Recently, I was asked to give some advice about filming an expedition to Ash Dykes, who’s about to do a solo walk across Mongolia. Having just come back from filming on Walking The Nile with Lev Wood I was well-placed to offer some tips about kit, but most of my knowledge on the practicalities of filming stems from the best-value shooting and directing course I’ve ever done: The Explorers’ Film School.
Three years ago, I wrote an article in Beyond Limits about the film course I did at the EFS, and I thought it was a good time to reprint it here.
HOW TO FILM AN EXPEDITION
How do you tell people about your adventures; and how do you make a career as a professional adventurer? Two questions that many adventurers will hear time and again in their Q &A sessions.
One of the key answers for both of these is video. Social Media has become a powerful tool in the armoury of the professional adventurer, and the easiest and most palatable sharing medium is video. The adventurer can share their videos on Facebook or YouTube so their followers can see what they are doing; they can put links up on websites and online communities; they can send it to sponsors and kit companies to raise funding; and they can even sell DVDs of their adventures, or use the footage to win a commission for a television documentary.
But how does one film one’s adventures in the first place? Camera work is a huge field, with masses of terminology and kit to get your head around, let alone thinking about filming a story, constructing a sequence or planning shots. Most adventurers can barely afford their own expeditions, so paying for a camera-man is out of the question. How, then, does a budding explorer-presenter take his first step into the world of media?
I came across an answer to this question during the Adventurists’ Film Festival at the RGS in London, where Andrew Miles of the Explorers’ Film School gave a talk about self-filming for adventurers. Andrew is a professional video cameraman, who has worked extensively with National Geographic, and who specialises in expedition and adventure camera-work. With the Explorers’ Film School, he has established a one-of-a-kind institution to teach people how to self-film their expeditions. He taught Pen Hadow before Hadow completed one of the last great polar challenges – a solo, unsupplied trip to the Geographic North Pole, the footage of which made for compelling television.
During his talk he gave us a few top tips for adventurers who take a video camera with them on an expedition. The key difference between broadcast-able and unbroadcast-able film is how well you communicate through the lens:
• Film with a ratio of 10:1 – for every hour of footage you wish to eventually broadcast, film ten to give you enough material to cut and edit together properly
• Never talk behind the camera
• Don’t babble incessantly – make concise statements and pause to allow for ease of editing
• Never have just unbroken scenery in your film – always have people in it, giving context
• Talk to the camera – that is the medium through which you communicate with the audience at home – and looking at the camera will make them feel more engaged
• Explain what you are thinking/feeling. If you are interviewing other members of the team, ask questions that will draw out how they feel about the trip or event
I then went onto do Andrew’s full 3-days course down in Brighton. It’s a thorough introduction, where you learn all the essentials of self-filming, from camera handling through to sequencing. Andrew’s specialism in filming in extreme environments means he has learned from his own mistakes when it comes to getting great shots. The 3-days were full of information, and my notebook is bursting with bullet points, but here are a few key ideas to set you on your way.
• Do video diaries just to camera – people tend to talk more honestly to a camera than to a camera with an operator
• Walk on ahead and set up the camera to get long shots – if you are on your own this may mean having to do extra walking
• Keep the camera ready to roll at any moment – you never know when something exciting is about to happen
• When reconstructing something in retrospect, use abstract filming to indicate to the viewer that it is not original footage
• Book-end each shot with a few seconds of silence to make for ease of editing
The planning stage is key – if you are operating a camera, you are carrying extra weight, batteries and storage (films or solid state). You will have to make extra time on your journey for filming, particularly if you are setting up long shots and context filming.
Be sure to film this stage – the logistics and preparation – as it gives a great insight into how an expedition comes together, and insights into your thinking and emotion as the expedition approaches. Talk to the camera, or do interviews with other members of the team if you are not going solo.
• Sound is essential for an expedition – more important than images. You can monitor it with something as simple as iPod headphones
• Write out beforehand what you hope to get out of the expedition and what you want to film – reference these notes throughout the trip to make sure you are on track – daily goals and through the whole expedition
• Think about what you will need to film to make up a full, broadcast-able programme: cut-away; landscape; interviews; transient shots; camp-life
• Be efficient with your shots – get a variety each time you set your camera up, such as wide, static and moving, from the same position, to generate “filler” video efficiently
So there’s a few starter points. Andrew’s course is jam-packed with advice and is an extremely worthwhile piece of education if you’re considering filming your expeditions. I started with filming a trip to Italy on my iPhone, and even that was made much better thanks to Andrew’s advice! Head over to his website for more information and some examples of films made by explorers trained by Andrew.