6 mins

Russ Malkin: Top tips for budding documentary makers

Russ Malkin has directed and produced some of the biggest adventure travel programmes on TV. He tells how you can too.

Russ Malkin

Russ Malkin is the producer and director of some of the most exciting and popular adventure travel programmes on TV. He has filmed in Mongolia, Kazakhastan, Sudan and Ethiopia and the resulting TV series have aired on the BBC, Sky and globally on the National Geographic Channel.

He has achieved his incredible success by following his passions. He raced motorcycles in his youth and started a studio to pursue an avid interest in photography. He began organising events – including the world’s largest aerobics workout and the world’s most glamorous sports car race – and filming them.

A light-hearted argument at a party about the merits of various motorbikes with Charley Boorman led to his most high profile projects – The Long Way Round with Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman and the various travel projects that developed from there.

Russ has a real passion for travel and recently released Big Earth – 101 Amazing Adventures, billed as ‘the ultimate adventure travel book.’.

Russ talks to Peter Moore about making travel programmes for TV, sharing invaluable tips and advice for budding travel documentary makers.

Minimum Crew

On Long Way Round, and Dakar, we had pretty cut down crews but we did have vehicles to put things in. With Wicklow to Sydney By Any Means, the crew was just me, Charley and a cameraman. We carried everything ourselves and tried to capture the spirit of this by travelling on local transport. That’s about as low as you can go.

Minimum Kit

If you’re taking a trip and filming it yourself, you’ve got to be practical. On By Any Means we had a couple of small HD cameras, a few compact on-board cameras, cut down tripods and fixings for the on-board cameras so you can quickly rubber suction mount them onto a Tuk Tuk or wrap them onto an elephant’s head. And you use what’s at hand.

Audio: A decent mic for your camera. And I would take two radio mics, if you can afford it.

You can get inventive on the road as well. We had this long pole that we stuck on-board cameras on the end of. That way, if we were on a train, we could get an exterior shot. If there are only three of you there’s no one to do the GV’s (General Views).

Basically, you’ve got to imagine the scenarios and places where you’re going to be and what you’re going to do if one of your cameras goes down. We had a camera get wet in Vietnam but we had a spare so we could continue.

Favourite Kit

Everyone uses GoPros. For about £350 you get this very robust little camera. It has a waterproof housing, it records audio, it’s easy to turn on and off. I know that sounds silly, but you’d be surprised how many cameras aren’t. It records onto card for about three hours which can go straight on to laptop. It’s a big step forward.

Before that I had all kinds of complicated rigs to do what a GoPro does. They’re great for getting those fantastic little shots that you wouldn’t get from a cameraman anyway. It gives you lots of stuff to cutaway with.

The other development is that HD cameras are small now. We used the Canon XS305 for Extreme Frontiers. Not big, records to memory card, loads up to the computer quickly, not in real time like tape, and the footage is in files so it’s easy to find the stuff. One of the big problems we had after The Long Way Around was that we came back with 1,200 hours of footage. That’s a big job to look at that. Anything that speeds that process up, to digitise stuff is a bonus. Makes life a lot easier.

Getting permits vs. Going guerrilla style

If you’re travelling with a big team and a lot of kit then you have to get a carnet. No way around it. Basically it lists all your gear and they check it off when you leave the country. And if you do have a carnet, you have to do it properly. Once I put down the wrong part and three years later they are still chasing after me.

There are also places where you need location release forms. And there is a bit of follow-up on that from broadcasters to make sure things are done properly.

Also, when you get to where you want to go, you don’t want to get stuck on a border, or be unable to film. If you really want to shoot on a particular border or have access to a border, it’s better to have sorted that stuff out beforehand, rather than on the ground where you have language barriers and egos to deal with. So my advice would be to get as much paperwork done beforehand as possible.

Having said that, these days, the new HD cameras don’t look much different to somebody’s holiday cam. So there is a case for just getting on and doing it.

The key thing is you’re integrity. If you genuinely want to film a place because you want to find out about it, people will respond to that and give you permission. The only thing they’re worried about is if you’re doing something stupid, something defamatory or crazy because you want to get on to TV.

The importance of audio

One of the really crucial things is to think about the audio. In some ways it’s more important than the picture. The truth is, if you haven’t got good audio of the person speaking, or being interviewed it’s unusable. Whereas if you’ve got good audio and the picture is rubbish, you can always cut away to other things.

That’s why I suggest taking two radio mics if you can afford it. They’re not that expensive now either. Also practice putting your radio mics on and off people. To get that spontaneous feel, people need to feel relaxed and they’re not standing around waiting for someone fit a mic clip or find the right frequency.

Five quick tips

1. Also always ‘belt and brace’ your audio. Make sure the top mic rolling as well as the tie mic. If you’re ever in doubt, get the camera as close as possible to the person you’re interviewing. They might feel you’re too close. You probably are, because in truth, you’re just filming for the audio.

2. Always do your GVs on a tripod so you can get some really nice local colour. You can never have enough local colour. People think if they shot five or ten shots it’s enough. It’s not.

3. Always keep filming. Tape is cheap. And so too are memory cards. Getting to where you’ve gone is not only expensive, it’s also unrepeatable. Make sure you come back with something to work with.

That’s where GoPros come into their own because you can activate them, put them on the floor, gaffer tape them to something, just carry on filming. Whatever you’ve got, however bad quality it is, you can still use it. You can replay it, you can blow up certain sections.

4. Record a video diary. I gave a small camera to Ewan and Charley and they’d take them into their tents and record their thoughts from the day. It really captured the emotion at the time. If you came back and tried to craft a lot of voice over for your show, you tend to remember stuff through rose tinted glasses. I like to get as much of that stuff on the road. It’s just a lot more emotional.

5. TV shows should make you feel something. When you’re editing ask yourself “What am I supposed to be feeling at the moment?” Is it an exciting moment? Or sad? Or dangerous.

How to capture the spontaneous stuff

The first thing is to make people feel relaxed. If people trust you and you’re friendly towards them, and you’re genuinely not trying to trick them, they’ll open up. They’re less likely too if there’s a sound-man hanging around with a big boom in their face then people feel relaxed.

We were in Kenya one time and the chief of the tribe wandered into our camp in the morning while we were having our breakfast. I just gave this guy a cup of tea, made him a sausage roll and he felt really relaxed. He nudged the translator who said if we come back the chief would kill a cow for us, which was considered a great honour. He felt comfortable, we’d taken care of him. I think that’s the key.

When to film

Some of the most interesting times to film are meal times. People may have been battling to film stuff but when they stop to eat they start talking about what has just happened. They start laughing about it or joking about it.

Maybe for the first two minutes people sit down to eat start rolling the camera. It’s often the only opportunity people have to talk about what just happened.

That material can be laid over what you have just filmed. So if you’ve got footage of people climbing down a rock path or scree they’re not saying much at the time because they’re trying to get the picture. But after they’ll joke with each other, probably with more integrity than if you interviewed them.

An other trick is to walk up to someone and say ‘What’s happening?” Film over their shoulder while they are watching what’s happening and they’ll generally tell you what’s going on and at that moment you capture that emotion.

Don’t forget to tell a story

I treat everything like it’s an expedition. We’re going from one place to another. It gives the trip integrity, we're going on a journey too. And there’s a goal. We’re not like just flying about Canada looking for stories. You need a route or a trip in mind, even if it’s just conceptually.

The other thing to remember is that it’s quite easy to set a story up, because it actually happens – an elephant is running at you or the boat is in peril.

The story will naturally play itself out but a lot of people forget to tie it up at the end. They don’t put their final thoughts down on camera. What happened? How did they feel? What were the consequences? Most people won’t think of that.

The reality of getting commissioned

Traditionally speaking, there are two options.

1. You’re commissioned before hand. You tend to get more money, you’ve got a TV company behind you, it makes it a bigger project

2. You pay for the shoot, make the program and sell it as a finished product. You get a lot less money and you may not be able to sell it. So if you’ve made any commitments to funding partners you leave yourself exposed.

Both ways are becoming more and more difficult. More and more feature film people are dropping into TV. Commissioning editors are getting offered more ideas, more celebrities.

Another strand that is opening up now and will continue to open up and get even bigger is the Internet.

With its capabilities for creativity, short duration videos and the way people are watching footage now means that if someone could capture a slice of the market or prove to a commercial partner that they are going to be watched on the Internet you could create your own funding through sponsorship.

If you can create some kind of buzz, interest on the Internet, it can open up a lot of opportunities

Ask yourself what your goals are. Don’t beat yourself up looking for a commission on TV if you don’t actually need it. It is hard, it is time-consuming and it is difficult.

Some final tips

The first priority is just to go. A lot of people tend to over-plan things, planning a trip in two or three years time. Don’t forget that life is about now. Living in the moment is something worth thinking about. Why go in three years time? Some people think that things may have moved on or passed them by. The truth is that when you come back after three months everything is still the same.

Also, take the time to enjoy your trip. There’s a danger that you’ll view your whole trip through a camera lens. Make sure that you see the trip with your own eyes as you do the camera.


Russ Malkin's book, Big Earth – 101 Amazing Adventure, is available on Amazon now. Russ and Charley Boorman will also be speaking at The Telegraph Adventure Travel Show on Sunday 29 January at the Olympia, London. Wanderlust will also be there, offering Take Better Travel Photo workshops.

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