I’ve began filming my adventures in 2007, when I’d barely picked up a video camera before. In 2011, I found myself presenting my first feature-length documentary at the Royal Geographical Society in London. I’ve since released two more feature docs (and numerous shorts), won film festival awards for my work, host workshops on travel filmmaking for newcomers, and make a significant portion of my living as an adventure filmmaker.
This article is an introduction to how I think as a filmmaker, and how you should too. I’ll share some of the dos and don’ts I’ve learnt in relation to self-shot travel films, whether they’re destined for Youtube or next year’s festival circuit.
(All of the pictures in this article are frame-grabs – apologies for the repeated appearances of my ugly mug!)
Telling The Story
As a newcomer or home-video maker, it’s tempting to just point the camera at everything that looks interesting. If you have a good eye for composition, good camerawork skills, and the equipment to follow it though, this can produce a wonderful piece of film – just look at Baraka orfor examples of compilations of mind-blowing imagery from around the world.
But when you get to the edit, you’ll realise that your footage is missing something – human interest, narrative, and overall a main character and story arc with whom your audience can identify and empathise. In my experience, this is the downfall of a huge majority of amateur online travel video. Guess what – cringe-worthy as it might be (and it is horrible to watch yourself on camera to begin with!) that main character is YOU, and the story is YOUR STORY.
Uncomfortable as it might be to begin with, you need to start telling your own story, and the quicker you get used to pointing the camera at yourself and delivering natural narrative, the better. You don’t have a cameraman in tow, so swing that camera round. The camera is your friend. It is your best friend in the world. You will confide in it at every opportunity.
Don’t try to be a breakfast show TV presenter, public speaker or flamboyant celebrity diva. Just be you – a normal person on an less-than-normal journey. People detect, respect and engage with honesty. Don’t try to cover your vulnerabilities during difficult moments. Oh – and look at the lens, not at your LCD screen!
Break It Down
A character-led expedition film will usually be made up of a large number of interconnected stories, chosen and ordered in a dynamic way over the course of the film, and you need to identify those sub-stories as they happen, and make sure you shoot the beginning, middle and end of each.
Variety is key – get the camera out when things go wrong as well as when you’re as high as a kite. Also, identify what becomes mundane and shoot a short story about it – you might not find the process of cooking noodles at your wild camp-site particularly enthralling, but a good example of it will add great depth and intimacy to your overall narrative from your audience’s point-of-view.
Whenever you identify a story in progress, try and capture everything you need to set the story up – maybe you’re invited into a yurt in Kyrgyzstan, for example. What happens inside might be very interesting, but it’s difficult to make it work in the edit without the shot of the yurt from the outside, maybe the surrounding landscape and a herd of goats, and a quick piece-to-camera (PTC) about how you ended up there. You can fill in these gaps after the fact if you need to. Make sure the viewer knows where you are.
During the action, make sure you continue talking the viewer through what’s happening. Describe your situation, the environment and the events that are happening, as well as filming them. Try and film close-ups of small details – ornaments, faces and hands for example – as well as wide shots of the action from a number of angles. This will help immensely when editing the story together.
Likewise, try to do a short video diary about your reactions to each event you’ve filmed, and about how you feel in general. Talk not only about what’s happening and what you’re feeling now, but also about what you’ve done in the wider scheme of things, what your current objective is, and how things compare to back home and what came before. Make a flash-card with these questions on it if it helps.
Finally, travelling shots are what you need to link these stories together. Quality over quantity is best, and again variety is key. Stunning shots can be achieved if you’re willing to take the time to get them. Set up the tripod, zoom in to 400mm and ride off over the ridge with the blue mountains in the background. Put the camera on the road on a downhill and fly past it with five centimetres to spare. Ride one-handed and use the other hand to hold the camera next to the front wheel. Set up shots of your face, hands, legs and tyres. Strap the camera to your handlebars, panniers, head. Be creative.
It’s difficult to juggle all of these aspects, undoubtedly – especially while you’re also trying to interact or get things done – but you can make it easier by getting familiar with good camerawork practice. Getting into good habits early will pay its dividends in the long run, and will help other aspects of filmmaking become second nature.
There are a few classic beginners’ mistakes, so let’s deal with them. First and foremost: Sound. When you’re confronted with action, try to stop thinking in terms of shooting a video with some audio in the background, and start thinking in terms of recording a soundtrack with some visuals as an added bonus. Bad sound is difficult to fix and even more difficult for the viewer to make sense of, whereas bad video is much more easily interpreted by the brain. Good audio is also incredibly important when editing for continuity.
Second, ALWAYS roll the camera for at least 5 seconds before and after the shot you want, whether it’s actuality or a nice static general view. If you can make it 10 seconds at the end, so much the better. This applies especially when shooting a person talking to the camera – often the most interesting things will come out during those few seconds after they think they’ve finished. Your editor will kill you if you send beautiful images of only two or three seconds each.
Third – use a tripod whenever possible. It transforms an image and can make all the difference between a distinctly amateur end result and a polished professional piece. Use it creatively – pick it up and carry it around as a kind of cheapo steadicam. I often use it whilst riding or walking to get a wider perspective of myself, in the absence of a film crew following me around, even though might be a bit wobbly.
Fourth, while the auto settings on your camera might do the job, there will come many times when they won’t. Overall your results will be much better if you learn to use manual focus, exposure and white balance from the outset. The skills to quickly set these up will come in very useful when you’re rushing to get a good shot under difficult circumstances. There’s not much worse than the auto-exposure ruining a perfectly good sequence by over-compensating for a sudden change of angle in the light, or the auto-focus deciding to go and do it’s own thing. For wide shots of action, set the focus to 1 metre and go from there.
Last but definitely not least, remember that every second of footage you shoot is for the sole purpose of being edited later. Remember this at all times. There are no prizes for getting everything in the right order, cutting at the right time, or making the raw footage remotely watchable, while you’re holding the camera. You’re just gathering video and audio for later assembly.
Think Like An Artist
Like photography, composing good film is an adventure with light. With film, you also have the time factor, but spend a little of that time on composition and your results will stand out.
Classic rules-of-thumb are much the same as for photography. The rule of thirds divides the frame into nine equal imaginary segments – two divisions from left to right, and two from top to bottom. Put the subject of the shot – the part you want the viewer’s eye drawn to – on one of these lines, or at an intersection. This could be the horizon, a church in a landscape, the eyes of someone talking – try not to centralise the subject, unless it’s a shot of particular symmetrical beauty.
Look at the available light, and use it. Full on front lighting makes for a flat image, and back-lighting creates silhouettes. Light coming from the front and side picks out definition, so move around until you’ve got the best angle. You’ll get this lovely light during the ‘Hollywood hour’ just before sunset and just after sunrise. Get your beautiful landscape and travelling shots in at this time. Shoot in the middle of the day, by all means, if you have no choice, but avoid harsh shadows in the eyes and under the nose of people if you can. I usually wore a sun-hat at midday and exposed for my whole face in shadow.
Less Is More
Don’t try to film everything, or you’ll end up living through a lens. Put the camera away for a few days and enjoy life. Remember that variety is key – if you get invited into the second Kyrgyz yurt, you don’t need to film it again.
The same goes while shooting individual stories. You need a strong storyline, narrative, characters, an establishing shot, the action, a few cut-aways, and the finalé and post-story video diary. Try to be conservative with the camera but without missing anything important.
Finally, remember that it’s not always going to be appropriate to film. Some cultures will demand greater sensitivity with the camera. If in doubt, ask someone and respect the advice you’re given.
People Like People
If you meet a strong character with whom you can communicate well, consider approaching the subject of an informal interview. It’s always interesting to hear another point-of-view. Ask him or her about things you’ve seen in their country; questions you have about their culture. Ask them what they think about your journey.
Get Good Equipment
If you’re making videos for Youtube, any half-decent HD consumer camera will do; in fact the quality of these cameras keeps getting better, the package smaller, and the memory capacity higher, to the point where a smartphone is a genuine option for amateur filmmakers. All of these cameras will benefit from the addition of an external microphone (check out the SmartLav for iPhones).
For broadcast, however, it’s worth getting something that meets TV specifications for pictures and sound if you really want to make the most of the stories you’ll be able to capture, as well as keeping the techies happy. The Canon XF100 is the A-camera I’ve used on recent projects, which produces reliable broadcast-quality footage.
If you’re serious about making a professional-quality documentary, you might also consider getting a dedicated sound recorder for recording ‘atmos’ (background noise). A fluid head on your tripod will improve your panning shots no end, and they can now be found sub-2kg thanks to the advent of carbon-fibre tripods. If your camera’s focal lengths aren’t quite short enough, a wide-angle lens adapter will help out indoors and when you’re filming yourself hand-held.
Capture The Mood
Once you can self-direct, operate and narrate like a pro, as well as having the massive adventure you’ve set out to document, try to identify the mood and convey it through images and sound. Isolated and lonely in the desert? Walk half a mile away from the road, set up the camera and film yourself as a tiny speck crossing the horizon. Paranoid about police checkpoints? Go crazy with angles and shadows. Mellow and chilled? Get a few more of those long, beautiful landscape or sunset shots.
Try to convey more than just the here-and-now of where you are and what’s happening – let those creative juices flow.
Remember that you’re the star, so let your hair down, say everything on your mind, act like a fool, cry, laugh and edit all the inappropriate stuff out later!
I hope that will help some budding adventure filmmakers get better results. There’s more than one way to make a film, of course, but this is what’s worked for me.