How to Direct Action Set Pieces in the Australian Outback… with Camels
Judas Collar is a story that made me quit my job as a television documentary director and decide to take the plunge into the world of writing and directing drama.
When I discovered that lone camels, known as ‘Judas’ animals, were collared with a tracking device used as bait to betray their herd to hunters, I knew it was a story I wanted to tell as a drama and not a documentary. But how would you even begin to direct a film starring camels, let alone a film...starring camels...complete with action sequences?
The shoot for our short film Judas Collar was incredibly challenging—filming with eight camels and a helicopter in the remote Australian desert. We had a small but extremely dedicated crew of fifteen people who had to juggle camel wrangling without compromising their film roles. Over the course of six days, we endured eight flat tires, two bogged vehicles, and a blown head gasket on our camel truck. Filming an action set piece in the desert with camels certainly wasn’t easy.
Watch the full film below and continue on to learn how we pulled it all together!
I love practical effects and coming from a documentary background, I think there is a visceral feeling that you get from shooting practically that the audience can really feel. And from a production perspective—we simply couldn’t afford CGI, so producer Brooke Tia Silcox and I knew early on we were going to film real camels without ropes and a real helicopter that would require some incredible flying. The problem was, many of the camel wranglers we spoke to said what we wanted to do was impossible.
We knew that all we needed was to capture a series of actions inside the frame and we found a camel owner who was up for the task. We could only logistically transport eight domesticated camels and had to "dress" them with colored sand to make them look different in each herd. The Camel Wrangler, Chris O’Hora, uses his camels in Christmas parades but didn’t shear their coats for us so they had the proper look of being wild camels.
Casting Real Camels
We cast the camels as you would any movie with auditions and test shoots. Sonic, the lead camel had such beautiful, empathetic eyes but she was the one camel we were told wasn’t up for the job. She was immature and headstrong and was named Sonic because she had a tendency to run off like Sonic the Hedgehog….but, of course, we cast her anyway.
The film was completely scripted and storyboarded which means the camels needed to be directed. This was something we became much better at as the shoot progressed. And I say we because this was a team effort.
For each shot, the crew would create a pen for all the camels so they didn’t run off. We’d then separate Sonic from the herd and she would walk back to them. We positioned ourselves in between Sonic and the herd to capture the action without ropes.
After a while, we realized that the further away from the herd she was, the faster she would run back to them. If we needed her to stop or turn, we would use other camels, pellets, or calling her name...basically anything that might capture her attention. Some shots we got lucky the first time, others took four solid hours.
Capturing the Herd
DOP Michael McDermott and I had a lot of discussions about how to achieve something really cinematic while, at the same time, working within the technical constraints of filming camels in the remote desert. He fitted out a four-wheel drive with a front and rear MoVi unit on a stabilization arm so we could put the ARRI Alexa at the camel’s eye-line and reset the shot by driving back and forth, without moving all of the camels, which could take hours.
It also meant we could travel at high speeds over rocky and uneven surfaces and still get smooth, cinematic shots. Camels run at over 25mph (40kph) and we had to keep up.
Filming the helicopter action sequences was incredible. We had found an amazingly skilled pilot who had actually done some of this culling work and he would use the helicopter to muster the camels into the direction we wanted. We cast our armorer as the hunter as we knew he’d need to negotiate some serious flying while firing off blanks.
For the action sequences, our gaffer Clint was driving the camera vehicle and running comms with the pilot and camel wranglers for positioning, with a small monitor rigged next to the steering wheel. Our focus puller Paolo was riding up front with his own monitor and I was in the back with DP Michael McDermott who was operating the MoVi unit.
We were sharing a large monitor rigged to the SUV so we could communicate instantly as the shoot was happening because we never knew what the camels were going to do. Then in the back of the SUV tray we had our sound recordist Jason and stills photographer Jess. The rest of the crew was focused on wrangling the camels and making sure they ended up back in the pen, enticing them with food treats.
The first shot of the film was a simple shot and it took us four hours to get and I must admit early on I thought that I may have made a huge mistake. But filming the action set-piece was just incredible because the whole crew had to be working together seamlessly, communicating moment to moment. If one person had dropped the ball, we wouldn’t have captured the incredible shots that made it into the final film.
I’m so proud of what our small team has been able to achieve, a thousand miles from Perth, Western Australia, one of the most isolated capital cities in the world.
Our short film Judas Collar is showing now until November 14th. Head on over to our website to learn more about our production story.