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Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 5 Tips for Shooting in Extreme Situations

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 5 Tips for Shooting in Extreme Situations

Meru” follows three climbers: Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk and me on our two attempts of the one of the most notorious high altitude big wall climbs in the world. Having beaten back some of the world’s best Himalayan big wall climbers, The Shark’s Fin on Meru has seen more attempts and failures than any climb in the Himalaya.

READ MORE: ‘Cartel Land’ Director on How to Insert Yourself into Dangerous and Impossible Situations

What makes Meru such a difficult climb is the fact that it requires climbing at a high level in all the disciplines of climbing – ice climbing, mixed climbing, rock climbing, aid climbing and being strong at altitude. The mountain is also stacked in a perverse manner. There is 4000 feet of alpine climbing on steep snow, ice and rock which normally requires going light and fast. The great challenge is that there is a huge overhanging big wall capping the peak, so you need all the heavy equipment required to climb a big wall like El Cap to finish the route. This means you need to carry all the extra weight up the bottom portion of the climb. It’s essentially like putting the steep face of Half Dome on top of Denali. Unlike Everest, we did not employ Sherpas to carry our gear and the terrain was much too technical to do so anyway. This meant everything we needed on the mountain we would have to carry on our backs. 

In 2008 when we embarked on our expedition to Meru, we weren’t thinking about making a feature documentary. Renan and I went in with minimal aspirations of documenting the climb for posterity. I had just gotten off several back-to-back expeditions working on major film productions and I was ready for a real climbing expedition.

In my world, there are two types of expeditions, expeditions focused on productions and expeditions focused on climbing, where filming is secondary. In all honesty, I prefer shooting on expeditions focused on climbing. These are scrappy low-budget ordeals, but they push you and force you to be resourceful, to shoot on-the-fly and in the moment. I appreciate the rawness of the footage and the moments captured on these types of trips. They are great documentary filmmaking endeavors and I consider it a personal challenge to never let the shooting get in the way of the climbing or results in slowing down the expedition. 

For a little context, my career as a climber and photographer/filmmaker evolved together. I began my career as a photographer when I was living out of my car for seven years on the climbing circuit in places like Yosemite. At the time, I was focused on climbing. I soon realized that I could support months of my climbing passion by shooting photographs. One photo sale could support my lifestyle for a month! It seemed like a great deal. So I began carrying a camera with me on climbs, shooting my friends and peers. As my career as a climber progressed into being a sponsored athlete, my photography and filmmaking career progressed in parallel. My passion for shooting equaled my passion for climbing. 

We didn’t summit Meru in 2008. It was a spectacular and emotional failure just 100 meters from the top after climbing through a massive storm and surviving 18 days on the wall with only seven days of food. We barely made it off the mountain yet we captured some raw moments from the climb. Over the next few years, Renan and I continued to film and work together. Despite both having severe accidents in the mountains during this period, we decided to return to Meru with Conrad in 2011. We approached the climbing and the filming with new vigor and determination. Between 2008 and 2011, the DSLR video revolution happened and this time we were armed with a Canon 5D, a small Rode mic and a Panasonic TM9000, bent on elevating the look and feel of footage we were going to capture during the climb. 

The constraints of filming on a high altitude climb are unique. There are lessons we learned working under such extreme conditions that lend themselves to other types of filmmaking. Weight concerns were a major factor in how we went about planning our equipment. Every ounce counted. We cut the labels out of our jackets and the handles off of toothbrushes for the climb.

To complicate the situation, he wall we were climbing faced North East which meant we only would receive about two hours of direct sunlight a day which made carrying a solar charger for our camera batteries useless. So we set out with a finite amount of batteries and cards. We certainly couldn’t bring a computer to backup our cards.

READ MORE: Music Box Films Acquires Sundance Audience Award Winner ‘Meru’

The approach Renan and I took for shooting on “Meru” can easily apply to less extreme types of shoots and even to non-climbing documentary filmmaking. Here are a few thoughts to consider:

1. Limit equipment.

You’ll be surprised by how little equipment you need to capture good footage. In documentary filmmaking, you should be focused on the narrative and be sure you are capturing the necessary moments. But, going light with a stripped down set-up can be really useful especially if you are on a limited budget. You can also be much more mobile and often that translates to capturing very real and raw moments on-the-fly. Audio is always tricky, but a simple Rode mic on top of a 5D can do the job in a pinch. I know a lot of filmmakers may wince, but all of the climbing sequences on the mountain were shot with this set-up. Not perfect, but it worked. 

2. Be thoughtful about what you are shooting.

We had to be very judicious about what we shot and when we shot because we were busy climbing, but also because we had very limited power. We shot as though we were shooting with film. It can be a great exercise to think of your shooting this way. It makes you think ahead, plan and pick your shots carefully. I believe a great documentary DP or cinematographer can anticipate moments and, even while shooting less, will still come back with the key shots, sequences and moments. 

3. Be familiar with the conditions, environment and activities you are shooting.

“Meru” is an extreme example but the lesson is relevant for a lot of situations. If you want to have the mental bandwidth to shoot and be creative on-the-fly, you need to be comfortable in the conditions you are shooting in. If you are shooting on a mountain and participating in the climbing, you need to be well versed in the techniques of climbing as well as the knowledgeable about everything required to be safe so you can make good decisions out there.

There is nothing worse than a shooter who holds up the team or worse yet, becomes a major liability for the subjects they are shooting. It’s also good to know the sports you are shooting because you can understand and anticipate what your subjects will be thinking, what they are likely going to do and so you know a scene and/or shot is authentic. In terms of environment and conditions, you should know how you do in the cold, what equipment and clothing you need. The only way to know is to go out and test yourself and all your equipment in the conditions or similar conditions you will be encountering on your shoot. This is critical especially if you only have one chance at a particular shoot. You need to put in the time and make sure you don’t blow it because you’re not prepared mentally or due to equipment failure…which brings me to my next point. 

4. Know your equipment.

It may seem obvious, but getting out and familiarizing yourself with your equipment, doing research on what equipment works best for a given situation is key. Besides knowing your camera packages and how they hold up in different conditions, getting your systems for carrying your equipment should all be dialed before you head off on an adventure or extreme shoot. You’ll need every advantage you can get if you are working with professional athletes or under extreme conditions out in the mountains. Efficiency and speed are the difference between getting a shot and missing it. Again, plan ahead, test your equipment under the same conditions as you will be shooting in especially if it is a new activity or environment for you. 

5. Shoot around the action.

For storytelling purposes, we always shot the action but also made a considerable effort to focus on shooting around the action and the moments in between the obvious. We aimed to capture the quiet and contemplative moments, the moments of preparation or exhaustion. These moments were very useful and powerful in the edit. Don’t get too focused on just capturing the action. It happens to the best of us, especially if the action is jaw-dropping. You get the incredible athletic performance but you miss the emotional reaction of the athlete and/or his team. The moments before and after the action are often the most critical and important footage you’ll need in telling the story.

READ MORE: Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #55: E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin Team for Big Wall Climbing Documentary ‘Meru’

Co-directed by Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi, “Meru,” winner of the US Documentary Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, opens in LA and NY on August 14th, followed by a national rollout.

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