Tom Kolicko: “Failure is the greatest teacher”

“What would you do if you knew you could not fail” Someone else said this first, but I first learned this Matt Cutter, owner of Upslope Brewing Company and main character in one of my first films, Beer Culture. It was eye opening to hear what if you removed all of fears, those self limiting […]

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“What would you do if you knew you could not fail” Someone else said this first, but I first learned this Matt Cutter, owner of Upslope Brewing Company and main character in one of my first films, Beer Culture. It was eye opening to hear what if you removed all of fears, those self limiting beliefs and could focus on what you real purpose in life is.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Kolicko.

Meet Tom Kolicko, the scrappy and inspired founder of Traverse Image. Tom is well known in Colorado for the work that Traverse Image has done in the outdoor and craft spaces.. He regularly collaborates with craft brewers to help them get the word out about causes covered in his work.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

My backstory as a filmmaker actually began as a professional snowbum in New Jersey. Before moving out to Colorado to further my education, career, and film work, I was a certified snowbum with a camera working different professional athletes across the icy “mountains” of the east coast. It was pure grassroots, authentic snow culture, at times questionably legal, for many of the shoots that started my career. But that eventually gave way to moving to Colorado, to get my under gratitude degree from University of Colorado — Denver where I was to able learn more about story mechanics, writing, and the overall production process which landed me internships on a few National Geographic, and Discovery Network shows. All of the while I was pursuing my newly found passion creating my first feature-length documentary film about the American craft brewers entitled, Crafting A Nation, which would eventually become acquired by Netflix, Amazon, and helped to launch our digital film production company, Traverse Image.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

There have been countless funny and interesting moments throughout my career as a filmmaker. Truly having a camera gives you a backstage pass into people’s lives and experiences that no one else would ever have access to otherwise. However, one of the most interesting stories that occurred throughout my career as a filmmaker.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

The biggest perk of the job and one of the things that I love most about being a filmmaker are the people that I have looked up and then have to be able to interact with and interview. There have been countless high profile business owners, public speakers, politicians, rock stars, artists, and interesting characters but some of my personal highlights have been Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head brewery company, Peter Metcalf, the former CEO of Black Diamond, Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company, John Stewart of the Daily Show, Distinguished Professor Charles Wilkinson who penned the proposals of GSENM, and Bears Ears,

Each experience, interaction, and interview has left a profound impact on my life. To be in the same room, and listen to their stories through life, my crew and myself always find a new life lesson that was gained from each of the shoots. Or dinner and beers afterwards.

One of the stories that I love to share is the story of meeting Sam from Dogfishhead. It was the literal, last minute shoot for Crafting A Nation. The film was due in a little under 2 months, and this opportunity for this interview landed at the 11th hour. All in one day, we flew to Boston at 3:30am (mind you, we’re editing away on each flight), got picked up to film at Boston Beer Company with Jim Koch. Met and Interviewed Jim Koch (which is a story that deserves a chapter in a book one day) for about 3hrs. Got back on a plane, pre-edited the entire flight to the point where the stewardess was getting upset that we didn;t close our tray tables on the first 5 times she asked. Landed in Baltimore. our producer drove us 2hrs to the brewery so we could continue editing in the backseat. We arrive at the brewery to have dinner with Sam and his kids around 7:00am. It’s Christmas time in Rebohoth beach so the Christmas parade delayed us just long enough to finish a rough cut of the Jim Koch interview. We’ve been editing all day with blood shot eyes, probably still smell a bit like the beers we consumed with Jim Koch earlier that day, gotten onto 3 planes and in a few short minutes meet the current craft beer rockstar himself, Sam.

We walk into the original brewpub, Sam is sitting at his table, right in the middle of the brewpub with his kids. To say we were nervous, is an understatement. But Sam was the most genuine, down to earth, made us feel comfortable instantly. Never have I met someone with such gravitas around them, that they instantly were so easy to talk to and cut right through the short talk. It’s no wonder why Sam is the rockstar of craft beer. For hours and many beers we talked about business, philosophy, our artistic backgrounds, ethos of creating, the purpose of the film, all of the while every 5 minutes someone would stop by our table, shake his hand and ask him for an autograph. He always stood up, thanked them and motioned for his kids to do the same. He stressed to his kids the importance of making eye contact when someone is talking to you, something that I told Sam later my grandfather instilled into me.

The next day, we interviewed Sam in the steampunk treehouse that lives outside of his production brewery. He told us stories on-camera that he’s never told anyone else before. Which ended up becoming one of my favorite scenes in the film, and something that stands with me. He recounted the story of when he was starting out, the numbers were bleeding red, his wife and his son were crying bringing him nothing but bad news, but he knew that it would be all ok, that it would all work out. We still receive fan mail to this day how that scene inspired countless folks to open a brewery or pursue the dream they’ve held back on.Private video on Vimeo
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What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

5 Years, we founded Traverse Image as an outdoor inspired digital company that creates films about protecting the outdoors for generations to come. The 2 projects that are currently most exciting about and releasing soon are 100 Year Lease and On Strange Soil

100 Year Lease tells the story of agriculture and farm-land conservation in the rapidly developed Northern, Colorado area. I grew up in a small farm-town in New Jersey, and I’ve seen first hand how the fibers that make up a tight community are ripped apart through overdevelopment and the proliferation of endless copy and paste strip malls, box stores, and the same 5 house designs. The story of 100 year lease follows the Orlander family, and their 5 generation family farm from being consumed by encroaching development. Their way of life is based on preserving and protecting farmland, and this is their journey for obtaining a 100 year lease to protect the farmland that’s left in the area to continue farming, water conservation and supplying local grain to breweries through their malting company, Root Shoot Malting.

On Strange Soil is a massive 5 year documentary feature film project that tells the story of six seemingly opposing characters in the debate over protecting our public lands in the downsizing of Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments. With the inciting incident of the untried and unprecedented attack on the Antiquities Act by the current administration, the precedent that could be set is the undermining of our national parks and protected system of public lands as we know it. The film dives into the cultural, the livelihoods, the scientific, economic, character driven stories that tell the untold story of why our national monuments were downsized and what a compromise looks like to protect the American West.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Theodore Roosevelt for his bold ideas and unprecedented action in the wake of incredible opposition in creating the National Park System, the Antiquities Act and preserving so many wilderness areas in this country. While it can be argued accurately with a a high degree of factual counterpoints that many national parks and national monuments are stolen tribal land and boundaries (Mesa Verde, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain National Park to name a few) while mistakes have been made along the way in the effort of preservation and conservation, the National Park system and TR’s contributions to protecting this country’s natural and cultural resources is one of the best ideas this country has ever had.

Martin Lurther King for his leadership and direction that is referenced to this very day. Now, we need a leader who can speak intelligently, think deeply about the intended and unintended outcomes of their actions, and can inspire a nation to solidarity over an issue such as ending systemic racism in this country. I deeply admire MLK’s bravery, his foresight into how change is accomplished, how protesting is effective through non-violent actions. With the recent admission of fault on behalf of the NFL issuing a statement that the NFL was wrong in its earlier decision about taking a knee as a sign of peaceful and patriotic protest is a great example of how long it takes to change an organization’s opinions. We need more leaders like MLK who possess and inspire free agency into their listeners, and to encourage them to take meaningful action that improves the human experience for all men and women.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

How I measure success is how successful the stories in my films are. I do not ever want to make a film that gives audiences all of the answers or tell them what to think. But poses thought provoking questions through the intercutting of how the characters play out on screen. While I have made successful films that have provided myself and my company with the resources to continue growing our craft as filmmakers, it’s been our focus to ensure that the outdoors is protected for generations to come. And the outdoors is an equitable space for all to experience.

Currently we are working on the complicated yet important story about preserving the sacred, tribal lands of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase in Southern Utah.

As a company we’ve also become 1% for the planet company with our Built with Purpose program. Each year we give a portion of our profits back to a non-profit partner that is aligned, lowering the barrier of entry into the outdoors for at risk youth or vulnerable communities to provide them with experiences in the outdoors that inspire leadership.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

The ‘AH-HA” moment to start Traverse Image is still engrained clearly into my memory. A few of my filmmaking friends and myself were camped out in New Mexico on a road-trip to work on another film. We were all working freelance in the industry at that time and completely burned out of working with agencies, corporations and commercials. Personally, I was assigned to produce a million dollar campaign that pro Oil and Gas development by a very, very large O&G company in Colorado. I hated it. I hated everything about it. I hated the agency behind the creative. I hated that everyone saw the money, and didn’t see the selling out of their values. I hated that the money was a good rate. I hated that I felt like a superhero using their super powers for evil.

I wanted to make documentary film, and commit to using our combined craft as a filmmaker to focus on films and supporting companies that improve and inspire the human condition. It was exhausting making spots solely to make the rich, richer, or big box stores sell more big boxes. We knew it would be a painful start to Traverse Image but the challenge to fill our souls with putting our cameras in the right places made it all worth it. That was 7 years ago.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Maybe not just one person, but honestly, I need to give my parents credit where credit is due. Without them, their support, love, help, encouragement, I won’t be where I’m at today. Family is the most important thing in my life. You might have all of the resources, money, gear, professional connections, but without family cheering you on, I couldn’t imagine a greater motivator. They have always been the first to show up at all of my screenings and last the leave. They’ve listened to the successes, been there for the crushing lows, and without them, dang, I don’t know where’d I be. They have always been down for the cause, and helped with everything from rides to the airport several times a week to being my biggest fans on social media.

I love you mom and dad, thank you for always believing in me and my crazy dreams with a camera.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

  1. Vote with your dollar, and support companies that are purpose driven to improving the environment and align with your values as a human. The more companies and organizations that are mission driven, the more story and funding opportunities filmmakers have to create meaningful films.
  2. Society, please do you research. Thoroughly Understand the topics that you are most passionate about. Truly understand what is happening in this country through doing factual research, and not what appears in your social scroll, or in the news cycle. The more research you do, hopefully the more films that you will also watch to learn more about the topics, and the counterpoint arguments in a well produced film. There is no such thing as alternative facts, just very poor research. Do not allow for the foundation of journalism in his country to be undermined.
  3. Government, although this is lofty goal, make more grant money and tax incentives available for creatives. The arts are incredibly underfunded, but pays dividends for the benefits of society and the human experience. Fund the arts!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. “What would you do if you knew you could not fail” Someone else said this first, but I first learned this Matt Cutter, owner of Upslope Brewing Company and main character in one of my first films, Beer Culture. It was eye opening to hear what if you removed all of fears, those self limiting beliefs and could focus on what you real purpose in life is.
  2. “Make good friends and do great work” I’m also now teach documentary filmmaking at the University of Colorado — Denver, and this is what I tell my students at the start of every semester. College is it’s nature academic, but the real way we learn and grow is through our social circles and we are regulated by the quality of work that the group produces. I made my first few films with the friends that I sat down next to my first day of film school. We’ve traveled the country several times and those friends and I all worked to create some really good work together that changed the course of all our lives for the better.
  3. “Failure is the greatest teacher” Master Yoda. learn to embrace failure, make mistakes, it’s ok. Failures are only failures if you do not learn and grow from them. Making mistakes is the biggest part of learning. Failure is a positive sign of growth and learning how to fail successfully is the cornerstone of anyone who is successful.
  4. “Balance is everything” Burnout is easy for successful filmmakers. It’s a consuming job. I’ve epicly burnt out Crafting A Nation. I did not take the time I needed to decompress and instead was consumed with all of the new opportunities I had in front of me, that I ran at a sprint pace for 3 years. No one can run that long. Build balance into your life. Understand that it’s ok to talk about mental health and to take time for yourself.
  5. Money is the bi-product of success. Never make money your #1 focus. You’ll come across as fake, and people will see right through you. If you make a film to make money, you’ve got it all wrong. If you are doing film to become a millionaire, good luck if that’s your only goal. Film is about intentionally being an artist, focusing on how the character and plot work that moves the story forward so the audience can escape into the universe you’ve created for them. Filmmakers like the best business owners, need to be purpose driven, with a well defined “why’. The more you hone your craft, the better your films will become, and hopefully as a bi-product, money will flow your way as a sign of appreciation for the contribution of your work.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It’s the right thing to do. We only have so much time on this rock flying through star dust. Why wouldn’t you want to do something to leave it better than how you found it.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Macklemore, his music spoke to me as an early filmmaker. The Heist came out during my formative years. I’ve never heard an artist so vulnerable and yet so positive about the creative struggle. I listened to that record so many times through the early years of editing, I always wanted to reach out and just say, thank you! It’s one of those albums where every line, almost every lyric related to exactly how I was feeling for that day.

President Obama. There are 5 people on my bucket list of people that I want to interview. I would love to speak to him about his fundamental principles of leadership. His come-up story. And lastly his environmental policies since he pivoted greatly from the start of term as president to wrapping up with Sally Jewel as his Secretary of the Interior who created Bears Ears.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Passion is transparent” When you have a real, genuine, soulful passion, people see exactly who you are and gravitate towards you. Things in your life just seem to align magically when you live with passion. There is magic in the intangible, and living my life with passion has helped me grow into places that I never thought would be possible.

How can our readers follow you online?





Traverse Image

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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