Adventure Film 101- Visualization and Chaos: Planning Your Film and Capturing the Moment

In documentary filmmaking, you need a plan, but you also need to observe your subjects and make good, on-the-fly decisions. Here's how.
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In documentary filmmaking, you need a plan, but you also need to observe your subjects and make good, on-the-fly decisions. Here's how.

Style Kayaker at Teva Mountain Games 2008 (Tracy Kosinski)

"Vision is the art of seeing things invisible." - Jonathan Swift

In his book, Film Directing, Shot by Shot, Steven Kats describes a boy lying in the grass looking at toy soldiers. The boy is visualizing his own small movie from as close to their level as he can get and, from his point of view, the action surrounds him. The toy soldiers are no longer miniature; they are life-sized warriors in the heat of battle.

This is visualization, and the first skill to develop in filmmaking: the ability to visualize your film before you shoot a single frame. To an extent, we all have the ability to see ahead, but making this vision into a film is another story.

We put this practice into play at Serac with each of our adventure film schools. In Hollywood they’ll develop elaborate storyboards and go to great lengths to create amazingly stylized and art-directed sets. For documentary filmmakers, it’s a bit trickier, but the exercise is immensely rewarding and always makes a difference in the finished film.

Araceli Segarra climbing in Boulder Canyon, Colorado (Jeff Long)

We’re only a few weeks away from the start of our Teva Mountain Games Adventure Film School and we’re are asking our future students to try to visualize their films before they come to Vail and write down their ideas.

We ask them to look at the Teva Mountain Games web site, and try to visualize the film that they might make. Then, they write down as much as they can about their proposed plan and go back to the web site and analyze the event schedule to make sure that they’ll have plenty of opportunity to get the story they need.

Looking at last year's films gives some insight—ideas ranged from a simple question, "Do you perform better athletically after a break-up?" to elegant portraits of events from various athletes’ points of view.

Which brings me back to athletes. I wrote briefly about what it’s like to work with the pros in my last blog and although Teva’s a relatively controlled environment (the Vail Valley Foundation and Teva have given our students access to the events and athletes, and a press pass that gets us right next to the action) there are still some universal truths about working with athletes and I’ve had the privilege to film some top players.

In 1993, I went to Easter Island to film surfers Laird Hamilton and Brock Little. What struck me right away was the way they caught waves. I was accustomed to seeing surfers floating in a huddle of bobbing bodies and, occasionally, one would paddle into a wave. They would often miss and take a short, halfhearted ride before bailing and paddling back out.

Laird and Brock were different.

They caught nearly every wave and didn't wait in a queue, but determinedly paddled into the first wave that came along, got the best ride possible, and then paddled out and repeated. We could just keep filming wave after wave of great rides and they easily get five times as many as the timid surfers.

If I wasn’t looking, I might have missed this, but their tenacity was a key component to the story I was trying to tell and what makes them different from any other surfers out there.

These insights, and your observations as a filmmaker, are going to make your film stand out from the rest.

Bottom line? You have to plan. But, you also have to observe the people around you. They are human beings with personalities, quirks, drive, talent, and ambition. If you can capture that within your plan, you’re halfway to a finished film.

—MICHAEL BROWN