The Adventurists' Film Festival at the Royal Geographic Society

Last weekend I was kindly invited by the wonderful Adventurists to their Film Festival, held in the hallowed halls of the Royal Geographic Society.  This is the second time they have held the annual event, showcasing the best of Adventure and Expedition related film, with talks by some inspiring adventurers, as well as workshops and lectures by film-makers within the field of adventure and expeditions.  As a documentary writer and film-maker myself I couldn't miss out on such an exciting event.  And with my own expedition with Secret Compass coming up, the ability to get to know some professional adventurers and learn about some of the latest techniques, it made great professional sense.  So, once again courtesy of Beyond Limits, where this article originally featured, I bring you the Adventurists Film Festival!

The Ondaatje Theatre at the Royal Geographic Society

The event kicked off in the magnificent Ondaatje Theatre with several short films made by participants of the Adventurists’ own version of the Wacky Races.  We started with a brilliant piece made during the Indian Ricksahw Run from Goa to Pokhara.  It was a fun, energetic film, which really captured the chaotic nature of India and the race.  We saw the incredible hospitality from those they met en route, including the invitation to Mr Singh’s house, and the inherent dangers of the challenge when participant Jerry fell out of a moving rickshaw!  Mark Kalch, water-expedition extraordinaire, asked Simon, the director, about the voyage and film-making.  One thing Simon pointed out was that the film made the journey look solely fun, which was largely a product of him not filming the less savoury moments, such as team-mates falling out, or anti-English sentiment from those they met.  This comment was more interesting in light of Andrew Miles comments on filming later in the afternoon.

Simon’s lasting memory of the journey was the camaraderie of team-members, and that people they met were always kindest and happiest in the rural areas, so he felt the film did the journey justice.

Italian Igor D’India filmed the challenge of re-fitting a 1 litre Fiat to drive from Italy to South Africa.  Despite being nearly 2 months late for the actual Adventurists’ challenge, they did their best, staying with tribal leaders, building lasting bonds with the local population through balloon modeling and seeing elephants walk through their campsite, before having to abandon their tough little car in Cameroon when the steering system finally gave in.  Mark Kalch asked Igor about the adventure, which was less challenging than their Mongol Rally the previous year (thanks to a lack of terrorists and Taliban shooting,) but the Italian team are still planning on rescuing The Boiler (as the car was named) from Cameroon to ship to South America for the Mototaxi Junket next year.

Team Est Yr 10 Diaries part 2 - Africa Rally

Perhaps the rawest of the films was a very personal insight into the Mototaxi Junket by Russ Coffey.  A 40-year old in a “possible mid-life crisis”, Russ ended up on a team of young girls with whom his relationship gradually deteriorated, partly due to him “bullying them to be on film whilst on holiday.”  But Russ’s willingness to film regardless, and in some potentially risky situations, led to a unique insight into an emotionally draining voyage.  The journey was made more challenging because of some intense political action en route that led to a town hall being burned town and a tourist bus torched.

The group left their bikes with the protestors and eventually made their way to safety, but not before leaving Russ feeling “damaged” and wondering what on earth he was thinking going on a mototaxi adventure up South America with 3 girls.

An eccentric Hendricks Adventurer

The lightest and most uplifting film came in the Public category.  “Across Europe In a Paper Boat” saw a group of friends in Lithuania, with no water-borne experience, build a boat, at home, out of fiberglass, paper and wood, which they would sail from Lithuania to Belarus, Poland, Germany and eventually to Amsterdam, Holland.  A wonderfully irreverent piece, with humorous narration and insights into the simplicity of making friends across borders, this was probably my personal favourite, and it certainly inspired me to push on with my plans for the Pirates of the Clutha rafting trip for New Zealand!  Ed Stobart, of Alleycats Films, spoke to the director, Julius, about the film.  The project started purely as an expedition and the movie was just a good excuse to get some time off work!  Their next project is sailing in a sheepskin raft through China.

After this, I retired to the Education Centre at the RGS to see a talk by Katie and Tarkar of itzontv, an online film channel which provides a place for independent film-makers to showcase non-commissioned programmes.  Tarkar grew up in the French Alps, mountain guiding, skiing and base-jumping.  Katie was a originally a commercial model from the UK and a chance meeting at Tarkar’s chalet in the Alps, when Katie was greeted with the bizarre sight of Tarkar pulling his mother up the mountain in preparation for a polar trek, led to them planning a trip to the Great Wall of China: a 4500km hike, despite Katie’s walking experience mostly being limited to 20m of catwalk!  They shared their top 5 tips for film-making with an enthusiastic audience.

  1. Don’t believe that production companies will pay you and commission you up front, no matter how good your idea, unless you have a celebrity attached.  Katie and Tarkar were given an HD camera by a sponsor, learned how to make films from a book bought off Amazon and then headed out to stomp 35 – 40km a day for 6 months, with 35kg packs and only 3 days off!  For Tarkar, it helped him develop a fascination with the sociological aspect of journeys, as against the monastic experience he had previously had in the mountains and polar regions.
  2. Sound is as important as image in film-making.  After their experience in China generated 67 hours of footage, but without the necessary sound to generate a full film, they then set out on a cycling expedition the length of Africa with the sole intention of making a film.
  3. Improvisation is a bad idea with camera equipment.  Whilst in Africa, Tarkar and Katie would often set up a sole camera for long shots, and within moments the camera would be surrounded by dozens of locals, which made for fascinating sociological interaction, but poor long-shots.  They also advised on carrying plenty of batteries, after an attempt to jury-rig a battery charger with their Land Rover led to their camera blowing up!
  4. Avoid using tapes, especially in very cold places.  It means one has to carry less gear, spend less time loading and unloading cameras, and prevents the problem of film becoming brittle and breaking in the cold.  With the quality of digital now so high, there shouldn’t really be a need anyway.
  5. Don’t think you’re good enough to capture the exciting stuff.   You’ll probably be too busy dealing with it to film it!  It’s much better to mock it up before or after the event, or tell the story in a way that it isn’t necessary.

The Skeleton Coast

The final education talk was by Andrew Miles, of the Explorer’s Film School, which Andrew set up 7 years ago with the aim of training explorers and adventurers to produce footage for broadcast on television as a way to monetize their careers.  Andrew’s career in television is extensive, having worked with the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery.  He knows what he is talking about, so this certainly wasn’t a talk I was going to miss.

Andrew believes the number one difference between footage being broadcast-able is communication through the camera lens of what is going on.  His golden rules on how to do this are:

  • Never talk behind the camera.  If you are commenting, always be in shot and talking to the camera
  • Don’t babble continuously.  Plan what you are going to say and succinctly comment on the event
  • Never have unbroken scenery as your shot.  Always have people in it, interacting with each other or the environment.  It provides context and human interest.
  • Always aim for a shooting ratio of 10:1.  For every hour of footage you intend to broadcast, shoot 10.  A lot is lost in the edit.

Andrew showed us footage for a pilot he had made whilst trekking the Skeleton Coast, Namibia: a completely uninhabited stretch of the world’s oldest desert along the Atlantic Coast of Africa.  The trek was for 200 miles with paying clients, each of whom was doing the trek for their own personal reasons.  It is a harsh environment, with no fresh water, and the world’s largest sand dunes running down to the ocean.  For the trip, the team experimented with desalination kits to provide their own water en route.  Andrew did the wide and long shots himself, meaning he had to walk much further than the rest of the team to get the shots we wanted.  He also created his own kit for the trip, rigging a harness to attach to the team’s backpacks, with a lipstick camera at the end, meaning that they had continuous footage of participants, looking up at their faces, during the walk.  This, combined with video diaries he had people do at the end of each day, resulted in a phenomenal piece showing people pushing themselves to the absolute limit and confronting their own inner fears and doubts.

The keys for capturing this were multifold: letters from home, secretly written and presented at key moments to the trekkers helped to bring out emotion; the video diaries were sworn to secrecy – Andrew promised that he would not review them until after the trip, meaning the diarists didn’t hold back in their honest assessment of the trip and their companions (people will always be more honest to a camera alone than they would to a camera being operated by a cameraman); capturing everything – Andrew let them know beforehand that they would be filmed the entire time, and once on expedition he ignored their protests for him to stop in every situation other than a life threatening one.

It may sound brutal at times, but to make great, human television, you sometimes need to be.

Andrew’s film was eventually commissioned and he believes that this is often the best way: go out and film it and then see about it being commissioned.  Sometimes this doesn’t seem to make financial sense, but it means you will have something tangible to take to the commissioning editors.

The Ondaatje Theatre at the Royal Geographic Society

We then had a break, on the lawn of the RGS, playing Siamese croquet (having not played much standard croquet I am afraid that I am unaware as to how the Siamese aspect plays a part!) just outside the Map Room.  It was a great venue to chat to fellow Adventurists, knowing that it was here that some of the world’s great achievements had been planned, with portraits of Hillary and Livingstone looking down, and a huge model of the Everest massif in the corner.

We returned indoors to view the winning films.  10,000 Miles From A Car Window was a surrealist take on the Mogul Rally, which reminded me of trippy dance music videos from the early 90s by the KLF.  The director, Charlie, has a background in graphic design and this came over in the film, which was shot on a camera worth only £100.  The soundtrack was taken from the video itself, with beats and drones overlaid with sounds picked up by the camera.  Without any real narrative, the film was a succession of shots of landscapes, fast-forwarded from the journey, with breaks for still shots and photographs.  The result was a sublime and eerie video which fully deserved its prize.

I was impressed with the wide variety of films, with very different takes on the same subject or voyage giving an insight into how different directors, with different camera techniques and soundtracks, can make a singular event look and feel so different.  The day also was a fantastic chance to learn more about the art of film-making and how to document your expeditions for consumption by a wider audience. I’ve been inspired to do Andrew Miles’ course on expeditionary film-making, so I’ll be bringing you some more specific advice next month.  Until then, have a look at the link below to the Adventurists Film Festival site to see the films from the event!

Also check out for excellent films, available online.  Next month I will be doing a more detailed article on the Explorers' Film School, but have a look at the website for tips and a syllabus.