Point and shoot: 5 tips for making a compelling expedition film

Video is a great way to share amazing stories of adventure. And with video cameras so portable and affordable these days, it's easy for anyone to film their travels. Filmmaker Leon McCarron explains how.

4 mins

1: Nail down the story you want to tell

Think of the story – what is the big question that your film will revolve around? A journey, a person an experience – really nail it down, and keep coming back to the core concept. You should be able to summarise it in one line. And remember: the story of your film may not be exactly the same as the story of your expedition.

For example, the story I focussed on during my recent journey into the Empty Quarter, was ‘How has this desert changed in the 70 years since my hero Wilfred Thesiger travelled here?’ Following your theme will ensure your story has a common thread running through it.

2: Get good coverage

Your story is key, but you need to tell it in a way that is visually accessible and interesting to your audience. 

Let’s take the opening scene from a film about adventure cycling as an example – a five minute-long static shot of you packing up your bicycle and talking to the camera is not good enough. Film ‘cutaways’ that can be edited in later – these are close up, detailed shots of some on the objects of interest in the scene. Get in close on you closing the panniers, pumping up the tyres, screwing on the waterbottle cage. Show the gravel under the wheels, the dirt in your fingernails, the sweat on your forehead. Shoot wide shots of where you are to add context. Vary your shot selection, and be creative. Learn the craft, and make the story come to life.

3: Decide on your characters

Your film will be a documentary – non-fiction – but it still has characters. Who are they? Is it you? Your friend? The people you meet? Decide as early as you can who will be the protagonists. 

Then think about their story arc – how do they change, develop? Do they have an ecstatic high point, or an all time low during the film? You may have to guess at a lot of this (assuming you can’t see into the future) but make your best attempt at it. It will all help when you come to the edit. Remember that above all you are telling a story –representing reality – and that means your characters and film must have a defined beginning, middle and endpoint.

4: Film the hard times

This is some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. It was given to me by Tom Allen who made Janapar, a superb adventure story with a twist. When the expedition gets difficult (you’re tired, lost, run out of water, ill, whatever it might be) then I guarantee you that the last thing you’ll want to do is turn on the video camera. When you feel like that, you’re onto something good– make sure you definitely film this stuff! This is the real drama, the real emotions. If you miss these, you miss a huge part of your story and it’ll be much harder to make your story accessible to the viewers. They want to trust and like you (if you’re the protagonist) so be truthful, honest and press record when you’re at your lowest.

5. Balance the experiences of the journey and the film

Filming will always change your journey or expedition. Sometimes, unfortunately, it will make it worse. To make a good film, you have to be prepared to record some events and experiences through the lens, separated from the reality of really, truly, being a part of it. That can be tough, and I urge you to properly consider whether you’re ready to make this compromise. 

Once you do, commit to it. Be sure to enjoy the journey and take hours or days when you completely forget about the camera too – it’s a tricky but important balance. The upside is that if you put in enough time and effort, you end up with a wonderful representation of your adventure that you can share with the world, inspiring and allowing others to vicariously travel with you. Go, shoot, enjoy!

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