Never Stop Learning: An Interview with Benjamin Ariff

Field Notes: Benjamin Ariff -- Filmmaker, Producer and Storyteller

Benjamin Ariff is a renaissance man. Beginning his career as a student of architecture, before transitioning to photography and film of all kinds, Ariff has molded a career from seeing a need and tackling it with excitement and vigor. This resulted in Ariff co-founding his own branding, production and storytelling company called Straw to Gold, where he currently serves as Creative Director & Producer. We sat down with Benjamin and listened to him do what he does best -- tell a killer story while teaching us a little something along the way.

When did you start making films and how did that evolve?

I started getting into films probably about three to four years ago. It evolved from a background in creating still images and doing some documentary work, as well as the idea of storytelling. Seeing also the shifts in the industry and realizing both as a competitive advantage and also as just something that was fun, interesting and exciting and a huge form of expression. Creating films was both interesting, appealing and also service I wanted to offer. I believe greatly in the power of storytelling. It's a great process to work through within yourself, or with the client, or with whomever you're doing the project for or working with.

I think you not only are able to create something that others can see and benefit from, but you're also able to create something that has an effect on yourself. Through the process of telling a story -- especially if there's a deeper meaning -- there's a lot more that the filmmaker and the people involved get out of the process. I think that's a really great aspect of just growing yourself and growing your skill set and continuing to learn from the previous project and then thus make the next film better.

You started out professionally as a photographer?

Yeah. I originally studied architecture and then went into commercial photography and then started pushing into film production. I view myself as organized and really enjoy the process of how things get from start to finish, and also enjoy bringing people together and the whole power of collaboration.  That’s what really inspired me, probably the most, was the excitement of bringing people together and working as a team towards one goal.

When you're developing an idea for a short film or a brand story, where do you start?

In a perfect world, it's a very artistic, creative, open-minded process. I usually like to get away from my desk, get away from the computer, take a blank pad of paper and go somewhere where there are few people and nice vistas, and just throw whatever comes out of my head onto the paper. I really enjoy nature and so there's elements of being in nature and just being able to relax to a higher degree and thus let my brain just be able to pull more from my heart and from what really matters and focus on the core of "what is the point?"

When you're trying to brainstorm and glean inspiration, do you ever experience a block? Do you have any tricks that you use to to try and reignite that inspiration and creativity?

I think that it's relatively simple. Going for a walk, doing some exercise, maybe stopping that train of thought. Sometimes it's healthier, in my experience, to kind of stop what you're doing, jump into something else, let your mind  experience something different and then usually my mind and whole body just goes back to it. There is a right time and a right place for creative energy and work and not having to fight yourself to get ideas out.

You initially went to school for architecture and then transitioned to photography and now film. How did you learn about video and images even though you didn't go to school for it?

I view myself as an entrepreneur, first and foremost. Basically, the way I got to where I am today is based on people coming to me, asking me for various services -- the first being building websites which I previously, years ago, had no at all idea of how to do. I kind of tooled up and did a massive amount of reading and learning and meeting people to be able to find the best way to do that. It was a learning experience. A really really great one.

You have to do it and you also learn very differently. I've always done these things by myself. I've had to both wear all the hats and also learn all the hard lessons -- which I have learned dozens and dozens -- through really great failures and then really great observations and reflections on all of the reasons as to why something didn't go a certain way.  I also want to do things that I enjoy and that I believe in and that I also think will have a positive impact on people around me and communities, whether in my local community or greater.

As someone who works with a variety of different clients all the time, have you ever had a client that was particularly challenging, or the project was a challenging experience? How did you navigate that?

I've had many challenging projects and experiences across many disciplines. From developing technology to shooting films to working with budgets, I see myself as someone who’s gotten very good at working with what is given to me. I also believe one of the best ways of getting through those is to develop partnerships with people who are good at what they do, but also people who you trust and are sometimes willing to work with you a little bit harder or to go that extra mile to help something get through the next phase. I continue to rely on good people.

Do you have a certain piece of work or a project that you've felt like the most proud of?

Actually, how I got introduced to Marmoset was through a piece we were doing for a company called Rywire. It was a very interesting collaboration where an incredible car was being built to pay homage to another incredible car. There was a lot to get done and a slightly open-ended concept in terms of what this could be.

It's very different than architecture, because every shot you're moving locations. Every couple of hours you're in a different scene, a different setting, the light is constantly changing. It's very dynamic and it's also kind gives me a rush. There's also minimal danger sometimes and there's some really fun coordination. I think we were able to tell a very good story and appeal to people that had really no interest in cars or automotive. I got lots of people saying to me, "I really enjoyed this story. I really enjoyed the piece. It was beautiful." They could care less about cars. That was a job well done. That was also a piece where the music tied in and did a phenomenal job to increase the excitement for enough of the viewers.

What, to you, is the relationship between music and picture?

They have to be best buddies. It’s a 50\50, give or take, relationship. Turn off the sound in any film and the entire mood and ambiance and everything changes. Music is an element by itself. It makes people cry, it makes any level of emotion come out just like a good piece of film without the music. When you pair them together, the emotional response, the element of ingraining this piece of content in someone's mind or in someone's ears, is just dramatically more powerful. The best films have a strong connection between the music and the moving image.

Do you have any process in particular that you go through when you're searching for a piece of music or the soundtrack for one of your projects?

In choosing music, what I usually do is pick a few images that I think embody the overall film or piece. [I] try looking at those first, without listening to anything. Kind of think of what's coming to mind when I see these images. What's the energy, what's the intensity, what's the arc and the pace? And then trying to pick some tracks that embody that. It's definitely a unique skill set, to be able to match music with the image on the picture.

Looking back on when you first started doing photography film, do you have any advice for someone who's aspiring  to be a filmmaker or have their own production company?

Something I feel like I am learning more recently is to do things that you really care about and to not focus on being a star. I think the important thing is to focus on doing something that you give a shit about and [makes] your heart feel good when you're doing it. We're all here to live a good life. What I'm seeing much more recently is it's really important to do things that you care about and use that as the influence and driving force to do work. Especially when you're making films and you're deep into something for perhaps months or years. It really needs to be something you enjoy, otherwise you're not going to be the happiest person on the block.

Going off that, if you were approached by somebody who wanted you to do work for them and you were just like, "Man, this is going to be more money for me and it's another job but I'm just going to hate every single day that I'm working on this,” would you still do it?

I am open to anything. Other people will sometimes take a higher paying but less glamorous or less exciting project to be able to fund their own personal projects, and that's a very popular model. I think as long as you don't disagree with the ethics of it and it's just some other corporate thing to put some cash in your pocket, I don't disagree with doing that. Depending also on how much time is it going to take, how much creativity is it going to drain from your system. Those are all things to consider. In your goal to be your own artist and to make your own shit, it could help. It comes down to the schedule and what else you want to do and how it all fits into your whole plan.

Maybe you end up learning something from it that you wouldn't have known before.

Posted on December 22, 2016 and filed under Filmmaking.