Guerilla Guide to Adventure Film Making

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A question we often get asked at Q&As following screenings of my film “The Yukon Assignment” is ‘how could I go about doing this myself?’ When I dragged my dad on a canoe adventure in Canada’s far north (he actually jumped at the chance!) I honestly didn’t know much about film making at all. In fact, I was reading the film camera’s manual on the plane! I had a secret weapon though. My producer Charlie of Fieldgrazer Productions had put me through an intense guerilla-style adventure film making school. Combining her experience of crafting films with my experience of getting in the right place at the right time in the wilds and drawing on visual craft borrowed from stills photography we made the film and were able to share with audiences worldwide and inspire others to spend more time in the wilderness with their family.

Film making is as expansive and diverse as the imaginations of the individual filmmakers and adventurers telling their stories. This is post just scratches the surface, I want to leave you with a framework to find your visual voice, and some tools you can use to film and share your adventures.

Story is EVERYTHING!

Before we talk about kit, content, audio or even light, let us just take a moment to appreciate EVERYTHING revolves around the story! You can have the best cameras in the world, all the funding you can shake a stick at, and some talent to film, but without a story, you have nothing, just a bunch of clips on the cutting room floor. All film is about STORY – whether factual or drama – story is at the heart of what we do. If there’s no story – there’s no film.

We are always telling a story and creating a world in film. This applies to factual programming as much as to drama. Adventure film making is often factual with a certain amount of reconstructed scenes or artist license to help the flow of the narrative. Research is crucial to creating that world. What do you need to know about the activity to capture its essence? For example, is the banter on belay ledges just as valid in climbing as filming the crux move, and on climbing, how about filming from above to give the sense of height and exposure, plus getting the climbers facial expressions rather than a series of bum shots!?

The Big Question?

Many successful films consider a big question.

  • Will Cinderella get her Prince?
  • Will Alex Honnold successfully free solo Freerider (and not die) [Free Solo]?
  • What happens if you eat nothing but MacDonalds? [Supersize Me]
  • Will Andy Kirkpatrick resolve his relationship with his father and come into his own as a father himself [Psycho Vertical]
  • Are they going to be eaten by bears? [The Yukon Assignment]
Grizzly Bear Taking an Interest in Our Canoe
Grizzly Bear Taking an Interest in Our Canoe

Three Act Structure

  • Beginning (Act 1)
  • Middle (Act 2)
  • End (Act 3)

In other words (Free Solo example):

  • Set up (An Alex Honnold montage of various climbing achievements, Half Dome, his notoriety etc)
  • Complicate (falls in love, gets injured)
  • Resolve (builds emotional literacy and solos Freerider)
Alex Honnold Free Soloing Freerider - Credit: National Geographic
Alex Honnold Free Soloing Freerider – Credit: National Geographic

Storytelling

You need sequences or shots that will cut together. These shots have to tell the story and be relevant.

But how do you know what will work?

  • Key Shots
  • Hands
  • Face
  • Over the shoulder
  • Wide
  • Another Angle

A combination of these shots will make the edit much easier. I like to work a ‘shoot to edit’ system. Mainly because I’m always against the clock and know I won’t have time to wade through the rushes (all the footage captured) to find stuff that will work together. When I know I’m going to be really up against it, such as self-filming a solo adventure, I storyboard some key shots that I think will work to tell the story. Sometimes these work out as planned, other times opportunities I couldn’t have thought of crop up or what imagined doesn’t fit with the demands of the expedition or the weather doesn’t play ball. Staying adaptive is the way forward but having a visualised set of shots to map out your story arc will help reduce the risk of missing key parts of the story and really speed things up when you’re editing.

Top tips – Leave 5-10 seconds at either end of the clip and let subjects enter and exit frame to help in the edit. Whenever possible use a tripod, this keeps the shot steady. Pans and zooms can go horribly wrong without the right kit and lots of practice. If you’re shooting in 4K you can also ‘fake’ pans and zooms in the editing suite without the end production dropping below full HD.

In addition to the key shots also take time to capture your ‘get out of jail cards’. These help with momentum and moving the narrative forward smoothly.

General View - The Wind River in the Canadian Yukon
General View – The Wind River in the Canadian Yukon

General View/Establishing Shots

If you’ve ever watched a kayaking video shot exclusively from a headcam you’ll probably appreciate that there is a limit to how long the viewer can stay in the action. We also need context, where is the river flowing, what does that drop look like from the bank? Drone shots are excellent for general views and establishing shots as they capture the whole surroundings. A pre-placed camera on a tripod/gorilla pod that you paddle past then run back to works well too.

Cutaway - Wild Flowers in the Yukon
Cutaway – Wild Flowers in the Yukon

Cutaways

Cutaways (water flowing, wind in branches, paddle moving through water, climbing gear racking up). Cut-aways can be used between shots or to break up a longer shot. They work best when they relate to the main footage. For example, in an interview with a climber at camp, if she is talking about how intense the crux moves were, it makes sense to have cutaways that show the crux sequence or something that represents fear or concentration of effort.

Wild Track

Wild track (capture ambient noise for a couple of minutes – birds chirping, wind in mountains, surf breaking).

Wild track is audio of the natural background noise. This can be super useful to fill in if the audio hasn’t worked elsewhere or to completely replace the sound so that multiple shots fit together. It’s also great for drone footage as you don’t get audio from them as it would just be the buzz of rotors! Conveying the wildness of the environment is an important part of adventure film making.

Interviews

Interviews can enrich the story, be used as voice-over, and fill the gap if some main action has been missed. If you can’t or haven’t captured the main event get the camera on as soon afterwards as possible to capture your, and others reaction, and emotion. The story is you! You’re going to need to turn that camera around, especially when you don’t want to! The chances are this will be the most interesting content for others.

Turn the Camera Around - The Story is You!
Turn the Camera Around – The Story is You!

Audio

This is one of the biggest things you can do to improve your film and is often neglected in amateur productions. High-grade visual recorders are easily available, 4K now pretty much standard, despite it not always being a benefit, but few have any decent audio capability. A lower resolution visual film with excellent sound is much more watchable than 6K footage with sound that is like it’s inside a submerged tin can! One solution is to record the sound separately then sync it with the visuals later. This can be time-consuming and a bit complex but ensures the best results. If not, as a rule of thumb, always get the mic as close to the source as possible. If you were using a phone this might mean doing an interview piece close crop to get the sound right and then you could always include wider cutaways. When I’m doing interview pieces I often use the Rode Lav mic which records into my phone. This is a cost-effective solution for decent sound. Sound is a huge challenge in adventure film making as weight is usually at a premium and mics don’t work when wet!

Remember the Art

Good cinematography guides the viewer into the story, immersing them into your world. The lighting and angle of the shot convey emotion. Warm soft light (during Golden hour) will give a pleasant, friendly feel, grey/blue light is cold and foreboding. A low angle can make the subject seem bigger, perhaps more heroic, a high angle sets the subject in context with the environment and shows how small they are in the landscape. Re-watch your favourite films and try and work out why the Director of Photography chose certain shots to accompany that part of the narrative.

Show Don't Tell - How Much of the Narrative Can You Capture in Frame
Show Don’t Tell – How Much of the Narrative Can You Capture in Frame

Classic rules of photography apply;

  • Rule of Thirds
  • Leading lines
  • Use light – Hollywood/Golden hour (hour around sunrise and sunset), side light help definition, try and avoid harsh shadows
  • Depth with colour – red pops forward, blue recedes

These are some of the concepts we look at on our workshops.

Be Creative

When you’re starting out it can help to imitate films you love but be honest with others and yourself about this. The film, like any creative endeavour, is more than the sum of parts, the ‘rules’, and set shots. It is an opportunity for you to daydream of adventure, have some fun and inspire others to enter that world.

Go have a play!

The film you make might be just for fun, to share with friends and family or for cinemas, film festivals or online release. From humble beginnings, our film “The Yukon Assignment” has now toured over 40 cinemas in the UK, won awards and is available worldwide on Amazon and Vimeo

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