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How to Film your Expedition

Packrafting Iceland

I am not an expert cameraman but I enjoy filming my trips.

I am not an expert film maker but I enjoy editing and producing short videos about my journeys. (You can see them here).

These days, almost everybody who heads off on travels and expeditions likes to document their experiences with video.

Google, as always, can provide budding Spielbergs with swathes of detailed explanations and equipment advice. I spend a lot of time trying to teach myself that stuff. I’ll leave you and Google to spend some quality time together for all that.

But I thought that it might be helpful to write a simple article, distilled from my own experience: from one enthusiastic amateur to another. I’m not pretending that this is all “the best” advice, nor necessarily even right! I hope you will offer corrections and suggestions in the comments below. I am deliberately not mentioning camera gear: it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you get out there and do stuff, regardless of your kit.

This advice then is stuff that feels important to me, stuff that works for me and stuff that I try to do when making my own little films about my trips.

FILMING

1. Take Good Video. You wouldn’t try to take good photos simply by waving your camera in the direction of the first pretty thing you see, would you? (You would? Then you need to STOP DOING THAT. And you need to read this and this.) So don’t be lazy and casual with the video camera either. All of these photography principles still apply to filming.

2. Use a tripod. If you heed nothing else from my article, please do use a tripod or make sure to brace your camera well. This is the single best thing you can do to make your film look more pro. I use this cheap one.

3. Record good audio. I am really guilty of having poor audio on my films but I am learning now how vital it is. Good audio is at least as important as good video when making a film. Ignore that at your peril. I don’t really know how to do it. I just know you need to find out! Record lots. Record thoughtful interviews. Record long rants when you are on the verge of bursting into tears and going home. And always record a few seconds of ambient sound at the start and end of each clip.

4. Don’t zoom. It’s what your Dad does on home movies. Don’t pan either. Instead you should…

5. Vary your shots. For every scene you capture you need a variety of shots. This often means faking stuff and doing it over and over again, particularly if you are filming yourself. (See my Oscar-winning, fake waking-up here…)
Imagine you are filming me writing this post. You need a wide shot to set the scene. You need a medium shot of me typing away, probably from a couple of angles (I’ll save the 30 degree rule for another day). And you need some close-ups (hands typing, words appearing on screen, face furrowed in concentration). These are crucial for…

6. Cutaways. These are the vital two-or-three second clips of details that you can use to break up long sequences. It means I don’t have to endure watching 20 minutes of you paddling a river before you eventually go off the waterfall. Show yourself setting off, cutaway to a flailing paddle, and then straight into the glory scene showing your heroic death, which is all we want to see anyway.

7. Start filming a few seconds before the action begins. Keep recording for a few seconds after it has finished. It really helps with the editing.

8. Record the stuff you can’t be bothered to record. Tents blowing away, misery in the rain, near-death disasters. This is what everyone really wants to watch.

9. Plan. This is hard to do, but before you even begin filming try to have a vision in your head of how the film is going to look. This will help you get all the shots necessary before it is too late.

10. Talk to the camera lots, particularly if you are unsure what direction your story will go in the edit.

11. Do stupid stuff. Film yourselves having fun, mucking about, laughing as well as crying.

EDITING

  1. Tell a story. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have a point and a message. So should your film.
  2. Watch good stuff online (such as the Vimeo awards). Why is good stuff good? (Hint, it is not just because they know about post production colour grading and have amazing cameras). Pay attention to what you enjoy about it. Then steal it!
  3. Kill Your Darlings. Time is short. Attention spans are shorter, particularly with online content. Less is More. Do I really need to watch 20 minutes of you paddling down a river on YouTube? (No). Just because you liked it doesn’t mean that anyone else will care. So “kill your darlings” – cut away everything but the essentials. Show me only what I want to see / need to see. I try very hard to keep all of my films under five minutes.
  4. Only include your very best clips and your most important clips. Be ruthless. Less is more.
  5. Pieces to camera (you looking at the camera and speaking) are important and powerful. But they can be boring too. Learn how to extract the audio from the clip and place it over other video clips. This also helps keep the film shorter.
  6. Watch a documentary on TV and pay attention to the edit. You will be surprised how short each clip is. My rough rule is 3 seconds per clip. Don’t go above 7 unless you have a good reason to do so. Varying the clip lengths will change the mood of your film.
  7. Music can be powerful. Absence of music can be powerful. Think carefully before you decide. Pick music that will resonate with other people, not just your favourite song. Don’t use Hoppipola.
  8. Did I mention keeping it short?
  9. Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.

I’ve gathered the best videos I’ve made together in this Vimeo Channel. Please do have a quick look, if you have time.

And please leave your thoughts, criticisms and suggestions in the Comments below: I have a lot to learn!

Watch The Film Now

 

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Comments

  1. Interesting article as I would very much like to start making better videos of my travels but there is nothing mentioned about recommended equipment – DSLR or traditional Video camera etc? lenses?

    Would love to read your recommendations on this Alistair 🙂

    Reply
    • I didn’t include gear info as I don’t think it should be a limiting factor in making good films.
      I am lucky to have nice equipment.
      But someone with talent and a crap camera could still make things way better than me!
      A quick note on my gear though: I use a Canon 5D Mkii with 3 lenses. 17-40mm f4, 50mm f1.8, 24-105mm f4. For our recent Greenland trip I used a Nikon 800D with an 85mm lens and a 14mm lens. And I use a Rode VideoMic too.

      Reply
  2. P.S Your videos and the ones you included in the post are fantastic! 🙂

    Reply
  3. Great article, Al. And thank you for including the Janapar trailer.

    Can I add a couple of things?

    1. Getting to the point where you can make a good video will take an incredible amount of time, energy, failure and frustration. Get used to the fact that you will be churning out complete and utter tripe for probably several years, even if you think it looks great at the time. But it’s worth it.
    2. The biggest single piece of advice I have for aspiring self-shooting adventure filmmakers is to find a good director to work with. Directors tell stories; self-shooting adventurers provide the material.
    3. You are not shooting a film. You are shooting for the edit. The film is found in the edit, not in the field. So you need to cover every angle (pun only slightly intended).
    4. Tripods, panning and zooming are stylistic tools; they are all useful but only when used with purpose. A locked-off tripod shot conveys stillness and a detached perspective, and allows a scene transition to flow smoothly. A panning shot of a landscape might speak of trepidation, or of simple enthusiasm for a new place, or of the overwhelming scale of a vista. A handheld zoom might draw focus to a previously-insignificant point in a scene which suddenly becomes very important. The same goes for depth-of-field, focal length, shot length in the edit, etc.
    5. Long-winded GoPro shots are incredibly boring.

    A bit of a ramble – hope it is of some use to someone!

    Tom

    Reply
  4. Thanks for the great advice Al.

    How much footage would you normally go through and cut down from to produce a 3-5 minute video? I guess it varies but presumably a fair amount??

    Tom

    Reply
    • Alastair Humphreys Posted

      That’s a really good question.
      You Certainly need to shoot a lot, but try to do it with thought as the more you shoot the more hassle editing is.
      I shot about 80GB for my 5 min Atlantic film, and 64GB for my 10 min Greenland one (out soon).
      Hope that helps.

      Reply
  5. Johnno Johnston Posted

    G’day Al. I have a question about music….. I have been putting together lots of short ‘movies’, all about as long as the music I choose. Posting them to friends etc becomes tough when one is using music they have no rights to. My question is simply… how the hell do you get the rights to use someones song ?? Do I write to the music company and ask if I can use that long ago written Doobie Brothers song, ‘rocking down the highway’, for my short, purely for fun, cycling video ?? If so, and they write back and say “OK, go for it.”, how do I prove that to You-tube ??
    That’s about it for now. See you at your lecture at the end of August !
    Regards.
    Johnno

    Reply
    • Hi Johnno,
      The proper answer is, ‘yes’ – write and ask permission.
      YouTube though have changed their policy recently: instead of blocking songs they now have a link to sell them.
      Creative Commons is the legal and right way round all this. Google for masses of music. Moby did some of this too.

      Reply
  6. Hi Al

    Thanks for that, very useful. I’ve been doing a bit of filming of my sailing, and plan to do more.

    One thing that really bugs me when viewing film that supposed to be ‘real’ is what are obviously faked shots – eg in your Pembroke kayak film, where your all paddle into the gap between the rocks, I know you must have gone in before to set up the camera! That’s why I really liked the Iceland film by Klara, where she’s stalking holding the camera, rather than walking towards the camera on a tripod. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but those fake shots really distract me from the film – though I can see at the same time that they can be really effective in other ways.

    No idea who it will work out, but I’m going to try and forbid myself from such shots when filming, though I might cheat with establishing shots.

    Another issue I have is that my camera is a waterproof compact, and when in video mode it’s battery life is very short. So I’m going to try taking only short videos and plenty of stills and then editing together – that worked well at the end of your kayak film.

    Keep up the good work!

    Btw glad you got Dylan Winter to speak! Knew he’d be good, but not that good!

    Reply
    • Alastair Humphreys Posted

      I sort of accept your point about the fake shots.
      But I think my fake shots are no worse than the “proper” documentaries on tv purportedly featuring one person, but with a tv crew etc etc behind the scenes.
      I would prefer a documentary like Ed Stafford’s Walking The Amazon with an occasional fake shot, than a big BBC doco pretending that someone is alone.

      You should consider buying a GoPro camera for what you do.

      Reply
      • Absolutely agree with you – your fake shots are no worse!

        I think my bugbear about them comes from those ‘proper’ documentaries, supposedly of one person! And I can see the benefit of those shots.

        My point is for me, not for other people: as they annoy me, I feel I have an obligation not to use them myself!

        Have been mulling over getting a GoPro, but also trying to minimise equipment and use each piece of kit for more than one purpose. I expect I’ll weaken at some point!

        Reply
  7. Al!!! great post and comments but I have one very simple question, what software do you use and do you have any helpful tips?

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      All you need is a programme that can cut clips into pieces and order them as you wish. Anything is fine.
      (I use FCPX now though as I have started colour grading my films.)

      Reply
  8. Ashley Hold Posted

    I’ve made about 40 short videos of various trips/adventures using mostly my compact camera, also have a Gopro, but I find the Gopro very unreliable, and the battery life is terrible if on a long trip. I really like to use natural sound rather than stick a piece of music over the top, I normally switch off sound when watching YT videos as most people’s choice of music just irritates me. However using natural sound makes editing a nightmare, as the camera rarely gets good clean sound, especially in windy weather, so I often import sound from other clips.

    Reply

 
 

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