Ever thought, “this hiking trail would make a beautiful video.” Or admired a friend’s artfully produced mtb post and wished your videos had the same panache? Chris Lucas is an adventurer and outdoor filmmaker with some great tips for making films worth watching. He shares some of his advice below so you can unleash your creativity in confidence the next time you head out on an adventure.
Before you start…
1. Story is EVERYTHING
You can have the best cameras in the world, all the funding you can shake a stick at, and some talent to film but without a story, you have nothing more than a bunch of clips on the cutting room floor.
It is the storyline that draws us in, keeps us watching, and entices us to invest emotion in the journey. Even if you are filming an amateur short film, where the target audience is your mum, it pays to brainstorm a rough storyline.
- A beginning or introduction that sets the scene
- A middle part that includes the juicy details or some kind of plot twist
- A conclusion
2. Details are important
Think about what you need to know about the activity or adventure to capture its essence. For example, if you’re filming your multi-day hiking trip, is the banter at the trailhead as important as the push up the first summit? Will shots of weird and wonderful dehydrated-meal preparation help to bring the story to life with details? How about a scene of backpacks disappearing down the trail? It is often the little things that bring your story to life.
3. General good practice
Good cinematography guides the viewer into the story, immersing them into your world. The lighting and angle of the shot convey emotion. Warm, soft light (during the so-called ‘golden hour’) will give a pleasant, friendly feel, grey/blue light is cold and foreboding. A low angle can make the subject seem bigger, perhaps more heroic, a high angle sets the subject in context with the environment and shows how small they are in the landscape.
Classic rules of photography always apply:
- The Rule of Thirds
This is where the composition is divided into three equal parts, and the subject positioned at the intersection of these parts.
- Leading lines
Leading lines draw the viewer’s gaze to the subject, e.g. by using a river that guides the eye to the small boat floating on the horizon, or a road that has a cyclist at the end of it.
- Use light to your advantage
Golden hour (sunrise and sunset) is favored by filmmakers and photographers because the light is softer and casts your subject matter in a favorable light. Try to avoid harsh shadows.
4. Key shots
In order to make your storyline work, you’ll need sequences or shots that will cut together. These are some key shots that help pull almost any storyline together. It helps to think about which ones could work before you head out. Try these:
- Close-up of hands
- Close-up of face
- Over the shoulder
- Another angle
5. Supporting shots
In addition to the key shots also take time to capture your ‘get out of jail card’ shots. These help with momentum and moving the narrative forward smoothly.
- General views and context shots
If you’ve ever watched an MTB video shot exclusively from a headcam you’ll probably appreciate that there is a limit to how long the viewer can stay in the action. We also need context, where is the trail, what does that drop look like from the sidelines? Drone shots are excellent for general views and establishing shots as they capture the surroundings. A pre-placed camera on a tripod/Gorillapod that you ride past then run back to works well.
Cut-aways can be used between shots or to break up a longer shot. For example, water flowing, wind in branches, paddle moving through water. They work best when they relate to the main footage. For example, in an interview with an mtb rider, if she is talking about how intense the drops were, it makes sense to have cutaways that show the sequence of drops or something that represents fear, concentration, or effort.
Interviews can enrich the story, be used as voice-over, and fill the gap if some main action has been missed. If you can’t or haven’t captured the main event, get the camera on as soon afterward as possible to capture your and others’ reactions and emotion. Chances are this will be the most interesting content for others.
Sound quality is often neglected in amateur productions despite it being one of the most important elements of a film. High-grade visual recorders are easily available but few have any decent audio capability. A lower-resolution film with excellent sound is much more watchable than hi-res footage that sounds like it was shot inside a submerged tin can! You can avoid this scenario in a few different ways:
- Record the sound separately then sync it with the visuals later. This can be time-consuming and a bit complex but ensures the best results.
- Always get the mic as close to the source as possible.
Record ambient sound for a couple of minutes – birds chirping, wind in mountains, surf breaking.
This is a good backup if the audio hasn’t worked elsewhere. You can also use it to completely replace the sound so that multiple shots knit together. It’s also great for drone footage which doesn’t capture sound.
What it all comes down to…
When you’re starting out, it can help you get the creative ball rolling to imitate the style of films you love. Ultimately though, video — like any creative endeavor — is an opportunity for you to daydream of adventure and let your creativity loose, have some fun and inspire others to enter that world. The best starting point is always to relax and enjoy the process!
More interested in still photography? You can get some outdoor photography tips here.