If you’ve ever tried to casually shoot footage while in the backcountry, you know it’s damn difficult to get the shot you need without derailing the entire trip. What if you needed to trek 700km, pack-raft, and meet a strict set of checkpoints on the Greater Patagonian Trail over four months, all while shooting material for a feature film? That’s just what filmmaker Garrett Martin and his crew set out to do for their adventure-travel documentary Unbounded— and they lived to make a film!
Martin sat down with NFS to share some of the most important lessons he learned while shooting in this unforgiving region of South America. Here are his best tips, in case you are looking to shoot your next expedition.
"We had to find that balance between extremely lightweight gear but also still having all the professional equipment we needed."
1. Have at least one camera setup ready to shoot at any moment
“When you are filming while trekking and pack-rafting, it's very difficult to decide what to shoot and not shoot,” Garrett Martin shares. “There's so many unpredictable moments that can arise that you don't want to miss out on but at the same time, you have to cover major ground during the day or you will never get anywhere."
Martin admits that that unpredictable nature is what he loves most about documentaries—but it means you have to always be prepared. For their trip, he told us, "We had a GoPro Hero 5 Black that was attached to my backpack while we we'e hiking and attached to my head while we pack-rafted. This allowed us to capture those intense moments without having to take the time to take out the bigger cameras and risk missing the moment."
Something quick and easy like a GoPro is useful for spur-of-the-moment filming, like here where crew members Robyn and Anthony are pack-rafting in Patagonia.
2. Make a schedule, but be prepared to abandon it
Martin asserts that one of the keys is to make sure you have a filming schedule for each day. He advises "Always shoot in the early morning and late afternoon as it's the best time for light, since odds are you won't have lighting equipment with you.”
That being said, he admits that scheduling for an adventure documentary can be futile. “You can go in knowing what the general storyline is, what you aim to film, what you want to capture, but at the end of the day, it's up to chance," he states. With Unbounded, Martin recalls, "We had 4-5 months of planning before we left on our trip and nearly all of it went out the door the second we started trekking. There's just too many things that happen that you never could plan for. Injuries, illness, wildfires, weather, unexpected stops—all of these things you can prepare for but you can't predict." Martin advises that you embrace the beauty of that experience, and "roll with the punches and adjust every time something comes up. Always have a plan be prepared to have it altered many times.”
"Always shoot in the early morning and late afternoon as it's the best time for light since odds are you won't have lighting equipment with you."
3. Keep track of trekking time
“Since we were doing all the filming ourselves, we really had to be aware of time and how much ground we could realistically cover,” said Martin. “We passed through so many amazing landscapes, met so many incredible people but we still have to trek and make a good distance too. There were countless times when we wanted to put our pack down, get out the camera gear and just shoot for hours but if we did that, we never would have gotten anywhere."
Martin believes that one of the cinematographers' biggest challenges on trips like these is determining what is worth shooting. He recalls a Werner Herzog statement: "We are not garbage collectors. We are filmmakers," adding, "I think that's something we had to learn along the way.”
An adventure filmmaker's best skill: keeping track of time! Here, doing just that, Garrett Martin shoots a time-lapse of the sunsetting at the base of Volcano Puyehue.
4. Pack lightly but professionally
“For our gear, " Martin recounts, "we had to find that balance between extremely lightweight but also still having all the professional equipment we needed.” His team carried:
- Two Sony a7s cameras
- One GoPro Hero 5 Black
- Two lightweight tripods
- Four hard drives
- A boom pole
- A lavalier
- A shotgun mic
- Necessary accessories such as batteries, grips, charging equipment
Of course, the crew also lost or broke several pieces of equipment over the course of the four months, as is likely to happen in such conditions. Still, he says, "As far as gear for trips similar to this, I think this was a very good set up and a solid basis to go off of depending on the environment you're in." As with whittling down which shots are worth capturing, he says "The hardest part is separating out what you really don't need from what's a necessity. We had other items that we were planning on bringing and more heavy duty equipment but now, looking back on the trip, I don't know how we would have taken one more pound.”
The "Unbounded" crew interviewing Francisco of environmental organization Nuble Libre in San Fabian.
5. Preparation is useful, but flexibility is key
“I think my best piece of advice I can give is just to get out there,” says Martin. “It's extremely important to prepare and know exactly what you are getting into, but at the end of the day, you can't plan for everything and things will happen where you will have to adjust. The most important thing is being open to unplanned situations and changing things accordingly." Martin encourages you to grab some affordable gear and get yourself on an expedition, but keep in mind: "The key is being prepared, having a solid story, and knowing that things never go according to plan.”
Be prepared for production to be as winding as say, the beautiful Futaleufu River in Patagonia, pictured here.
Check out the last week of the 'Unbounded' Kickstarter campaign to get more details on their film and production, or preorder a copy to see it for yourself.
Featured image: The "Unbounded" crew had many checkpoints on their expedition, like summiting Volcano Puyehue seen here.