By Matthew Beaudin
He stood on the stage, head tucked beneath a beanie, wearing a thrift store t-shirt. And as the ovation washed over him—the local kid who made a movie so beautiful it shone like fine art—he tried not to cry. Tried hard and only marginally failed. His cheekbones cast shadows over his face under the hot lights, his hands stuffed securely in his pockets. People clapped—clapped until the sound that poured fourth was deafening. Thunderous applause for the kid who used to run the slide projectors for Mountainfilm, the kid who edited the festival’s best movie in his affordable-housing rental apartment; roaring salvos for a genius now recognized.
There is some debate over “genius”—when it starts, how it’s cultivated, how it’s defined. If there was a moment of epiphany, one that set a course, Ben Knight’s involved a camera. To set the scene: Hometown—Chapel Hill, North Carolina—the 1980s, Knight, age eight, is playing with his aunt’s single-lens reflex Canon AE-1 camera. He is arranging the subjects—live frogs—upon toy cars because he needs something to photograph. It is safe to say that this experience was more formative for Knight than for the frogs.
At 12, a shipping mistake by Sears blessed him with Canon’s first SLR auto-focus camera. Living in a trailer park with a ramp in the backyard, Knight started shooting skateboarding. His pictures would eventually land in magazines. It was the push he needed to make—arguably the best decision of his life: He dropped out of high school—but not before discovering the darkroom. “Seeing a photo appear in the darkroom out of [expletive deleted] thin air—I remember that just hooking me on it for good,” Knight says. “It gave me this crazy respect for photography as an art.”
A friend suggested they move to Tahoe, California, in 1995. He spent that winter working as a lift operator at Soda Springs resort and living at the Chico State lift house for $100 a month. “Every weekend, that place was packed with college girls,” Knight says. “It was a good time to be 17.” In Tahoe, he learned to snowboard and photograph snow sports.
Hooked on snowboarding, Knight went back to Chapel Hill the following spring to save money to move to Telluride, a place he’d only seen in a Visa commercial. “I had no job,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone here. I came by myself.” For the first year (1996), he worked odd jobs. One was at a photo lab, which is where he met Brett Shreckengost, the Telluride Daily Planet’s photographer at the time. Knight showed him a few shots and was soon hired. He started at $50 a day and worked his way up to be the paper’s photo editor. The Planet defined him, and he it, for the next 10 years. “The Planet was my college. I learned photojournalism; I learned how to write, how to work on deadline. I wouldn’t trade my time at the Planet for any college in the world.”
Then, the itch to make movies got him. He took a heli-skiing trip to Valdez and patched together Mini Golf in the Chugach, a short film about big mountain skiing. It eked into Mountainfilm in Telluride, the festival where he ran the slide projectors and where his passion for film had ignited.
In 2004, Knight partnered with then-local Travis Rummel—who he met through work at the Daily Planet—to create Felt Soul Media, a two-man production company that sought to forge fresh environmental films. Their first effort, The Hatch, chronicled the water rights of the Gunnison River through the story of the stonefly hatch in the Black Canyon. It played at Mountainfilm’s 2005 opening night and was followed in 2007 by Running Down the Man. These two films propelled them toward Red Gold, a documentary that ponders the impact of an open-pit gold mine at the headwaters of two of Alaska’s most prolific salmon rivers.
The film is sweeping in both its scope and ambition: Red Gold examines the effects of mining on fishing, community and economy. It won both viewer’s and director’s choice awards at Mountainfilm and has continued the winning streak at nearly every festival it’s appeared in since. It is the paramount work of the precocious Felt Soul Media, and it came at a price. Behold, a snippet of Knight’s blog entry from Saturday, August 4, 2007:
Day 62: Did you know that bug populations are so epic in Alaska that the severity of the insect swarm can dictate caribou migration? At one point on the upper Nushagak River, I was contemplating my own migration back to Colorado as the demonic white socks fly was crawling up my sleeves, behind my ears and under my waistline, leaving streaks and pools of my own blood behind. As you could imagine, it’s a little challenging to hold a camera still when this is happening. It’s also hard to resist the urge to flail around like a man on fire, ripping your clothes off and cursing God.
PBS offered the Felt Soul boys a chance to adapt Red Gold for “Frontline,” the network’s public affair series, so they will spend the next year editing the 54-minute film, focusing less on culture and more on science. Only recently, Knight moved his editing studio from his bedroom to his first-ever rented office space. He is up for the task and hooked: “There is something addicting about creating something that people sit still for. …I love seeing how an audience reacts. That’s what it’s all about for me,” he says. “It’s probably one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever experienced.”
So back to that genius question: Leading theory suggests it’s something one is born with, greatness apparent even when one is still young. “I’ve got this picture sitting here that he did of a sunset when he might have been eight, and it’s perfectly centered and it’s beautiful,” says his mom, Gloria Council. “I didn’t realize until even later how amazing it was. I just happened to frame it. It’s perfect.”