How to make a brilliant adventure travel film

Anybody can film their travels – the billions of hours of rubbish on YouTube proves that. Want to make a film that people actually want to watch? Here's how

8 mins
First off – why do it? Making a film gives you a lasting record of your trip. Films capture sounds as well as sights, and give insights in a different way to written accounts. Plus, with so many ways to share experiences, films can also inspire others to follow in your footsteps.

Making a decent quality film is like engineering – a blend of art and technology. It’s challenging, but deeply satisfying when you pull it off, and the more you practice, the more accomplished you’ll become. So whether you have ambitions to be the next Michael Palin or just want to create a beautiful film for yourself, the same rules apply.

What about equipment?

You don’t need masses of expensive gear to make a good adventure travel film. As long as you use a device that was designed to be used as a camera you can make a film. The key is what you shoot, not what camera or editing software you own. You are like a chef cooking a meal: the quality of the end product is not affected by the choice of knife, saucepan or oven; it’s all about the ingredients and what you do with them.

People are incredibly used to a phenomenal standard of film and TV. However, to match these standards you don’t need money, you need discipline. Yes, whether you like it or not, your film must play by the rules.

Filming underwater (Shutterstock)
Filming underwater (Shutterstock)

Film-making: The Rules

Rule 1: Keep the camera still. This includes piddling about with the zoom. This single fact gets you 50% of the way to being a pro.

Rule 2: Have a story – however simple – and include yourself in it. Add 10% in the pro cart...

Rule 3: When you find an interesting place, person or experience, shoot a proper ‘sequence’. Sequences are the meat of your finished show. This means roughly 20 separate shots at a given location that tell the story visually. If the story isn’t interesting then put the camera away until you are somewhere memorable. Remember, grazing is unhelpful. Far better to shoot a proper sequence every few days than to shoot ten unconnected shots every day for the whole trip.

Rule 4: Shoot transitional shots. These move you from one location to the next. Drive-bys (eg, your bus going past), maps, road signs, day counters and local colour (super important – the weirder the better) all make great transitional shots. This gets you 22% closer to being a pro.

Rule 5: In the edit, back home, intersperse your sequences with the transitional shots. Use commentary and music to suit your taste. This augments you by 7%. Remember that when editing, you don’t need to spend loads on editing software. The basic packages that come as standard on most computers are a great place to start. If you try them and want more, the sky’s the limit.

Rule 6: Keep production values high. Being an amateur doesn’t mean that focus, exposure and sound issues are beyond you. This is the grammar of television and every modern human subconsciously acknowledges it as a result of zillions of hours of watching TV. It’s what they are used to; you have to serve it up this way. The public are not capable of digesting your wobbly cam, wind-noise-drenched masterpiece. Congratulations dear reader, you are at a pro level of film-making. Go get ’em!

How long should I make my film?

It depends what you want to make. With a film up to about four minutes you can do whatever you like; a pop video mash-up with a killer track overlaid is easy and fun. If you want to make an actual documentary (which is something that you should want to do!) then from five minutes up to 60 minutes is the target. Less is more. Make your first film short and then start extending.

What should I do with it when I’ve finished?

You don’t have to do anything with it of course, it can just be for you, but if you want to share it then YouTube and Vimeo are waiting for your film. Vimeo is the more respected place and is packed with tips about filming too.

You could put the film on a website so it can be downloaded or streamed. This is getting more popular. Good ol’ DVDs are still viable and seem quaintly analogue. Remember, no-one reminisces about their first download but a DVD can actually be given or sent to someone and is weirdly real. Or you can always consider submitting it to a film festival…

Filming on an iPhone in Manhattan (Shutterstock)
Filming on an iPhone in Manhattan (Shutterstock)

What should I not do?

To recap – never move the camera around. And never give a running commentary from behind the camera.

Don’t confuse fancy camera HD gear, GoPros, DSLRs and the like with the solid principles outlined above. Notice how none of the principles of film-making are related to what equipment you own.

Don’t confuse the fact that your trip was amazing with the idea that the film you are making will also be amazing. These two ideas are totally unconnected. Each needs its own discipline and efforts.

And finally, never underestimate how much time and effort it takes to make even a 20 minute watchable film. However, be encouraged that – like cycling around the world – anyone can do it, you just have to try. Go on, you can do it!

Austin Vince is curator of the Adventure Travel Film Festival.

Case study: How I raised £25,000 to fund my adventure film

Once you've got a few films under your belt you may look to take the next step. Tom Allen raised £25,000 via crowdfunding to pay for his last adventure filming project – here's how

How does crowdfunding work?
Crowdfunding involves collecting lots of small investments to raise a budget to make something. Usually backers will receive a reward for their involvement. Lots of crowdfunding platforms now exist; for our film, A Tale Of Two Rivers, we used Kickstarter.

What makes a successful pitch?
An honest and authentic pitch is critical. Convince people your film needs to be made. Say what’s unique about your story.

What challenges did you face?
We were combining two films in one campaign (don’t do this!), so our biggest challenge was ensuring that this didn’t complicate the pitch. We concentrated on how they were related thematically – untold stories from two little-visited but significant river valleys.

What did you learn from the process?

That your ability to raise funds is proportional to how many people you can reach with your campaign. And that two weeks is way too short a duration for a crowdfunding campaign (I would say three weeks is the optimum length).

What advice would you give others trying to crowdfund for a film?
Start a blog and start showing the world what you’re about. Create a mailing list and give people a reason to sign up for it. You’ll start gathering an audience who are on your side, and when you do launch a campaign, they’ll be listening.

Will you used crowdfunding to make a film in the future?
Absolutely! Funding aside, it’s a fantastic way to rally support for a project. It’s not appropriate for every film – few people will be motivated to pay for your holiday video – but if you have an honest story that resonates and can make a case for why people should care, you’ve got the most important element in getting funded.

Main image: Filming with a Super8 camera (Shutterstock)

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