Adventure Film 101: Ep. 1: The First, Best, and Most Lasting Thrill in Filmmaking

In his first blog for Backpacker.com, Emmy-Award winning director Michael Brown drops in from Switzerland to talk about how he got his start in the film industry, and where it's taken him— most recently, jumping a helicopter to film dynamite-triggered avalanches.
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In his first blog for Backpacker.com, Emmy-Award winning director Michael Brown drops in from Switzerland to talk about how he got his start in the film industry, and where it's taken him— most recently, jumping a helicopter to film dynamite-triggered avalanches.

Greetings from Grindelwald. In an hour I am getting into a helicopter and flying around in the Alps to film people in a different helicopter throwing dynamite to set off avalanches. They say it's the best snow in many years and I am skiing for the next week. This is alright—and it's the track my life has taken the past twenty years.



My name is Michael Brown and as the founder of Serac Adventure Films and the Adventure Film School, my job as a filmmaker has been to shoot films on all seven continents and on the oceans and islands in between. My films include Farther Than the Eye Can See, Light of the Himalaya, The Endless Knot and many others. I also help other filmmakers with their films by shooting, producing, editing and directing. I directed mountain photography for IMAX® films Alps and Return to Everest, I also shoot for the BBC, Discovery, National Geographic, NOVA and other films like BLINDSIGHT. On an average month, I spend about 10 days in my hometown of Boulder, CO, and most of that time, I'm either training or holed up at my office editing, researching, and preparing for my next shoot.

A few weeks ago Backpacker.com editor Anthony Cerretani asked me if I would write an adventure filmmaking blog for Backpacker's website. I was delighted; I was already blogging for our own site (www.seracfilms.com) and now I would be able to share my experiences with BACKPACKER readers as well.



His request: that I write about adventure filmmaking and include a personal and more in-depth side to it: what I do, how I do it, where it takes me, what the challenges are, and how I got here.



A couple of times a month, I'll drop you a line from wherever I am and give you an insight into adventure filmmaking; what it takes to survive in the business, the keys to successful expeditions, and the benefit of working with great people.



First, let's go back to the beginning. Filmmaking started for me in the late 80s as I was wrapping up the seven years it takes to get a four-year Geography degree at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. I was a student in the morning, Arctic Sea Ice research assistant in the afternoon, and waiter and bartender in the evening and weekends. I now look back on those days as carefree with too much time on my hands.

At the same time my father Roger and brothers Gordon and Nicolas were already doing film work for Dad's company, Summit Films. Dad had been making films since he took it up as a hobby in college and had a small production company that specialized in ski films, television, and commercials.



Occasionally they would lure me away to have some fun making films. I would join them as a production assistant (or PA) which includes menial jobs like doing the cameraman's (older brother's) laundry, buying coffee or lunches, and tackling the weird little— and sometimes big— jobs that come along.



In 1990 a few days after graduation—and despite the hazing— I wrapped up the science job, quit the restaurant, and went to work for Summit Films full time. They were desperate for help with too many projects to handle between them and thought that I might be able to alleviate some of the pressure.



So I expanded my resume, as an AC (Assistant Camera), PM (Production Manager) or soundman. Between 1988 and 1993 we traveled the U.S. and the world, making adventure-related films. We took on projects for National Geographic Explorer on kayaking in Mexico, California, and Indonesia, and made epic ski films in New Zealand, Russia, and close to home in Colorado. We even did commercials for the State of West Virginia.



We shot with artfully constructed 35mm or 16mm film cameras called Arri, ACL, Milliken, Photosonics and GZAP and recorded sound into a Nagra 4.2+, a large heavy box with a lot of cables a microphone inside a fuzzy thing and headphones, which recorded on a reel-to-reel tape. For some reason the new guy was often the soundman so I would be saddled with the Nagra and was always tripping over the nest of cables. Worse yet, the sound would come to my headphones with a two second delay. It was like being on a different planet than everyone else.



I would also take on AC duties which was kind of like being a PA except that I was closer to the cameras (I know, it's tough to keep up with the acronyms) and it was my job to put the film into the magazines with my arms buried in a black bag fumbling with the cores and raw film.



At first I was afraid of the cameras. There were too many dials and it was so easy to accidentally open the camera and expose all of the expensive film inside. But, I'll never forget when I took my first shot. A kayaker was about to run a brutal rapid and we needed every camera we owned to be rolling.



Gordon handed me the slow motion camera, which would smooth out the inevitable shakes of a novice trying to stay on the kayaker. He set all the dials for me and as the kayaker came though, I rolled. I was relieved when it was all over but a few months later, a magical thing happened. We were watching the show on National Geographic and suddenly, there was my shot. I was so excited I couldn't believe it and I've never lost or forgotten the thrill of that feeling.



That was my start in the film business.



So, here I am—about to climb into a helicopter, with a bunch of guys ready to set off avalanches with dynamite.



Two weeks from now I'll continue this story. Next up: hard times and paying dues.



—MICHAEL BROWN

MORE ADVENTURE FILM 101

Episode II: Getting Started and Paying Dues: Read the follow up to Michael's blog by clicking right here.

Get Michael's essential tips on shooting in any condition and see his tips on filming your own adventure and for more, go to www.seracfilms.com .


Photos, from top:

At 6,000m above the Khumbu Valley, Light of the Himalaya

Photo by Ace Kvale




Brown working on a water housing for a 16mm camera during a kayak shoot in Chiapas, Mexico

Michele Cardamone American Adventure Productions 1993

In the Shadow of the Condor

Photo by Pablo Sandor

Shooting in the Khumbu Ice Fall 2001

Photo by Didrik Johnck