In the last 3 years, I have gone on two quite similar adventures. Both were done with a skeleton team of two people, both involved walking quite a long way. Both were often miserable, yet I think back on them now with great satisfaction. I filmed both extensively using the same camera, but, subsequently, have now made two very different end products.
The first journey began in November 2011: a 6-month, 3000 mile epic of a walk through China, from the Gobi desert in Mongolia down to Hong Kong. I went to accompany Rob Lilwall, a Hong Kong-based adventurer, and together we had a wonderful (if hard) journey south through the Middle Kingdom. One of the most exciting things about the trip was that we got a commission from a big broadcaster (National Geographic) to make a 4-part TV show. As a fledgling adventurer and cameraman, it was a bigger break than I could ever have imagined.
Skip forward a year, and in November 2012 I set off into The Empty Quarter desert with Alastair Humphreys to try and walk from Salalah, Oman to Dubai, UAE roughly following a route taken by the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. We trekked for 1000 miles, and a major goal of the journey was to make a film of the adventure. The difference this time was that we had no broadcaster behind us - we funded the trip ourselves and had no guarantee that it would ever get made or seen by anyone except us and our mums.
On the surface, that first experience probably seems infinitely preferable. The reason I'm writing this blog post is to highlight some of the pros and cons of both methods for anyone planning/dreaming of filming their own journey- it's not quite as clear cut as it might seem.
Partnering with a big broadcaster to help fund a trip and provide a guaranteed output can be brilliant. It would have been very hard for Rob and I to self-fund such a long journey as the China trek. Having broadcaster backing also helped us to acquire some equipment sponsors, taking down the costs of the expedition further. It is lovely to be associated with such a well-respected and globally well-known brand. So what could possibly be the downside?
Well, being answerable to someone else, for starters. We adventurers are often independent-minded (stubborn) and free-spirited (stubborn) and don't like being told what to do (stubborn.) However, when someone is partly financing your adventure, you are obliged to take their opinion on board. This can be hard. Broadcasters will want to know what you're doing, and how you're doing it. Of course they do, its their money and reputation on the line, but sometimes this is hard to accept too - it can take away from the freedom of the adventure. What it comes down to is this: the expedition, and particularly the film, becomes a collaborative project. Both filmmaker and broadcaster must compromise to get the best result and ultimately, when the two disagree, the broadcaster is boss.
The second aspect of all this is that you will probably also lose some or all creative control in the edit. You may have to hand over your precious footage of your heroic, personal adventure, and then watch someone else decide what to do with it and how to do that. This is definitely hard. I was naive to all of this when I began 'Walking Home From Mongolia.'
So what about the self-funded 'go it alone' option? Well, it requires money up front, out of one's own pocket. Al and I gathered together a couple of thousand pounds for our Empty Quarter trip and that became the budget for the whole project, expedition and film inclusive (it had to be, we couldn't afford to put any more into it.) It's a financial risk and there are no guarantees. You go on an expedition for 'X' amount of time, and will find yourself often wondering whether anything will ever come of all your hard and boring filmmaking as you progress. It becomes very easy to think "I won't bother filming this because there's no point." (Don't think that, by the way.) You come back chuffed from finishing the journey, but nervous about what might happen next.
Luckily, there's a plus side. Being answerable only to yourself allows total freedom - freedom of decisions, movements, timing, plan changes...total freedom. You live and die by your own decisions. I find this quite appealing. When it comes to editing, you will first have to find a way to do that (more money, probably) but, you can have full creative control. It's a good idea to bring in fresh eyes and ideas, but you can be the boss (great for egotistical adventurer-types!) It feels much more 'pure,' for better or worse.
So what's my point? I'm not sure, really (sorry!) but it's probably something along these lines: if you are planning to head off on an adventure and would like to film it, then go and have an adventure and film it. Don't bother trying to get a commission, and equally don't worry about what will happen to your footage when you come back. Making a film is a worthy reason to go on an expedition (to my mind) but there should be enough passion for the journey itself to drive you to make the trip regardless of any guarantees. Expeditions are risky, filmmaking is risky. Making an expedition film is likely to be risky. Embrace that!
If you really, really want to get a commission and are convinced that your idea is perfect for National Geographic or Discovery or the BBC, then go for it- give it your all - but don't expect to be successful, and don't romanticise the notion.
I am extremely grateful for my first commission and I wouldn't change the experience for all the world- I learned a hell of a lot. I learned the hard way and a lot of it was unpleasant, but I'm thoroughly grateful for it. I was ridiculously naive as to how the relationship would actually work. I am also really pleased with the TV show that was eventually made, despite it being very different from how I imagined it, and I know I am a much better filmmaker because of the experience.
Would I take another commission if it was offered? If I'm honest, yes, I probably would- they are a great way to help facilitate certain types of journeys. Broadcasters know a heck of a lot more about making good telly than I do, and it's a wonderful way to learn. I would, however, want a little more control than last time and I would go in knowing the score- there's a lot to be said for that.
Overall, I enjoyed the Empty Quarter 'self funded, self directed' filmmaking experience more. Al and I found a great editor and production company, and were able to have a lot of creative input. I think the film is very good. I have no idea what will happen now - my hope is that we'll get accepted in to lots of Film Festivals around the world and that people will buy DVDs and downloads so they can watch at home...but I don't know. That is the world of 'going it alone' filmmaking.
I don't know if I will ever get another commission. What I do know is that I'll go on more expeditions, and make more films. How that happens doesn't matter too much to me at this stage.
To reiterate, my advice regarding making adventure films is this: go and do it. If you don't know anyone in TV or have no idea what might happen on your trip, just go and have your adventure and film it to the best of your ability. You can worry about everything else when you're back. You can cut a trailer and show it to production companies, send it to broadcasters, try and raise funds through crowd funding. There are options. It is infinitely preferable to have a great expedition and finish with a harddrive full of cool footage (but no editor yet) than it is to have no expedition, no footage and finish unsuccessful in your hunt for a commission.
As a final note, it's worth mentioning that I am very proud of both the TV series from China and the film from the Empty Quarter. Both were great journeys completed with very good friends, and both end products are (to my mind) good in different ways. If you are interested to see how they turned out, then you can find the TV series and the film here. I'd love to hear your feedback on them.