Directors Travis Rummel and Ben Knight have been making films together for 10 years. After starting out as still photographers with no real working knowledge of how to make films, they were inspired to try theirs hands at filmmaking by the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival. Their first short film about fly fishing and water rights focused on the Black Canyon of Colorado’s Gunnison River and was accepted into the festival. Since then, the duo has made several films together, the most recent of which is set to premiere at SXSW 2014. Edited with an all Adobe workflow, DamNation is a documentary about dam removal in the United States.
Ben Knight films the former Elwha Dam before its removal. Elwha River, Washington in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Travis Rummel
Adobe: How did you decide to become filmmakers?
Rummel: After The Hatch made it into the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival things just grew organically from there. We never really decided one day that we were going to be filmmakers and make a business of it. We didn’t have any formal education in film and we continue to learn as we go. It’s a partnership and we do everything ourselves, except for motion graphics. We’ve made several short films and one longer film called Red Gold about a proposed gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay.
Adobe: Tell us about the experience with DamNation.
Knight: Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard and underwater photographer Matt Stoecker saw our film Eastern Rises at The Wild and Scenic Film Festival and thought we might be the right filmmakers to bring their idea to life. They wanted to make a film about dam removal in the United States and the movement going on behind it. When they first contacted us we were horrified because it seemed like such a difficult, broad, complex, and controversial subject. It took us a while to warm up to the idea before we agreed to take on the project. We were right. It was hard as hell and took twice as long as we thought—but it’s not really about any of that; it’s about protecting rivers and we’re insanely proud of what we came up with. We’re really blown away that we found a way to make a film about dam removal interesting to watch.
DamNation producer and underwater photographer Matt Stoecker emerges from the icy tail waters below the former Elwha Dam in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Ben Knight
Adobe: What was the process?
Rummel: After we agreed to take the project on we thought, “Now what?” There are 85,000 dams in the United States. We knew there were a few dam removals about to begin so we decided to focus on these actual removals in process. To tell the story beyond the removals underway was challenging. We borrowed a fancy van and spent two-and-a-half months driving up and down the west coast visiting dams, meeting people, wrapping our heads around the issue, and giving a framework to how we would tell story. We did one pass in the van to figure it out and then another pass to film. We spent time on the entire West Coast as well as Alaska, British Columbia, Maine, and reaches of the Colorado River to round the story out geographically. There are a lot of dams out there; they are something people take in as part of the landscape and don’t really question. But they do have finite lifespans and a finite amount of utility. Many dams have brought and continue to bring a lot of good to the American people, but there are also a lot of them that have been abandoned and are wreaking havoc on our ecosystems.
Knight: The film isn’t trying to say take out every dam or free every river. We want people to notice dams that are doing more harm than good and might better serve the watersheds if they are gone.
Extremely cold water trickles out of the Glen Canyon Dam into what's left of Glen Canyon, forming an unnatural stretch of trout water on the Arizona/Utah border in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Ben Knight
Adobe: What did you use to shoot the film?
Rummel: We bought a RED One and a RED Epic and shot the whole film with those two cameras. We switched to Premiere Pro because it supports REDCODE raw. Everyone told us we were crazy to do a long form documentary with 10 to 11 terabytes of raw footage and keep it in a raw workflow but we did it anyway. We intentionally shot with all prime lenses and no zooms, focusing on basic cinematography and strong composition. Because we had so much resolution Ben was able to do some super beautiful zoom in and zoom out moves within Premiere Pro.
Knight: I still haven't met anyone who has edited a film in raw, especially a feature film. When we tell other people in the industry that we edited in raw they just shake their heads. But we were told that’s what Premiere Pro is built for and we should trust it and sure enough it came through for us. It was incredible working with raw files throughout the process and starting the color correction along the way. More than half of the footage is 5K edited on a 1080 timeline so we could zoom in as far as we wanted or pan across a landscape. I'm surprised that more people don’t want to edit in raw.
Premiere Pro is integrated so incredibly well with REDCINE-X PRO software. I just went back and forth all the time between those two to color correct and get everything looking gorgeous. Everything was instant, seamless, and beautiful. I’m not one of those people who edits a film and has it look like crap and then fixes it later. It has to look perfect while I’m editing or else it drives me crazy.
Rummel: With Ben, it has to be perfect, there’s no rough cut. There’s a fine cut and then a final cut.
A barge-mounted excavator hammers away at Glines Canyon Dam, the largest dam removal in U.S. history. Elwha River, Olympic National Park, Washington in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Ben Knight
Adobe: Tell us more about your editing experience and using Premiere Pro.
Knight: I’m not a huge technical nerd so I just used Premiere Pro to cut and color the film. I was intimidated when it came to switching from Final Cut Pro but Premiere Pro was just so intuitive it blew me away. It only took me a couple of weeks at the most to get really comfortable with it.
Rummel: Having to go through and transcode 11 terabytes of raw footage into ProRes would have defeated the whole purpose of shooting in raw. We were able to natively bring in raw footage and color it without switching in and out of different programs. Given our experience with Premiere Pro we wouldn’t switch back.
Knight: The amount of data and how well Premiere Pro managed it blows my mind. We worked with as many as 12,000 clips on the Premiere Pro timeline and it was nearly flawless.
Prevented from migrating any further upstream, a spawning pair of pink salmon flirt over a gravel bed a stone’s throw from the now removed Elwha Dam powerhouse in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Matt Stoecker
Adobe: Were there any standout features in Premiere Pro?
Knight: Titling is a whole new lovely world that made my life so much easier. With Final Cut Pro, I was always fighting the program to do simple things but Premiere Pro did exactly what I wanted it to do with ease. Another feature that I used almost every day that was extremely helpful was Interpret Footage, which allowed me to change the frame rate of footage with just a click of the mouse. It saved me an incredible amount of time.
Rummel: We also mixed a ton of camera formats—SD, HD, GoPro, film transfers, 5D Mark II, and 5D Mark III. Having tons of resolutions and formats that worked seamlessly on the timeline was a welcome surprise for us.
Adobe: Did you incorporate different types of content in the film?
Knight: We spent four months researching the history of dams in the United States and we have a whole Ken Burns-type history section in the film. We tapped into the Library of Congress and the National Archives for some incredible images. In addition to hundreds of black-and-white photos, there’s also some old 8mm and 16mm footage in the film that we got from other library archives. We just did some simple moves on the images in Premiere Pro because they’re so beautiful they didn't need fancy edits.
Rummel: Another partner we’ve worked with for years is Barry Thompson. We call him our motion graphics wizard and he used After Effects to do all of the incredible transitions in the history section of the film. There is a moving timeline that covers almost 200 years of the history of dams in the United States. He also gave a beautiful treatment to some GIS maps that take you around the country as the film switches between different locations.
Ben Knight films inside the nearly century old Elwha Dam powerhouse before its deconstruction in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Travis Rummel
Adobe: Are you using Creative Cloud?
Knight: We started the film three years ago before Adobe introduced Creative Cloud. I was afraid to upgrade to Creative Cloud during the project, but I eventually did and was so happy. We were having some minor issues before switching to Creative Cloud and switching actually solved those problems.
Adobe: Are you using any other applications in Creative Cloud?
Knight: I’ve been having an internal battle because before the film’s premiere I wanted to download SpeedGrade and put the whole film through it but it was too late. I was a little sad about it. It would have been so perfect to put the 90-minute film in SpeedGrade and stylize the look a bit. I’ve been watching all of the tutorial videos and it looks impressively seamless. SpeedGrade is definitely in my future.
Adobe: How did it feel when DamNation was accepted into SXSW?
Knight: SXSW doesn’t feel real at all; it probably won’t feel real until we’re standing in line for the film. Once we get to Austin and the DCP plays and everything works, we can relax. Neither of us ever dreamed this big. For us, playing at film festival’s like Mountainfilm or Banff seemed like the pinnacle at the time.
Rummel: It’s the next level on all fronts for us. We’ve been fortunate to win some awards in the adventure film world but we always wanted to see if we could compete with mainstream films. To take an environmental film and show at SXSW is incredible. It elevates our careers and brings the issue to a wider audience, which was always the hope when we took on the project.
Fire in the hole! Eight hundred pounds of explosives blast a hole through the base of Condit Dam, the beginning of the process to free Washington’s White Salmon River in a scene from DamNation. Photo: DamNation Collection
Adobe: Is Patagonia happy with the film?
Knight: We knew we had to do some crazy stuff in order to get the film noticed. We went to great lengths to give the film some energy and inspire people to get involved in dam removal. When Yvon and Matt saw it the Patagonia marketing engine cranked on. Everyone involved is excited to be a part of it.
Rummel: Having Patagonia’s full marketing efforts behind the film is amazing. We make films but we don’t know anything about marketing and distribution. With Patagonia’s help we’ll be launching at SXSW and then embarking on a nine city national tour. A theater in Portland, Oregon also wants to do a week-long run. It feels like there is incredible energy so it will be fun to unleash it at SXSW and see where it all take us.
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