Backflip Films Puts Alumni Front and Center

For Ryan Freng ’06 and John Shoemaker ’08, starting Backflip Films in 2007 was a labor of love.

And producing three videos for this year’s University of Wisconsin Annual Campaign was all about sharing their love of the UW with fellow alumni. Here, the two Badger filmmakers reflect on their careers, their Wisconsin Experiences, and the importance of giving back to UW-Madison.

When did you know you wanted to be filmmakers?
Ryan: I was always kind of a performer — goofing around, putting on plays for my parents. And then in elementary school, a friend introduced me to a camera for the first time. We did a bunch of parodies that will remain unnamed … and I just found it fascinating how you could put a story together with film.

John: I came to the UW as a pre-med major because I always liked science. But after a couple of years — I think it was the spring semester of my sophomore year — I called my dad and said, “I can’t do this.” It was right before I was set to go to Australia for this international youth leadership forum on medicine.

When I was struggling with my decision to switch my major from med school to film, I met with one of my biology professors and asked him about my options. He said one of the most clichéd things ever, but it stuck with me. He said, “What would you do if you could do anything, and money wasn’t an issue?” I said I think I’d go into film production. And he said, “Well, if you don’t follow your dreams, then you are nothing.” And I said [laughing], “You are right, biology professor!”

Behind the Scenes

Go behind-the-scenes with Backflip while shooting the Annual Campaign video series.

How did the UW prepare you for life after school?
Ryan: Being at the UW, and seeing important things happening and important people working, it changed my perspective. I felt like, yeah, I can start my own film business … and I can do it here! I met my wife here. I have a community of friends here. I want to stay here and use the skills I honed at the UW. I don’t have to go out to California, New York, or Chicago.

John: The production classes were great because we got hands-on experience, but the documentary class was one that you had to go shoot in real locations with real people that really highlighted what filmmaking could be.

What made you want to take on the Annual Campaign video project?

“We got excited about the opportunity to tell stories alumni could relate to.”

Ryan: We think the Annual Campaign is really important to the UW, and we wanted it to succeed. So we got excited about the opportunity to tell stories alumni could relate to. It’s really what we do: tell intimate stories to draw viewers in and almost participate in them. We saw this as a great chance to tell the stories we loved from being on campus. And we think alumni will love the stories we’re telling.

John: We’ve been excited about doing stuff with the UW for a long time. And when the opportunity to submit a proposal to work on the Annual Campaign came up, we jumped at the chance because we went to school there, we know what it’s like to be a student, what it’s like to be a proud alum.

After having worked on the Annual Campaign, is there anything that surprised you about the need for giving back?
Ryan: I received some scholarships and some aid to attend the UW. So, back when I was a student, I thought financial aid was a given. I didn’t necessarily know it was through gifts from alumni that made many scholarships possible. This campaign really opened my eyes to the need for alumni giving.

John: I definitely gained a better understanding of why the UW needs contributions from alumni. It became more clear that the resources the university has, in many ways, come from alumni.

This year’s Annual Campaign revolves around shared UW experiences. What are your favorite memories as students?
Ryan: I have been interviewing alumni with a question similar to this, and I have yet to think of my own! Man, there are so many. The first time I walked into my dorm room. You know, it’s like that first step into the world … as a man. And then I realized that I’m not quite there yet. [Laughs.] That will stick with me forever. Also, just the idea of being who you want to be. You can remake yourself into who you want to be at the UW. I loved that atmosphere of change and growth.

John: My friends and I definitely had a love affair with Ed’s. I don’t know if it’s still there, but it was in the old Gordon Commons. It was the late-night, fast-food, convenience store–type of place to hang out … and we were there probably four nights a week, at least. It was a tradition of getting together with friends. That’s something that was important to us to bring out in the Annual Campaign videos, too — those special relationships made at the UW, and working together to figure out how to live in the world.

When you’re on campus these days for work or fun, do you look at the UW differently now that you’re alumni instead of students? How so?

“My pride in the UW has dramatically increased.”

Ryan: I guess it was toward the end of my run as a student, I remember that it seemed as though we were always looking down at our phones. We were always very concerned about ourselves and our own little worlds. Now when I walk around on campus I’m always looking up … I’m discovering new things that I didn’t know existed around the university — just by paying more attention.

John: When I’m around campus these days, I think that, while I love where I’m at in my career and my family, there’s a part of me that still wishes I was a student. I wish I could’ve gotten even more out of my student experience. And, after working on the Annual Campaign video project, I’ve noticed my pride in the UW has dramatically increased.

Why are you proud to be a Badger?
Ryan: I’m proud to be a Badger because I see a great desire for goodness across many different facets: academics, sports, the arts. We all have a different kind of crazy, and there’s a lot of love and acceptance of that here.

John: There’s this aspect of a community. It’s an important thing that when you meet somebody else who went to the UW, there’s a shared sense of pride.

Annual Campaign Videos

This spirited video shares what makes the University of Wisconsin-Madison special — for Badger newbies and “Varsity” veterans — and inspires alumni to give to the UW’s Annual Campaign.

Follow one Badger’s journey from intrepid freshmen to proud alum in this video that highlights the UW’s reputation for academic excellence and the importance of giving back.