Michael Ulmer ’11 didn’t intend to attend a small, liberal arts college in Crete, Nebraska. His father, Michael Ulmer ’77, is a Doane graduate and grew up in Nebraska, and he applied because it was a funny thought to consider going to the same college as his dad after growing up in Texas. But then he got accepted at Doane and was given a track and theatre scholarship.
“And it all just kind of fell into place,” Michael said.
He originally wanted to study film. He had been recording and editing videos throughout high school. But Doane didn’t have a film program, so he chose to study theatre and graphic design.
“For some reason, I thought theatre and graphic design, film was somewhere in between,” Michael said, and off he went, to a state where he didn’t know anybody.
Almost instantly, he found a home and a family in Doane’s theatre department.
“All the professors at Doane in the theatre department were just the most amazing people,” Michael said. “They really set me on the path to be successful not just in theatre, but in life.”
In fact, he now tells anyone starting their college journey to consider studying theatre. Many of the skills he learned in Doane’s department have been applicable throughout his life and career in the decade since graduating. The fake blood he learned to make during the production of “Titus Andronicus” is just the start — “I use a lot of fake blood,” he said.
In all seriousness, whether it’s in his work on stage and in television, in staging and photographing his self-portraits, or producing commercial video work for clients, “It’s the little things that make the difference,” he said. Props, costumes, lighting, blocking - every aspect adds up.
“They’re all aiding and telling the story, and that’s something I picked up from theatre,” Michael said.
After graduating, Michael spent around five years in Los Angeles, pursuing jobs as an actor. The bug bit him hard during his time at Doane, and he gave it his all. But acting as a career takes “every ounce of every part of your being,” Michael said. After 3-4 years in L.A., he moved to Dallas to continue pursuing acting, and realized that while he loved it, it wasn’t his passion.
Instead, he wanted to return to creating his own stories.
“I picked up a camera one day, and it was like coming home,” he said.
He began creating little videos for himself. And those started getting seen. And after a time, commercial video production and editing became his primary source of income. He’s worked on videos for WD-40, Melitta Coffee, Bissell, Green Giant, Union Pacific, and National Geographic.
“But then I have my own personal photography work that I do to stay sane, to continue to sharpen my artistic skills. That’s what heals me and makes me happy,” Michael said. Many of his self-portraits are the result of this — he’ll pick a subject or something that he’s struggling with each month and work it out visually, challenging himself to incorporate different techniques both during a photoshoot and in editing (some of which, yes, do involve fake blood).
Freelance video and photography allowed him to work anywhere he could find an internet connection. Over the years, Japan and Croatia have become two of his favorite places to visit. He can work on video editing, film on location, and build a library of stock photography and video that brings in a steady stream of income.
“I tell people, I’ve lived 1000 lives because I’ve worked in so many different kinds of places, and done so many things,” he said. “The thing I put most important in my life is new and creative thoughts and ideas. And I find that I’m the most inspired when I’m experiencing new things.”
The drive to create is his own, but it was at Doane that he learned that he can make his ideas a reality. Michael was always impressed by the attention to detail, passion, and creativity that Robin McKercher, professor and co-director of theatre, brought to his theatre classes and productions.
“I remember in my head thinking, ‘that’s too big, like that’s not possible.’ And then sure enough, a couple months down the road, I’m looking at it right in front of my eyes,” he said. “He really showed me what it was to develop a concept, to have an idea, and then to make it become a reality.”