Desert Stories Come to Life in the High Desert Chronicles

by Della Lowe

phil tuckett and Ben Braten his cinematographer
Phil Tuckett (left) and Ben Braten, cinematographer.

The desert has an energy and a mystery all its own. You never know what you’ll find. For example, a high-quality documentary film festival in a tiny corner of Utah, and a university film program whose students produce professional, feature length documentary films.

The emptiness and starkness of the desert landscape brings out a different kind of creativity and drive in its inhabitants. Just as the animals and plants adapt, so do the people. It is for that reason that the students in the Dixie State University (DSU) film program produce a film each year for inclusion in DOCUTAH, which becomes part of The High Desert Chronicles, the stories that spring from the environs of the desert Southwest.

“The petri dish for this whole project was a class I teach called Documentary Production. The creative process always starts with a blank slate and the class begins to think of ideas. But they must think quickly. A three-month semester does not allow for a lot of rumination,” said Phil Tuckett, DSU Professor of Digital Film and Director of DOCUTAH. “You can’t meander about and wonder about this or that. Decisions need to be made and acted on.”

The class is capped at 15 students. Each student who finds a story, is required to pitch that idea to the class. The challenge, of course, is to make your idea interesting enough that others would give up their idea to produce yours. Students must also learn, understand, and implement the practical applications of anything that is needed in the film business to bring any project to fruition.

“You are either asking for money, asking for equipment, asking for practical help. You’re always asking for something. So, in the case of our students, it starts out with asking the other members of the class to abandon their idea for the one you have,” said Tuckett.

“The first three or four years, we did not quite formulate a strong concept to take it forward, not only for the three months where you get the first rough cut, but also to take that throughout the summer to prepare the film to be in DOCUTAH. I would not allow any film into DOCUTAH unless it was professional quality.” Tuckett says one must be careful when you decide this is the film to which you are going to devote a year of your life. You want to be sure that it is something that you won’t get halfway into and say, “Well I’ve wasted my time on that.”

Nadauld _ crew at Biorepository

A perfect example of what happens when an idea and the content really works is My Father’s Highway, which was the first film that fit well into the idea of The High Desert Chronicles. Tuckett felt that this film really tapped into an idea that came to great fruition.

“I broke my own rule on that one because usually I do not pitch an idea to the students. The project needs to be theirs. However, in that case, I did because I had wanted to do that film since 1972, when my wife and I came back to St. George. I had been told there was a road through a slot canyon that was impassable, even on a horse, and now there was a four-lane highway on it! I always wondered where did that come from and who built it. It was a big hit at the Festival.”

The next chronicle was The Devil and the Angel, a film about Kevin Lee, a master luthier [a maker of stringed instruments] who is working in the desert. Kevin says if the violin wood is cured in a low humidity environment, when it is finished, it can go to any place in the world. Violins which are made in higher humidity, when brought to a dry spot such as the desert, shrink and crack. Therefore, in our little corner of the wilderness, Kevin makes internationally renowned violins, which can be transported anywhere in the world.

“Then when we heard about the work that is going on at Intermountain Healthcare in genetic cancer research and treatment, that really intrigued us, because when you think of the desert, you might picture an old coot with a mule looking for ore, but it could just as easily be high tech. In 2016, that idea became, Moonshot through the Double Helix, the third in our series produced by DSU students.”

This year, Tuacahn: Miracle in Padre Canyon is the fourth. The documentary intertwines the history of that magical place with a behind the scenes look at how the production of Shrek the Musical came together.

“I guess for me it’s a legacy. You look to what are you going to leave behind when you are all done with this. I had thirty-eight years at NFL Films, really helping to create that genre, but I thought I had more to offer than making football films. Coming home to Dixie State University, I saw an open field of possibilities. By having DOCUTAH as part of DSU and bringing the students into direct contact with film professionals, I get to do what I love–making documentaries–and the students get real world experience making films–shooting, editing, producing, meeting deadlines–while still in school. It does not get any better than that.”

For a list of DOCUTAH Film Festival show times, and special events, visit This years film festival will be held from September 4-9.

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