6 tips for Backcountry Filmmaking

I was recently invited to the Colorado backcounty by my friend and colleague Preston Kanak to participate in the Outside Adventure Film School (OAFS) hosted by Nasa Koski.

 OAFS takes filmmakers of all experience levels and sends them up a mountain to hone their skills and develop a short film while learning safe practices to successfully film and survive in the winter backcounty.

The group we were a part of consisted of eight filmmakers, five instructors and two professional backcountry guides. Our goal was to head up 12,600 feet above sea level to the top of a mountain, shoot a 2-5 minute film and edit it all together over a day and a half to be viewed at a public screening with alumni from past years. This was, to say the least, one of the most fulfilling, challenging, and rewarding experiences of my career.

Before we set out for Colorado, we all completed our pre-production at home. This included skype meetings with the team to discuss the trip, storylines, shotlists, and gear requirements.

After arriving in Colorado and orientation, we began our adventure with the all important survival and avalanche training. This alone made the trip worth it. We spent our first night practicing what we had learned by setting up our winter camp. Even though I’m from the prairies, cold is universal. Without the kindness of the team sharing extra blankets, I surely would have had a much chillier night.

The next day we woke early to get started on the next leg of our trip. We began our ascend to Vail Mountain Summit. This was not just a pleasure hike through the hills, although the scenery was exquisite; it was physically challenging but believe me, the payoff was well worth it. After a solid hike uphill, roughly a change of 3000 feet in altitude, we finally reached the top of the crest where off in the distance sat an authentic log cabin complete with wood burning stove and the crescent moon on the door of the outhouse.

From there, we spent the next couple of days getting the footage needed for our films before making our way down the mountain to start the editing process.

So without further ado, here are my top 6 suggestions that I pass on for those considering going into the winter backcountry:

1)    Research and Planning – Research where you are going, who you are going with, how you are going to get there, what you need to survive, what you need to shoot, what you are going to eat/drink, what the weather is like, what you are going to do in case of emergency and what is someone else going to do in case of YOUR emergency. I can’t stress enough the importance of asking questions PRIOR to engaging in any hazardous endeavor. Know yourself and your physical limitations and adjust accordingly. Prepare for a physically demanding trip by training as much as possible. I was a last minute addition to the trek so I did not have as much time to go from being out of shape to moderately in shape. I know this would have aided me with Acute Mountain Sickness (see point 4).

2)    Film Gear – Consider very carefully what you need to bring and why. Can it be replaced by a lighter version i.e. Tripods vs. Monopods, Prime Lenses vs. Zooms and so on. When you are travelling uphill, every ounce counts. If you are going at your own pace, then carry as much as you can safely handle for an extended period, knowing that you can stop and shoot whenever you want. But if you are a part of a group, it’s important to note that you may have to beat to another’s drum and therefore must be able to carry your weight comfortably for extended periods of time. The alternative is to distribute extra weight amongst your team, if that is an option. Personally I lean on the side of carrying slightly more weight. It doesn’t make it any easier hiking but when it comes time for that perfect shot, it’s definitely nice to have the right tool available and often makes all the huffin and puffin up the hill worthwhile. This time I had to go against my cardinal rule that “two is one and one is none” when it comes to having back up systems as the amount of weight you carry is crucial. Rain covers, lens wipes, fully charged batts and multiple drives to back all the footage up at least twice is an absolute must. If you can, try to shoot on cards and dump your media after the shoot. Remember, carry what you need and truly consider what it is you want for the shot. This is where the above point - planning, is essential.

3)    Clothing – Layers, layers, layers! NEVER wear cotton!!! These two things can’t be stressed enough! Again, if the price point is manageable, purchase the lightest, wickyest, wind and water resistant jacket you can get. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice smell for weight. Stay light, and if you’re only gone a few days, I recommend to stay in the clothes your wearing and take as few personal items that don’t relate to shooting, survival or hygiene as possible. It’s more forgiveable to smell bad than to miss the shot.

4)    Acute Mountain Sickness – For me, being in this environment was a dream come true although this dream came at a cost. The term AMS is something that mountain climbers don’t like to hear, especially once you are already up the mountain, as it can mean the difference between a fun climb and the reality of trying to get one of your teammates down a mountain before they get worse. AMS stands for Acute Mountain Sickness, which occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen out of the air at high altitudes. I had a pretty good case of AMS. I hail from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, which is about 500 feet above sea level and in about a day and a half I moved up to just under 13,000 feet. My friend and OAFS instructor Preston lives two hours North of me and suffered no such ill effects. AMS hits people in different ways so the best thing to do is to be prepared and know the symptoms and risks before you head up. If you do get it, like I did, it really helps to have a super team looking out for you and the correct dosage of altitude sickness pills is a must. I can’t imagine the rough shape I would have been in without the relief of those little beauties. All was well in the end and the OAFS team led by the Paragon Guides took exceptional care of me. I would also add a special thanks to Michael Brown (mountaineer and renown filmmaker) for his knowledge and experience gave me the forethought to bring the altitude sickness pills in the first place.

5)    Carry a photo in your wallet – My emotional fuel for any trip I take is always first and foremost my family. Being away from home and completely out of contact with my family for days was challenging. My wife Mandy, who was critical to the pre-production of this film, remained at home with our three month old son Brixton while Preston and I set off into the mountains right in the thick of avalanche country during one of the worst storms the area had seen in 50 years. Mandy is my rock, my hero, my partner in life and business and the most amazing mother to our son that I could have ever imagined. I love her and our baby boy more than anything in the world. Thanks to them for always making me strong and being my strength. I could not have gotten to the top without them in my heart. However, I really wish I’d remembered to take a photo of them with me.

6)    Collaboration – The whole nature of the trip lends itself to a collaborative environment that is imperative when travelling off the beaten path. Whether it was helping out camping, making dinner, or shooting, everyone was there to assist and support each other in the making of their film. The team leaders and guides looked after us and kept us out of harms way. The video I presented was a collaborative effort from start to finish. My wife and I developed the concept and wrote the script, Preston arranged for the voice over and music, and we worked together on the production and post-prod very closely. With limited gear and time, we made the most out of our experience and what we had available and had a blast doing it. Not to mention the guides that helped with my illness and Nasa and her team were kind and generous to me in order to help this video reach its best. It was truly great to be a part of a team that looked out for each other.

All in all, this was an amazing experience. I highly recommend OAFS to anyone interested in learning more about adventure filmmaking. They offer several courses in various environments and from my experience, you couldn't ask for a better group of people to set off on an adventure with.

My most sincere thanks goes to Preston, who kept the closest eye on me and without whom I would not have had this amazing experience in the first place. He helped me from start to finish and I could not have done this without his help.

 So cheers, and please enjoy our film – Frozen Moments