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Made Here

'The Balloonist' mirrors the playful, DIY ethos of legendary hot air balloon pilot Brian Boland

Vermonter Brian Boland was at home up in the air.

Over his lifetime, he built and flew more than 100 hot air balloons, and ran the Post Mills Airport in Orange County. Boland always had a colorful story at the ready. And with a tweed cap and a gray beard, the man known locally as the Balloon Guy also looked the part of an eccentric airman.

Boland died in a ballooning accident in 2021. It happened while Malcolm Quinn Silver-van Meter was making a documentary about the well-known pilot’s life.

Fast forward to today, and The Balloonist is the next film in Vermont Public’s Made Here series, airing tonight at 8 p.m. on our main TV channel and available now on demand.

Silver-van Meter joined Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch to talk more about the documentary and how he worked to capture the spirit of this unique Vermonter on film. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Your film tries to capture this very big spirit, the eccentric and colorful Brian Boland. And you got to spend time with him. What was he like? And what do you remember about his big personality?

Malcolm Quinn Silver-van Meter: Yeah. I was always aware of him growing up; I grew up a quarter mile, half mile away from the airport. Every morning, I would grow up hearing the hot air balloons pass overhead, so he was always a presence. It wasn't really until this project that I got to connect with him personally.

He's very playful, and so it felt important to incorporate that into the feeling of the movie. He's very philosophical — he sort of switches between those two modes very quickly. In the feeling of the movie, we wanted it to feel very organic. We wanted it to have a handmade quality. When he talks about building his sculptures or the Vermontasaurus, he talks about, you know, no straight lines — sort of rejecting the rules. So, I wanted there to be a very playful energy to the whole piece.

Brian Boland on his property with one of his sculptures.
Brian Boland on his property with one of his sculptures.

Yeah, now that you're mentioning that, that totally describes the feel for the viewer. There's a lot of movement; we feel like we're right next to Brian, standing on his property, or in that pickup truck driving the dirt roads, chasing after him in the balloon. And then conversely, there's also shots when he's up in the balloon, and they're quieter, they're smoother. Was that part of that vision too?

When figuring out how to structure the movie, I knew from the beginning that the balloon flight was going to be a sequence, a set piece. His spiritual side and everything has to do with this moment. For us to get the proper catharsis, it was important to withhold that moment as long as possible. I sort of tried to tease it or cheat it using animation or by using like a shot of the shadow of the balloon going up.

But I tried to allow for that moment to have its maximum impact by making it feel special in its singularity, by keeping it until the end. I wanted to to end the film with some sort of tribute to him. I thought the idea of him sort of going up in the balloon as his send off could be very beautiful.

Brian passed away in an accident. How did that change your approach to making and finishing the film?

First, I didn't do anything with the footage for a long time. I had a cut of it. It wasn't until last fall that I sort of felt removed enough from his death to feel like I could responsibly re-approach the subject.

I think what my realization was ultimately was that his death doesn't really need to change the story at all. Because the story was about his his life. His death is a detail and it's context, and it adds weight to a lot of the footage. It doesn't really change who he was, what his personality was or what his art was.

Well, I want to take a quick detour and touch on Brian's property — the land that he lives on. He created his own museum with all of these found objects and also built dozens and dozens of tree houses and huts and then the wooden Vermontasaurus dinosaur. Why do you think he felt compelled to collect and build these structures on his grounds?

He had a love for creating things. He found a lot of inspiration in things he would observe. One of his more elaborate houses is a giant treehouse that he called the lightning house. The story behind that was that this huge tree got struck by lightning and split down the middle and just created this very interesting shape. And so then he built the treehouse sort of around the shape of this tree that had been split into three parts. I feel like his building and his collecting are very connected, highlighting the stuff that's already in there — whether it's nature or erosion, or it's an object's aging or rusting or whatever it is.

Samuel W. Smith

I also love learning that he mentioned he has the budget of a 10 year old, which is zero. And so he creates these works of art with like just found objects and free things.

We were very lucky that we had Vermont Public support, but we tried to apply those same principles as we were making it. We didn't want the animation to be too smooth. My original plan was to do watercolor, but when I started speaking with my animator, Sam, his suggestion was to consider oil pastel. We tried that out and it worked really well. It had just such such a childlike, playful quality to it that felt much more in line with the sort of homemade quality of the stuff that he was building.

Yeah, and a frugality too. That's such a Vermont-y, New Englandy kind of thing. That's so cool. As a balloonist, Brian set some distance and altitude records around the world. Can you describe his stature in the ballooning community?

Yeah, he's internationally respected. I didn't even realize before I started making the project how widely known he is in the ballooning community. He has multiple world records. Yeah, it was really, really cool to see all of the random corners of the world where he had an impact on people.

Coming back to Vermont, and even Orange County and the community there — what do you think his legacy is?

He was so beloved. I've never had so many people reach out to me to tell me they're excited about a project. And everyone who reaches out told me what their story with Brian is. He was such a special person in a community for so many people. He's a legend.

The Balloonist premieres on Vermont Public's main TV channel 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 19 and is available now on demand.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
As Director of Content Partnership, Eric works with individuals and organizations to make connections leading to more Vermont stories. As Producer of the Made Here series, Eric partners with filmmakers from New England and Quebec to broadcast and stream local films. Find more info here: https://www.vermontpublic.org/show/made-here