Two double glass doors open to reveal a cement hallway with off-white walls and a quiet energy, but everything is not always as it seems. Further down the hall sits the office of Dominar Films, where any trace of outside ordinarity is overhauled by creativity.
“I never walk into the office knowing necessarily what we’re going to do today,” president, director and co-founder of Dominar Films Benjamin Roberds says. “A phone call can change everything.”
Roberds’ office, which he shares with Katie Gregg, the producer and vice president of Dominar Films, is covered with materials and memorabilia as unconventional as the work produced by the company. A half-melted animatronic skull, painted clown masks and movable monster jaws serve as decorations throughout the office space.
Dominar is an Athens-based music video and commercial production company that focuses on creating “unskippable” and visually-thrilling material. Dominar has produced over 50 videos for artists worldwide, and as Roberds says, “We never try to do too much of the same stuff twice.”
Gregg has always been drawn to the world of film production, earning a bachelor’s degree in film production and a master’s in film and animation. Roberds, picking up a VHS camera at the age of 8, is more of a self-taught filmmaker, graduating from short videos to a self-developed feature. Despite their differing backgrounds, both Gregg and Roberds have one common goal: to see how far the music video art form can be pushed.
At first, the success of the company in attracting international clientele was bizarre for Roberds and Gregg.
“I think we’re pretty unique,” Gregg says. “I don’t think anyone else is doing international, crazy large-scale music videos here.”
While most of the pre- and post-production work is done by Gregg and Roberds, Dominar’s on-site production team has amassed a crew of 30-50 people from shoot to shoot. A team of camera operators and technical crew help Dominar expand its vision, creating more elaborate videos with each successive project.
“You can make a music video where you just show up with a camera and shoot,” Roberds says. “The Dominar brand is built more around telling a story and that product is a lot more hectic than your average music video.”
Storytelling seems a goal of filmmakers, whether creating outrageous music videos as Dominar does or bringing the lives of everyday people to the attention of the masses as done by Atlanta-based filmmaker Joseph Stunzi.
While Stunzi is a director and self-taught filmmaker, he identifies himself as a storyteller and focuses on connecting to the authentic stories of real people.
“I think for me, the type of films that I’ve always connected with the most, the ones I’ve been most passionate about, are the films about people that wouldn’t have had a voice had we not come,” Stunzi says.
Born and raised in Athens, Stunzi feels most connected to the projects in this canon that allow him to portray people often misrepresented and denied a voice due to being outside the realm of society’s norms.
“It just shows you that if you’re willing to share your story and be your authentic self, that the sky’s the limit,” Stunzi says. “I think that’s what I care about the most, knowing that something that I did could spark a passion or a love in someone else ... I think that is what a real filmmaker is.”
Much like Dominar, Stunzi finds there is no such thing as a typical day in the life of a filmmaker; each presents a new set of challenges that encourages creative collaboration in achieving the final product.
“The majority of your life as a filmmaker is really problem solving and controlled chaos,” Stunzi says. “We can always make things better and better, but at the end of the day it’s about focusing on connection with who you’re working with and that’s on the crew side, the client side and on the talent side.”
Like Stunzi, Gregg and Roberds, James Preston, an Athens-based filmmaker and owner of the production company Brimms & Riggs, is a storyteller.
“It just shows you that if you’re willing to share your story and be your authentic self, that the sky’s the limit.”
— Joseph Stuzi, Atlanta-based filmmaker
Preston’s most recent work, called “Athens Rising: The Sicyon Project,” is the first volume of a series of feature-length films focusing on various facets of the creative scene in Athens.
“We have some really super bad-ass, incredibly successful creative people in town that a lot of people don’t know are here,” Preston says. “They could live anywhere in the world … They have a home in Athens, Georgia, and the question is why?”
Preston’s first film in the series highlighted the local underground art scene, bringing attention to experimental dance movements and obscure comedy acts. The second will focus on the area’s nonprofit institutions such as Canopy Studio and Nuçi’s Space.
“The reason why I announced it as a series and not one movie is because I didn’t want to be like, ‘There’s Athens, everybody, I got it,’” Preston says. “I’m not the person to say what Athens is. My goal in this is to give people just enough interest in things to go and find something that they can connect with and to know that it’s just a tiny little drop in the bucket.”
It may come as a surprise that production studios such as Dominar Films and filmmakers such as Preston and Stunzi find anything in common outside their clear passion for filmmaking, yet they all cite Athens as a community accessible to aspiring filmmakers and producers.
“Maybe a decade ago people would say I have to go to [Los Angeles] but every day, bigger and bigger productions come to Atlanta, almost as if LA is coming to us,” Roberds says.
Roberds says Athens is “less restrictive to the creative vision.”
“It definitely cuts costs and lets us do things that in bigger cities we might not be able to pull off with the budget we have,” Roberds says
Dominar uses the creative scene in Athens to fuel its motivations in film, taking advantage of local sets and an experienced crew that helps to build a film-hub network based within the community.
“It’s small enough that you can kind of wrap your mind around it, but there is enough people toiling away in the corner on various projects that there are still endless amounts of things to discover,” Preston says.
Preston believes Athens is looming with untapped production potential, offering a variety of locations and artists that have yet to be fully utilized and shown to the masses, despite how accessible they may be.
Stunzi, through personal experiences, has been exposed to the opportunities offered both through the local community and through UGA, which undeniably serves a large portion of Athens.
“Whether you want to be a broadcaster in front of a sports team, or you want to do kind of niche art films … You have access to that through Athens or through campus,” Stunzi says.
Stunzi is excited by the growth of the Athens artistic scene. By incorporating some of the town’s major players, the art scene in Athens can flourish even further.
“I think a lot of that takes the right leadership and the right timing and the right serendipity of the town to continue to develop into a beautifully artistic and dynamic environment,” Stunzi says.
The dynamic of Athens makes it intriguing to locals and outsiders alike. Large socioeconomic gaps create a stark contrast as the university looms over what at times can be a struggling city, with citizens occasionally caught between pursuing passion projects and paying the bills.
According to Preston, the flux of creativity in Athens is something that can be taken for granted and won’t preserve itself.
“We have to elevate the art in our town ... which inspires more artistic people to come here, which builds that creative tapestry that we have,” Preston says. “We have to actively engage with the artistic community and support and celebrate them, or everything will just go away.”
Although the creative scene in Athens is rich with history and talent, the work created by these artists requires intense labor whether it be on the cutting room floor, on sound stages or out and about in the world. The glamour and precision that captivates audiences cannot be made without countless hours of organization and exertion.
“I’m not the person to say what Athens is. My goal in this is to give people just enough interest in things to go and find something that they can connect with and to know that it’s just a tiny little drop in the bucket.”
— James Preston, Athens-based filmmaker and owner of Brimms & Riggs
“I think people underestimate the amount of work it takes in pre-production to get ready for a shoot and all the hands, resources and time needed,” Gregg says. “If you don’t work in video production, it’s hard to understand what goes into it.”
Gregg and Roberds spend upwards of 120 hours in post-production, adding effects to shots and perfecting the final cut. Gregg also handles practical effects for Dominar, making faces melt and monsters appear with little more than hardware supplies and YouTube tutorials.
Gregg sometimes spends two weeks crafting a prop for it to make a two- or three-second appearance on screen.
Technological advances enable amateur videographers and filmmakers, but this luxury can cause individuals to neglect the difficulties of high-quality production.
“Because we’re inundated with high quality video, we all assume that you can make a high quality video for $200 and it’s like, no,” Preston says. “That two minute video took 100 hours of work, maybe more, and probably $20,000 worth of gear.”
Preston spent 14 hours alone merely placing titles and names throughout the frames of his films.
“It’s so easy for anyone to point and shoot a camera; the majority of people really don’t understand the amount of work that goes into something,” Stunzi says. “I spent 100 hours just to get to the point where we’ve captured footage, interviews, meetings… All of that goes down into one- [or] two-minute clips.”
For every one minute of video that flashes across a phone, laptop or television screen, filmmakers devote tens or hundreds of hours working to get everything just right, according to Stunzi. What seems like an easy and fun task to outsiders demands sleepless nights researching, working on strict timelines and managing multiple projects to ensure both client happiness and directorial success.
Despite all the difficulties that come with filmmaking and film production, it continues to thrive due to the dedication of those involved in making a statement. As with all art, filmmaking is a passion. Regardless of the gear being used or the director’s focus, making a film in any form is about projecting a vision, viewpoint or experience on the world. Stunzi calls it a “mindful practice.”
“You get to take a few minutes to stop and take in a moment in an environment, capture that through your own eyes and at the end of the day, it’s all about whether you like your own work,” Stunzi says. “You have to figure out what you’re proud of and what you want to leave behind.”