It's now nearly three years since I set off into the Empty Quarter desert; it's just under two since the film premiered at the Royal Geographical Society. It's been one of the most rewarding pieces of creative work that I've been part of, and I'm still amazed the the great response we get to the movie. Ultimately, it was an incredibly fun journey which we were fortunate to have had.
One of the main aims of the film was to show a different side to the Middle East - a side that doesn't get much airtime. Hopefully we've done that - we've taken the feature film round festivals, sold it on DVD and as downloads, and now even got it out to broadcast too.
There's also a short version of the film - 20 minutes long, which was created for festivals and events that were limited on time. It too has been well received, and we figured the time has come to put that out to all of you to watch, anytime, anyplace, for free.
So here it is - if you haven't seen it, I'm proud to present to you Into The Empty Quarter!
If you'd like to see the feature version (2 1/2 times as long!), then you can do so here. If you enjoy the film, then do check out our little follow up movie below...
Good news, everybody - we've made it!
Thanks to 662 of you putting faith in our project, Tom and I have successfully crowdfunded the editing budget for our films from Iran and Patagonia. Not just that, we managed to hit 112% of the target!
The deadline was midnight on Monday, and we began work on Tuesday morning. There's no messing around with this - we have until just the end of May to create two feature-length films. The team of professionals that we're going to surround ourselves with are readying themselves (think of it like the Avengers, but with more sitting down in dark editing room and less crime fighting.) In short - it's all happening!
I'll keep you updated every step of the way via this blog and on social media. In the meantime, let me say again how immensely happy Tom and I are to be making these films, and how grateful we are to all of you for being a part of them. These really couldn't happen without you! So - thank you, and I can't wait to share more of the material with you.
This is an exciting time to be alive. That’s true for a lot of reasons, but especially so if you are interested in making adventure films. Technology is improving so quickly, with the result that quality is getting better and gear-size smaller. When I cycled from New York to Hong Kong (my first big adventure) I was amazed at how small cameras had gotten in the time since I’d left university. I filmed that journey on a Sony A1 – an impressively small camera for the time (and even by today's standards it was dinky.) Unfortunately I had to cart around pannier bags full of mini DV tapes (remember those?) plus a 5kg tripod (that may have been my mistake.) Overall, my camera gear made up nearly half of my total gear for the trip.
Now, the options for the aspiring adventure filmmaker are almost unlimited. It is possible for any of us to go and film something in HD with very little money or effort. Telling a story is much harder, but that’s a topic for another post (try this one for starters, or come along to the filmmaking weekends that Tom and I are running in May!) The point of this post is to try and bring a little clarity to the complicated world of Filmmaking Equipment, so that you feel more confident heading out to shoot your own movie.
I use four types of camera (not all at the same time.) The first is a dedicated video camera – the Canon XF100. The second is a digital SLR (initially a Canon 600D, now a Canon 5D Mkii). Third is a sports camera – usually a GoPro. Finally I film on my smartphone – an iPhone 5s that I bought specifically because it has such a great camera (nothing to do with the Angry Birds, honestly.)
I am, and probably always will be, a fan of camcorders. They are designed for video. They are intuitive (mostly). They are quick and easy to learn, and they record high spec audio. They’re perfect for ‘run ‘n gun’ style shooting, and although I’m not a fan of regularly using automatic features on a camera, it’s useful to have them for when things get crazy. The Canon XF100 has been my camera of choice for 4 years now, and I really enjoy using it.
So why do so many people use DSLRs? Well, partly it’s because they got popular, and everybody wants to be popular, right? Also it’s because the size of the sensor inside the cameras produces a really beautiful image. It allows for that lovely shallow-depth-of-field look, and, when done well (and not overused) it undoubtedly produces a ‘nicer’ image than a camcorder in the same price range. On top of all that, you can use it to take stills without having to worry about using a second camera. The downside to all of this is that these cameras aren’t specifically designed for video use and can be a little clunky. The autofocus is poor and the sound recording ability is lacking. DSLRs are much more useful in a controlled situation, unless you are extremely experienced and know your camera inside out.
GoPro cameras are almost ubiquitous among the outdoor fraternity (and with good reason, too.) They produce a great HD image, and with each new model they’re getting more and more flexible. For anything involving action, they’re unparalleled. The limitations, however, are obvious. They have just one field of view (mostly) and it’s extremely wide. These days you do have a little LCD screen on back of the newer versions, but it’s still not great for composition. The sound is atrocious, and in reality these camera should only ever be used for what they’re designed to do – action and sports shots.
Smartphones are the new dark horse in adventure filmmaking. Obviously they’re not as good as a proper video camera or a DSLR. However, the image is pretty darn nice and if you can figure out a way of steadying the shaky, flimsy camera body (using a smartphone-specific tripod head, for example) you’ll get some lovely stuff. In my last expedition to Patagonia I carried my iPhone 5s in a easily accessible pocket, and on occasion it was the handiest camera to use when something dramatic happened. You probably could shoot an entire adventure film on one of these – it’s something I plan to do soon (anyone going to beat me to it?) –but it works much better as a secondary camera. Sound, again, is the major issue, but there are a variety of solutions for that (independent sound recorders, smartphone clip mics etc.) This is possibly the most exciting and accessible of all the options for making adventure films.
When I first started going on adventures, I filmed them because I thought it might be fun. It wasn’t, really, because I wasn’t doing it properly. It was stressful and exhausting and I had nothing to show for it except a bunch of shaky, out-of-focus footage that wouldn't even impress my mum. So I stopped for a while, and had more fun on the journeys. Then I came back to it and took it more seriously. Now, a few years down the line, I make a living from it. Below, then, is the kit list of what Tom and I took to Patagonia. I want you to bear in mind that:
a) this was a ‘professional’ endeavour (in that we wanted to make a broadcast quality film);
b) we were travelling on horses so had a little more room to carry extra bits and pieces;
c) the gear was all ours, the trips self-funded and our skills self taught. We’re definitely on the home-made, amateur end of the professional spectrum!
KIT LIST FOR PATAGONIA
* Cameras in bold
It's worth mentioning at this point that I think camera equipment is very boring. I don't get excited by it. I get excited by the idea of sharing my journeys, and although I often wish I was more of a tech geek...I'm not. Ultimately, it's not that big a deal. There are camera that will be better or worse suited to the job you need them for, but mostly these days all cameras will do a great job if you use them right. So my overall message is 'Don't worry about it!' Research, yes. Practice, definitely. But don't let a lack of expensive kit put you off. One of my favourite adventure films is The Road From Karakol, which was all shot on a point and shoot camera. It breaks all the rules, and is awesome.
I know though that you're here for more than just generalisations and platitudes, so here are my other key thoughts on adventure filmmaking gear. Alongside a decent camera, there are certain things you MUST have. 'Must' is in capitals for a reason. If you don't have these things, your film will not be as good as it could have been. Simple!
There are two rules regarding tripods. Firstly, bring one. Secondly, use it!
The more expensive, the better (as with most gear.) For the purposes of adventure filmmaking however, you want something compact and light. If you can afford it, go for carbon-fibre tripod legs, and a fluid head for smooth tilts and pans. Manfrotto and Velbon are favourite brands of mine. If you are on a budget, even a £15 tripod from Jessops will do the job of getting you a steady shot. Unless you have a hell of a good reason, don't just try and get a steady shot by holding the camera really still. It will never be as good as you think it is. Trust me - I've done it enough times!
Some of the best advice I ever received was to stop thinking of my films as video with sound attached, but instead to see them as an audio story with some images over the top. Sound is at least 50% of your finished film. As a viewer we can abide all sort of crappy, shaky footage is the audio is clear (think of investigative documentaries, Blair Witch Project etc.) If the sound is poor - voices too low, too much wind, hiss etc) - we quickly get very frustrated, even if the visuals are stunning.
Don't scrimp on sound. Invest in a decent microphone (or even two.) There are three main options:
1) Shotgun microphone that attached to the top of your camera (look up 'Rode' options on Amazon.)
2) A wired or wireless tie-clip mic (also called lavalier or 'lav' mic) to capture one main character's audio
3) A separate audio recorder that you can then sync up with video.
All have pros and cons, and ideally you want to capture sound via at least two methods at all times. Do some research (ask me if you want more ideas.) Get what fits your budget and style of shooting, but please do get something. Finally, get a wind gag for your microphone too - adventures have a habit of being outside, and wind can really mess up an otherwise awesome scene.
If you have a camera, a tripod and a microphone you can make an award-winning film. You don't need anything else. The following items are useful though if you have the space/budget for them. Think of them as things to slowly add in to your filming kit:
•Headphones to monitor sound
•Case for the kit – waterproof, shockproof, Pelicase, Aquapac etc
•Extra memory cards – CF, SD, other
•Batteries and chargers (in-car chargers, models compatible with solar panels)
•Lens cloth/dust cap
I don't want this to be intimidating, so I'll stop there. Adventure filmmaking should be, and can be, fun! Go out, shoot, enjoy. Come back and see what you've got. Repeat until you win awards!
If you'd like to ask any questions, then please do so in the comments section below. I'm happy to answer anything and everything.
At the end of last year, Tom Allen and I spend the best part of two months working with the footage from our river journey in Iran. We both found the process to be hugely rewarding - reviewing the visual reminders of a trip that brought so much joy - yet also desperately frustrating. As anyone who has edited a creative work will attest too, this is not unusual.
Trying to craft a story is rarely easy, and in my experience success often comes only after much swearing, whiskey-drinking and last-gasp epiphanies. The difference this time, however, was that much of our frustration had very tangible roots. Our footage had holes; gaps where tough conditions, multiple encounters with the police and last minute changes-of-plan had left our original story ideas in tatters. We had ambitiously hoped to make a film commenting on what Iran is really like in 2014; we'd wanted to speak with lots of Iranians on camera and to really get under the skin of the country. The reality was that we'd been limited to fewer interactions of the type we'd hoped for, and struggled to escape the attentions of small-town bureaucrats. Our adventures on foot, bike and in inflatable boats had ended up playing a much bigger role in our shooting that the social commentary and, in short, we were struggling to see where to go with our narrative.
Our journey along the Karun River was definitely one of my favourite-ever trips. It had everything I'd wanted from a short(ish) trip - thrills and spills; wilderness and people; danger and hospitality. It was fantastic. The problem was that the dynamic, rollercoaster-nature of this five week adventure meant it was extremely hard at the time to know what to film (and when we'd safely be able film.) We came home with lots of footage, but not quite the material we'd expected to get.
Filmmaking, I've found, relies strongly on finding the right balance between single-mindedness and flexibility (much like a good journey does too, I suppose.) After our initial annoyances at how much our original vision for the film had been shattered, Tom and I eventually came to see the strengths in the material we had. We stripped the concept right back down to its bare bones, and built it up again from scratch. It wasn't always fun, but it was certainly the right thing to do.
As it stands now, we're still only partially through the project. Last November, however, a major milestone was reached when we completed the short-form version of Karun. At 15 minutes in length, it tells the personal story of our journey through Iran yet still aims to show just what an incredible country it is. Over the next few months we hope to expand that into a feature, drawing out our secondary themes and finding creative ways to work with footage that has been gnawed at by the factors mentioned above. It's been the most challenging film I've worked on to date, but slowly it's coming together.
Right now, I'm more excited than daunted. I'm sure I'll see-saw between those two states regularly during the edit, but last night I received a real boost to my confidence for this project when Karun won the People's Choice Award at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. Aside from the obvious niceties of winning anything (I could now constantly refer to our 'Award-Winning Film' - though I'll desperately try not to!) what I'm most pleased about is that the early audiences are responding really well. Our hard work seems to have paid off - Tom and I must be getting at the core elements of emotion and drama that make humans tick. That - a film that leaves an impression and makes people think and feel - is what we've been working towards.
I'm incredibly chuffed to get an award (if I'm totally honest, when I heard last night that we'd won, it was much like this.) Mostly, though, I'm just glad to know we're on the right track with this film, and I'm really looking forward to creating the feature. Iran is a place that had a profound effect on me, and I feel a responsibility to do justice to the experiences we had and stories that we found there.
So watch this space!
One final thing (and I think you'll like this): Tom and I would like to share the Award-winning (sorry, I'll stop now) short version of Karun with all you lovely folk that read our blogs regularly.
If you're already on my mailing list, then you don't have to do anything. If you're not, then consider popping your email address in the box below. I'll send out one email monthly with updates from my world of adventures, and at some point in the next few weeks you'll get a private and secure online link to watch the 15 minute version of Karun.
In late September last year, I saw the chance to squeeze in one last big journey before 2014 drew to a close. Within a few weeks had I put together the logistics, roped in a couple of friends and we were off with barely time to catch our breath and question what was going on...just the way adventures should be!
Our destination was the Rio Santa Cruz, the last free-flowing glacial river in Patagonia. It begins life in Lago Argentino, at the foothills of the Andes in the west of Argentina, then winds and meanders its way across the country to the Atlantic Ocean. We hoped to begin there, at its terminus in the east, and follow it upstream to the source just as the first explorers had tried to do.
Our journey was inspired by the story of that first comprehensive European expedition along the river, undertaken by Captain FitzRoy in 1834. FitzRoy had been charged with charting the coastline of South America, and his crew included a very young and very impressionable Charles Darwin who fancied himself as a bit of a geologist and amateur explorer. Both FitzRoy and Darwin left detailed writings of their journey along the river which, unfortunately, ultimately ended in their failure to reach the source (though they came heartbreakingly close.) Together with Tom Allen (who I travelled to Iran with earlier in the year) and an Argentinian friend, Jose, we hoped to use these diaries to make a journey in the footsteps of FitzRoy and Darwin. Patagonia is a land than can only be truly traversed on horseback, so we prepared for the expedition by acquiring five horses which we hoped would carry us all the way to the Andes.
There was another reason for our trip, too - in February 2015, construction is due to begin on two dams, which will flood huge sections of the valley and change the ecosystem and landscape completely. Somewhat sadly, it seemed we would not just be following in the footsteps of the first explorers; we would perhaps simultaneously be the last explorers ever to see the Rio Santa Cruz before it changes forever.
Below are a few pictures to give a hint of the journey. Watch out for more writing, and news on the film, coming soon. Enjoy!
This blog first appeared as a guest post for The Next Challenge
1. Find your story
This might not be the same story as your trip, but it’s the key thing to always bear in mind when making a film. What is going to happen in your film? To whom? What is the beginning, middle and end of your story? This is where the majority of your creative energies should be spent.
2. Develop your characters
Even if your film is about you, you are still a character. Everyone who appears in your film is. Look at each character individually and how they interact with each other. What is their arc? Do they have their own story? Make sure all characters have a beginning, middle and end point (just as with your story) and that anyone unnecessary is cut out.
3. Learn your craft
Keep the camera steady, don’t zoom during the shot, know the different between a wide shot and a medium shot – learning some basic filming rules of thumb and understanding the grammar of filmmaking will take you a long way. You’ll learn on the go, but why do some reading about it at the same time?
4. Get coverage
Shoot cutaways of all the interesting little details in the scene. If you can, film an event/meeting/dramatic situation from a couple of different angles to give options in the editing room. If a 10-minute sequence is filmed in one shot from one camera, it’s going to be very hard to make it watchable for an audience unless the content is ground-breakingly awesome. Don’t be lazy – move around.
5. Film the tough times
If you’re thinking, ‘everything about this trip is so bloody awful and I’m truly, truly miserable with my life and this stupid situation’ then chances are it’s a good point to get out the video camera. When you’re low, or when things around you are happening at hyperspeed, the inclination is to deal first with those emotions or situations. Work on changing that impulse – as a filmmaker you need to capture the action at the same time.
6. Enjoy the journey
Don’t spend your whole time looking at a tiny LCD screen. Enjoy the journey – chances are you’re on a dream trip of some kind and very lucky to be where you are. Make the most of it – find the compromise between capturing what you need and keeping a little experience in reserve just for you.
7. Include people
You might be awesome, and you might be incredibly interesting. Regardless, an audience probably doesn’t want to watch you pontificating for an hour on their computer screen even if you are the next Slavoj Zizek. Balance your footage according to what you’ve shot, but where possible try to include other people. We’re a sociable race, humans, and we like to see and learn from other people. Give folk you meet a moment in the limelight.
8. Invest in decent equipment
You can make a good film on an iphone. You can make a bad film on a £50,000 camera. Equipment is not essential BUT it does help to have decent stuff if you can afford it. Get an HD camera, a sturdy tripod, a quality microphone, plus some decent headphones.
9. Think about sound
If your sound recording is rubbish, your film will (probably) end up being rubbish. Don’t overlook this- as mentioned about, get a good microphone (a Rode NTG-1 or equivalent) or an audio recorder and learn how it works. Use a wind gag in wind, and look for sheltered locations to record key dialogue.
10. Be interesting
This is quite a tricky one, but do remember that an audience mostly wants to be entertained, educated or inspired. Think about who your are making your film for (your mum? your colleagues? Adventurers worldwide?) and keep the content interesting for those prospective viewers. When you’re filming, try to bear this in mind. Don’t film a paper bag for 4 hours just because nothing else has happened that day – wait until the next day and hope for something better.