In Keokuk early one June morning in 2017, college student Brittany Benedict showed up at Dollar Tree for her first day of work at her summer job.
She was greeted by Michael Huntington, one of the employees she would supervise. They had seen each other around town but never officially met.
They chatted away while stocking shelves with candy and laundry detergent — then made something of a monumental discovery.
Both dreamed of a career making movies.
Benedict and Huntington soon became a couple. Three months later, they bought a camcorder and produced a short documentary about a paranormal club in Keokuk. They laugh now to recall the amateur nature of their first film.
“It was just not great,” Huntington said. “I knew literally nothing about a camera. The white balance was off, it was grainy, the lighting was awful, and the audio was atrocious.”
But they kept at it and pursued other film-making projects, including serving as videographers for family weddings. They worked hard, learned by experience and experimentation, and honed their skills.
Flash forward five years and you find the couple living in Coralville and working full time on two separate videography ventures from a small office at the North Liberty CoLab, a co-working space.
Their wedding videography business is named One22 Studios and has grown to the point where they now film about 30 weddings each year. Their office is packed with equipment — four cameras, nine specialty lenses, two computers, microphones, green screens, assorted cables, and other professional filming paraphernalia.
“We love doing weddings,” Benedict said. “We put our heart and soul into this, and it’s rewarding as heck. We’re making something people will look at for generations.”
But they are also deeply attached to their other enterprise called Cintree Films, their dream venture into the movie-making business. The name combines “cinema” with “tree,” a nod to the Keokuk workplace where they met.
They have produced 15 short films of their own, most of them self-funded or crowd-funded with a volunteer cast and crew. They have also assisted with countless other films and have several bigger projects in the works. You can find samples by searching Cintree Films on YouTube.
The wedding work helps support Cintree Films, because, as Huntington explained, “short films are not marketable like feature films.” He said the industry generally classifies a short film as anything less than 60 minutes, while a feature film is longer.
Most of their short films are about 15 minutes, which usually involves at least three long days of filming, plus countless hours of editing. Although they rarely produce income, these films are meant to build credibility for the videographers.
The couple is starting to rack up awards for their short film work. At the recent Iowa Motion Picture Association Awards, they earned nine nominations and brought home four top awards in categories including editing, special effects, short film and web series.
“When we got into this, we had no idea you could do small films in Iowa,” Benedict said.
Now they have a network of like-minded friends and associates throughout the state, a collaborating community they were delighted to discover and join. They allude to hundreds of people acting, filming, directing, producing or otherwise involved in film-making in the state.
Making movies is hard work and budgets are lean at this level. Cintree Films usually spends less than $3,000 on a project and relies on volunteer actors, homemade props and sets, plus additional crew expertise as needed. Both Huntington and Benedict can handle a camera, but much of her work is in organizing and directing projects, while he excels in editing the final cut.
“We balance each other out,” Benedict said with a grin. “Michael is a gear junkie and a risk-taker, while I tend to be a little more practical and concentrate on the budget.”
“Nobody is as hard-working or as organized as Brittany for our projects,” added Huntington. “It is so important that filming runs on a tight schedule because we have to respect the time constraints of everybody working on it. They are mostly volunteers, after all.”
Examples of their projects include a 17-minute film they titled “Rosie’s Necklace,” which portrays a family’s struggle when an elderly member develops Alzheimer’s Disease. They rented a Cedar Rapids theatre to premier the film, plus used it to help raise $1,500 in donations to support an Alzheimer’s organization.
Another of their films, titled “Shut the Box,” will premier online this summer. It’s a thriller about former foster children who as adults uncover a game that unleashes a sinister power.
In other projects, Benedict and Huntington were hired by Nathan Sharp of Burlington to produce a film titled “Batman: Terrors of the Knight,” which stars Sharp in the lead role. The film is expected to be about 40 minutes after editing and may be premiered at a Burlington theater before the end of the year.
“We staged a complicated scene in an alley in Cedar Rapids for the Batman film,” Huntington said. “It was a choreographed fight, and we actually wet down the street with buckets of water to make it look like it rained and give it a more dramatic effect.”
Added Benedict: “In another scene, we used poster paper and PVC pipe to make the bars of a jail cell for a closeup of The Joker behind bars.”
On screen, it looks authentic.
The pair will work on a feature film in June titled “Dead Man Walking.” The story follows a gang member, shot in the head, who is trying to find out who is responsible for his injury, plus what happened to his money.
“We’re helping a Waterloo filmmaker on this,” Huntington said. “It will be our first shot at making a feature film, and we’re pretty pumped about it.”
At the end of June, they will travel to Texas for a week assisting with a western short film titled “The Satchel.” They will film the “behind the scenes” portion of that production. Two Des Moines filmmakers are the producers.
Huntington and Benedict say their career goal is to keep improving to the point where they can create a feature film that might attract the attention of Netflix or a major film festival like Sundance.
Although it can sometimes be a challenge to spend so much time together at work and at home, Benedict said the couple’s enthusiasm for moviemaking at all levels helps make the partnership work.
“We started working well together right away when we were at Dollar Tree, and that has continued as we formed our own business,” she pointed out. “We are both satisfied with what we are doing and following our dream.”