There was not much of the world John Driftmier had not seen. The documentary filmmaker followed oil drillers in the Arctic, submarine salvagers in the Atlantic and risk-taking pilots who landed creaky planes on the world’s remotest airstrips.
Africa was special: It was the place he had wanted to visit ever since he had seen the grainy 16mm films his grandfather shot while working in Sudan in the 1940s. Finally, in February, Mr. Driftmier, 30, got his chance. He flew to Kenya to film an episode of Dangerous Flights, the Discovery Channel series about the white-knuckle adventures of pilots delivering used commuter planes all over the world. One of the last things he said to his father David was: “I’m going to say hello to Africa for Grandpa.”
The episode had wrapped and the pilots were on their way home when Mr. Driftmier decided he needed to get a few more shots from the air. On Feb. 24, he enlisted the help of a noted Kenyan conservationist, Anthony King, who took him up in a private plane so he could grab the extra aerial footage. The plane crashed in Mount Kenya Forest, killing both Mr. Driftmier and Mr. King.
“He’d gone up to get that last bit of footage because that’s the way he was,” says Mr. Driftmier’s friend and business partner, Tyson Hepburn. “He was a perfectionist.”
A series of memorial services have been held for Mr. Driftmier across Canada, a testament to the shock over a life lost in its prime, but also to a young man who, in a high-pressure profession, was seen as singularly warm and affable.
“John had a gift for finding the dignity in every single character he put in front of his lens,” Mr. Hepburn said in his eulogy. “It didn’t matter if it was an alcoholic truck driver with a dream, an oil driller with a chip on his shoulder or a pilot from India, struggling with his decision to take a job in the Canadian North, John had the uncanny ability to find the bright spot and reveal the motivations and goals in everyone he filmed.”
Shooting in a studio did not interest Mr. Driftmier. In the six years since he graduated from Simon Fraser University, where he studied film and history, the Calgary native’s camera sought out adrenaline and drama. He shot a bickering company of aviators for Ice Pilots NWT and danger-prone salvage specialists for Highway Thru Hell. He and Mr. Hepburn created a show called Pyros, about people who set things on fire for a living.
This is how Mr. Driftmier described his work on his website: “Character-driven, action-packed, edge-of-your seat documentary and reality TV is what I do best. Through years of experience I have made it my specialty, working in extreme conditions, following larger-than-life characters in weird and wonderful ways.”
His gift, says Mr. Driftmier’s friend, Dangerous Flights producer Nicola Merola, lay in his ability to become close to the subjects he filmed. When other directors on a particular series had trouble getting people to open up for the camera, Mr. Driftmier would be called in. A family of Italian barbers, the subject of another reality show he was working on, closed down their shop for the day to come to his funeral.
Mainly, he liked to be in the thick of it. One of his favourite jobs as a cameraman was an episode of Monster Moves involving a monstrously large submarine. It was Mr. Driftmier’s job to film the Cold War-era HMCS Onondaga being hauled 1,000 miles over land and sea – but first, it needed a cleaning.
On the first day of shooting, Mr. Hepburn, who’d been hired thanks to his friend, climbed into the rusty hold and was soon soaking wet and covered in pigeon guano. “But then John climbed into the hold, and pretty soon he was covered in pigeon poo. He would never send you anywhere he wasn’t willing to go himself.” On the flight home, Mr. Driftmier and Mr. Hepburn, still caked in bird droppings, were given a row to themselves.
At his memorial services, Mr. Driftmier was remembered as a man who loved adventure, filmmaking, the ukulele and his family – especially his wife, Carolyn, whom he married in 2010. The couple lived in Ottawa. “She was the most important thing to him,” says Mr. Hepburn. “She would always be waiting for him at home. Except this time he didn’t come back.”
Even as a child growing up in Calgary, where he was born on Nov. 24, 1982, Mr. Driftmier seemed inclined toward a career in telling people what to do. In Grade 5, he organized his own Winter Olympics at the local sledding hill and ice rink, assigning classmates to various international teams.
Earlier, when he had been given his first video camera, he handed out scripts at his birthday party and filmed the proceedings. Once, his father, David Driftmier, picked him up at Sunday school only to find he had arranged all the other children in boxes, as if they were riding a train (he was also fixated on trains). As his mother, Sophia Lang, liked to say: “He was a born director.”
Mr. Driftmier was single-minded about his hobbies, whether it was trains or cameras or, later, flying. He wanted to join the air cadets at the age of 12 against his parents’ wishes. His father says: “He had two pacifist parents and we didn’t want to militarize our son. But he had a passion for flying.” He went ahead and joined the cadets anyway: “If he wanted to do something, we could never stop him,” David Driftmier says.
This stubbornness showed when Mr. Driftmier, sporting a huge Afro, was asked to cut his hair by managers at the snowboard park where he was teaching. It was the hair or the job, they said. Mr. Driftmier quit the snowboard park and then, along with an equally hirsute high-school friend, shaved his head for charity.
When he got to film school, Mr. Driftmier made a movie to honour his grandfather, Frederick, who’d made amateur films in Sudan when he taught English there in 1941. Mr. Driftmier narrated the short film, The Story of a Lifetime, over grainy 16-mm footage his grandfather shot: “My childhood imagination was mesmerized picturing his encounters with deadly animals. Like any other four year old, I was afraid of man-eating pythons, and my grandfather was the only person I knew who’d killed one.”
Mr. Driftmier had worked in more than 30 countries when he finally realized his dream to follow his grandfather’s path to Africa. He told one friend that the footage he shot in Kenya was the best he had ever done.
Did Mr. Driftmier think what he was doing was dangerous? “He thought he was very lucky to be travelling the world doing what he loved,” Mr. Hepburn says. Mr. Merola, the producer whose Montreal firm Pixcom makes Dangerous Flights, says that, for particularly risky shoots, Mr. Driftmier could use a remote-controlled camera called “The Devil’s Pack.” But the director did not use it on the Kenya shoot, he says, adding that he’s not sure whether the production company will continue making Dangerous Flights.
In The Story of a Lifetime, Mr. Driftmier discusses his fears about losing his grandfather, and how film is a way to keep someone alive forever: “The man I had once thought to be immortal would eventually die. I began to worry about the existence of my Grandpa’s stories. How would they exist if he’s no longer around to tell them?”
Mr. Driftmier is also remembered for the stories he left behind.
John Frederick Driftmier leaves his wife, Carolyn Allen, his mother, Sophia Lang, his father, David Driftmier, and his brother Peter Driftmier.