I love stories, and I often find myself deep in the world of the subjects I cover. As I’m gathering a story, the subject’s world intersects with my world in a melding of emotions and experiences that I’m responsible for crafting into a cohesive narrative. Perhaps that is why the Forged By War story was so consuming to tell: the subjects offered me glimpses into the jungles of Vietnam and the streets of Iraq; they told me about the children they couldn’t save and the comrades they had to bury. They introduced me to their war demons and entrusted me with telling their triumphs.
And their stories consumed me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the project. I’d wake up at 3 a.m. with plot points racing through my mind. I considered joining the Army at age 28. I found myself explaining the project to complete strangers. I was invested beyond hope of extraction. These stories required something from my soul, and they enacted a serious investment from my employer, CRKT. But we did it. We paid the price to get it right and tell it true.
Here’s my favorite video from the project. Watch it, then I’ll tell you how it all happened:
Columbia River Knife and Tool (CRKT) has a long history of working with custom knife makers to mass-produce knife designs. Several years ago, they approached military veterans for knife designs the vets wished they had while deployed at war. In return for the design, the veterans would receive a royalty for every knife sold and CRKT would donate a portion of the net profits to charities the veterans chose. Additionally, many of the veterans had taken up knifemaking to keep their hands and minds busy after their military service; it was therapy. And it was cause marketing at its finest. With a classy name like “Forged by War,” the program was taking shape in 2014 and the story was emerging. All it needed was execution.
The management at CRKT went through several iterations of how to market the Forged by War campaign. Initially, the program was going to be a simple designer video with an explanation that the knife designer was a veteran and donations would go to charity. However, after I filmed a first round of interviews with two designers in June 2015, I recognized that we weren’t capturing the essence of the program; we’d misfired and lost the emotions of dealing with the demons of war. We went back to the drawing board.
Finding What We Lost
With the help of ad agency Blue Collar Interactive, we designed a logo and campaign guidelines and I planned to reshoot the interviews in January 2016 during a trade show in Las Vegas. This time, we took the veterans off into the desert to film in a quiet spot where they could open up and tell us their stories. The location was right and the interviews turned out stellar.
Upon returning to Portland, the plan was to combine the interviews with B-roll footage of a military-esque guy demonstrating combative drills with the products. In fact, we had already shot that footage and it was just a matter of combining the footage like this (Filmed by Travis Shields | Edited by Nadia Isakson | Produced by Ben Petersen):
The product videos and the combative demonstration were helpful in learning about the products, but they weren’t the essence of Forged by War. Again, we’d misfired and lost the story.
Getting it Right
At this point, my personal life got crazy. My former employer Blade HQ had approached me about returning to the company to take a position as their marketing manager. It was an excellent professional opportunity, so I took the job and planned to move to Utah within two months. But something had to be done to get Forged by War right. I felt a moral obligation to the veterans and I needed to finish the project. I was consumed by a desire to get it right and tell it true.
So, I started looking at plane tickets, rental cars and hotels. I outlined a hair-brained pitch to visit the veterans’ shops in a week-long whirlwind tour across the South. Time was critical: if I could start video production within two weeks, I would have three weeks to edit the videos, prep the assets and launch the campaign before leaving the company. I pitched the idea to management, explaining that we needed to do this project right; we needed to tell the story of defeating war demons by forging knives (ie FORGED by War), and to do that, we needed to be in the shops with these veterans. My pitch worked and I booked a plane ticket to Atlanta.
I started my trip with Army veteran, Austin McGlaun of Artificum Solis Knives in the backwoods of Alabama where he and three good-ole boys are making knives. You know all those rumors you’ve heard about Alabama? They’re true. Austin and his crew are some of the finest human beings I’ve met and I still chuckle about the things I saw in their shop (a gold spray painted AK-47 stands out among the list). This is the resulting video:
Next, I drove to RMJ Tactical in Chattanooga, Tennessee to interview Ryan Johnson, another CRKT designer and the originator of the Forged by War idea. He was the link that brought CRKT and the veterans together to facilitate access to the stories. Without that access, the stories would have fallen flat; Ryan was a critical part of the entire production. I filmed a shop tour with Ryan and an interview about the program.
From there, I drove through the heart of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains to the little town of Brasstown, where a Vietnam veteran named Elmer Roush forges tools in an old chicken coop. He’s one of the premier blacksmiths in the world, but he’d never tell you that. He’d also hesitate to tell you that strangers spit in his face when he returned from serving in Vietnam. But after six hours together filming in his shop, Elmer opened up and told me the details of how forging saved him from the recurring demons of the war. His story is both heartbreaking and triumphant.
After Elmer’s shop, I hopped in the car and drove across North Carolina to Fayetteville where I taped with Darrin Sirois of TCT Knives. I spent the entire day moving the camera, repositioning the lights and getting out of Darrin’s way as he handcrafted a single knife. More than once, Darrin raised his eyebrows and expressed doubts as he wondered why we needed so much footage. Documentary film can be a cruel mistress for the uninitiated; eight hours of filming seems excessive for a 4 minute video. Darrin was a good sport as I worked all day to get the shots and tell the visual story:
After sending Darrin the first draft of the video, he sent me this unfiltered text:
HOLY S**T BEN! I don’t know what else to say, literally speechless. It’s going to take a day or two for this to absorb and me reply with any type of literacy. Lol
Ha! I guess I put his doubts to rest.
My final day of filming was a whirlwind tour with veterans Michael and Kelly Rodriguez in Fayetteville, North Carolina. These two are true patriots and I was extremely humbled to stay at their house and film their stories. Their hospitality was unmatched and I wasn’t a video producer; I’d become a family friend. (And Michael destroyed me with his morning workout.)
One of the major challenges of this entire production was aligning the knife production cycle with the compressed filming schedule. With Michael and Kelly’s products, we only had production prototype tools to film. That wasn’t an insurmountable task, but it meant I was shooting their stories with notes that the final products would need to be reshot before going to market. CRKT’s utilized excellent 3rd party production teams to get it done: Ultimate Survival Tips did the final interviews and Shields Films did the edit on Michael and Kelly’s Projects. The final products are beautiful, multi-prong collaborations:
As a bonus on the final day of filming, one of the other Forged by War designers, Jeremy Valdez, was passing through town and I was able to film his interview and shoot b-roll with him. They tell me his video will come out in June 2017. When it does, I’ll add it to this post.
Back at the Ranch
Upon returning to Portland, I started editing like a madman. I’d just worked an 80 hour week filming and I was back at it pulling two 60 hour weeks to finish the edits. It was brutal. And invigorating. And I got it done. The launch went off without a hitch, and included an email component, video elements and custom landing page.
Upon launch, I received a lot of feedback on the project from a wide range of colleagues, family and friends. It was invigorating to know that people were touched by the stories. Here is some of the feedback from the project. I include these thoughts not to bolster my ego, but as a reminder to myself that the reshoots and resets and road trips and fast food and the cold in Elmer’s shop and early mornings and late nights and time away from my family was deliberate and meaningful.
“Phenomenal Job on the videos. Thanks for your effort.” -Elmer Roush, Forged by War designer
“I am speechless thank you brother” -Austin McGlaun, Forged by War designer
“What you put together in those three videos goes beyond words, but I’ll try. You captured the true meaning of the ‘Forged by War’ theme and unequivocally set a new standard for CRKT. There was no doubt about the common message among all three, and it was about therapy and giving back… Your work is phenomenal … I’ll leave this with just saying Thanks for your hard work, putting up with us ornery Vets, and providing orange peels on cue.” -Darrin Sirois, Forged by War designer
“Great work, Ben! And if course Elmer, Darrin and Austin…. Beautifully done!” -Kelly Rodriguez, Forged by War designer
“I just saw Darrin and Austin’s videos… Seriously brother. $*@& awesome!” -Michael Rodriguez, Forged by War designer
“Thank you for your part in the making of my Forged by War video… I’ve received a lot of positive feedback… on the film itself, but more importantly on the message you managed to capture… thank you Ben… you’re helping those you will never meet…” -Michael Rodiriguez, Forged by War designer.
“You really nailed it. All three videos bring something different to the message – all three are excellent. Thank you very much for the hard work and caring enough to make it right.” -Ryan Johnson, RMJ Tactical
“Ben, I have known Elmer Roush for over a decade, and I think you captured his story clearly and beautifully! Your gift at storytelling and Elmer’s story made for a moving work of art!!” -Karen Johnson, RMJ Tactical
“Well done Ben! I think this project speaks clearly to everyone inside the building and outside the building who CRKT is and our commitment to those who have and will serve our great country.” -Rod Bremer, CRKT Founder
“Wow, the videos are excellent. Thank you so much for following through with this project. This project is something we can all be proud of.” -Doug Flagg, CRKT VP of Marketing
“These are phenomenal. I’m not ashamed to admit it but Elmer’s video made me cry. Amazing.” -Lindsey Phelps, CRKT International Sales Manager
“Dude. I just watched your Forged by War videos. They’re beyond beautiful…in fact, they’re perfect. I thought the Yeti videos were top notch, but these set a new standard. You’re as talented as they come Ben. Truly.” -Tom Lehmann, Creative Director, Blue Collar Interactive
“Nice piece Ben. Very solid.” -Dale Green, BYU Production Director and mentor in my undergrad
“You guys just killed it! Amazing shooting Ben!” -Travis Shields, Shields Films
Finally, the last piece of feedback came from the American Marketing Association in the form of an award:
Credit Where It’s Due
A project like this doesn’t happen by chance. It was years in the making and required soul from everyone involved. My manager, Joel Bornzin, went to bat for this project multiple times and was the reason it got the support and resources to happen. Doug Flagg and the CRKT executive team were willing to take the risk on it and send me on a wild road trip. Ryan Johnson was critical in creating the idea and connecting the dots to make the project happen. And lastly, the veterans who participated in the program deserve the most credit– without their willingness to share their stories, the Forged by War program wouldn’t have happened. And lastly, I think it’s important to recognize God’s hand in my professional life. I can work my tail-feathers off, but I’m positive God helped arrange the details, the connections, the locations, the people and the timing. I’m grateful it happened.
- Canon 70D camera body, Magic Lantern firmware
- Canon 24-105 2.8 lens
- Canon 70-200 [1.8] lens
- Audio-Technica AT897 Shotgun mic
- Sennheiser G3 Lavalier mic
- Zoom H4N audio recorder
- Konova slider
- Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones
- Edited in Adobe Premiere CC
- Filmed in 5 states: Nevada, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina