I've just finished working on the adventure documentary 'The Crossing'. It's about an expedition I did in the arctic a few years ago with Chris Bray. Without giving too much away, we tried to walk a thousand kilometres across Victoria Island when we were just 21 years old.
After a couple of months we only made it a third of the way across before running low on food and the onset of winter. We returned three years later and finished the job.
Making the film has been a steep learning curve, and I’m incredibly proud of the end result (you can watch a sneak peek of it here). Because I work in the film industry, and I also go on the occasional adventure, I get asked for filming tips quite a lot. To save you the pain of learning on the job, here are ten handy rules I use to film any adventure like a boss.
1. CHARACTERS ARE KING
The key element to any documentary are the characters. It doesn’t matter what the film’s about, it has to have interesting characters that people can care about.
I would rather watch a gritty film shot on an iPhone with engaging characters, than a super slick production with no depth or story. If you keep this in the front of your mind, you’ll instinctively start to get more character orientated sequences.
Characters, characters, characters. Remember this and you'll already be ahead of the game.
2. FILM LIKE NO-ONE WILL EVER WATCH IT
This is probably the single most important thing I’ve learned. If you film like nobody will ever watch the footage, you’ll start to open up and act naturally. Everyone puts on a persona as soon as a camera is pointed in their face. The closer this persona is to your real self the better, and knowing that you don’t have to show anyone the footage will help this. You can always choose what goes in or gets left out of your film. But you can never use it if you didn’t film it simply because you were worried about what people would think. The audience aren’t stupid. They’ll know if you’re not being genuine. Don’t try to self-censor, it will create a wall between you and the audience. If you say something dumb, you don’t need to use it. You might even find these imperfections make you endearing to the audience. Just say what’s on your mind and worry about it later. I found the longer I thought about what I was going to say on camera, the worse it turned out. Just… be… yourself. I can’t stress this enough.
3. DON'T CREATE DRAMA THAT ISN'T THERE
People always say you need drama in an adventure film. That’s true to a degree, but don’t try to find drama if it simply doesn’t exist.
This will come across as fake and nobody will believe it. On the flip side, film dramatic moments like they're going out of fashion. Drama is a great tool to create that story arc in your film.
Film any fights you have with your team. Agree to this with your team before whipping out the camera during a fight, or things could get awkward. Also film any frustrations, near misses, difficulties, mishaps et cetera. Just make sure you’re not trying to film drama that isn’t there. Honesty is key.
4. GO THE EXTRA MILE
A little bit of effort every so often will make a huge impact on your film.
Think ahead for particular shots you may need and plan accordingly. This could mean adding a couple of hours to your day to walk to the top of a nearby hill and filming a super wide shot of your team in the middle of a vast wilderness panorama.
These shots are a pain to get at the time, and you might try to convince yourself you don’t need it, but trust me, you do. You’ll be glad you made the effort when sitting in the edit suite going through your footage.
Here's a little clip I put together to show what work went into getting a simple shot walking towards and away from the camera. The end result was a glorious five seconds in The Crossing but took a good 45 minutes to film at the end of an already long day.
5. SHOOT ON THE RIGHT GEAR
The right right gear doesn’t always mean the best gear.
Think about what trip you’re doing and what equipment will enable you to make the best film. For instance, on our first attempt to walk across Victoria Island, we took a couple of big bulky HDV cameras (yes we were still on mini-DV back then).
These were new to the market and were great because they were HD, but big and clunky. On our second trip, HD cameras were far more common and we took tiny little handy-cams to film with.
What was the difference? Well despite being not as good technically, the handy-cams captured far better footage than the big HDV cameras. Why? Because of their small size. We were able to keep them handy and whip them out to film every serendipitous moment during the expedition. Selfies were easy, and we seemed to relax in front of these little things (as opposed to the big cameras we took on the first trip).
On the flip side, I can think of plenty of situations where a bigger, better quality camera would be more appropriate.
The main take away: think about how you’ll be using the gear, what you’ll be filming, under what conditions, what constraints, what style you’re after and choose accordingly.
Here are two clips. The first is a quick video diary from trip one (where we had the big cameras) and the second video from trip two (where we had the small handy-cams). Can you notice the difference? See how the type of camera you use can impact your style of filming?
6. SHOOT OFTEN
Film consistently and in small bites. Lots of little shots each day add up to a lot of footage at the end of your trip.
There will be days where you don’t film much and others where you film loads, but try to chip away at a bit each day.
This is far easier than putting it off for days, then over-filming scenes to compensate.
If you're concerned about wasting too much time filming every day, you could try fitting it in during down times such as lunch breaks or breakfast.
I try to average 15-20 minutes of footage a day (usually filming a few minutes at a time).
This way it’s quite easy to film because it’s not a huge burden, but you end up with about an hour of content every three days or so. Not bad.
7. SHOOT THE BAD STUFF
The worst times for you are the best times to film.
If it’s the end of a long day and all you want to do is curl up and crawl into your tent, whip out the camera. This is a pain in the ass at the time, but trust me, it’ll also make the most compelling footage.
The moments you just want to get through with minimal fuss, are usually the moments you should be filming.
This rule also applies to filming you at your worst moments, warts and all. This could be when you’re having a bad day, or when you’re having an argument with your team, or simply taking a day off and being a bit of a wuss because it’s raining and cold outside.
Trust me, leave your ego at home and shoot the stuff you’re embarrassed about at the time.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, you always have the option of leaving it out of the film, but you can never use it if you didn’t film it.
8. SHOOT SEQUENCES
There’s no point filming something awesome if it’s not useable in the wider context of a film. This means filming in sequences. Get wide, medium and close up shots from various angles. Also get intro’s and outro’s, or anything that gives what you just filmed some context.
If you speak about an event or animal or something on camera, make sure to get footage of that thing. I had to leave out heaps of great shots, simply because they didn’t have any context or supporting footage.
Films are made up of sequences, not single shots.
9. BE SYSTEMATIC
Before going on your adventure, think about the different types of shots you’ll likely need. Obviously you never know what’s going to happen on your adventure, but there are certain things you know will need to be told as part of your story.
Break it down and have a check list to go through so you don’t have any gaping holes in your film once you’re back home and start editing.
For our expedition, this included things like traveling shots, wildlife, cutaways, video diaries and daily chores. You can plan a surprising amount ahead of time. After that, it’s a simple matter of ticking off the list and then filming anything extra that happens along the way.
10. AUDIO - THE SILENT KILLER
It’s all good and well to finish your adventure with a bunch of awesome footage, but it’s not much use if the sound is rubbish. You’re not making a music video clip, you’re making a movie, and that requires good audio. Remember, a film is made up of two things; vision and sound. This is often forgotten by GoPro wielding adventurers trying to make the next ‘Touching The Void’. Bring a good microphone (and an even better wind sock). On an adventure, the filming environment is often loud (wind/rapids/MSR cookers etc) so think about your sound before pressing the record button. Otherwise, you’ll be making a three minute music video clip, posting it to facebook, and not much else.
Please add your own filming tips in the comments section. I'd love to hear from you!