RED, Raw, Underwater, & Locked Off: How the Cinematic Odyssey 'DamNation' Was Made
Being a director requires a certain persistent stubbornness to get a film made the way you want it. In the case of Ben Knight and Travis Rummel, this meant saving money for six years to buy the RED EPIC, having strict rules about shooting on tripods (even underwater), camouflaging oneself to film unnoticed at demolish sites, and editing every frame of the film in unadulterated 4K. The payoff? A breathtaking film that won the SXSW Audience Award and is opening on the big screen this weekend. In the No Film School interview below, find out how the filmmakers of DamNation made their cinematic doc, and where you can catch it in theaters.
How exactly does one make a film about cold, concrete, inanimate dams into one of the most visually striking films on the doc circuit? Check out the trailer for DamNation and read our interview to find out!
NFS: How did you meet and how did you end up collaborating on DamNation?
Travis: We've worked together for 10 years now, so it's been a while. Originally we worked together at the local newspaper the Daily Planet in Telluride as still photographers and Ben was the photo editor there for some time. I just worked for a summer with him, and at the time, I was a rafting and fly fishing guide and we bought a Panasonic DVX 100, just kind of like perfect timing for digital filmmaking. We shot something and we didn't even know how to turn the sound on.
Ben: It was the first 24p camera, so we were like, "Ahhh, finally."
NFS: That was a pivotal camera for a lot of filmmakers when it first came out. I had the 100A. It was like, wow, 24p! But, back to your background.
Travis: So we had a background in still photography, and we were both living in Telluride and just super inspired by the MountainFilm festival there. So we thought we would just see what we could come up with and we ended up creating a short film called The Hatch that dealt with fly fishing in the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon and talked a little bit about water rights. It got into MountainFilm and later into Banff and made their tours and did well, and it honestly grew organically from there. Neither of us have any formal training and definitely kind of learned through googling and checking out forums and just real life experience.
Ben: We were learning how to edit before you could go online and watch any tutorial or that sort of thing. So we were calling our local TV station and asking them how to freaking import a clip.
NFS: And they took your call?
Ben: It's a small town! Amazingly enough, they were really helpful.
NFS: DamNation has a fantastic look to it. What did you guys shoot on?
Ben: At the filmmaker lunch, we talked to other doc filmmakers, and they looked at me pretty weird when I said we shot on the RED EPIC. It’s not exactly a run-and-gun system — but the film is not shot that way. Everything’s locked off. I honestly tried to shoot the film like a still photo. Slow things down, give a lot of thought to composition. My hope was that would be just as strong as a dolly shot or a crane move.
Travis: I think it was back to total classic, all primes, no zoom. We shot everything raw in 4K or 5K. That's the other thing, people look at us like we're crazy when we tell them we edited the film in RAW in Premiere.
NFS: So, how was that?
Ben: All our friends say they transcode everything to ProRes before they start editing. What's the point? I shouldn't say that, but to me -- holy crap, we spent all this money on our dream camera --
Travis: We shot it in RAW and Ben's pretty OCD when he's going through the edit and it's not like he's roughing stuff out. Every clip he's doing a quick color pass on -- it's just so nice to have it in RAW and be able to really tweak it and look good. It just really helps, I think, with the film just knowing it feels good from the beginning as opposed to trying to rough out a story and make it feel good later. So, I think it adds a lot of emotional pull visually.
Ben: I'm the slowest editor in the world and I'm sure that has something to do with it. It sort of reminds me the way I have to hold the ketchup in one hand and put it on every single bite of a french fry. It's kind of that way with editing. God, I never thought about it that way.
NFS: Just from a practical standpoint, to edit in RAW, what hardware were you using in order to make it fast enough?
Travis: We had to have a Nvidia card for Cuda for Premiere. We had a red rocket card built-in so that you could view stuff at half or full res real-time. And a nice tower with a bunch of RAM in it.
Ben: I think it's really hard on the machine for sure.
Travis: We had a custom-built hard drive. It was like 6G interface, some fast connection to the hard drive. (Grade 5, you know)
Ben: It's intensive on the processor. But it's also cool if a year or two from now, we decide there needs to be a 4K cut of the film, it's there and ready to go.
Travis: We used to be super into keeping up with cameras and stuff. I feel like now we just do it to survive. It's not that fun anymore. We would much rather be focusing on the other aspects of it.
Ben: We're not the biggest nerds when it comes to this stuff. I think it's because we're both still photographers. We were dreaming of that day when our footage looked like a still photo and as good as a still photo.
NFS: Did editing in RAW instead of some kind of ProRes intermediate effect you creatively?
Travis: Well, we never really understood the online/offline. We weren't going to color it in DaVinci, so it just seemed like we should keep it RAW and make it look good throughout.
Ben: We decided that we were going to spend -- if we had enough money we were going to spend it on the sound mix this time. As much as we would like to pay for a true color pass, we just really didn't have the money. So, with that in mind, I really feel like I just colored the film as I went.
Travis: Also, having that much resolution -- because we were working on a 2K timeline -- we were able to zoom in and zoom out or slightly re-crop the image and just have a lot more flexibility.
Ben: Like recomposing an interview because I hated the way I shot it the first time, it was kind of fun. I mean, the whole timeline is at either 40 or 50 percent, so it's crazy and that footage has a lot of latitude, so it colors really nicely.
NFS: So how much of the story do you think was solidified during the editing process versus the production period for the film?
Travis: I feel like we didn't just go out and try to visit all 85,000 dams in the US. We were pretty pragmatic and we spent a month just driving around and trying to identify the stories and filming a little bit. We came back and were like, "Alright these are the chapters we envisioned," and then shot for that.
Ben: We drove like 9,000 miles in a van. We were literally just looking for ways to humanize such a cold subject. So, when we would stumble upon something, we'd spend some time there. I'd say the film was definitely created half and half. Definitely in the field, but a lot in the editing room too.
Travis: I think the thing we worried about the most was that in previous films, you know, it's a pretty simple topic and you'd have character arcs with the main people you'd follow. We didn't really have that ability because it was so specific to each dam that we focused on. I think it came out in the edit that Ben was going to have to narrate it and that his character arc would be the through-point of the film from skeptic to believer. That really came forth in the edit. We never shot for that, so we never documented our trip along the way. So, we were like, "Oh shit. How are we going to do this now that we have no footage of us?" But we figured it out.
NFS: There is some really cool underwater footage in DamNation. How did you shoot that stuff?
Travis: We worked with Matt Stoecker who is a fisheries biologist and he has experience filming underwater. He bought a new 5D Mark III with, I think, an Aquatech housing, and he would just get in and swim and film.
Ben: It was funny. When he started, he would hand-hold everything underwater, and that was driving me crazy, because we shot the whole damn film locked off pretty much, so I bugged him to start using tripods underwater and weigh the camera down and just leave it be for a minute. I think that turned out really nice. Matt is really talented and it was nice to have him.
Travis: In the past we had always done that and it was really nice just to be able to hand it off and be like, "Go for it."
Ben: We never had enough time to. Travis is pretty good at it -- obviously you cant do everything well. The more we do this the more we learn. It's so great to collaborate with people who are a lot better at doing what they do. We also worked a lot with our friend (Nick Wolcott) who shot all the Cinestar remote heli stuff. That was huge; there was a lot of that in there.
Travis: Also with motion graphics we worked with an aweseome guy (Barry Thompson). We have a 7-minute history montage of 150 years of dam history in the US. He really made that come to life.
Ben: He did all our maps too.
NFS: In your opinion, what is the value of independent film?
Travis: Well I think specifically for this project, who the hell would want to see a film about dam removal or even make one? When we were first approached by it we were reluctant to take it on just because it seemed like a really hard film to make happen. To be inspirational, and visual and human -- those were the biggest challenges.
Ben: It's all about finding a way to get an audience to relate to a subject. This film, I'm really proud with how it came out because if one thing isn't touching to a person, another thing will be, I think. If flooding a Native American fishing ground doesn't touch you, then flooding Glen Canyon and seeing Katie Lee dance around naked --
Travis: -- Or just someone who spent 30 years working to see a dam come out and to be there with them when it comes out was pretty emotional for us too. But I really think that is the place of independent film, to be able to tell those stories that aren't really captured in mainstream media.
NFS: Do you have any advice for filmmakers based on what you've learned making DamNation?
Travis: If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, don’t do it. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to live with yourself. It takes so much time and energy and commitment -- if you’re not passionate, don’t do it. That’s always been our litmus test. You can’t make something good if you’re not.
Ben: My advice would be to drop out of high school and start right away.
Travis: It worked for Ben!
Thank you Travis and Ben!
If you'd like to see this cinematic doc on the big screen, DamNation is playing in theaters starting this weekend. Check out the official site for all the screening times and details, or to preorder the film, and scan this list of theaters you can catch it in for the next two weeks:
- May 9: IFC Center New York, NY
- May 9: The Hollywood Theatre Portland, OR
- May 9: The Roxy Theater Missoula, MT
- May 10: Colorado State University Lory Student Center Theater Fort Collins, CO
- May 12: Library Hall, Bud Werner Memorial Library Steamboat Springs, CO
- May 13: Mill Creek Church Modesto, CA
- May 14: The Mayan Denver, CO
- May 14: Jean Cocteau Cinema Santa Fe, NM
- May 15: Oregon State University, Wiegand Hall Room 115 Corvallis, OR
- May 15: Bear Tooth Theatre Anchorage, AK
- May 16: NoHo Laemmle #7 Los Angeles, CA
- May 16: Forum of the Academy Center Exeter, NH
- May 16: The Historic Old High Auditorium Bentonville, AR
- May 17: The Roxy Theater Missoula, MT
- May 18: Egyptian Theater Seattle, WA
What do you think of the tactics Ben Knight and Travis Rummel applied to DamNation?