Photographer Profile - Ben Moon: "It took quite a while to get the right tone for the piece"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday October 20, 2015

“There’s something about dogs that bridges this gap in people’s feelings,” says Ben Moon. “The love you have for a dog has no filters. It’s very unconditional. So a lot of people opened up to the film I made on that basis.”

By saying “a lot of people,” Moon, an outdoor and adventure photographer based in Portland, Oregon, is understating the impact of his eight-minute short Denali. In the two months after it was released online on June 9, more than 10 million people viewed it, while blogs raved and TV news shows clamored for interviews.

The film tells the story of Moon’s relationship with Denali, the dog he adopted from a shelter as a puppy. Denali saw Moon through the best and darkest of times, living with him in a Subaru station wagon for three years as he traveled through the West photographing surfers and climbers and sleeping by his side after Moon was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

As the story unfolds, however, we learn that it is Denali who is now dying of cancer.

Visually, the film is constructed largely of snapshots of Moon and Denali throughout the years, along with some beautiful contemporary video footage taken in the Oregon surf. The story is told from Denali’s perspective, a narrative device that underscores the film’s central point: Humans, Moon tells us, can learn a great deal about life and love from dogs.

The thought is made explicit when Denali, voiced by the film’s director, Ben Knight, says, “There was this really smart scientist guy, who thought that people could learn a lot from dogs, and he said that when someone you love walks through the door, even if it happens five times a day, you should go totally insane with joy.”

“I went in hoping we’d eventually get a couple hundred thousand views. I knew my friends would share it on the first day, but beyond that I had no idea if anyone would want to watch the film,” says Moon. “Then on the second day my phone exploded. By the third day online, it was getting two and a half million views. I had no idea it would resonate on such a global scale. I was getting emails from all over the world. thousand of emails and personal stories from people about what their dogs meant to them.”

Looking back, Moon is still trying to put his finger on why the film had such an impact. Certainly, he says, the affection people have for their dogs played a part in its popularity. “But also, cancer is something that has touched a lot of us, whether we’ve had it or know someone who’s had it or lost someone to it,” he adds.

It wasn’t an easy story to tell. “It took quite a while to get the right tone for the piece, and we tried a bunch of edits. What kept me going was that I knew something was there, something was pushing me to tell the story,” Moon says. “There was something about the story that was bigger than myself, that went beyond my friendship with Denali. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was intuition, and intuition is a funny thing.”

What Moon learned from Denali was a profound lesson in life. What he learned from making the film about Denali was a lesson in storytelling.

“It’s about finding the story inside the story,” he says. “I learned how you have to be okay with being vulnerable. The film didn’t work until I let my whole story become available.”

Human Connections

When he began working on the idea for the short film, the story didn’t involve Denali at all. “It was more of a profile piece about my life and my passion for the outdoors,” says Moon.

At his website, Moon describes himself as a photographer and filmmaker who “is just as comfortable hanging from a rock face or swimming through heavy surf, as he is filming a musician in the studio or on-stage.” He grew up in Michigan in a family that, he says, “lived off the grid,” and he studied sports medicine before heading west to try rock climbing.

He was in a relationship with a woman when he adopted Denali; when the relation ended, he and the dog hit the road, starting a new chapter their lives. On their travels, Moon began taking pictures of his climbing and surfing friends with a used Nikon SLR and lenses. He became more proficient and eventually was shooting for Patagonia and Timberland and publications like GQ, People and Outside.

His experience with cancer at at 29 left him changed. “I love being outside, but the most important thing for me is shooting people,” he says. “When I was sick, I had time to think about human connections and how important they are. So in my photography now, I’m more inspired by people. A lot of my work outside is not action but lifestyle, the moments between.”

The film he was trying to make about his life did not capture that sentiment. “It was more about a kind of inner conflict I have about loving both the mountains and the ocean,” says Moon. The results weren’t good, though several editors took a crack at it. Then Moon turned to Ben Knight.

It took six months for him to convince the Colorado-based filmmaker to take on the project, however.

“I think I quit twice, mainly because I felt like there was no f-cking way I could hit the right tone with the writing and narration,” says Knight. “I sat down after two months of anxiety over the project and started writing. I just couldn't figure out how to do it for a while. But when I started writing from Denali's point of view, I started making myself laugh all alone in the office, and then I started to cry. That seemed like a good sign, so I just went with it.”

Like Moon, Knight was astonished at the film’s popularity. “I'd like to think it was popular because of its highs and lows,” he says. “People tell me they're laughing while they've still got tears in their eyes. I'd also like to think it's popular because it's not too self-serious. It's humble, and just super honest. It's gotta give folks some hope too, though — seeing Ben beat cancer like he did, and seeing him live his life so fully even when he was in the trenches of that Hell.”

Denali’s Parting Gift

When he was in the hospital, fighting his cancer, Moon was allowed to have visits from Denali. Nurses let the dog to lie next to him during the chemo sessions. Moon says the companionship was crucial to his survival.

Denali was already very sick when Knight and Moon began working on the rewrite of the film. In his script, Knight has Denali saying, “I’m pretty sure Ben knows I’m dying. I’m not sure if it’s the cancer or something else, but he’s been taking me to all the places we used to go to and checking on me a lot.”

“I could seen what Ben was going through,” says Knight.

Before Moon, Knight and cinematographer Skip Armstrong of Wazee Motion Pictures  began shooting the film in December of 2014, Moon had a talk with Denali. “I said, ‘Hey, it’s okay to go, but could you please stick around for this month? Because it would mean the world to me.'”

And he stuck around, says Moon, nearly to the hour.

“It was kind of his final parting gift to me. And it’s been giving and giving,” Moon says.

The final edit was finished on April 15 and premiered at the 5Point Film Festival in Colorado in May, the week Moon turned 40. “I felt it was fitting, because Denali had been with me since I was 24, so it took me into the next chapter of being a man,” he says.