How to Make an Outdoor Film Part 1: Filming

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 21/11/2019
Alastair Lee filming blind climber Jesse Dufton on the Old Man of Hoy

Feeling inspired by Kendal Mountain Film Festival and the Brit Rock Film Tour but not sure where to start? In this two-part series, award-winning outdoor filmmakers Alastair Lee and Natasha Brooks offer their top tips.

You can find part two of this series here: How to Make an Outdoor Film Part 2: Editing

Alastair Lee

With twenty years in the industry and over 100 international awards to his name, Alastair is a veteran of outdoor filmmaking. Don't miss the Brit Rock Film Tour, founded by Alastair and currently touring the UK. He has collaborated with the best of the UK’s adventure filmmakers resulting in a stunning line-up of compelling stories from the vertical world. Films, dates and venues here. Sarah Stirling interviews Alastair below:

AL: It’s all about the story. It’s all about, “Why are we watching this?” Maybe that market has transferred to Youtube now but some of the first climbing films, like the Dosage series, had very slick production and were all about the hard grades, the famous climber, sending. Good climbers can be quite vicarious — they aren’t always interested in the story, they are imagining themselves climbing. "Ooh look at that move!" They relate to it. But it’s essentially climbing porn. A good film is all about the story.

SS: What comes first, filming or deciding on the plot?

Once you’ve got your subject you don’t need to worry about the story, spend enough time with them and your story will appear because it happens in life, we didn’t make up the idea of stories out of nowhere. A film I made, Just Anna, was a good example, she had a route nicked by Will Birkett. Tight sod, what was he thinking. But it gave the film a really obvious three-part structure.

Someone’s maybe received a call that their mum’s seriously ill, or someone’s fallen over and hurt themselves. You can pull more out of the characters by filming that sort of thing. You have to be vigilant. The camera is a cumbersome thing and it changes atmosphere and it takes time to get it out and get it right. 

Do you ask people to repeat things they've just said, on camera?

Most people are terrible at acting themselves. Some people are really good at it, people like Leo Holding and Neil Gresham who are used to being in front of the camera and know how to work in sound bites. But typically if you ask, "Could you say that again?" and turn the camera on, it’ll be so far off that you can’t even believe it. Strive to capture more magic first time than doing repeats. Time and experience will tell you when to film, or sometimes it’s obvious — a blind man doing a super sketchy walk to the base of the Old Man of Hoy: film the whole thing!

WATCH the trailer for Climbing Blind, which features in the Brit Rock Film Tour, on BMC TV:

In the film Free Solo, do you think the intimate moments are staged? 

Staged is a harsh word to use because that would suggest no authenticity. I would imagine that, in Free Solo, the filmmakers observed something between Alex and Sanni, or they all had a chat about things that had happened, and then they set up to film something that they had talked about and when they started filming then something different cropped up and they caught it on camera. You know there are filmmakers in the van, and that it’s sort of set up, but you suspend your disbelief and it works.

If something bad happens … do you film it?

The priority is helping, filming is very much secondary. I was filming in Madagascar last year and there was a nasty accident on the second pitch. All I did was get my GoPro and leave it in my hand. I was talking to people and pointing it in the general direction. I was the most experienced first aider, so once the climber was on the ground I was cutting him out of his rock shoe; his ankle was demolished. I just left the GoPro going and moved it around every now and then. My big camera was on the ground still recording sound. I was amazed by all the footage.

What kit do you use?

Drone, handicam or GoPro, main camera, each one is a job in itself, really. Ideally you want a second camera man. In a climbing film, you want the main camera above the climber, and someone else on the ground, or ideally at the side, on a tighter lens. If you’re on your own you can set one or two cameras up and leave them at the base on tripods but it’s hard to keep cutting back to a wide shot, you need something tighter.

I had a revelation about 4K. I made a film called Citadel in 2015 and it was the first mountaineering film shot in 4K. It was a great expense in new cameras and memory cards and a new computer. Luckily I got a good TV sale with the film. But the TV company only wanted it in HD so I had to downscale it all. 4K didn’t do what HD did. We all went, “Wow!" and bought HD TVs. And then 4K came along and everyone went, “Which one's 4K?” So I sold all that stuff and bought two solid HD cameras. Typically you film with one good film camera and one handicam or GoPro, but with two HD cameras the quality runs through everything much better.

Do you have any drone tips?

It's hard to take good climbing footage with a drone. You need a specific idea of what you want. If you make a mistake, don’t think, "I'll edit round that massive jerk when I hit the tilt button too hard", go back and do it again. I've figured out a few good shots for filming climbing with a drone now, like flying one way and panning the other. The skill to it is not pushing on either one too hard so the flight speed matches the pan or the tilt. Or you can fly down while panning upwards, or gradually creep towards the subject while panning. You want to keep the subject upward centre in the shot, the arete, mountain, or climber, then any movement around that.


Well exposed flat light, recommends Alastair

What about lighting?

Well, the same principles as photography apply in a way — you get good light early and late, but in many ways with video bright conditions with no direct sunlight is easier to manage. If it’s really sunny it’s a nightmare with all these shadows everywhere, and your own shadow; it’s too contrasty. Well exposed flat light works well, you get some lovely looking grades on flat footage these days.

Do you get climbers to repeat moves over and over?

Often the climb happens, you film it, there’s a huge sense of relief and everyone relaxes. You have to be really disciplined, no-one feels like getting back on the wall, but do it then. Get some tight shots of feet, hands, gear, all kinds of good stuff that can be used in an edit. Set up a top-rope and just do it. It's so much easier than trying to organise everyone to come back for another shoot.

 

Natasha Brooks

Natasha Brooks has received the BMC Women In Adventure Film award, the BMC Peoples choice award 2015, and has made the official selection of many film festivals including BANFF Canada, KMF, SHAFF, New York Wild Festival. Her film Blue Hue has toured over 40 countries world-wide with the BANFF World Tour and was broadcast on Channel 4.

NB: Don't let lack of kit put you off

Don't ever think that your camera and kit isn't professional enough. I have seen endless adventure films with high-end cinematography that have left me feeling a little empty. Equally, I have been swept away by many other films with a low production value that have captured my heart and imagination.  Chase Jarvis famously said, "The best camera is the one you have with you". Use the kit that you have, even if it's just a camera phone. Learn to tell a good story with this and the rest will follow.

Get organised

Filming in the great outdoors needs a high level of organisation. The conditions can be hostile and extremely changeable. Check the weather forecasts, be realistic with timings, make sure all your kit is charged and write lists so you don't forget essential items. There's nothing more frustrating than traipsing up a mountain to find you left your spare camera batteries at home!

Play

In life we learn from our mistakes and this is true with filmmaking. Keep a playful, inquisitive mind and get experimental. Use your camera to see the world from a new perspective. If you end up lying belly-down in some mud while clutching your camera wondering what the heck you're doing then you're probably on the right track!


Natasha's freediving skills complement her underwater filmmaking

Be open to spontaneity

It is important to go out filming with a strong idea of what you want to capture. But at the same time, take in your surroundings and be open to unexpected events along the way. Sometimes the best captures are ones you didn't plan. 

Practice makes perfect

Go out filming as often as you can. Set yourself little deadlines and make tiny sketch book films to generate ideas and hone your skills.

More about Natasha on Instagram, Facebook and on her website tashbrooks.com

 

WATCH: Natasha's award-winning autobiographical documentary, Blue Hue on BMC TV:


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