It's never been easier to create your own professional-looking travel films. Here we offer tips for both first-timers and aspiring Attenboroughs
Today, pocket-sized HD digital camcorders mean we can all buy that director’s chair: anyone can record broadcast-quality footage. Meanwhile, pretty much every computer comes with video editing software as standard. And, once you’ve created your clips, you can share them with the world thanks to websites such as YouTube, Vimeo and our very own myWanderlust section.
However, if you want a more creative end-product than just you talking to the camera wherever you wander, you need to know a bit more about the basics of filming and editing.
Which is where Andrew Miles, and his new Explorers Film School in Brighton, comes in. An adventure film-maker with more than 70 documentaries to his name, Andrew has also trained numerous explorers – including Pen Hadow, who became the first person to walk solo without re-supply from Canada to the geographic North Pole. Fortunately, Andrew also teaches amateurs like me. The school offers a variety of different courses, from four-day group sessions to intensive individual one-dayers. I’d come for a one-on-one looking at what my camera (a Sony DCR-SR72) has to offer, and learning tricks that can really make a difference to your films.
To kick off, we looked at some of Andrew’s documentaries, including his first filmed effort, which showed a motley multinational crew going into meltdown on a failed attempt to conquer the Ulugh Muztagh mountain range in Tibet. As we watched, Andrew emphasised the importance of always having your camera to hand to capture the unexpected: from high emotion and drama to a stunning view or sudden appearance by the local wildlife.
“Here’s the most important lesson on the course,” Andrew said as he inscribed the word ‘COMMUNICATION’ in block capitals, “This is crucial in your filming, both in terms of building a rapport with your audience but, arguably more importantly, with the people and the subjects you are filming,” he explained. As I was to learn, “Let the people around you
tell your story for you” is one of his mantras.
We began by running through some of the basics of filming. “It’s amazing how many people can get these wrong,” Andrew remarked, as I diligently noted them down: the importance of protecting your microphone from the elements if you’re filming outside, being aware of background noise and not stating the obvious if you’re talking to the camera (viewers can see for themselves what you’re describing).
We then turned our attention to my camera itself. It’s crucial to know exactly what yours can and can’t do (for filming tips, see the next page) and to be confident in using it. We went through a variety of possible filming environments, from brilliant sunshine to darkness, looking at night vision, white balance and other functions that ensure your film looks good in all lights.
Then it was down to the business of practical techniques, including using a tripod, panning, focusing, zooming, interview techniques and talking to camera. “Again, remember the importance of not talking behind the camera – let the people you meet and the things you see tell the story,” Andrew emphasised.
You might not want to carry a tripod on your travels; if so, Andrew’s tip for achieving a hand-held pan with the minimum of jerkiness is invaluable. “Simply rest the camera against your lower torso, and keep your feet flat on the floor and pointing forward. Then rotate your upper body slowly from left to right, or vice versa, but keeping your feet still.”
To make a really interesting film, particularly if it’s longer than a few minutes, you should use a mixture of close-ups, medium shots and wider angles. Andrew illustrated this by running through a series of shots from his films, pointing out how different shot lengths and angles break up the action. They ranged from long shots of mountain ranges to close-ups of feet trekking through deserts.
So, how much footage should you shoot? As a yardstick, Andrew estimates that ten hours of footage will produce around an hour of finished film. Of course, this can be scaled down (or up) proportionately, depending on the length of your trip.
To finish, Andrew shared some tips on surreptitious filming techniques, useful if people are playing up to the camera or if you don’t want to be noticed. For example, carry your camera in a bag that’s open just enough to allow the lens to peek out.
Back in his office, as we watched his footage of Pen Hadow trudging across the glistening white of the Arctic, I couldn’t wait to pick up my camera and get filming… Look out for my new, improved clips on myWanderlust.
1. Know your camera Read the instruction booklet and experiment with the different settings before you travel.
2. Don’t talk behind the camera It’s not necessary to describe verbally what can be clearly seen on-screen.
3. Always monitor the sound recording Through a set of headphones if you’re recording someone talking, especially if there is any wind or background noise.
4. Don’t overuse the zoom It should only be used when there is a reason for using it, such as to draw attention to or reveal something. If you do zoom, a zoom-out is often much more effective than zooming in.
5. If you’re filming on a journey For a considerable amount of time, it’s often very useful to write a shot list to refer to, to ensure you haven’t forgotten any vital shots.
1. Back-up your project files Computers sometimes crash!
2. Use a variety of shot styles This will break up the action and keep your footage interesting.
3. Use transitional effects between shots (fades, wipes, cube spins, etc) sparingly They are distracting to the viewer.
4. Pay careful attention to the audio Equalise sound levels on your footage. Viewers will forgive shaky camerawork but not poor sound quality.
5. ‘Chunk’ your work Break down larger projects into smaller sections of around five minutes each – it keeps your work focused. Then join the sections to form the complete film.
Picking the right video camera recording format for you depends on a variety of factors, including your budget, how much filming you’ll do and how much editing you want to do afterwards. You might also want to consider whether to record in High Definition.
DVD Essentially, you shoot straight onto a DVD (disc) in your camera – perfect if you don’t want to bother with editing; not so handy if you want to change things later.
Hard disc The camera contains a portable hard disc; the size of its memory depends on price. You can download files from the hard disc to your computer in MPEG format to edit footage. This format is handy if you don’t want to mess around with discs or tapes, but if you fill your hard drive on the road, you’ll need to find an internet café quick.
MiniDV tape Footage is recorded on a digital tape called a MiniDV – it’s the standard format in much broadcast journalism. The complication, as with DVDs, is that you’ll need to safely store the tapes until you’re ready to work on them.
What is High Definition? HD gives a clearer, cleaner picture than standard definition (SD), until recently the norm in TV production. Now many programmes are shot in HD, and a number of digital video cameras record in HD.
The future...New technology now allows you to record straight to memory stick, which will mean ultra-light and compact camcorders to take on your travels.