The High-Tech Hobbits of Trout Gulch

(From left to right) Saxon, Hellfritsch, and Rabinovitch with props from commercials and music videos. The water buffalo to the left of Saxon was used in a Björk music video.

In the mountains outside Santa Cruz, Calif., an intentional community is under construction. On 10 hilly acres in Aptos, three filmmakers who live in tiny houses and their friends have established a sort of rural hackerspace where nail guns are more prevalent than soldering irons. The compound also has a small organic farm. The guiding philosophy can be summed up in three letters: DIY. This utopian outpost is called Trout Gulch by its inhabitants.

“We’re building a 21st-century Hobbit village in which things are extremely bucolic and integrated into nature, but we’re also embracing the best of technology,” says 29-year-old Isaiah Saxon, who grew up on the property and returned with two filmmaking buddies, Sean Hellfritsch and Daren Rabinovitch.

This back-to-the-land trio has a digital animation company called Encyclopedia Pictura, which is very much in demand and affords them the luxury of not having to worry about the rent. So they manage to balance lucrative film gigs with their zeal for DIY projects at the Gulch, as it’s known.

Ever since they made a big splash with a music video for Icelandic pop diva Björk, there’s been a steady stream of offers to work on videos and commercials, from the likes of Sprite, Jeep, and Honda. So far they’ve only agreed to work on two: one for the video game Spore and one for AT&T.

“We’ll only do advertisements for products we use,” explains Saxon, the tall, slender filmmaker. “We could certainly be maximizing our potential to make money right now, but that would hinder and slow down the development of this neighborhood that we’re building. It would take us on a road to possibly an empty existence.”

Scenes from the Gulch

Their existence might strike some as downright idyllic. Visitors to the compound are immediately taken by the outdoor kitchen and dining area, which is accessed by a long flight of wooden stairs from the dirt road that runs through Trout Gulch.

The food prep and eating is done under a 1,000-square-foot canopy made from redwood logs and corrugated roofing. For baking, there’s an igloo-shaped cob oven the Gulchers built out of earth, chunks of broken concrete, and cement. A large redwood slab serves as a kitchen counter. Their refrigerator, also outdoors, is

actually a commercial freezer that was being discarded by neighbors. Like so many of the hacks and mods done here, the Trout Gulch boys learned how to do the conversion on the web — in this case from the community of home beer brewers. They installed a thermostat controller on the freezer to make it act as a refrigerator, but it’s much more efficient than a traditional fridge. Inside is often a stainless-steel pail of fresh goat milk. The three filmmakers take turns milking goats.

“If you have to face the weather while you’re cooking, it kind of brings you closer to whoever you’re cooking with because you have to endure the wind or the dampness or the scorching heat with the flies,” says Cole Bush, one of the 12 people who currently live at Trout Gulch.

But having an outdoor kitchen has its advantages.“You never sweep,” observes Sean Hellfritsch. “You can just pour stuff right on the ground and then kick some mulch over it and you are building soil. I love that.”

Hellfritsch, 28, knits his own socks and made his eyeglasses frames by carving pieces of redwood and using rare earth magnets instead of hinges. Not surprising for a guy who was taking apart stereos at age 6 and taught himself stop-motion animation with his parents’ camcorder at 13.

Hellfritsch got a used motor kit, which included a small Subaru internal-combustion engine, and installed it on his mountain bike over the rear wheel. It gets 200 miles per gallon. The Gulchers say that bicyclists who scoff at a motorized mountain bike don’t get the point that it’s replacing a car, not a bicycle, which is less utilitarian in Aptos’ hilly environs. Hellfritsch once rode his motorized mountain bike from the Gulch to San Francisco, completing the 100-mile trip in about five hours. By car, the drive takes about 90 minutes.

Web of Knowledge

It would be hard to overstate the importance of the internet in the lives of Hellfritsch, Saxon, and Rabinovitch.

“We’re self-taught in every possible area,” says Saxon. “We grew up in a generation in which internet search was entirely native. Search is all about self-directed education, and all of us are extremely keen at searching and finding what we need out there to get things done. To go from complete ignorance on a subject to execution of a project within a week is pretty normal here.”

Says Hellfritsch: “I probably spend 50 percent of my time on the internet reading forums. Being on a forum and trying to connect with someone or search for the stored history of that forum has been really key. I’ve used it a lot — even in the middle of a project.”

You might expect an internet-savvy crew like Hellfritsch, Saxon, and Rabinovitch to have tons of computer gear, but the Encyclopedia Pictura office at Trout Gulch, currently located in Saxon’s mother’s house, basically consists of three modest worktables with MacBook Pros on them. A rhomboid-shaped nook that’s too small to stand in houses the Vizard, their homemade 3D viewing system. It consists of two LED computer monitors and a mirror. They made the Vizard before 3D monitors were available commercially.

Like so many of the objects in Trout Gulch, the Vizard was the fruit of online instructions — in this case posted by video game enthusiasts. They also built a 3D camera rig, but it mostly gathers dust these days because their animation work is now done digitally.

Hobbit Houses

hut   reddoor   oven

Shacks of the shire: (left to right) Rabinovitch’s remote pampas grass hut, complete with 175-watt solar panel, enough for his lights and laptop. Saxon and Meara O’Reilly’s tiny cedar house, modeled in SketchUp and handmade with love. The community kitchen features an igloo-shaped cob oven the Gulchers built out of earth, chunks of broken concrete,and cement. Hellfritsch stokes the fire for dinner.

At the moment there are several small outbuildings at Trout Gulch, including a tool shop, guest room, an old trailer, a hoophouse for starting plants, and goat paddocks. The compound has outdoor showers and a composting toilet with two “thrones” side by side.

Encyclopedia Pictura’s web intern, Rob Wilson, who can sometimes be seen carrying his pet turtle, Torta, around the grounds, sleeps in a tree house that’s 24 feet off the ground. Hellfritsch and Saxon live in tiny houses not far from the kitchen. But Rabinovitch’s “crib” is off the beaten track a bit.

Walk through a stand of redwood trees and up a steep hill and you’ll get to his thatched hut, which is made out of Cortaderia selloana, an invasive species from South America commonly known as pampas grass. It took Rabinovitch a couple of months to gather enough grass for the hut, which has a pyramid-shaped glass top. There’s a plastic water barrier between the grass and the canvas that lines the interior of the dwelling. The hut’s door is only 4 feet tall, causing visitors to wonder whether a gnome might dwell within.

“This is basically a sleeping chamber that is built to last about 10 years, and then decay beautifully into the land and become mulch,” says Rabinovitch, 33. “We’d like to figure out how to live in the forest and not just trample everything.”

As you approach the hut, a 175-watt solar panel comes into view, providing a wonderful metaphor for how the bucolic and the space-age coexist here. The photovoltaic panel, which rests on a frame made from tree branches, powers LED lights and Rabinovitch’s laptop. Before installing the solar panel, he used to schlep an auto battery every day from the hut to the communal tool room, which is a bit of a hike.

Saxon and musician Meara O’Reilly (a MAKE contributor) live together in a tiny house they built across a dirt road from the kitchen. The 160-square-foot structure has a 14-foot peaked roof and was constructed of locally harvested wood and reclaimed lumber. The cedar siding shingles were cut on one end at angles other than the traditional 90°, creating a pleasing aesthetic pattern.

True to the Trout Gulch credo of documenting and sharing, Saxon and O’Reilly have posted Google SketchUp illustrations of their tiny house on the company website,

“Core to our philosophy is [the belief] that with proper documentation and proper information sharing, any averagely capable person should be able to pick up what may seem like a daunting task and learn it,” Saxon says. “I think everyone in this country is capable of building their own house, even using power tools that may intimidate them.”

DIY Heroes

One factor in the appeal of Trout Gulch is the regular visits of people Saxon refers to as “DIY Heroes.” In the winter of 2010–2011 the Gulch was home to Marcin Jakubowski, a Princeton-educated physicist who settled on a farm in Missouri. His Factor e Farm is home to the Open Source Ecology project (, which is making prototypes for 50 different DIY industrial machines, including tractors, a drill press, a sawmill, a micro combine, a bioplastic extruder, and a compressed earth brick press that can turn out 5,000 bricks a day — enough for a home. Saxon is the project’s media advisor and produced a video for Open Source Ecology’s successful Kickstarter campaign.

But mostly the DIY superstars come from the San Francisco Bay Area. One of them is MAKE columnist Tim Anderson, leading the league at Anderson drove down to the Gulch with a lady friend on a weekend in early May to help work on the homestead and was impressed with the DIY skills on display.

“Their chops are awesome!” Anderson said of the boys at Trout Gulch. Nearby, his companion ate out of an “ice cream dish” Anderson had fashioned out of a beer can.

Many of the weekend regulars at Trout Gulch are Bay Area friends of the three filmmakers, mostly people in their 20s and 30s. They feel a part of this place.

“A lot of us who are part of the community don’t actually live here right now,” said May Nguyen, a graphic designer and landscaper at an urban agriculture group in Oakland called Planting Justice. “Our jobs are still up in the city but we’re trying to contribute however we can.”

Nguyen was helping dig a graywater wetland that uses waste water from the outdoor kitchen sink to irrigate a fruit orchard. The project was supervised by Brent Bucknum, a restoration ecologist with the Oakland-based Hyphae Design Laboratory. Bucknum met the Trout Gulch fellas up in Ukiah, Calif., where he was building a composting toilet that resembled human intestines.

“We’re sort of working with these guys in trade for video production and a nice place to escape from the city,” said Bucknum. “I guess we’re lured by the good food, too.”

Much of that food is grown in the Gulch’s garden, just a few paces from the outdoor kitchen. Farmer Ryan Hett, a North Dakota native, presides over a garden with beds that are 18″ deep. The garden was created by double digging: removing the soil, mixing it with compost, and then putting it back. Saxon says such beds are unrivaled for bio-intensive production. The “farm” is currently just acre but plans call for it to be expanded to two acres.

Saxon says part of the appeal of Trout Gulch is that it provides an opportunity to gain land-based experience unavailable in an urban setting. “I think people are excited by the freedom of this place and the amazing sense of empowerment you get from being able to build everything around you,” he says.

Augmenting Reality

Farmer Ryan Helt works the bio-intensive raised-bed gardens of the farm behind the outdoor kitchen.

When the filmmakers at Trout Gulch ponder the notion of building everything around them, they also think along virtual lines. In addition to animation projects, they’re working on an entertainment and education medium called augmented reality (AR). Think of it as a real-time view of the surrounding environment that’s digitally manipulable and interactive with programmed content, not unlike walking through a video game taking place in the real world. Demonstrating augmented reality on Nintendo’s handheld device, the 3DS, Saxon observed, “What you have is essentially magic.”

But the Encyclopedia Pictura crew sees AR as much more than a technology for gaming.

“We see this as the big, new, creative medium for the 21st century,” says Saxon. “We’re trying to position ourselves as the first creative team that really understands the intrinsic power of augmented reality and creates really memorable content for it. We’re going to try to be the Walt Disney of augmented reality.”

They’re are also working on their first feature film together. Set in Johnstown, Pa., in the year 2023, it chronicles the adventures of a 12-year-old boy and his crafty friends who leverage the talents of their town’s carpenters, mechanics, and gearheads in a rebuilding effort after a devastating flood. The film’s tentative title is DIY.

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