How to Make an Outdoor Adventure Documentary – Behind the Scenes of Visions of the Lost Sierra
I wake up to the sound of rock climbing gear rattling and sat up in my sleeping bag. The stars are just starting to fade away in the east as the twilight from sunrise begins. I’m on top of Bald Rock Dome in Northern California, a 1000 foot vertical sphere of granite that curves into the void down into the Middle Fork of the Feather River below. I’m here with a group of climbers and film crew to shoot a little rock climbing segment for our documentary film Visions of the Lost Sierra.
The six of us quickly drink some cowboy coffee, rehash our plans from the night before, and pack up our climbing and camera gear for the day’s work. We start traversing the exposed face of the dome, it’s still pretty dark out but we can hear the sound of the Class V rapids below and I realize that all these people are out here on this big rock in the middle of nowhere because of me and a crazy idea, and I cross my fingers that it works out.
I’m much more adept with a camera than a keyboard, but if you want to shoot a documentary in a remote location with a small crew and limited resources, this write-up might be helpful to you.
I’m working with Patagonia and the nonprofit Friends of Plumas Wilderness to tell the story of the Middle Fork of the Feather River, one of the first 8 rivers designated as “Wild & Scenic” in 1968. The Wild & Scenic Act is a pretty big deal, but when I’m pitching the project I keep thinking in the back of my mind, “How do you make a film about a river?” Well, I’m not sure you can, but you can make a film about people and that’s a lot more interesting. So we decided to start at the headwaters of the river and move downstream, focusing on different characters and aspects of the Wild & Scenic Act.
Somewhere along my self-education as a filmmaker I realized that all my favorite cinematographers went into each film with a unique set of rules. These aren’t strict formulas to apply to every documentary, but a set of ideas and approaches that are defined early in the process that gives each film a distinctive look – a defined approach that makes the film cohesive with a consistent vision. If you play music, it’s easier to think of these rules as the “key” of the project. Some notes would feel out of place, while others fit perfectly.
The technology toolbox available to cinematographers these days is huge. So, paradoxically, it’s the restraints you put on yourself that will make your documentary unique. With this project, we were going to be filming all sorts of scenarios – from kayaking to interviews to fishing to rock climbing – and we wanted to have a similar visual perspective connecting all these different segments. With that, we came up with the following set of guidelines.
Guidelines for Nature/Outdoor Documentary Filmmaking
1. Never cut to the interview because you have to.
I’ve shot a lot of talking-head documentaries with PBS and in the editing room. We’re always running out of b-roll to illustrate what our experts are talking about. In those moments, we cut back to the interview to fill in that gap. With this documentary I never wanted to have to do that.
2. B-roll must be scene-based and follow a visual narrative.
Again, in my previous experience with historical and issue-based documentaries, we would gather a collection of shots to cover our topic and, based on what the expert was talking about, we would cut to a shot illustrating that point. This is a very informational approach to editing. If they mention a desert, cut to a shot of Death Valley. If they mention salmon, cut to a shot of a salmon, etc. With this documentary I wanted to break away from that as much as possible. In this film you’ll find that every character we meet is engaged in some kind of activity that we are following through b-roll. There’s more or less a beginning, middle, and end visually to their coverage, and those little scenes are what comprise most of the film. Along with giving more of a sense of a story and a cohesion to each segment, it’s also more of an emotional approach to storytelling. Rather than showing exactly what our experts are talking about, we’re simply existing with them in a space and an activity, listening to the points that they’re making. This allows us to connect more to what they’re feeling than what they’re informing us of. At least that’s the idea.
3. No unmotivated camera movement.
I’ve shot on every type of camera movement platform you could think of, from a RED hanging out of a helicopter, to Kessler, Dynamic Perception, and Edelkrone dollies, DJI Ronin and MoVI gimbals. (I guess I still need to shoot on a Cineflex system.) For this documentary I wanted to strip all that away and shoot with simple tripod and handheld setups that let our characters dictate the camera movement, not vice versa. When they move, we move, but otherwise we’re calm and still. Most of the shoot was just me, my producer, and our subject, who is involved in a non-fiction scenario where there’s no retakes – so there was a necessity to this rule as well.
4. No lights.
This is a documentary about a river and so we wanted to shoot in natural light as much as possible. No artificial lights.
5. No shooting indoors.
Again, since the film is about this river we wanted all our interviews and footage near the river and outdoors. A lot of times it would have been easier to just hop inside someone’s house to shoot their interview, what with the outdoors producing sound issues, inconsistent lighting from the moving sun, etc. But it was important to us to stay outside and to keep the river and the landscape ever present.
6. Ignore all these rules if it feels right.
Sometimes we would just break a rule because the story dictated it. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember the end where the subjects are inside, and lit with an LED and china ball modifier, breaking my last two rules. Hey, nobody’s perfect.
So back on Bald Rock dome, with these rules in the back of my mind, I’m looking over the shoulder of our aerial DP Matt Psyllos as he gets a long one-take reveal of our climbers close up on the wall pulling all the way back to show them as specks on this huge mountain in this vast canyon. With radios, we were able to coordinate with the climbers down on the wall, with me and the rest of the crew up top, and we grabbed this shot right as the sun rose over the mountains. From a lighting perspective, it’s a lot harder to make a wide shot look good than a closeup of our climbers, so we opted to grab all our aerials as early in the morning as possible when the light was golden and soft. We had to hike a couple miles into this location on an overgrown seldom-used trail, so we picked up a DJI Phantom 4 to use as our drone. If we didn’t have to hike all our gear in for the two-day shoot, we could have gone with the Inspire.
With our aerials in the bag, my second camera operator Will and I grab our climbing gear (check) and camera gear (check check) and rappel down the wall to meet the climbers.
Lighting and Positioning for Outdoor Documentary Interviews
One of the biggest components of this shoot was going to be the interviews. As an anthropology student, I learned the importance of a strong interview. They are really the foundation for any research project or documentary film. With interviews, there’s always that fine line between the technical aspects of filmmaking and the natural flow of conversation. Ideally, you would just sit down with a microphone in your lap and have a normal conversation with people – but then this would be a podcast and not a film.
To keep a minimal footprint and have a quick setup, all of our interviews followed the same approach to lighting: backlight or sidelight the subject with the sun and bounce fill on the same side as the sun to wrap that sunlight around the face. This does a couple things, but the most important is it means whatever background you are looking into is in some level of shadow so that your subject remains more or less the brighter thing in the frame. It also allows you to get a softer light casting onto your subject and keeps them from squinting. The other thing this allows you to do is to more easily maintain a consistent look across the length of the interview. Over the course of two hours or more, if the sun is frontlighting your subject, it’s going to look completely different in an hour, and again in 2. But if the sun is in the back, it can move around a lot more without affecting the look as much. This means less fiddling around with your gear and more time listening to your subject.
This was our most challenging interview setup and an example where we couldn’t really nail the above formula. With our schedule it was either film the interview or fish in the morning with good light, so I went with the fishing scenes since that’s going to be on screen much longer. Here with our fisherman Eddy, you can see that the light is pretty toppy and behind the camera, so our bounce isn’t getting hit at the right angle to do much, and Eddy is in some dappled light so the background is about the same exposure as him. We wanted the river in the background so we let that impact our lighting on our subject, which is not ideal.
With this setup, we are set for success. We’re looking into shaded trees that will be darker in the frame than our subject’s face. He’s being backlit from the sun and we’re filling in from the front with a small bounce. Ideally you would want your bounce coming from a larger setup to get it coming in at a higher angle, but to keep things low profile we went with this small bounce taped to the tripod to keep it from flapping in the wind. If you had a slightly bigger crew, a portable 4×4 framed bounce with sandbags would be the way to go.
Rick is getting a 3/4 backlight from the sun, which is edging him out from the dark trees in the background. Our bounce below camera is filling in his shadow side a bit and providing a nice subtle catchlight in his eye. Now these are by no means the best-looking interviews in the history of the world, but with this type of unobtrusive natural light interview, this approach works well.
Saving Time During Critical Shots
The sun has been hitting Bald Rock Dome for only two hours and already the rock is starting to get uncomfortably hot. I’m wondering how the climbers are even moving up this route with their bare hands. Maybe it explains how fast they are climbing up this train0-sized dihedral. Me and my other camera operator Will are laughing at ourselves. Our climbers Rachel and Leta are flying up the route and then have to wait for 15 minutes while me and Will (who are both out of shape) ascend up the fixed ropes to get above their position. This is not the best time to learn we’re out of shape. For this shoot on the wall, I’ve brought along the Sony a7S II and a Sony 24-70mm f/4 lens. The f/4 is twice as light as the f/2.8 version and more compact, which helps a lot when shooting everything handheld. With the temperatures approaching triple digits, and the fact that the climbers are locals who are volunteering to help us out (and have a little fun), it’s important that we’re not wasting any time. With two camera operators, I’m directly above the climbers on a longer lens grabbing more detailed hand placements and movements, and Will is grabbing the wides on the side showing us scale. This is a more efficient use of our time and allows us to get the coverage we need faster and with no second takes.
What has really helped me as a cinematographer is being able to break down images that I see. Both in terms of lighting as well as equipment. So I thought it would be helpful if I broke down a couple from this documentary.
Shooting with a Vintage Lens
We camped along the river for a couple days with Dick. One afternoon I came back from scouting up the river and Dick was sitting in his chair reading. The sun was bouncing off this tree next to him and casting this gorgeous soft light on him. I quickly ran and grabbed the RED and got this mini sequence of him reading. A minute later the light was gone. Another one of the secret weapons I used on this film was the lens I shot this, and a couple other sequences, with: a Helios 58mm f/2. This is a Soviet Union-made radioactive hunk of glass from the 80s that has really vintage character and this unique swirly, almost anamorphic-looking bokeh in the out-of-focus areas. From a visual narrative perspective, I would pull it out when I thought the scene was meant to bridge the past and the present, to give the frame a subtly unique feeling reminiscent of the old 16mm historical footage we had in the film. For the price it’s a great, strange piece of kit to have in your camera bag for certain occasions.
Using a Fish Tank to Protect Your Camera Underwater
Here’s a little trick for shooting a down and dirty (but dry) underwater shot. For this sequence, we wanted to show a more artful frame to evoke what was lost by the Mountain Maidu when the Oroville Dam was built and a lot of their homeland was flooded. We wanted a slow motion underwater shot, with some nice depth of field, so a GoPro wasn’t gonna cut it. What we ended up doing was getting a fish tank from the local college and putting the a7S II in that in a small pond. With a polarizer (and at the right angle to the sun) the glass was completely invisible and the shot turned out great. Another tally mark on the list of times I was lucky not to drop a camera in the water on this shoot.
For the driving scene, I wanted a hood-mounted shot so I taped our Sony a7S II to the hood of the truck. It was super dark in the cab and screaming hot on the white truck, so I laid some bounce material across the passenger seat and on Dick’s lap in the cab, which helped lift up his exposure a bit inside. We rolled camera as he drove around this corner on a forest service road and the moment we used in the film was right when the sun was coming in the drivers side window and lighting up that bounce material lifting the exposure on his face.
Tools We Used for this Documentary
For most of the shoot, the crew was just me and my producer Darrel Jury in remote locations that required extensive hiking and overnight camping to access. So that immediately had an impact on the gear we could take. Our main camera for 90% of the production was a Scarlet-W Dragon. There are a couple of reasons why this camera was the best tool for this documentary, but the main one is that it’s the workflow that I know and am used to. The most important thing when operating a camera in non-fiction scenarios is feeling comfortable enough with it to react quickly to changing conditions. I’ve used RED cameras since the RED One and there’s no comparison to the quality you can get with their dynamic range and raw workflow when you’re in a completely natural light shooting scenario. They can also take a beating (thanks BorrowLenses insurance policy). I’ve had tomato chunks fall into the fan and sliced to pieces (lesson, don’t eat a farmer’s fresh tomato while holding your camera). I’ve dropped RED cameras in mud and these tanks just keep rolling. There’s also not a ton of camera options that can give you 120 FPS at 4K, which I felt we needed to capture the kind of artful, emotive frames that I wanted out of these unpredictable scenes we were following.
RED and Dynamic Range
There’re a couple quirks to RED cameras that are counter-intuitive. The first being that the ISO works like a cinema camera, not like a DSLR like a lot of people think. Changing the ISO isn’t just increasing the gain of the sensor (more exposure at the cost of noise), but remapping where the dynamic range falls onto that sensor. So if you’re at 800 ISO on the Scarlet-W, there’s an equal number of stops of dynamic range above and below middle grey. If ISO is set (for example) down to 100, then you’re consolidating more of the dynamic range below middle grey and leaving fewer stops above middle grey. So coming from a DSLR, your instinct when filming a scene after sunset might be to increase the ISO, but when you do that with something like a cinema camera, you’re actually putting less of the range below middle grey and actually starving the sensor of light. So the approach is to pick an ISO based on the noise characteristics you want, and then subtly dial it in from there. If you’re fighting highlights from clipping, bring it up a little bit and stop down your ND. If it’s getting dark, bring it down a little bit and open up your ND. Or, you can ignore all this and just shoot it like a DSLR. Because it’s a RED and it’s raw, it’s still probably gonna look good.
Working in Super 35
The other thing you have to take into consideration with RED cameras is that your frame size determines your crop factor on the sensor and if you crop into your sensor, you’re cropping in on your lens, too. Since the Scarlet-W has a Super 35mm sensor size, that’s a 1.57 crop factor for our full frame Canon lenses. When we jump up to 120 FPS in 4K on a 5K sensor, that effectively multiplies all our lenses by 1.96, leaving narrower effective fields of view. This has to be my least favorite thing about working with these cameras but once you accept it and calculate that into your lens selection (particularly for wide shots) it’s not a huge issue. If you’re new to crop factors, start with Introduction to Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors.
The lenses we used are listed below, but the absolute star of the show had to be the Canon 24mm f/1.4. I shot about 50% of the movie on that lens. With the crop factor at 4K, that 24mm reads more like a 45mm, which was perfect for following characters canoeing, fishing, shooting interviews, etc. At that crop factor it has the field of view like that of a 45mm but still has the close focusing characteristics of a 24mm, so you can pull off some interesting shots. It feels super sharp to me, too. Other lenses we used often were the 16-35mm f/2.8 to capture our sweeping landscape shots and the 70-200mm f/2.8 for some of the wildlife work we were doing. For super closeups of fisherman tying flies, we would pull out the 100mm macro.
In the process of making this film, we actually discovered some unseen 16mm film footage from 1967 that showed one of the first descents down the Middle Fork of the Feather River. At the beginning of this film, I had thought that a nice subtle texture seemed like the right fit for this documentary, so I was rating the camera at 800 ISO to give it a little of that grainy look. When we started incorporating this old film footage in with our RED footage, I loved how the textures of the two matched up. One of the central themes of the film is that advocates in the 1960s helped keep this river protected – and it remains relatively unchanged since then. So to be able to have a visual parallel to that historical footage was an unexpected blessing.
Recommended Documentary Cameras and Accessories
Recommended Documentary Lenses:
Another aspect of working on an outdoor documentary film like this is that we camped for about 14 days out of the 18-day shoot. Working this way, you’re dumping footage on a laptop in the field, packing food and supplies to last for extended trips in the backcountry, and camping out at night in the wilderness. This meant that at the end of the day when we’re dumping footage, there’s no WiFi, and there’s no cell service. Sometimes that would pose a challenge if we needed to troubleshoot something, or our solar-powered battery stopped working, but for the most part it simply meant that there were no distractions in the evening. There’s nothing else to do but to talk about the shoot that day, talk about the story, look through the footage a bit, and otherwise be living in the place so central to our story. It’s hard to quantify exactly how beneficial this is to the production, but having the cameras out and ready for every sunrise and every sunset, catching those little details of birds moving through the tall grasses, a bridge completely covered in swallows right at sunset, a train passing by, etc. you have to just get lucky to capture, and by being out there more you’re giving yourself more chances to get lucky. We had a lot of great ideas because we were able to focus on the story and be inspired by the environment.
Back on Bald Rock Dome, with all our shots in the bag, me and Will and our two climbers all start to jumar back up the 3 pitches to the top. As we’re halfway up, we run into two of our climbing crew that have rappelled down the wall for fun to meet us. These were some of the final shots for our documentary film and so we all sit there on a rock outcrop for a while just enjoying the view of this canyon – and this river that has brought us all together. It’s a mysterious feeling when you start to sense a place becoming more than just a set of lines on a map, but a set of collective memories shared by generations of fisherman, kayakers, climbers, and anyone else drawn into that unseen force.