From an early age, Mike Rohlfing ‘09 knew he wanted to be a filmmaker.
“I’ve been making movies since I could handle a camera,” he said. “I’d spend time with my cousins and we’d create all kinds of films. I made a James Bond parody in sixth grade.”
Rohlfing’s interest continued through high school, and when it came time to look at colleges, filmmaking opportunities and facilities were paramount to his search process.
Calvin College made his list—thanks to a number of Calvin alumni on the faculty of his high school, Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis—along with a couple of large universities.
“Calvin had the most impressive filmmaking resources of any of the schools I visited,” said Rohlfing. “The DeVos Communication Center had incredible production capabilities and that drew me in. The other huge plus was that you were allowed to use the equipment right away, as a freshman.”
Rohlfing immediately got involved in what was for Calvin a new major at the time—media production—and also immersed himself in the student-run Calvin Video Network to maximize his time in the production studios.
He recalls great classes and making Airband videos—including another Bond parody titled “Calvin Royale.”
The culmination of his Calvin training came through the Chicago Semester program, which landed Rohlfing a production internship at WBBM, the CBS affiliate in that city.
“I had a unique opportunity at WBBM,” he said. “There was a brand new studio there, and the current staff was just learning the new editing software, which I knew how to use because Calvin already had it. I wound up doing a lot of projects not typically given to interns. A great experience.”
Back in St. Louis, Rohlfing’s uncle had started Coolfire Studios, a film production company, and the young filmmaker had additional opportunities to hone his skills, beginning in video production but gradually helping develop original content. Coolfire Studios spun off Coolfire Originals.
The company scored a major success with Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, a series about a soul food restaurant owner and her family that debuted on Oprah Winfrey’s cable channel (OWN).
Rohlfing joined in developing concepts and serving as head cameraman for the “pitch tapes” that Coolfire would send to networks. Additional shows were bought by the likes of the Discovery, Esquire, Syfy and Travel channels.
“The company’s always evolving,” said Rohlfing, “because there are so many ways to share original content these days. The Internet provides countless opportunities.”
Beyond his work for Coolfire, Rohlfing is developing a local reputation for creative filmmaking by showing his work in the annual “48-Hour Film Project” in St. Louis. He’s entered the competition nine consecutive years and has won six audience choice honors and, in 2013, took home the best film designation for Rhymer’s Block.
A side project, a 30-second film of a poem written by one of his teachers titled My Best Wand, won two prizes at the St. Louis International Film Festival.
Not content to do the same thing for long, Rohlfing is constantly surveying the visual communication field for options.
“TV’s not going to be the primary source for video production in the future,” he said. “Already YouTube and social media are more popular distribution formats.”
Can a Christian thrive in such a competitive business? Rohlfing thinks so, by demonstrating character “in the decisions we make and the content we create.”
Coolfire has also shown its character by being a community-engaged company, doing a lot of pro bono work.
Rohlfing especially likes one of the company’s charitable efforts because it reminds him of his own early interest in making films: giving kids without access to video equipment the chance to learn and use the tools of the trade.