Winfred Rembert, a Black man from southern Georgia who survived a lynching attempt in the mid-1960s. Rembert remained haunted until his death in March of this year by the horrific injustices that so many did not survive during the Jim Crow era. Rees orchestrated the poignant, award-winning film in collaboration with Dr. Shirley Whitaker, a physician, artist, and activist who staged a 2016 memorial in Massachusetts to honor the 4,000 Black Americans who were lynched during that time and never received proper burials or services—and to bring awareness to the fact that overt racism never faded away. “I think this story was a new avenue for Taylor [Rees],” Whitaker says. “They just focused on the information they were trying to share. They listen to people. It’s a powerful story, but you could still take the photographs and not touch the soul with it. I don’t think I heard [Ozturk] say 20 words, but he just takes that film and camera and makes it come alive. Some people know how to relate to [their subject] and make it give a little more. He is gifted at that.”
Although they are talented at telling other people’s—and other places’—stories, verbalizing their own often gives Rees and Ozturk pause. Their narrative straddles the line between professional and personal. It’s a line that tends to blur, disappear, and re-emerge drawn differently, depending on the demands of a project. Each difficult shoot, dangerous expedition, or risky climb could end with a finality for which neither is ready but both are prepared. They have to be.
Both have lost friends to the power of nature: avalanches, BASE jumping, and suicide after a tragedy in the mountains. “We are aware of how it feels to have to carry that burden and never be able to put it down,” Rees says, “because no one else can pick it up. I do think we treat each other with a tremendous amount of respect, patience, and kindness.” And they are trying to be more intentional with their time—to slow down, even. Rees is learning to play the guitar. They take 6:30 a.m. walks together—when they’re both home—to clear their minds before checking their phones. But then, there’s reality. In March, they emerged from what might’ve been the most logistically intense expedition of their careers—to the Guiana Shield—a National Geographic trip into what may be the most biodiverse region in the world.
Punctuated by dramatic flattop cliffs, or tepuis, that were tantalizing enough to lure Alex Honnold on the trip for a first-ascent climbing effort, the Upper Paikwa River Basin at the nexus of Guyana, Venezuela, and Brazil lacks the protections of a national park or conservation-area designation. It’s threatened as much by gold and diamond mining as by climate change.
The expedition was led by a renowned biologist on a mission to discover endemic species of frogs and reptiles before they succumb to these threats. Before they departed, Rees ticked off the game plan like a cruise itinerary: paddle for a couple of days in dugout canoes through remote jungles; trek for more than 50 miles over 10 days through an untraversed part of the jungle to the base of a 1,000-foot cliff; spend a week climbing the wall to get to the top of the mesa; then descend a sinkhole that yawns 700 feet into the heart of the rainforest, all the while collecting data and documenting the biodiversity at stake. In his first social media post back on the grid in early March, Ozturk said the trip, #TheLostWorldExpedition, was more difficult for him than Everest. Due to extremely poor conditions, including near-constant rain, relentless fog, and indomitable mud, the team didn’t make it to the sinkhole.
When they’re not sifting through footage of the South American journey for a National Geographic TV episode that will air in November, Rees will continue producing a passion-project film illuminating human rights violations and land destruction in Chile related to lithium mining. Ozturk has a project on tap to “follow around some Turkish nomads,” then undertake an as-yet-to-be-funded journey to Nepal to document a snow leopard conservation effort that could positively impact Indigenous communities.
For now, though, if only for a few weeks this spring, Rees and Ozturk are in Ridgway. This past year, they’ve been watching elk meander through their yard, a little slice of mountain life that’s become part of their story since they made the San Juan Mountains their home. “It’s these little cues the world gives you that makes you know you’ve made a good decision,” Ozturk says. “It feels good to be in Colorado and starting to be part of the cycles here. Hopefully, it’s a good omen.”