New skills

Its a terrifying thing to go into a shoot not knowing if you have the physical skills to be in the environment you are going to shoot in. I was in this position last week while filming a mini shakedown expedition at Finse in Norway. The expedition comprising of a Norwegian and American polar duo is going to spend 70 days in the high Arctic next year. I was there to document their preparation.

Hooked up to two sleds with my skis and poles in hand I said, “I think this is going to be a pretty humbling 10 minutes.” As we dragged our sleds across a frozen lake and into the wilderness of Finse I have to admit being pretty nervous. The duo have literally hundreds of days of sled dragging experience between them in the North and South Poles. I started skiing in December…

Sled dragging polar style

Now, the crazy thing is that being so far out of one’s comfort zone you also have to shoot. Day one had heavy snow and such flat light that we had to throw snowballs in front of us to make sure we were not about to plummet, sleds and all, down a steep slope. Depending on how long the snowball takes to make a sound tells you how steep the slope is. If you hear nothing its probably best not to continue.

One thing I have learned on mountaineering trips is that if your camera is in a bag and you have to stop what you are doing and take it out to shoot, then you will never film enough. I had my trusty Panasonic GH1, which has been to the top of 3 of the seven summits and refuses to die, around my neck and under my jacket so I could shoot. The GoPro was a life saver and somehow I managed to muddle my way through the first day.

Does this look like a guy who knows what he is doing?

Now if it had just been sled dragging that would have been fine, but the plan was also to ski sail, which is skiing with a kite like sail while dragging 40kg of two sleds behind you on a rope – not being the most co-ordinated person the possibility of things going wrong with ropes, kites and skis was high. However, with some expert instruction I soon found myself whizzing along at high speed across a frozen landscape with my sleds dragging behind and a huge smile on my face. Despite the ups and downs of documentary film making I still think it is the best job in the world.

Ski sailing, the most fun under the sun.

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A land frozen in time

Its amazing what 14 hours of sleep can do. After two weeks of little sleep and long days in zodiacs filming the Inspire Antarctic Expedition with Robert Swan I am back in Norway.

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What a trip. Probably the hardest shoot I have ever had in the Antarctic with very marginal conditions for most of the trip. On our first zodiac excursion we followed some breaching humpbacks into the giant swell of the Drake Passage with huge rolling waves and tonnes of ocean spray. On the second day another cameraman on the trip destroyed his camera on a zodiac ‘cruise’ with the wind gusting up to 50knots and horizontal spray being whipped off the ocean. Thank goodness for spray covers and the gopro I always keep in my top pocket for these type of situations.

Icebergs film well under dark skies where the blues really glow and as we sailed through the Le Maire channel Antarctica revealed her moody side with very tempestuous conditions which feel like they can change at anytime. To me this is the real Antarctic and for many people on the expedition the relentless conditions tested them to their limits. A trip with sunny skies and calm weather robs people of this experience, so give me rough conditions anytime.

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My new camera handled very well and delivered fantastic images. I will post a more detailed tech-nerd post in a few days for those who are interested.

The highlight of the trip was when our safety officer Jumper sneaked a zodiac ride for myself and John Luck the photographer to go and hang out with some very inquisitive humpback whales who at one stage were under our boat with giant cream coloured pectoral flippers visible on each side. With the engine turned off we floated for about 15 minutes with the whales diving and surfacing around us often within only 5 meters. Amazing.

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COPYRIGHT JOHN LUCK

 

Worryingly the Antarctic peninsula gave us a lot of rain this trip. It seems incredible to be in the Antarctic in the rain. Although only anecdotal I have to say that in my early years of visiting the Antarctic we never had any rain. Shane our expedition leader who has been on the peninsula every season for 18 years says he can only remember rain in the last 5 years.

I will post some video in the next few days.

Over and out for now.

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1 week count-down

Its a little under a week until I leave for the Antarctic. For me that only means one thing… the eternal packing and unpacking has begun. Flying with camera gear is a real mission and seems to get harder all the time. Airlines are stricter and it is more difficult to carry overweight hand baggage onto the plane.

my gear for the Antarctic shoot

To overcome this I have developed a few tactics. The first is the nonchalant standing with my camera backpack on my shoulder trying to act casual despite the fact that it weighs around 16kg! This usually works but now and then you are asked to weigh your hand baggage. When that happens I act as if it is the most natural thing in the world and put it onto the scale. As the numbers rocket up to a stunning 16kg I act surprised – “Wow I did not know it was that heavy.” The  next step is to take out my laptop which I then say – “Oh ok, I’ll just carry this separately” as most airlines allow you to take a laptop on as an extra piece. If this doesn’t work then I flamboyantly open my bag and show the stunning array of camera gear bulging and say that it is too fragile to check in with my other luggage. This has always worked. In one instance I have to take the camera out of the bag and carry it separately.

Suffice it to say that luggage is one of the major stresses in my life when it comes to filming in another county. More than once I have arrived somewhere with my tripod nowhere to be seen and had to shoot for 10 days without a tripod. My basic rule of thumb is that I should have enough kit in my hand luggage to be able to pull off the shoot if my other bags do not arrive.

Another consideration is getting into the country you want to shoot in without arousing the suspicion of customs that you are going to film in their country (often without a permit). To overcome this I have made sure that my camera bag looks really battered and that for the most part I pack everything I need into one big duffel bag which looks like I could be going on a climbing trip or just a regular tourist.

Once in Australia I had to convince very astute customs officials that I was an enthusiast going to film on the great barrier reef… “But this is very pro kit for a tourist mate…”. Even as I write this I feel stressed about my upcoming trip. Oh well, better get back to packing and unpacking which will take at least the next 3 days.

Will post more once I land in Argentina.

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Circles in the Forest

“Chimpanzee!” was the whisper from Petit Jean, our Baka tracker as we crawled our way through the thickest undergrowth I have ever seen. By my estimations they were about 150m away and the current visibility in the forest was about 15m, it was a lost cause. We had been sweating our way through the Congo Rainforest for 3 days and so far I had only filmed a few butterflies and a millipede! It was tough going.

We were filming in a relatively new national park on the border of Congo and Cameroon. A beautiful wild area, but also an area under attack. Every day long lines of trucks carry massive old trees from the forest and take them to the coastline for transport to Europe and the east. Our main goal was to film the lives of a group of Baka pygmies who lived on the outskirts of the national park as well as film wildlife within the forest – elephant, gorilla and chimpanzee.

Traditionally hunter gatherers the Baka now eke out an existence in degraded forest and are also abused for their labour by other surrounding ethnic groups. When it comes to maginalisation this is the quintessential case.

Onja, Baka Elder

We had been following a few individuals as they went about their daily lives, trying to get by. Onja was the oldest Baka in the village. Not quite sure when he was born but he thought he was around 60. Still we could not keep up with him on his daily expeditions into the forest. Turning the world around him into useable impliments with just a machete and some twists and turns. Buckets, traps, you name it he could make it.

Pygmies are actually pretty small. Filming in CAF.

It is often too easy to sentimentalise and objectify the things one films. The Baka embody what many of us would hope is possible – a symbiosis and harmony with nature, the Garden of Eden scenario which would make us all feel better about living such detached lives. The reality is that it is daily struggle and has probably always been a very hard way to live. The Baka see what the rest of the world has to offer, and they want that. They want beds to sleep in and they want their children to go to school.

After the hunt

Filming in these sorts of situations raises a number of questions. One always has preconceptions before arriving in a place. What it is going to be like, and what the story is going to be? Unfortunately these preconceptions are often wrong as they were in this case. However as a documentary filmmaker it is not your job to imagine reality but rather to capture it as truthfully as possible.

Over a period of a few weeks we followed the Baka as they hunted and fished and tried to merely capture their reality – not always easily done.

The film was almost complete, but we were missing one crucial element… elephants and gorillas, the big boys. We gave up in the new park and realised that we needed a more controlled environment. Across the border in the Central African Republic we gained access to film in Dzanga Sangha National Park – a little gem with an incredible elephant clearing in the forest and a group of relatively habituated gorillas. We had one interesting encounter with the silverback on one of out shoot days where he came charging at as out of a clearing. Of course my camera was pointed in the other direction and all that was on my mind was “Don’t make eye contact!” as he stood there grunting just 10m away.

Forest elephants in clearing

The Central African rainforests are changing so quickly. The rate of deforestation is difficult to describe. People have long spoken about peak oil, but now they have begun to speak about peak timber and a time when these great forest might actually dwindle.

I often think about people after a shoot and in a strange way it never seems real. One never thinks about what happens when you leave a place, but as I write this Onja may be sitting by a fire during a rainstorm, or trudging through the forest picking wild seasonal fruit and all the while, the chainsaws are buzzing.

A hunting dance in the Baka village

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To be the first

Recently I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be the first to do something. I have become increasingly frustrated seeing expeditions claiming some obscure first.

The video below is an example of a first which is anything from obscure. It has a simple premise – a big mountain and the first team to successfully climb it in winter. I think it is great, filmed on a simple handheld camera. There is a beautiful intimacy in this type of filming – one can feel the cold through the blown out audio of the wind howling and the autofocus of the camera searching through heavy snow. I also like that it is understated – there is no inserted drama and the voice over is sparse and unemotional – for me this just makes it feel even more hardcore.

A RANT

This rant has been a while in the making and I hope it is not misconstrued.

There is a constant fascination with becoming the first to do something. Every week I see someone who wants to be the first to do something. The first to walk up Kilimanjaro barefoot, the first South African born Indian to climb Everest.It drives me nuts.

Followed closely on the heels of the ever more obscure litany of firsts are people doing expeditions for causes. Sailing around the world for children in Africa to gain access to vaccinations, climbing Everest for the disabled… and the list goes on. Now if people are really honest I think they would say that all they really want to do is go and climb a mountain or cycle around the world. The social awareness follows the desire for an adventure and is seen as a way of securing sponsors or of justifying to friends and family why you want to take a year out of your life and sail around the world. I’m certain that very few people think – “Gee Whiz, I feel the need to raise awareness about malaria, what can I do to make people more aware of this scourge?”…. “I know I’ll kayak around Greenland, that should make people sit up and take notice.”

Now I know this post may sound somewhat bitter and that I am criticizing well meaning people, and that is not my intention. My intention is merely to vent frustration that something as simple as the need to explore has become a product which is sold and wrapped up in false acts of philanthropy. Seriously, if you care that much about vaccinations for children in Africa, then get off you ass and raise money for that and only that. Don’t use other people’s suffering to fund your exceedingly expensive expedition.

It seems that we have forgotten that to travel or to go on an expedition is as much about the act of achieving your goal as it is about personal transformation. Expeditions strip us bare until we can’t hide anymore from who we really are. They make us feel insignificant and fragile while at the same time filling one’s soul with the elation of being alive in such a wonderful world.

In order for this to take place one’s intentions have to be right before they set off on the endeavor. A quote which always sticks with me is from Yvon Chouinard the founder of Patagonia in which he speaks about people paying $80 000 to be guided up Everest and he says “You’re an asshole when you go up the mountain and you’re an asshole when you come down.” Now this might be a bit harsh but there is some truth in it. In a world where experiences can be bought, they lose their real value – just like focusing on being the first to do something insignificant takes away the joy of actually doing that thing for nothing more than the simple fact that it is an incredible thing to do. Obviously there are firsts which do count. Hilary and Tenzing were the first people to the top of Mount Everest (well maybe Mallory was first, we’ll never know…) Amundsen was the first to the South Pole and Robert Swan was the first person to walk to both Poles.

If you love being outside and doing expeditions, believe me you can find a way to do it without the fanfare of contrived firsts or supporting causes which actually gain no benefit from your undertaking. But then again, do you really love being outside in the mountains and on the ocean if no-one is paying attention to you?

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New camera for Antarctica

A short post of some of the footage straight out of my new Sony FS100 on which I will be shooting an Antarctic Expedition in March.

This video is the camera straight out of the box with everything set to auto.

The FS100 is supposed to be an answer to all the frustrations of shooting video on DSLRs like the Canon 5D etc. It has professional audio and focus assist etc etc. There are many better reviews on the camera out there than I can do.

Its always a love hate relationship with a new camera. I initially told my girl friend Marthe that we would have to add an extra pillow to the bed so the camera could sleep with us. After an first frustrating shoot I have decided it will stay in my office where it belongs and will have to earn its place in a cozy bed.

Stay tuned for a more rigorous test in the mountains with cross country skis. I am hoping Norway will be a good place to put gear through its paces before the Antarctic to iron out any bugs or problems with cold weather performance.

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The worst journey

There comes a time in every journey where the novelty factor wears off. Where you finally allow the facade of calm to drop and for your real feelings to come through, no more bravado, no more playing the tough expeditioner. This is about one such time which crept up on me rather unexpectedly.

Since starting to write this blog I have been thinking a lot about what an expedition really is? I mean lets be honest, its a rather over used word. How many times have you heard about someone going on an expedition? One doesn’t want to downplay other people’s trips, but every so often I see the word being used and can’t help but think “But that’s not a real expedition!” Take hiking up Kilimanjaro for example. I was recently on a Kilimanjaro ‘expedition’. There were 15 of us on the trip and 45 staff to carry our crap, put up our tents, bring us warm water when we arrived at camp. If that is an expedition I want to go on more of those! But then again one can’t say that Stanley’s journey into the Congo was not an expedition.

Having given it a lot of thought I’ve decided that my definition of an expedition very simply is a journey where there is doubt in the attainment of the goal and one is largely uncertain about what obstacles to expect. Ideally it should be something that has  not been attempted before, something that expands human knowledge about the particular undertaking or region. Anyway, we could debate it all day, and I have an important expedition to undertake today: The buying of groceries in Norway… yes the outcome is most definitely uncertain.

ITS ONLY 200KM HOW BAD CAN IT BE?

Play this while you read, it will get you in the mood…

Giant chameleon, Masoala Peninsula Madagascar

A few years ago I found myself in Madagascar just before new years. We were shooting a pilot for PBS about a remote peninsula in the north east of the country. I was genuinely excited thinking about the Masoala Peninsula. A place you could only access by boat. Rainforest straight into the ocean, giant chameleons and of course lemurs! But as with any journey first we had to get there.

Since all the flights from Antananarivo were fully booked we decided we would just use public transport to make the roughly 300km journey to Maroansetra, from where we would take the boat. 100km to the coast on a paved road and then a paltry 200km up the east coast of Madagascar to our destination.

The first 100km went really well. It was dusk when we arrived in Tamatav, the last outpost before heading north into the jungle, on what we had heard was a pretty bad road. Being gung ho documentary filmmakers we were unperturbed of course. We clambered aboard the rather beaten looking Toyota Hilux which ad been modified to carry as many passengers as possible. Once we were all loaded I counted 18. Francois and I had managed to get a seat in a bench inside, Claudio was pushed up against the front but also sitting. Rean had decided he wanted a quick exit if the truck overturned and so was sitting on the tailgate. It was the classic case of there always being room for one more. Then there was a commotion at the back of the vehicle as the driver tried to squeeze yet another person onboard. Rean was shouting in very poor French “I will call the police!” and the driver was laughing. There was nothing we could do. Fully loaded with some people even standing we set off into the night on a pretty bad road.

Loaded and ready. I still have to get in there!

I could relate the entire journey, but there is not much point. I’ll give a couple of highlights. Shortly into the trip Francois and I offered two small children to sit on our laps. They were standing and falling over as they fell asleep on their feet. Sitting on our laps they were snoring almost instantly and became dead weight. Two bumpy hour later our legs screaming in agony we had to wake them up, it was just too painful. As the journey wore on the road became worse and we started to cross small rivers on rickety bridges. The driver would stop and we could all have to get out and walk across the bridge, which was often only a few rotten looking logs, and watch breathlessly as the drivers picked their way across. The journey went on and on. Rain started falling, dripping through the tarpaulin which covered the truck. Music blared from the cab where the driver and two very pretty girls were laughing and chatting. Not cool.

Rean lost in thought at a river crossing

We crossed 14 rivers by pontoon and traveled more or less continuously for 50 hours. People got on and off and endured the nightmare of a journey with impassive faces. This is just the way you get around, complaining won’t make it any better.

The second night while filming one of the ravine crossings I got left behind the truck. Stumbling through the dark I walked to what I thought was the bridge they had just crossed and promptly fell through, only to be caught by my shoulders. I don’t know how far down it was, but lets just say it would have hurt. My shoulder was dislocated and as I hauled myself out in agony I realised that I had stumbled onto the disused bridge and the new one was a few meters away. Luckily the shoulder popped back in. The bumpy journey continued. Twice we had to get out and all 18 of us haul the vehicle up a muddy slope with a long rope while the wheels spun viciously spraying us all with mud, adding insult to injury. We were all trying to keep it together, really we were.

Crossing a gully!

Francois cracked first and managed to buy his way into the front cab. Claudio became silent and Rean’s relationship with the driver further deteriorated. Somewhere around 46 hours we could smell the end. The road was getting better (although this was all relative) and we were hearing Lucky Dube blaring through the little speaker for what felt like the millionth time. There was no past or future, only the agony and fatigue of here and now with Lucky Dube as our soundtrack singing “We were born to suffer!” It was then that I cracked. I literally had blisters on my ass. All it took was one heartfelt yell. “Aaaaarrrrgh!”. Everyone turned to stare at me with shock in their eyes. I somehow felt much better. The uncomfortable silence dissipated and Lucky sang on as if nothing had happened.

I would count those 200km as perhaps the toughest expedition I have ever been on. Which goes to show that sometimes expeditions are not planned and they can creep up on the best of us.

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Lots of luck and little skill

Its that time of the year again for me where I begin to focus on our upcoming Antarctic expedition. 6 weeks and counting I’ll find myself in Ushuaia, the southern most city in the world and in some ways a bit of a home away from home since I have spent time there every year for the last 8 years.

Filming off zodiac. Antarctic Peninsula 2006

I’ve learned a huge amount shooting in the Antarctic. It has definitely taught me more about shooting than anywhere else. I first managed to shoot there in 2005 with Robert Swan and his 2041 expedition (www.2041.com) through a series of serendipitous events and through being an insistent pain in the ass I have managed to be invited along every year since then. But, my Antarctic shooting career may have come to a grinding halt if anyone had ever seen any of the footage I shot that year.

I had a beat up pd150 and a lot of enthusiasm. I spent hours outside filming from the ship and am not sure I really saw that much of the expedition outside of looking through a camera…. but, the results were pretty dismal. I was working with a BBC director who had made some high end natural history and adventure films. He very quickly lost interest in me as he was used to filming with a much higher caliber of cameraman. His attentions turned instead to some of the prettier expedition members. So I continued on unfazed, churning out hours of mostly unusable shots of icebergs and penguins. This is where my luck held, because after the expedition the director promptly disappeared into the woodwork along with all my footage. I now decided it was time to get proactive, because ever since leaving the Antarctic all I could think of was “How do I get back there?”.

MV Ushuaia in Antarctica

Cutting a long story short I managed to convince Robert to bring me along again saying I would actually edit the film onboard the ship so that everyone could leave with a copy of the expedition film on DVD. “You won’t have to deal with the same problem as last year when all the footage went missing!” Shameless really.

I managed to up my game the next year by functioning on 4 hours of sleep a night for the whole expedition, and producing a passable film. I still have a picture of me editing and it totally cracks me up. I didn’t have a laptop, only a mac mini with Final Cut Pro. So my plan was to take my mac mini and buy a screen in Ushuaia. I then strapped everything to the wall of my cabin for rough seas. If you look closely at the photo you can see I am wearing anti nausea wrist bands!

Bad hairstyle and anit nausea wristbands. Antarctica 2006

At any rate, my foot was in the proverbial door and they have not been able to get rid of me since.

This video contains much of the early footage I shot in the Antarctic. Quality of the upload not the greatest but you will get the idea.

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Thinking about structure and story

Sometimes I get really disappointed with watching an adventure documentary. The build up is great. Short teasers on youtube of incredible scenes, but the film itself doesn’t seems to live up to the hype. As a result I see a lot of films that use crutches to make them interesting like excessive use of POV cameras and endless music montages. As a result adventure films often end up feeling like music videos. The very best adventure documentaries to my mind do not rely on flashy editing and remember that the story and characters in the film are what is important.

The best adventure documentaries for me are the ones which go deeper than the surface of the actual feat of the expedition. They probe the human condition and drive which pushes people to put themselves into these positions. This is what I aspire to and truthfully where I fail most dismally.

Touching the Void fits into the sort of re-enactment style of documentary which can fall incredibly flat if the narrative is weak. As with most of what they touch the BBC turn it into gold. What I loved about this film was that it was a feature. It held the suspense and scratched at uncomfortable truths about what it is that makes us human.

I sometimes forget that adventure documentary falls into the documentary genre as a whole. To work out what will make an adventure documentary work we need to learn how narrative and story arcs shape a film. How do we interpret what we are shooting?Who better to hear from than Scorsese.

The undisputed master of documentary storytelling is Werner Hezog. I can’t wait to see his most recent film:

And so everything doesn’t get too heavy here is one of my favourite Monty Python sketches:

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Technology changes and adventure documentary Part 2

AMAZON DREAMS

Dropping into the jungle, Maranon Expedition 2004

It was the call that changed my life. “Hey man, do you want to come down the Amazon with us?” It was my brother Ross calling from South Africa. I had been living in San Francisco visiting my uncle, climbing, road tripping and generally aimlessly trying to find out what I was going to do with my life. At that point I was thinking about maybe going back to University and studying something else, since my first year as a freelancer in the documentary industry had been less than stellar. And then the call: “Hey man, do you want to come down the Amazon with us?”

Back then my brother was a pro kayaker. One of the best around. I had heard a few months previously that he had been invited on an expedition to paddle a previously un-run tributary of the Amazon, the Rio Maranon. I remember having been insanely jealous but had managed to turn that jealousy into being happy for my brother and his upcoming adventure.

The call changed everything. It turned out that the film crew they had invited could no longer make it and they wanted me to come along. The catch. You have to get yourself there and buy all your own filming gear. Little did I know that these kind of offers are what come along most of the time – people very keen for you to join them on their adventures so long as you pay your own way! Nice.

PUTTING TOGETHER A KIT

I now found myself trying to work out how on earth I was going to film this thing? At this stage my knowledge of filming was post-University and rudimentary at best. I knew I needed a light pro camera. Everything had to be light, durable and able to fit into a kayak. Weeks online doing research, emailing other camera people I had worked with and finally I had my kit together (with a very kind loan from my uncle I might add). Together everything weighed 4kg. Camera, tripod, microphones and a soft underwater housing. What exact gear I went with is probably not that interesting to most people but I’ll quickly outline. It was a PDX10 Sony which at the time was a cut down of the PD150 but still had XLR audio and recorded to DVCam, the other accessories were mostly very cheap. A crappy stills tripod, a mini reflector for interviews and an EWA Marine soft housing.

Filming from a kayak, Maranon Expedition 2004

After all of that I managed to get it stolen 10 days after arriving in Peru, before we even got onto the river. It was a sad day, and a good lesson in never leaving your camera bag slung over the back of a chair(not to mention I also had my passport and travelers cheques in the same bag… I know I know alright! It was a hard way to learn a lesson.)

Luckily the expedition had also wanted a camera setup for filming on the more technical sections of the river where I would have to walk around. They had entrusted this to me and in my wisdom I had bought them an exact replica of my kit. Saved. Sort of.

2 months and almost 2000km we had completed the first full descent of the Rio Maranon. I had walked and hitch-hiked the first 1000km through some of the most isolated parts of South America, hiking into the canyon to film and resupply the team with food. I had then jumped in a longer sea kayak for the 1000km of ‘flat’ water through the jungle to our final destination in Iquitos.

To say the trip was life changing would be an understatement and I guess I should write it all down sometime soon before it starts to slip from my memory almost 10 years on. The 24minute film I produced “Maranon Dreams” was broadcast in South Africa on a satellite sports channel. Its not a great film, but I am more proud of it than anything else I have produced since. It was also the key that opened up the door for me as a freelance cameraperson because I now had something to show production companies which had some credibility.

White water on the upper Maranon 2004

LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT

When putting together a kit for an adventure – be it that multi-day hike you have always wanted to do or climbing one of the seven summits, the biggest consideration I would look at is weight. Its easy to feel all gung ho at the start of an expedition only to be cursing two hours later as your backpack straps bite into your shoulders. Remember that as an expedition member you don’t get a free ride and if anything, a lot of the time you have the most difficult job there. Not only surviving the trip, but also documenting.

Filming in an Amazon Indian Village 2004

I often get people asking me advice about what cameras to buy. Just go to the BnH website and I guarantee that paralysis will set in almost instantly as you start trying to work out that winning formula of price versus resolution versus lens versus brand etc etc etc. I would know as I have been through that process myself more than once. The answer is simple: There is no perfect camera out there and there never will be. They are all built to be very similar to each other and to have similar failings at similar price points – you’re comparing apples with apples.

I would give the following advice:

Firstly don’t worry about whether or not the camera you are buying is broadcast spec for National Geographic or BBC because merely by asking that question the answer is no. None of the cameras you can afford are broadcast spec. If you make a fantastic documentary it won’t matter anyway, people will buy it regardless. So stop counting megabits per second and comparing codecs hoping to find a magic combination that will make the camera better than the others.

Secondly: Read user reviews. Find out if people liked shooting on the camera. Very importantly find out if it is good in low light. Rather choose a camera that handles low light well over one that sucks in low light. On expeditions you can’t carry a lighting kit.

Thirdly: Choose something that fits well into your budget. The price of the camera is just the beginning. On an expedition you will have to factor in lots of extra long life batteries, rain covers, polarising filters if you are shooting in snow, tripod etc. With new HD cameras you have to factor in enough solid state media like CF or SD cards to get you through the whole expedition, and this can get expensive pretty quickly. Rather buy a slightly cheaper camera that you are going to able to afford all the bells and whistles for than to find yourself cursing on summit day that you only have a half a battery left.

BACK-UPS

I don’t go on an expedition if I don’t have a back-up camera. I have only once had a camera go down on me during an expedition. I was filming aboard a scientific research vessel in the Indian Ocean during a trawl. Despite almost being pulled overboard in a trawl net I also managed to get flung against a pole and smash the housing which protects the tape – the camera was finished and so was I. I spent the next 4 days pretty much being in everyone’s way and of no use to the trip. A horrible experience.

A back-up camera is great for a number of reasons. My back-up is a smallish DSLR which shoots great video. It means I can shoot stills, but also very importantly I can shoot time-lapses without tying up my A camera. A back up camera does not have to be elaborate or expensive but something that can do the job of documenting in an emergency. Light and small is key.

I also carry back-ups of everything else including chargers (if we are using solar for charging batteries) and cables if we are downloading rushes during the expedition. It may sounds paranoid, but I promise you rest a little easier knowing that you have a contingency plan if things turn to custard.

GOPRO: GETTING A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

This is an example from our Kilimanjaro Paragliding expedition. I mounted the GoPro to Marianne’s walking stick. The results were great. Using the GoPro here was essential because it told a part of the story I had no access to since I was not flying off the summit.

It seems that everyone now has a GoPro camera and they are awesome pieces of kit. I have used them on everything from paraglider wings to attaching to the heads of Baka Pygmies collecting honey in the rainforest. However, they do have a very particular place in your arsenal and in my mind should be used sparingly. GoPros work best if they are mounted onto something which is fixed and will be moving in a predictable way. They are great for that hard to get to angle, the odd shot which jibs out of the water or for filming in conditions that are so bad that you worry about using your camera. Be prepared for as many successes as failures with a GoPro.

A couple of things I have learned is that a GoPro shot sucks if there is nothing to anchor it in the frame. For example, a point of view shot from someone’s head as they are walking is basically useless and looks horrible as there is nothing to anchor the shot. However a point of view shot looking straight down at the ground of someone walking will work much better as the body and legs will give the frame some reference and hold the shot together.

GoPros also work really well when attached to the end of a pole. This allows you to do cool things like track an overhead shot of someone riding on a bike from a car, it means you can stick them in the water to film whales or as a means to get some distance from the subjects. The question you should always ask yourself when filming with a GoPro is “Could I film this with my A camera?” if the answer is yes, then you should definitely film it with your A camera – only use a GoPro for shots you can’t pull off otherwise.

This is the best of GoPro 6 million views can’t be wrong. I’m not much into adrenaline sports montages, but this one is great.

DISCLAIMER: I have no vested interest in GoPro cameras over any other POV cameras there are other products that do a similar job to GoPros and can be used in the same way.

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