Adventure cyclist and filmmaker, Tom Allen, on how to make a travel film people will be lining up to see
And know it well before you set off. Good films begin with a clear question and travel towards an answer through a series of shorter scenes linked together, each of which reveals something new – just as in a play. Focussing on this will help you to shoot what’s relevant, not just what looks nice, with the bonus of saving you untold hours in the edit. Travels are often filmed but seldom edited because the footage all-too-often doesn’t cover the key points of a clear story. I found this the most difficult thing of all when shooting Janapar.
It’s a tool to capture raw material for the edit, which is where the real creativity happens. The last thing you want to do is miss a critical moment because of an operational error. And, inevitably, it’s those challenging moments you least want to shoot that’ll end up being critical. Being able to shoot in pitch darkness or when you’re exhausted or under duress makes it much more likely that you’ll capture those moments successfully.
The best writing advice also applies to video: it’s more effective to show a story unfolding than to tell the viewer what’s happening. This involves getting characters on screen in ‘actuality’, and narrating their experiences. If you’re alone, that character is you. Be comfortable and candid, because honesty creates all-important believability, without which viewers quickly switch off. Practice, because it’s tough to begin with. Pretend the camera is your best friend, your mum, your favourite teddy – whatever helps you relax and open up. During video diaries I pretended I was on the phone to an old mate back home, filling him in on what I’d been going through.
It can be tremendously difficult to see how your project looks to an audience. So show it to someone you trust who’ll give you thoughtful and constructive feedback, particularly someone well-read, watches a lot of films in this genre, or who is involved in any kind of storytelling. Do this regularly throughout the project. Better still; find someone else to act as your editor. I was lucky to have a friend take on the editing for Janapar. I’d never attempt to produce a film myself without creative collaboration.
Live your journey. It’s very easy to start shooting whenever something interesting happens – when travelling you’ll see something new every minute. Giving yourself blocks of time away from ‘cameraman’ mode will not just allow you to get your teeth into the experience, but will also give you time to reflect on what’s happened since your story began, strengthening that all-important focus on the bigger picture when you resume shooting later on.
Tom Allen goes on bicycle adventures to places like Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Mongolia and Lapland, and has made travelling, writing and filmmaking his full-time occupation. His first documentary, Janapar, will be showing at the The Telegraph Adventure Travel Show on January 27, at 3.15 pm. The accompanying book will be launched on 26 January.
Tickets to the Telegraph Adventure Travel Show cost £10 on the door; under 16s go free. Wanderlust readers can buy tickets for just £5 when purchasing in advance, simply quote 'WANDERLUST' when you book. Find out more here.