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On Set with David Larson '03

David Larson '03
Photo courtesy of Early Light Media

As a kid, David Larson usually had one of two things in his hands: a lacrosse stick or a camera. The former was what carried him to York College from his hometown of Dover, Delaware. Recruited to play attack for the Spartans, Larson was part of the first varsity team to play in the Div.III Capital Athletic Conference. 

His grandfather’s hand-me-down Nikon FE 35 mm. camera was an equally easy fit. “I had an early interest with cameras,” recalls Larson, who is an Emmy-Award photojournalist, award-winning filmmaker, and co-founder of Baltimore’s Early Light Media. “I barely knew how to use [the Nikon], but the experimentation and figuring out how it worked were part of the fun. [Taking photos] tapped into my creative and visual side.”

When Larson arrived at college, he knew that he wanted to study communications. Though he wasn’t sure exactly how his creativity would come into focus, he knew he was in the right place. “York College gave me the opportunity to explore different options,” says Larson of his Mass Communications/Media Studies major.

He embraced everything the departments had to offer. He hosted an AM and FM show on York College Radio – mostly classic rock – and took writing classes. But it was shooting footage and producing films that had Larson running to Wolf Hall. Far from the typical college-student-oversleeping scenario, he simply couldn’t wait to get to class and get his hands on a camera or editing system. 

Whatever his subject, Larson has a single goal with his lens: capturing something real about the human experience. “We all have a story to tell, and to get people to identify with that story, you need to find the little things that make us human and connect us all. If I can illuminate a subject or topic through shared feelings, then I can reach greater audiences and get them to understand other people’s points of view.”

For 10 years following graduation, Larson honed his storytelling skills as a photojournalist for TV news stations in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore, Maryland. When he was looking for a job in 2003, he thought that working for an ad agency would be a good fit. After all, he had enjoyed his minor in Advertising and Marketing and the business side of the creative field. But he came across an editing job at a station near his hometown and landed the 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. editor gig. “From there it snowballed,” he says. “I moved into a photography position and then it took off to shooting.” 

His broadcasting career earned him numerous awards and a creative collaborator in Darren Durlach, fellow WBFF photojournalist. They shared a love of narrative filmmaking and a desire to start their own production company. 

Larson had another reason for exploring his next career move: the grinding news cycle with its near-constant negative stories was taking its toll. “I wanted to dive into the creative stories,” he explains. “What I loved about journalism was talking with people and showing their lives.” Co-founding Early Light Media with Durlach also gave Larson the chance to work with different cameras – a throwback to what he loved as a boy and in his York College production classes. 

For a year, while working full time at the news station, Larson and Durlach toiled to get Early Light Media off the ground. In 2014, they switched to full-time entrepreneurs, business owners, and filmmakers. “It’s been steady going ever since,” Larson proudly remarks of their five-year-old venture. Early Light Media’s client list includes Baltimore-based organizations from Loyola University Maryland to the Annie E. Casey Foundation and national clients such as Microsoft, Pandora, KPMG, and Cape Cod Potato Chips. 

The company has a few documentary films in the can, too, with more to come. Larson and Durlach co-directed Throw, a documentary short that received national buzz in 2016 and won several awards, including “Director’s Choice” at the 2016 Telluride Mountainfilm. 

Throw follows Coffin Nachtmahr, a young man with a passion and talent for yo-yoing. Larson first met Nachtmahr while engaged in one of his passions: taking a family stroll through Baltimore’s historic Patterson Park. There, Larson, his wife, Ashlene, and young daughters, Rose and Ellie, came across Nachtmahr spinning and whirring his yo-yo through a series of mesmerizing tricks. Larson hadn’t seen a yo-yo since his childhood, much less the kinds of tricks Nachtmahr had mastered. This chance encounter sparked a friendship and an idea for a film.

Set against a backdrop of some of Baltimore’s more historic sights, Throw’s rich imagery captures Nachtmahr’s talent and the Baltimore subculture of “throwers” or yo-yoing experts. It also delves into the challenges Nachtmahr faced while growing up in Baltimore’s grittier, underserved East Baltimore neighborhood. The literal ups and downs of Nachtmahr’s yo-yo thread is a fitting metaphor for what Larson hopes to accomplish with his own artistic calling. “Feelings of pain, happiness, excitement, fear, etc. are universal,” Larson says. “We all have similar emotions. I want to capture that on camera. I want my characters to let their guard down and speak from the heart. I want to interact with them in a way that is real and with no judgements. By doing that, I think I can capture something important.” 

Throw is the first documentary in Early Light Media’s Invisible Thread series of people-driven stories. Currently in production is a film exploring how society lives in a time when trust is a tenuous commodity. “We are told we can’t trust the media, can’t trust police, can’t trust the government, etc.,” Larson explains. “Our main character works in a related field, and we will be following him as he tries to figure out why.” Another film will showcase a Baltimore city school focused heavily on the arts with a nearly 100% graduation rate, a stark contrast to the 70.7% current high school graduation rate for Baltimore City Public Schools. 

As a filmmaker and business owner, Larson enjoys using the other lessons he learned at York College, such as those taught on the lacrosse field. His days of dodging, picking, and passing to find the best shot honed his sense of collaboration and perseverance: “Like a team, with a film crew, we all have various backgrounds that lend something to the process. I am constantly applying those lessons in the office and with production work with crews of 15 people deep.”

Just as he did with the settings on his grandfather’s beat-up camera and his classes at York College, and weaving throughout his career, Larson embraces creative risk. “I am always trying to push myself to try something new that scares me just a bit,” he adds. “If I get a sense or thought like, ‘How am I going to pull this off?’ usually that is an indication that this will be a great growing experience.”

written by Sarah Achenbach