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.