Episode 12: Storytelling with Ben Masters
Note from Kate: Ben Masters is an enigma. In 2010, as a college student, he and two friends took a multi-month pack trip, and Western Horseman and I did an article about that trip. When Ben came to us with a hair-brained idea for a 5-month, more than 3,000-mile border-to-border pack trip that would be filmed with video and photos for a documentary, we jumped in to work with him again. The result was an award-winning film called "Unbranded." Today, Ben runs Fin & Fur Productions, focusing on wildlife and storytelling. This 28-year-old has been published in National Geographic and in Western Horseman. Ben created his own career and is forging a new freelance career, blending his loves the outdoors and storytelling.
Ben's job and how it fits into his lifestyle:
Ben’s job is ever-changing. He is a writer—magazine, online content and a printed book, as well as a filmmaker of two features, "Unbranded" and "Charged," as well as short films. He loves his lifestyle and the changing landscape of his career.
He finds planning more than 6 months out hard. Each summer he takes time for his own outdoor experiences, leading elk hunts and pack trips. His work focuses on discussing conservation and caring for the wildlife and wild land.
Ben's career path and how it led him to where he is now:
Unbranded launched Ben into the spotlight, and opened up doors for other projects. Years before, in 2010, Ben joined Parker Flannery and Mike Pickney to ride 2,000 miles along the Continental Divide Trail. That started his desire to make a border to border ride, and gave him an introduction to BLM Mustangs. Once the movie launched, it truly started his career. Ben had the help of filmmakers to create the masterpiece of "Unbranded" and that has helped him in the next projects.
What has helped Ben along in his career?
"Unbranded" was successful because of a massive team effort, Ben said. He found Kickstarter donors that helped get the project rolling. [here you will hear Ben get honked at! He said: “I hate being in cities!”]
Most of the stories Ben tells are a reflection of thing he is passionate about. He did not study photography or writing or filmmaking, but he uses those modes to get his story told. At Texas A&M University, Ben studied wildlife biology and has used that knowledge when working ranches. He loves wildlife, and his background gave him credibility to tell the stories about conservation that he does. Speaking the lingo helps him to tell the stories he does.
Working in the field and living the lifestyle of his story sources makes for a greater connection and comes through when he tells the story to an audience.
Skills learned on the job, and how he's evolving his skills:
He states that it is pretty hard to screw up a photo in the mountains with a bunch of horses. When he was “broke and needing money” Ben worked on the [oil field] rigs, where he purchased a Canon 5D Mark III and started taking photos. That inspired his love of photography.
“Getting a shot right is one of the most satisfying things you can do,” Ben said. “I love the feeling of getting a shot.”
He discusses the differences in taking a superb still photo versus filming.
Equipment suggestions for working in the field:
Ben is a “big fan” of the 5D Mark III. He has a 5D Mark IV, too. He discusses why he likes the cameras and some limitations he has seen.
For video, Ben shoots with a Canon C500. "Unbranded" was shot with the 5D Mark III and C500. "Charged" was shot with a lot of GoPros.
Typical hours or time commitment for your job?
He does not have much separation between personal life and work because what he loves to do is his job. Ben discusses how his “work” filters into his life. Typically, his work is 18 hours a day.
A feature film can take three years to move from concept to the screen. A short film will take about four months.
How he gets funding and payment for his projects:
Ben is still working to master the art of making money at what he does. The feature films have been a combination of Kickstarter for seed money and working with brands like Yeti.
Ben says Kickstarter is crucial for alerting people to a new project. Also, when they contribute funds, it allows them to feel ownership of the project.
Distribution networks like National Geographic and Western Horseman help. However, Ben had to prove his work was worth the effort before being hired by these organizations.
Feature films do require financial backers for the higher budgets.
How he chooses his projects, whether video, writing or a photography exhibit:
All the stories and projects are things Ben is passionate about. He has a long list, but works to see whatever is timely. He enjoys character driven stories that can be a vehicle to understand a complex issue, like wild horses on public lands. However, he does not consider his films activist films.
Instead of seeking stories, Ben has stumbled into them based on his relationships.
Most challenging and rewarding parts of his chosen career:
The most challenging part is that Ben spends a considerable amount of time chasing down funding.
The most rewarding part for Ben is seeing the impact a project makes on someone’s life, for example seeing more people adopt Mustangs after "Unbranded" premiered. A quantifiable and tangible impact is important.
“Charged,” Ben’s latest feature film, is inspirational. He has also worked with a veteran’s program, Heroes & Horses, through his projects, giving them a tool for fundraising and learning from veterans.
If you could do it over again, would you choose a different career path?
Sometimes, Ben does entertain other employment opportunities. He doesn’t enjoy the aspect of his job that requires appearances that place him at the center of attention. Preferably, Ben would like to drop social media and just work with horses. But, the obligation to tell stories is greater to him.
Kate, Abigail and Ben discuss the responsibility of storytelling through good journalism.
Advice for young people wanting to work in the equine media industry:
Avoid “balls & chains” like debt, so that you can take off whenever the job or project calls. College debt, relationships and other factors can interfere with the chance to work on quality projects.
Ben discusses the need to work to establish a portfolio so that bigger projects come your way. However, he said he still doesn’t get the high budget projects all the time.
He also advises to ask for help, or ask people to provide assistance. His own career is a culmination of people helping him out. Finally, surrounding yourself with good teammates is key.
Advice for freelancers wanting to take on a big project:
Ben has never had someone offer him a project. Moreover, he has started projects, and then people want to get involved as they see the potential. Especially early in his career.
Ben has made a few short films that were never purchased, resulting in a loss of funds. However, it was important to have that project in his portfolio.
Abigail agrees it is not always about the paycheck.
Advice for pitching big companies or publications:
He advises face-to-face meetings instead of only email pitches. The face time meeting can help show your passion about the project. Human interaction in a pitch is key to Ben.
How to find Ben Master’s online:
About The Freelance Remuda
The Freelance Remuda is a podcast about navigating the equine media frontier. Co-hosted by seasoned freelance professionals Abigail Boatwright and Kate Bradley Byars, the podcast explores the trials and triumphs surrounding life as a freelancer in equine media, while sharing valuable tips from equine media editors and creatives doing what they love. Find and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.