Filmmaker Ben Sturgulewski grew up in a small town in Alaska’s remote Aleutian Islands and developed a life-long love of the outdoors. He later moved to Colorado to attend college to become a writer, but the draw of filmmaking, skiing and working with some of his like-minded classmates led him to the formation of the award-winning film company Sweetgrass Productions.
In 2014, Ben decided to go solo, moved back to Alaska and charted his own creative path. Initially uncertain if his decision would work, Ben quickly learned that his solid filmmaking relationships and well-regarded skills behind the lens were enough to bring him a steady pipeline of paying projects.
In our conversation, we talked about:
- Why you should “follow your own path”
- The importance of collaborating with people you trust
- How relinquishing control can reduce stress
Can you give us a quick overview of who you are and what you do as a filmmaker?
I’m an Alaska-born filmmaker. I do adventure films and kind of cut my teeth on ski filmmaking.
These days I’m venturing out into other areas of the filmmaking world and trying to stay fresh and constantly trying to push my own boundaries as a filmmaker. Trying to do fun new things wherever I can.
You have a B.S. from Colorado College in English Language and Literature. Did that help with the storytelling side?
Yeah, I do think that having that background in writing definitely helped my ability to understand story and how to develop ideas.
I kind of juggled English and film and always thought I was going to be a writer when I grew up. But at the same time I was dabbling in film, it was what I loved to do. I loved sneaking into the movie theatres and watching as many films as I could. I’ve always been a total movie nerd.
When I got to college I started out in the writing program and I think by the time I hit my senior year I’d been filming a lot of stuff and it was really catching on so I shifted my emphasis towards that. Then it was off to the races.
Colorado College [CC] is also unique. They use a block program where you basically do one intensive class at a time for three and a half weeks. That was a really good way to learn and translated over to filmmaking because I basically just throw myself intensively into one project. Some people work on four or five projects at a time, but that’s not my style. I like living something for a bit and really pushing that for a while, kind of existing in whatever film universe I’m in at that moment.
So yeah, I think CC definitely kind of set me up on the right path. And as a side note, there’s tons of outdoor filmmakers who come from CC, like the Sender Films and Felt Soul [Media] guys, and obviously the Sweetgrass [Productions] guys that I started out with. It’s an almost unusual amount of talent coming out of there even though at least at the time they had no official film program. So it’s pretty cool. I think it fostered that sort of mentality of visual documentation.
When did you start learning the filmmaking side of things?
I took filmmaking classes in high school. I remember filming some chase scenes in Anchorage for a high school project — I think it was Dr. Steve vs. Evil or something.
In Colorado College, me and my buddies would go out basically every winter on these trips together, filming one another. Every year we’d have a bigger camera and take it a little bit more seriously and go to some more far-flung place.
Freshman year we went to Nelson, B.C. [British Columbia], sophomore year we went to Europe, junior year we went to Russia and by then we had our first HD [high-definition] camcorders. And then senior year both Nick Waggoner and I bought real cameras (I bought an HVX) and we tried to make our first actual ski movie.
So it was incremental steps.
Then after graduation what happened next?
So senior year of college I was trying to write, direct and edit a feature narrative film called I Am Orange. I shot the whole thing and got quite a ways on the editing, but never completed that and it didn’t see the light of day. But I learned a lot and that translated into the rest of my repertoire.
Senior year was also the beginning of Sweetgrass Productions. We made a ski film called Hand Cut and amazingly Patagonia signed onto it, gave us a little chunk of change. We took some film trips throughout the course of the winter and did a very sketchy tour across Colorado. We had the whole thing planned and then vehicles started blowing up, crashing, tensions were created and the tour ended early.
But the film was well enough received. I think it got into Banff [Centre Mountain Film Festival]— our first film right out of college. It was enough of a foot in the door. The next year Patagonia gave us some more money to go to Japan, we made a film over there, got a bunch more sponsors and then that film did really well, won some awards — it won a Powder [Magazine] award for Best Cinematography.
But yeah, it was kind of off to the races and people just started giving us money and we’re like, Okay, let’s push this as far as we can.
I feel very lucky because— I don’t know, I think we were in the right place at the right time and we were kind of riding the wave. For me it was like I never even really had a choice, you know? I wanted to be a narrative filmmaker, that was kind of what I was angling for and that’s what my senior project was that I never finished.
But this started taking off and I was like, Well, all right, we’re going to all these cool places, people are giving us money to do this— we weren’t making money but we had money to create art, which was cool.
So it was almost four years later when I was like, Well, here we are, we’re doing this, this is our job now. And we never even realized it was happening, it was just kind of working so we didn’t question it.
But I feel very lucky in that regard because I think for a lot of people, they really struggle and fight to get where they want to go. And for us it was a big stroke of luck. Not to diminish the hard work that it took, but I think we got pretty lucky early on and that really kind of gave us the inspiration for pushing it.
How did you get that initial money from Patagonia?
Nick was this college kid and went to Outdoor Retailer [a trade show] and approached them, basically “knocked on doors.”
I can’t remember the amount they gave us, but for us it was amazing because we were going to do it one way or another for free. I mean, for them it was chump change. For us it was like, Wow, this is the coolest thing ever.
How did you get your additional sponsors?
It took a lot of hustle. To be totally honest, I was never the hustle guy, that just wasn’t my job. I am and remain the creative guy, I don’t do the business side of things. I really don’t understand it.
In the early days Nick was running around doing that stuff, really hustling and talking to people and making those connections. Most of the time I was on the computer, editing and figuring out how to make movies.
Was the money that the sponsors gave you enough to sustain you guys? Or were you working as well on the side?
We were all working on the side. Frankly, I was with Sweetgrass for five years and I never really got a paycheck outside of per diem for the entire time. I would call it almost like a commune. We were barely able to cover our basic living expenses, our rent and food. Sweetgrass tried to cover some of that and we supplemented it with working ourselves.
In the summer I would work on marine debris clean up boats out here in Alaska — picking up garbage basically — working on fishing boats and that kind of thing.
But just the way that that company was set up, we didn’t really care. We were young and wanted to create cool things and didn’t care about eating ramen all the time and not getting paid. So yeah, it was a good run while it lasted.
What does your creative process look like? Is it different for your feature-length films versus shorter commercials?
I think it’s totally different for every project that I tackle, they’re such different workflows.
Valhalla for instance was a two-year project, full-immersion, living in the place, breathing the place, really trying to just get in the mindset of what the film was all about — freedom and yada-yada. Something like that you’re intensely personally attached to it and it’s going to be totally different from a car commercial. You put everything you’ve got into that too, but it’s a paycheck.
How about for a personal project, what does the process look like for you?
When it comes to personal projects, I think those are what we live to do, right? You do all this other stuff so that you can have that creative output into something that you really love. And I think that’s what makes it all worthwhile and what makes it count.
In terms of process for those things, a personal project is great because generally you don’t have as firm a timeline, you’re not beholden to anyone, you don’t necessarily have deliverables.
I’ve got a couple I’m working on right now. I grew up in the Aleutian Islands — Dutch Harbor of Deadliest Catch fame, actually. I was there until I was 11 and then we moved away. I didn’t go back until 2015 when I went out there and filmed for a month. And whenever I have time I try to go back and film a little, just filming the place and the people. I’d almost call it “coming to terms with my childhood” because I would say it’s a place that’s sort of inspired my vision and my way of seeing the world and my cinematography.
That’s a four-year project now. I don’t really know what it’s ever going to become but for me it’s cathartic and it’s the act of creating. It’s a stress-relieving thing.
So that’s full passion. I don’t really have a deliverable, I don’t really have any timeline, I just get to follow the whims of the wind or my eye.
I would say that’s a keystone project for me, just in my growth as an artist — I still find it weird to call myself an artist, but as a filmmaker, I guess.
With that project I initially had all these grand plans of creating something and sharing it with the world. But when I got done with filming in 2015 and had all this awesome imagery, I realized it was more of a personal thing and didn’t feel like I needed to share.
But then I think guilt started to settle in after a year or two and I was like, Okay, I’ve got to turn it into something. So I was like, Well, I’ve got to go back again and film a little more. That was sort of to appease the creative dragon, I think.
I don’t know, I think I’m one of those people who is self-driven. I’m a little less focused on creating for an audience sometimes which is a blessing and a curse — sometimes you really want that, certainly in the commercial world you need that. I think I create for my inner self. I want to appease my own creative goals and ambitions and desires.
What percent would you say you spend timewise on your personal projects versus commercial projects?
I’d say 60% commercial, 40% personal. It’s kind of hard to gauge because personal projects are always there, always lingering, always on some burner using a little bit of fuel. Whereas usually commercial projects are like, Okay, here’s a set chunk of time.
As far as the services you offer, it’s anything from cinematography to writing to editing and you also rent gear. What are you hired for the most?
I’m usually hired as DP [Director of Photography] or as a cinematographer on shoots which in general is where I want to be on commercial jobs. It’s fun doing everything but I think being a DP is great because as a director you just have so many responsibilities. And it’s very time-consuming and very draining.
I like being a DP and just being able to formulate a game plan, go in there and shoot it. You’re stressed out while it’s happening but then you’re done and your responsibilities are kind of over and it takes a lot less time.
These days I’m juggling so many projects that it’s all I can really handle. I also really enjoy it, I enjoy the visual side of things probably the most out of the creative process, versus when you’re a director you end up wearing many hats, some of which are great and some are not so great. And editing is such a serious time suck so not having to do that is always nice.
What are some of the non-personal projects you’re working on right now?
I’m wrapping up a longer film that I’ve been working on for about two years for YETI Coolers, sort of a ski-oriented film.
I went to Afghanistan in February. In a way that’s a personal project. It didn’t really have any funding, we got a grant to go over there and we’re just going to make a film and try to find funding for it afterwards.
I’m working on an anti-Pebble Mine film that will hopefully be a narrative film.
And then there’s lots of little filming gigs where it’s just kind of in and out DP/cinematographer stuff.
Went out to St. George Island in the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea and filmed lots of nature, awesome outdoor stuff. They’re trying to put in a marine sanctuary out there.
I was down in California shooting for AIDS/LifeCycle, a fundraiser for AIDS [awareness and research]. People bike from San Francisco to L.A. and we were filming Gus Kenworthy, the pro skier, as he biked the route.
It runs the gamut but I don’t shoot that much skiing anymore. I think I’ve shot one real ski project in the last two years. My interests are varying towards the broader world. There’s a lot more to do than skiing and winter stuff so it’s been fun starting to explore that. I don’t think I’ll ever put skiing behind me but it’s fun to open new doors.
Also working within the state is one thing I’ve been trying to prioritize. I do most of my work within the lower 48 or overseas and I’ve been trying to find more work here because I really love Alaska and I think there’s a market here for super high-quality cinematography. I’m pretty psyched to translate my skills to the place that I love.
How have current or past clients found you? How do you get the word out about what you do?
I don’t know. I think it’s just over eleven years of doing this and I just have contacts and friends that largely I’ve met from film festivals, trade shows and being in the industry, and luckily enough they appreciate what I’m doing.
I really don’t do any marketing, I’m not a hustler. I don’t try to hunt down clients but I have a full plate. As far as I know the industry is word of mouth. To be frank I just suck at business and I’m fine with that.
Generally people are knocking on my door which is really lucky. I don’t know how it happened because my website kind of sucks and I haven’t done a reel in five or six years which I really need to update.
I think I’m lucky that I kind of rode a wave early on in my career that got me into a lot of places and all those contacts pay off to this day. I feel pretty privileged to be here and not have to struggle too hard to find work.
Do you have any way of keeping in touch with your contacts or do they basically just contact you and you’re like, Alright, I can take you on or not?
Yeah, pretty much that. I think generally they just contact me and they’re like, Are you available? If I am, I’ll say, Yeah, sign me up. If not, then try again next time.
Have you had any droughts or times when you were like, Oh man, I hope someone calls soon?
You know, I start to get to that point but as soon as it starts entering my consciousness, all of a sudden I get flooded and there’s four or five things that just stack up in the same timeframe and I’m like, Oh my god.
I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t have anything to do for paid work. I’m looking forward to the day I can get my claws into that personal stuff.
Good position to be in.
Yeah. But I don’t know, you get marketed to on Facebook with all these ads on “How to Pimp Your Videos” and “How to Reach Clients,” and on Instagram everyone’s using all these hashtags. I don’t do any of that. Sometimes I’m like, Do I live in an alternate reality?
I think I’m just very, very lucky that people like what I create and people value what I have to offer. Basically, I left Sweetgrass in 2014 and moved back to Alaska, but I was like, Oh man, am I going to be able to make it? You don’t really go to Alaska if you want to make it big, you know? You go here if you want to live in the woods and have a little apartment and make art and shit. And that’s what I’m doing. But I was worried when I came up here that I wouldn’t be able to survive or thrive. I thought, Am I still going to be relevant, are people going to contact me?
Some people I talk to say, How do you exist up there? But I’ve been able to. Work keeps coming in and I’m able to stay creative and I’m doing projects that I want to do. I feel really lucky to be able to live in the place that I want to live and to some degree I get to play by my own rules that I’ve created, which I think a lot of people don’t necessarily get to do. They think they have to follow some path or route.
I’m pretty pleased that my life is the way it is and that I can create my own little world. I put a lot of value on that, on the place that I call home and to be my own boss. That’s really important for me. I could be doing better off in L.A. or wherever, where many of my friends have gone, but I don’t put as much value on that.
I think a lot of people do struggle with the idea of “this is the way you should do it” and think you need to go to a place like L.A. to “succeed.” But as you say, that’s not necessarily the right path for everyone. Have you never felt pressure to go that route?
I definitely see a lot of my friends going that direction, but I know that I would flail so hard in L.A. It’s just not me, I’m not a city guy. I don’t think my vibe would go well with that style of living, that style of art that they do. I grew up on an island with 2,000 people and it’s just not how I see the world. I see the world through this lens of nature and outdoors stuff, which is almost all of what I do.
Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I could do that. Would I have more opportunities? Would I be able to do bigger projects? But at the end of the day I’m pretty happy. I really enjoy having my own space and having my own niche and having the space to create in this environment.
Is the main way that you earn money through different DP and editing freelance jobs or do you have any other revenue streams?
Yeah, mainly freelancing, independent contracting. And I do a little bit of stock footage but it takes a lot of work getting a lot of stuff up and tagging it all. I’ve only done a small chunk of my archive but I’d like to get more up because it’s nice to have passive income. And it is returning a little bit, so that’s a nice monthly boost.
How do you price your work for freelance stuff?
The age-old question. I’m sure everyone tells you that it’s pretty nebulous, right? But I still don’t know how to do it.
I remember asking when I went off on my own in 2014, How do I do this? What does this look like? My answer is still just as muddy as it was before, but I think you kind of gauge it.
I think the first important question to ask a producer or anyone that comes at you is the budget of the project. You also have to get a sense of who it’s for. That will give you a broad idea.
I definitely have internal set rates where I’m like, Okay, I would be very skeptical to go below this number for anybody. But what I would do for a national brand that I don’t really have any kind of connection with versus the small village where I was last week — those guys don’t have a ton of money. I think that plays an important role in it too.
For me it’s really important to do things I like doing. I’ve done projects that I don’t like doing and it sucked. So I’m pretty happy to give big discounts to jobs or causes I believe in. And usually it’s because of people. If I believe in this person, I want to help them out. And then I can lower my rates significantly.
It’s kind of pooling those different factors together — interest in the subject, overall budget and it’s kind of a vibe thing. It’s asking yourself, Is this going to totally suck or is this going to be pretty fun?
I’ve done a couple of shoots where I’ve been able to go to places I really wanted to go which got me to Pakistan and Nepal and Afghanistan. So I was like, Okay, I can drop everything and do this, maybe work out a payment deal on the back end if it does end up making money. But almost treat it as a creative vacation. I can’t do too many of those because I think that was the one time I started to worry about my financial situation. I was like, I just did all these back-to-back trips basically for free and it’s probably not very tenable.
Do you ever have contracts or what does the negotiation and finalizing of any details look like?
I’m not as good at them as I should be. I imagine it’s the same for a lot of people. I don’t like doing them. I’m just not the business guy.
If I’m a DP or cinematographer and have to show up and shoot for a day or two weeks, that’s probably the max I’d be comfortable without a contract. I’d also have to have some degree of trust in the client.
But I try to have a contract, especially if I know it’s going to be time-consuming or anything that’s more of a commitment of longer than two weeks, I would for sure try to do one. I usually have the client write that up and then just scan it and tell them what if anything is lacking or I need more protections for.
What does your payment schedule look like?
Sometimes I put on productions that have a bunch of expenses I’m paying upfront just to get the thing done, so for that I might set up a schedule that’s 50% up front and 50% on completion.
Usually if you’re a cinematographer you’re not necessarily spending any money ahead of time, so you don’t have to shoulder the burden of the production budget. In that case you’ll just get paid upon completion.
What are some of the biggest challenges or sacrifices that you’ve dealt with?
There are a lot of physical challenges shooting winter and outdoor stuff. I get put into some interesting positions and have to deal with environmental and physical hazards. So that’s something that I’m always navigating.
Filming has definitely put me in some places where I’m like, This is a pretty goddamn weird place to be. Some stuff that I’ll never forget. Just being in Kabul in Afghanistan this past February was pretty interesting. That’s somewhere I never thought I’d be with a camera in hand. My existing as a living, breathing human, that was on the forefront of my mind when I was in some of those situations.
But challenges that are more creative and metaphysical, I guess just the way that I structure my life. It’s pretty awesome how I’m able to live it, but it comes with some challenges for sure. When you’re a one-man band and run your own outfit, you do have to shoulder a lot of burdens that you don’t necessarily want to shoulder.
For me, not being a business person, finding money and doing the producer side of things has always been a big challenge and not something I enjoy doing. So I think the search for more money, as Spaceballs would say, is kind of the story of my life and the story of a lot filmmakers’ lives.
When you think you have a great idea, trying to find the people to trust in that. Sometimes that comes easily, sometimes that isn’t so easy.
There are so many challenges for specific projects that can challenge you in really unforeseeable ways that you never would have thought would cross your path. And you learn a lot. I’m still learning a lot.
I mean, I can speak to specific instances where I thought, Oh my god, this is an insurmountable problem…
Yeah, that would be great.
The one time I think I’ve just been completely, utterly helpless and lost feeling was when we were in Namibia shooting the Ruin and Rose film with Matchstick [Productions].
It was super high concept and we had this gaggle of 12 kids in the middle of the desert. We had 2 ½ days to shoot five days of stuff and we were in this insane 110-degree heat.
There was hot wind blowing sand into the cameras, the cameras were failing, it was getting towards the end of our last shoot day, the was sun setting, the kids were crying, nothing was going right and there was no way we had enough time to shoot the scenes that we needed to. I just remember hitting this roadblock thinking, How the fuck? And where am I, in Namibia, in this desert?
I’m an Alaskan, I can’t handle 90 degrees and it was 110. My brain was not functioning, nothing was functioning, everything was falling apart and I remember just being like, This sucks. And I felt that way multiple times thinking, How can we go on?
Luckily a good friend of mine Anson Fogel who works for Camp4 Collective, was with me and he was like, Look, man, we can do this. And he helped push it through, basically. I couldn’t have done it without him. So that’s where you fall back on your team and the collective effort to get it done. I think you need that sort of support in those tough situations.
What was Anson’s role with you there?
He just wanted to go to Namibia. I mean, Anson’s a great dude and he believed in the project and the script we had and thought it would be cool, so he just tagged along.
I’m hugely indebted to him for deciding to go. I was definitely beyond stressed out and he saved the day in many ways.
It’s so good to have that support.
Yeah, and I think to that end I would say that over the years I’ve learned the most important aspect of filming is having a good team.
I know that I basically made it so I have my own company Sturge Film — you know, I’m the owner, operator and run the whole show here — but I’ve got a good crew of people that I trust and love hiring and working with on jobs. It’s kind of a family that we bring together whenever the Bat signal summons us.
It’s really nice and I think that’s been almost the most valuable lesson that filmmaking has taught me. Because I am kind of an insular guy, especially earlier in my career. I’ve always wanted to do everything — I’ve wanted to be the director, to film, to edit, to have complete control.
What I’ve learned throughout the years is that relinquishing some of that control and finding people you trust ultimately alleviates so much stress and allows you to really put your focus where you want to be putting it. It saves your sanity and it makes for a better product because you get different perspectives and collaboration. Collaboration is key.
It’s been a pretty awesome lesson and I’ve integrated that into my workflow. I’m really thankful for all the good friends I’ve made in the filmmaking world where it’s brought us all together. I mean, these guys right here [points to the photo below], this was Namibia.
That was just another fucking hectic day where I didn’t think we were going to get through it and I remember we took this photo at the end of the day and we all just laid on the sand, just so sweaty and dirty and exhausted but it was the best feeling in the world, of just having accomplished something together despite everything.
What’s next for you? What are your plans?
There’s such a bigger world out there and I’m really interested in continuing to explore, go to weird places that I’ve never been.
Creatively I think it’s all about not getting stagnant and continuing to push myself stylistically. That means finishing personal projects and moving forward. I really gotta work on a new reel because I have a massive amount of new stuff that I’d really like to compile.
I would like to get better at the business side of things, executing more of my ideas and pursuing funding for those. And that might mean getting some help in order to push those forward.
You get to this place of being so swamped where your creative choices get very reactionary and I’d like to find a way to have my eyes on the prize of pursuing my own visions and projects.
Is there any advice you have for other artists?
If I have any lesson from my ten years it’s just be yourself and follow your own path. I think it’s really easy to get caught up in this track of “this is how it’s done” or think you need to go to film school or go to L.A. or shoot things a certain way.
To stand out in the industry you need to find your own independent voice, your own perspective and your own vision of the world. Maybe that will take a lot of self-exploration but that will lead you down some really cool paths. I think ultimately it will be a lot more fulfilling if you’re doing something your way versus following the path more often travelled.
When I say that, I’m definitely coming from a very lucky position where I did that and it worked out. But I think the juice is worth the squeeze. You should give it a shot and try to do what works for you and don’t get too caught up in what other people say.
So I think first and foremost you should follow your own inner path and not get too hung up on what anyone else tells you to do or how to live your life because there’s a lot of different ways to do it. I didn’t think that I could make a living as a filmmaker here in Girdwood, a tiny ski town in Alaska. How the fuck do you ever make a living? Who’s gonna call you? But I did and you can. I think it’s perseverance and being steadfast. Just keep pushing and trying.
I think that’s one of the struggles, people don’t know how to find their own voice anymore because they’ve just gotten so good at ignoring it and letting other peoples’ voices come in. Do you have any suggestions on ways to tap into who you are and maybe shut out some of those opinions?
It’s like sifting through what is valuable and what isn’t, which is a hard thing.
I always felt this occupation, this life, chose me. I don’t think I ever even consciously decided to get on this path. I just did the things that I really wanted to do. When I was in college I just loved shooting. I didn’t think I was ever going to be a cinematographer, but I was like, This is really fun and I want to learn more. So I read all the forums and learned. I never really had a goal, it was just fun. It was lighthearted and satisfying.
When I was in high school I was a huge computer nerd. I was super socially awkward and played a lot of video games but now all that computer dorkiness helps my editing massively. It’s really allowed me to step up my editing to another level, and my technical abilities translate into camera abilities. I didn’t know that would somehow translate into filmmaking but it was just letting those passions run wild and chasing them down.
With a lot of perseverance I think your path will unfold for you. I think there’s a lot of people in life that say, Tell me what to do! They just want to be told a path and be given a direction. I think it’s really important to look internally rather than externally for your direction and everyone is going to be different.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Anson Fogel — director
- Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival
- Camp4 Collective
- Colorado College
- DPS Skis
- Felt Soul Media
- George Knowles — filmer & editor
- Gus Kenworthy — pro skier
- Hand Cut — film
- Matchstick Productions
- Outdoor Retailer – trade show
- Powder Magazine
- Ruin and Rose — film
- Sender Films
- Sweetgrass Productions
- Valhalla — film
- YETI coolers