You don’t need fancy equipment, a crew or lots of money to make a great short adventure film. Featured contributor Leon McCarron explains how anyone can get started.
In 2012, I walked across the Empty Quarter desert alongside my friend Alastair Humphreys. We had just two cameras to film the entire experience, but with time and energy, we eventually turned 40 hours of material into a one-hour feature. I was incredibly proud of what we put together—even more so when someone other than my mother gave us positive feedback. The film was selected for several festivals, including the Banff Mountain Film Festival and, for the first time, I felt like I could call myself a filmmaker.
A couple of years earlier, I’d had a very different experience. At 23 years old, I set off on a long bike trip. I’d watched the Long Way Round TV series in which Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman travel from London to New York by motorbike and thought: “How hard can it be to make something similar?”
My attempt was a disaster. It was a true rite of passage, and I was so absorbed just trying to keep the trip (and myself) together that I neglected to film anything interesting. Halfway across the US, I gave up shooting, put the camera away to prioritize the experience, and didn’t really take it out again until I was in New Zealand, months later. Needless to say, a film never materialized.
Filmmaking on your travels can be a fantastic way to share stories, but it takes a huge amount of planning, work and vision. It’s not something you can easily do half-heartedly. And yet spending too much time filming can also be a sure-fire way to ruin a dream trip.
So, before you read more, ask yourself: Are you heading off on the journey of a lifetime? Do you just want to focus on being present? If the answer is yes, then consider whether you’re willing to spend potentially a few hours of each day on this. And with that, the negativity is over. If you’re still with me, then welcome to the wonderful world of adventure filmmaking!
It’s easier to make films than ever before. Advances in technology and reductions in cost have democratized the process, and it no longer requires huge outlays of cash. Most of us will have a camera in the smartphone in our pockets and, for some purposes, this will be sufficient.
So now think: What type of film do you want to make? A short vignette for social media? Something for friends and family? A longer narrative piece? This will inform what kit you need and what planning you need to do.
If you’re not sure yet, then think about the story you want to tell. A good way to do this is to formulate a one-line question that it revolves around—something short, sharp and punchy. In the Empty Quarter desert, Al and I asked ourselves: “How has the desert changed since the time of Wilfred Thesiger?” (the explorer who served as the inspiration for our trip). Having a theme to follow and a focal point to return to makes everything else come easier.
Whether you shoot for a 30-second or 30-minute piece, it’s crucial your story has a strong beginning, end, and something meaty in the middle—this may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget. Try and predict how this might look before you leave and use that as a basis for what you shoot. Things will inevitably change as you travel, and you can adapt your work, but that first draft is important.
You should film the tough stuff; don’t just include the glossy experiences. If you or your characters are feeling particularly low, then film it. If you’re ecstatic, then film it.
Anything you shoot needs characters and, in particular, a main protagonist or guide to help engage viewers. Think about who that might be—often for travelers self-filming, that person will be you—and consider how the story affects those characters. Is it exciting, difficult, moving? These are all emotions someone watching can identify with, and as a result, they become more involved.
That also means you should film the tough stuff; don’t just include the glossy experiences. If you or your characters are feeling particularly low, then film it. If you’re ecstatic, then film it. When it feels like it’s hard work to shoot something, often the footage will be more compelling.
Next are the practicalities. I often think of filmmaking the way I think of writing; that it too has its own ‘grammar’ rules. You can grasp the basics in a few hours—and the beauty of that is we can create something meaningful quite quickly—but there’s also a lifetime of learning to become experts.
A good way to ‘study’ this grammar is to watch adventure and travel films that you like and note what shots they use. A typical film is generally made of individual scenes; self-contained narratives that link together. Each scene usually starts with an establishing shot, perhaps an image setting up the location or a wide shot of a building, street or landscape.
The next shot might cut in closer, to see the character in that setting, and possibly followed by a close-up of that character doing something—let’s say lifting a sandwich from the restaurant table or stepping over a muddy puddle in a forest. In three images, the viewer knows where we are, who’s there, and what’s happening.
If you’re interested in making films that could be popular online or reach niche festivals—and why not?—you’ll also need it to be technically smooth. The two things most new filmmakers forget about are sound and tripods.
Anything we watch, we also listen to, so if you don’t have a separate microphone, the sound will be shoddy. Invest in a plug-in mic to get started. Similarly, shaky shots look amateur. Put your camera on a tripod and only move it when necessary, or when you’ve practised enough to feel confident.
Test the results on friends and followers. That’s how we improve. No-one makes award-winning films on their first attempt.
When it comes to choosing a camera, remember what you intend to use it for: To travel. That means it should be light and portable. Smartphones are great to start with, but the sensors and lenses have limitations; personally, I’d only use them for shorts for social media. Mirrorless cameras are great—similar to DSLRs but minus the bulk, and you can switch out lenses. Old-fashioned camcorders still have a place, as they’re the most intuitively designed for video. As you progress, learn how to operate manual features. This will improve the scope you have for manipulating an image and making your piece look artistic.
While acquiring and honing these technical skills is important, I believe if you have a good story and invest the time in planning and getting the basics right (microphones and tripods), then the rest will come.
Editing is another craft entirely, but there are simple programs that are great for learning such as iMovie and Windows Movie Maker. Try them and test the results on friends and followers. That’s how we improve. No-one makes award-winning films on their first attempt.
My final advice is to be tenacious, but also respectful. The normal rules of photography and travel apply—don’t jam cameras into strangers’ faces, for example. Whether this is a hobby or potentially a part of your job, throw yourself into the art of it. Do it often and you’ll soon be doing it well. Enjoy the journeys you make, and when you have something to show, share away.
See some of Leon McCarron’s film on his website www.leonmccarron.com.
Find inspiration and ideas at the Adventure Travel Film Festival.