A great number of expeditions and adventures are filmed, especially now the equipment to do so is cheap and accessible. But few projects ever reach the screen. This begs the simple question: Why are so many expedition film projects unsuccessful?
The art of filmmaking is broadly misunderstood. It’s not just ‘photography with movement’. That’s cinematography, not filmmaking. Having a video camera doesn’t make you a filmmaker, in the same way that having a dictionary doesn’t make you a writer.
Whether my own film Janapar is or isn’t a good film is not for me to say — so far, preview audience reactions have been very encouraging, and that’s all. But I have learnt a few things about the art of documentary filmmaking. Here’s the advice I’d give to someone considering launching their own documentary production. This is adventure-oriented, but I think most of it applies broadly:
- At its core, a successful film is a good story well-told. This has nothing to do with stunning visuals or fancy cameras.
- Work out what the story is — or at least, what the story’s beginning is — before it begins. Follow it through its twists and turns until the end. And be prepared for the story to change.
- Every piece of storytelling advice for writers is equally applicable to filmmakers.
- Especially in this relatively eccentric field of adventures and expeditions, the story is much more likely to be driven by the characters’ core motives — their raison d’etre — than by any special mission they might have.
- Anticipate that one character will probably emerge dominant. Consider that this might end up being you yourself.
- An audience won’t care about what the characters see or do until they’re emotionally invested in their hopes and fears and can empathise with them. Focus strongly on this early in a trip, or even before it begins.
- Drill through superficial layers of motivation until you’ve reached the driving force.
- Audiences have incredibly sensitive bullshit detectors. Any character who attempts to imitate Michael Palin or Bear Grylls will inevitably come across as a fraud.
- Finding a genuine voice on camera is really, really difficult for many newcomers. It requires practice. Tons of practice.
- A director needs to be able to bring that voice out. This is largely about asking the right question at the right time.
Solo or Team
- Self-shooting a solo expedition means that you’ll have to bear all of the above in mind for yourself, as well as spending most of your time setting up tripod shots and pointing the camera in your own face for context — not to mention having the adventure itself.
- In a team, one (very diplomatic) member should assume a directorial role to ensure consistency and completeness, even if others are operating the camera(s) at his or her command.
- Either way, prepare to be mentally exhausted. Take regular steps back, and pack the camera away for significant periods of time.
- Stories can be broken into sub-stories. During shooting, focus on capturing one complete sub-story at a time. Later, review what you have, and consider how these sub-stories fit into the bigger picture.
- For each sub-story, establish the dilemma or challenge. Capture the action and nail the story’s resolution. Get your characters’ immediate responses to what happened. Then go back and shoot the cutaways, establishing shots and general views that you missed.
- Be on the look-out for a new story to emerge, and switch your attention to it if it’s the stronger one.
- Get 2 or 3 times more shots than you think you need.
- No good film (including documentaries) was ever shot chronologically. Remember that you’re shooting for an editor. Your job is to deliver source material for him or her to work with.
- Expect a quality level of shooting to take far longer than you expect. It can and will eat hours of your days.
- Once you’ve finished shooting, take a break.
- Hire an editor. A fresh pair of expert eyes will bring your hard-earned story to life in a way that you simply won’t be able to see.
- Put together a team of talented, committed post-production people who care about your project.
- No money? Crowdfund it. Put together a smashing taster tape and raise the capital.
- Do not attempt to self-shoot, script, direct, produce, edit, score, grade, dub, mix, title, caption, master, market, distribute and sell a film on your own if you want it to have broad appeal / win loads of awards / get on telly / make much of a difference. Allow your project to become a platform on which other people’s talents can come together and shine.
I’d love to see the increase in expeditions being filmed being matched by an increase in successful finished productions. There is a very good reason I haven’t mentioned cameras, shot composition, editing software — all of that is secondary. I hope that these points will help newcomers to the world of filmmaking understand where their priorities should lie.
Do you have a documentary project up your sleeve? What do you think of the ‘adventure’ film scene today?