In this series of four articles, I hope to share what I've learned from making documentary films through expeditions. Once you have all the footage, the editing is much more simple than it might look and a lot can be achieved by taking a little time to learn a few new things.
When you have an expedition coming up and you want to add a media element, it really does pay to have a plan ready before you get too far into the organising. As soon as you decide you are going on an expedition, every day from then until your trip is a distant memory has the potential to offer amazing footage. Expeditions are a pretty colossal feat, whoever you are and of great interest to the public.
To plan your film, it is easy to do this alone. Just give yourself the task of heading to Sidetracked, Vimeo and outdoor film festival websites to see a wide selection of expedition films and take the best ideas and shots to help you plan your own. Everything can and probably will change in the field but it really helps having the original plan to make sure you have a strong message.
In the field, stick to this plan and make sure any changes you make still fit the original idea of what you want the film to be.
As with many documentary films, the narrative and message can all be finalised and created in the edit. At this stage many expeditions may seek production companies to produce footage for them and this works great for a lot of people. However, when you have a low budget and are not serious enough to go to production companies or if you are really driven to get the right message across, then editing and producing a film yourself might be the best option. This will also allow you to make sure you tell the story in the best way, exactly as you saw it in the field.
With lots of software freely available and some accessible to students and young people, it is really easy to start pulling your footage together. Once you organise all of your shots into categories, it is easy to see a narrative develop. Editing real is just pulling shots into the right places and trimming them. Once you have everything in place there are a few more steps you can take to make things more professional:
Sound grading: Outdoor environments produce a wide range of sound levels. On most editing platforms you will be able to see a master volume. It can make a film much easier to follow if you increase or degrease the volume from each clip so that the sound level is relatively constant throughout, with peaks and troughs of course. Basically within a 12dB range will give best performance on laptops and computers.
Colour grading: If you’ve ever edited a photo, you can colour grade. I discovered this after publishing my first expedition film and wish I’d found it sooner. It simply involves going through every individual clip of footage and adjusting the exposure and saturation to give it a much more realistic, cinematic look.
Clip blending: Allow clips to flow more cohesively into each other, it can be a good idea to firstly detach the sound from the visual, keeping them in sync. Then extend the sound into the last clip, fading it in and doing the same with the sound from the last clip forwards to overlap. This means that there will be no sudden noise contrasts which could jar an audience.
With any film where you want to convey an emotive response, the soundtrack is a good way to do that. There are several options for adding a soundtrack to your film. Firstly, you could go to artlist.io where you can cheaply buy the rights to a number of soundtracks. However, it is highly likely that somewhere within your friends and contacts made through organising your expedition, you know a couple of musicians. I think, if possible, it really pays to have a soundtrack made specifically for your film. I have done this before and all it takes is a couple of days with Garageband and a single microphone. Get a few chords and a melody that conveys the expedition environment, record a few instruments, layering each one and you will have a good mix before too long.
Throughout all of this, if you manage to oversee every step yourself and make sure you have created and owned every piece of the film from the expedition, you will have a much more engaging piece at the end. What you could possibly lack in resolution, editing quality or storyboarding will be compensated by the fact that every piece of the film is from and inspired by your expedition and this will make the message you want to share as strong as possible.