Sunday, August 14, 2022

Q&A: Ben Potter On Making Hunting Films

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It all started with .22/250 in one hand and a camera in the other. Ben Potter was 15 years old and hunting squirrels in Northern California when he picked up a video camera for the first time. Fast forward more than 20 years later, and Potter is the creator behind some of the most captivating and inspiring hunting films on the internet. 

Potter is the founder of Cana Outdoors, a digital creative agency dedicated to sharing stories through the lens. He works with some of the top brands in the industry including Sitka, YETI, Mathews, Tanglefree, and Gunner Kennels. In 2019, Hunt 41—a celebration of American waterfowl hunting, as Potter describes it—debuted its first episode showcasing a layout hunt on the Great Salt Lake. Throughout the series, Potter, along with a handful of fellow waterfowl maniacs, intends to film the 41 huntable species of ducks and geese and share the stories of the places these birds take them and the people they meet along the way.

There is no mistaking a Potter film. His unique style and skills come across as authentic and relatable. After watching, you want to get out there and hunt. I had the chance to sit down with Potter and talk to him about his career as a filmmaker.

Potter with camera in hand as he helps pick up decoys at the end of a hunt. Cana Outdoors

When did you get started filming hunts?

I grew up in the East Bay area, east of San Francisco, in a little farm town. My dad took me out for my first duck hunt when I was 3, and I’ve been chasing ducks ever since. I started filming for fun in high school. It sounds cheesy, but I was filming my squirrel hunts when I lived in the East Bay. A lot of ranchers had just endless problems with squirrels, so I volunteered my services.

I went to college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo where I live now. Some neighbors and friends knew that I did video for fun, and so there were little business opportunities here and there to start making a couple of bucks and help pay for school.

I started Cana Outdoors in 2004 while I was in school. In 2012, I started to do some work in the outdoor arena. I really just put the shotgun down and picked up the camera more. I thought I could bring my own take to filming waterfowl hunts.

Did you shoot still photos at first or go straight into videography?

I went right into video. For me, photos were more of an afterthought. Videography always intrigued me because it’s a puzzle that you’re putting together to tell a story. It’s harder for me to do that with photos. Something about a moving image and the sounds of the marsh, the gun shots, the duck calls, and the water. I love working all of those elements into a timeline. I like photography, but I found that I enjoy creating films more than taking photos.

Ben Potter standing in the stern of a duck boat
Potter, standing in the stern of a duck boat above, started filming waterfowl hunts in 2012. Cana Outdoors

When you approach a new project, is the storyline usually predetermined, or do you just start filming and go from there?

Part of what I love about doing work in the outdoor industry, or just in the outdoors in general, is that it’s so unpredictable. You don’t know what mother nature is going to throw at you. There have been times when you go to bed and it’s 60 degrees and beautiful. In the morning, it’s single digits and blowing snow. I think that’s part of what I love about the uncontrolled aspect of hunting. There’s only so much you can plan. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to produce my shoots the best I can ahead of time and work with a creative team.

If it’s Sitka Gear, then I’m working with their producers to get to know the subject first so that I’m not completely blind going in. I did an elk film several years ago called The Linguists about the history of elk calling. I think that gave me a little bit of an advantage in the way that everything was new to me. That didn’t mean I wasn’t prepared for what I was trying to accomplish on that shoot. There’s always a ton of room for learning, and times you’ll get there and realize, Oh, wow. This random guy that we never met, he’s actually a pretty interesting dude. I’m going to create a little segment on him that I didn’t plan for, because you just never know who you’re going to meet.

Can you think of an example of an interesting character you weren’t expecting to be part of the project but was?

There was a dude years ago when we were doing the wader launch for Sitka Gear. We had a shoot in Montana this one morning. I was with a bunch of people from the marketing and product teams. We were hunting on a river and had some prototypes of the waders. We met up with two guys who we got connected with to hunt the spot. Their plan was to hunt downstream of us and meet up later in the morning. I went up to this old-timer and said, “Hey, man, why don’t you just wear my waders and try them out? Maybe I’ll get some shots of you later in the morning.”

A couple of hours later, here they come rolling down the icy river in a canoe. It’s 5 degrees out, they have ice dripping off their beards, and their dog is frozen. I walked out into the middle of the river. I’m chest-deep holding my Red camera (digital cinema camera) and getting these shots that were my favorite shots of maybe the whole project. It would be almost impossible to plan that. If someone was going to plan that shot they would have sent the canoe up 100 yards and had them drift. Well, because they had been on the river all morning these guys just looked haggard, ya know?

They had a bunch of dogs, a couple geese, and their old shotguns. That is the kind of stuff that I just love because I met this guy that morning. He wasn’t really the talent or supposed to be part of the shoot. There’s something about it when you meet someone that’s just so ingrained in that scene and their world of hunting that you can’t recreate.

How does a product shoot differ from a narrative film?

When I’m shooting a product piece it’s a totally different deal. It’s very hammered out shots of what are we trying to feature. What are the things that make this product unique? Why is there a need for it compared to what’s already out in the industry in that line of gear?

Today, it seems like everyone has a digital camera and is capturing content. How do you make your work stand out?

I guess I don’t really ask myself that question. I don’t think, How can I stand out? I just keep doing what I like. I almost wear blinders. I don’t say this to sound like I don’t care about other people’s hard work in the field. I try to just focus on what I’m working on.

Shooting a film or photos are extremely subjective, right? When someone says, “this guy’s the best,” that’s an extremely subjective thing to say because there are people whose work I really admire, and I guarantee many wouldn’t agree. But that’s what makes art and creativity so appealing because everyone has a voice. I think the more people expressing that and picking up a Canon Rebel, the better.

I always tell myself, I want to do this as long as I’m enjoying it, proud of my work, and feel like there’s a place for it. The outdoor world for me is really interesting and special because it’s a big part of my living, but it’s also my passion. This is what I do on my own time. I’m going to do this whether or not I’m getting paid for it.

Why did you create Hunt 41, and what do you hope to accomplish with this film series?

It started with a couple of Utah guys that reached out to me. One was an elk hunter and one was a duck hunter. They said, “We’d love to make a film about hunting the 41 waterfowl species in one season.” I was really intrigued by the idea of pursuing different species and different voices, but I proposed the idea like this, “What if instead of making this a story about you checking of 41 ducks in one season, we make a series that uses the ducks as the roadmap to leading people around the country, and connecting with different subjects in different states as we chase the different species?”

It was less a tally-board film and more about doing what I already really like to do which is tell stories about hunters. As you’ve seen, we’re eight episodes deep, I’ve gotten to meet and experience quite a bit of the country already.

As duck hunters, we never get tired of hearing duck stories or learning about new duck hunters and how they hunt. We’re hungry for that stuff. I wanted to morph it into that, into a series, and make it about the people versus a list of ducks. As long as I’m physically able, I see no reason to stop even after we finish all the states. There are still stories to tell.

What are the differences and difficulties of filming waterfowl hunting compared to big-game hunting?

I think logistically it’s a little different. Sometimes with big-game hunting, you could be in the backcountry for several days. That’s a whole different approach with your equipment and batteries. When I’m doing a duck hunt I can blow through Red batteries all day long and not worry about it because I’m going to be back at the hotel room to charge. If I’m at an elk camp, I’m setting up a solar setup on a Goal Zero (portable power station), or bringing a generator to keep things rolling. It’s a little more rustic when you’re making a big-game film.

With ducks, you can mess up a little more. There will be another flock or something else will happen. With big-game, you have to capitalize on that moment when it’s happening. You need to be ready. Going into a film, my team and I like to have a mindset of Let’s start this trip and end this trip on the same energy. We don’t want to be running out of gas on day four or five.

When I was filming The Linguists, I hiked over 200 miles with my camera. I lost a ton of weight. I recently looked back at old photos of that year and man it was like I was back to my college weight, my fight weight. Duck hunting is hard, but I would say it’s a different kind of hard. It’s cold, it’s wet, and it’s just different elements you battle against versus the elements you deal with big game.

What’s the favorite place your videography has taken you?

There’s no place like home. I love hunting California because it’s so nostalgic. But it was neat when we shot the harlequin in Washington. We were on this island looking back at Seattle. It was one of those moments like, Man. Look at where I am right now. We’re sitting on this washed-up log on a rocky beach. We shot this one duck. Freaking beautiful duck. That was a cool moment.

What cool moments stick out to you from Hunt 41 so far?

There was a moment in Wisconsin when we had one of those days of endless mallards coming into our spread. I usually wait to shoot my gun until I feel like I’m good with my content. I shot a couple of greenheads, and then I could still shoot black ducks.

We were just hanging out and here comes this wad of 35 to 40 mallards. I see one black duck in the middle of this flock. I pull up, and the guys start yelling, “No. No. No. No. No.” I shot. I knew what I was looking at. The bird folded. Then here comes the lab with a black duck in its mouth. Everybody was like, “What?” That was a neat visual. I’d never shot a black duck before so that was a super special moment for me.

What’s your favorite waterfowl species to hunt?

I absolutely love cinnamon teal. I think they’re one of the coolest ducks. They got a crazy sound. They fly a little differently than the other teal. I really enjoy shooting them because they eat great, and are a hard target to hit.

What’s your current setup for filming and photos?

For the most part I try to do my shooting on Red cameras. My favorite one that I try to use as much as I can is called a Red Epic-W. I love it. I feel like that paired with a 24mm to 105mm lens is a pretty solid run-and-gun hunting setup.

What recommendations do you have for someone who wants to start filming hunts?

I would say make sure that you are your own biggest fan. Filming hunting is too hard to let someone tell you what’s good and what’s not good. It’s too much of an investment because if you’re getting into it, that’s probably because you are a hunter yourself, and you love it. You are passionate about it. You want to do it justice. I would also say don’t worry if your style changes. That’s part of growing as a human and as an artist—and part of constantly learning how to tell a story differently.



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