In this series of four articles, I hope to share what I've learned from making documentary films through expeditions. Taking the time to get specific shots and particular types of footage at several points during an expedition can make all the difference in the edit!
The most important thing to bear in mind when considering communicating any information from an expedition is that camera and video kit does not relate to the impact of the message you want to share. You could come away from an expedition with no more than 20 decent photographs and build inspiring talks, engaging short video narratives and stunning photo essays from them, all of which could be shared widely online and in person. As you add each element (video, sound recording etc.), you simply open up more avenues for communication. How meaningful a media resource is doesn’t come from what kit you have, it comes from what you capture and how you present it.
It is important to bear this in mind on expedition whilst giving consideration to the types of shot you can capture and how to use them meaningfully. After making several films following expeditions, I’ve discovered a few good shots and tips you can get to make the best out of your film. All of these can be captured on a single GoPro as well as on a DSLR with microphone so everyone has the power to do this:
Planning: When sitting at a computer sending your 100th email of the day, trying to pull an expedition together, you may not feel like you could possibly capture any video footage. However, you are actually telling an incredible story of the hardships and struggles of organising expeditions. Speak to the camera, talk of the challenges you are facing and film as much of you sitting at a computer, consulting maps and having team meetings as possible. This will allow the viewer to empathise and want the best for the expedition. This way, before you even show any in-depth footage of your expedition in the field, your audience is already engaged and can empathise with the characters and their passion for their work. I always wish I filmed more pre-departure!
Travel: What can be really important to documentary films is contextualising the location in relation to the UK. This means more than simply pointing to it on a world map. Through filming your team passing through the airport, out of the plane window, exploring the city you land in, travelling to your basecamp etc. you allow the viewer to understand the accessibility of the site and the journey it takes to get there. Edit this together over a soundtrack that progressively builds up and by the end of the sequence you will have an excited audience, eager to see what awaits the trip as the research begins.
Team interviews: For an audience to fully invest their attention and time in a film, they need to be able to follow stories of individual characters. This is easily done on expedition at any point; point the camera at your team mates and ask them how they are feeling, what work they are doing or what challenges they have overcome in the last few hours. This is difficult when people are jet-lagged, battling traveller’s diarrhoea or delirious after a long day of physical exertion but these are in fact some of the best moments to capture so don’t let fear of intruding on team mates get in the way. Work with them from the start to become comfortable with having the camera as the extra team member! This can add some really beautiful moments to the final film. If you haven’t managed to do this in the field, no reason why you can’t when you’re back in the UK.
Landscape shots: I often forget to do this but there is so much value in setting a camera up with a good view and letting the footage roll in. If you can have some moving feature in the shot such as a river, team walking, wildlife grazing then you have tens of seconds of footage right there. Just don’t make the mistake I always make and, after spending a minute setting up the right camera setting, get 2 seconds of actual usable footage before turning the camera off! If your camera has an interval timer mode (time-lapse), set it up on a tripod or a stable rock and create a fast motion shot of clouds moving or sun setting.
Camp life: Boiling water for your freeze-dried ration pack may not seem like an inspiring moment but it is living under these extreme circumstances that provide a great hook for your viewer. These moments get them engaged and then you can hit them with the message of your research. I never struggle to find a place in films for good footage of the team working in and discussing camp life.
The fieldwork: So you have got all these amazing shots to get the viewers hooked, now time to get the main bulk of the production, the research! Whatever your expedition aims to study, or if it is simply to get from A to B in an innovative way, there will be an educational story to tell. I think it is important to speak to the camera about what you’re learning about your work and the landscape every step of the way. This way the viewer learns as you learn and you eliminate any sense of superiority amongst the protagonists and allow your audience to truly engage.
Final comments: The expedition is coming to an end. You’re tired. You’re aching. Your team mates are fed up of you and this idea sounds really cheesy… That is what goes through my mind as I’m considering asking for people’s final thoughts on an expedition. Yet, neither me or my former expedition team mates have ever regretted me pointing a camera at them as we head for the airport. These moments are when everyone will be reflecting on the trip and the main lessons or feelings will be right at the front of their minds, meaning they will be able to passionately deliver it. This makes for a really emotive and engaging final scene to the film. Film it at sunset in front of a packed up base camp next to a glacier and you have some film festival gold right there!
So there are a lot of ideas in there that will lead to a very emotive and engaging film. And there is nothing there that can’t be filmed on the most basic of cameras. There is also nothing there that won’t take more that twenty minutes a day. You’ll be taking pictures anyway, just take another second to consider what the best shot is and hit the record button!