The sharp red- and slate-hued peaks of the Andes dominate the horizon as we crest 14,870-foot Chilipahua Pass, the high point of our five-day trek to Machu Picchu. I hold my Sony camcorder low for a tracking shot that shows my cousin Anthony Claudia’s feet as he tops the pass. Then I tilt up to the expanse of mist-shrouded mountains.
Anthony and I—along with five other aspiring filmmakers—are hiking with Emmy award-winning director Michael Brown and his Serac Adventure Film School. The goal: trek 40 miles in the Peruvian backcountry and elevate our movie-making skills beyond the run-and-gun shooting that’s typical in trail-based videos. I’m no digital novice, but my tendency is to grab hundreds of clips and stills quickly and without real purpose, then let them sit on a phone or a hard drive, unseen. I want to learn how to craft a film that has both technical precision and a lasting story. And that’s where my cousin, Anthony, comes in. Anthony and I have been best friends for more than three decades, were both named after our grandfather, and stood as best man at each other’s weddings. But we’ve never been camping together, let alone on a life-list trek in one of the world’s iconic mountain ranges. I want to capture this first on film. I want to tell a story of travel and family, and to that end I have a surprise—another first—that I plan to reveal at the right moment.
Unlike the famously trekker-clogged Inca Trail, our route to Machu Picchu follows an uncrowded, camera-friendly path called the Ancascocha (Hidden Inca) Trail. In scenery and solitude, it provides the perfect backdrop for stunning footage. Over the course of five days, we won’t see another hiking soul—just local shepherds ushering their droves along a web of paths carved by centuries of wear. And on Chilipahua Pass, nothing but mist and sky and mountains.
As Anthony crests the pass, I know this is the moment to tell him the secret I’ve been keeping: My wife is three months pregnant with our first child, a girl. In planning my film, I wanted to connect family to adventure, and I can’t think of a better way than telling my best friend and cousin about his newest relative in a place like this. I focus the lens on my cousin.
“Hey, you know that little hat and gloves I bought the other day for my niece Gabriella?” I ask.
“Those weren’t for Gabriella.”
“Who were they for?” he asks. He sees my smile, and his face lights up. He gasps, “No! Are you kidding me?! Shut up! Congratulations!”
I zoom in on Anthony’s face. “Hello little person,” he says. “One day you’ll watch this.”
“Live from 15,000 feet,” I add. The moment is perfect. Someday, my daughter is going to sit down and watch it, and feel a connection that’s much deeper than any photo album I could create. Before the trip, I’d found a treasure trove of old Super 8 movies my great-grandfather had taken of his travels to the Grand Canyon, Italy, and Cuba. Watching them had made me feel closer to him, and I think about those grainy old movies now, and how I’m creating something that could have meaning for generations down the line.
Over the coming days, I capture more scenes—Anthony jumping icy streams, fog whipping through canyons like smoke from a wildfire—and I realize that filming the trip, rather than being a distraction, keeps me more engaged as we hike.
When we arrive at Machu Picchu, it’s crowded, of course, but the mob scene hardly matters. The ruins exude a quiet power that cuts through the milling tourists. And unlike most of the gawkers, we climb another 1,000 feet of vertical to the top of Mt. Machu Picchu. Up there, we have the Andes all to ourselves. And I record the final scenes for my movie.
Two months later, on Christmas Eve, I show the film to a gathering of 25 family members. When the moment at Chilipahua Pass plays, it has the effect I hoped for—everyone laughs a little, sighs a little, and even I get a little misty. For the last sequence, I’ve interspersed a series of clips that I shot in Peru with others that my great-grandfather filmed decades ago. Scenes from the present and the past jump back and forth, juxtaposing family members five generations apart.
I have no illusions that my film is going to win any awards. But I had a great time making it, and someday, maybe after Anthony and I are both gone, my daughter will gather with her extended family for a holiday, dig out the digital file, and see how she was a part of our Peruvian adventure. And how adventure is a part of our family.
» Learning curve (++*) Pressing record is easy. But conceiving a plot, focusing scenes, capturing details, and editing it all into a cohesive film? That’s hard.
*(+) = Low effort, low risk (+++++) = Get a lesson and life insurance
Get a camera that suits your budget and ambition. It should shoot HD 1080i, have a good internal microphone, and be light and compact—you’re more likely to capture an amazing moment if your camera is always at the ready. Sony’s HDR-XR520 ($1,000; sony.com) has a 240GB hard drive, which is great for extended treks. Pack a zip-top bag or shower cap to protect it from rain.
Build your story around the trip’s core moments. Each short film (10 to 15 minutes) should have two primary scenes that anchor the narrative. The rest of your movie should help set up and support those moments.
Vary the shots—talking heads and endless landscapes get boring, fast. Combine wide- and medium-angle trail shots with close-ups of feet, eyes, and even fingers as they adjust pack straps or start a stove. Edited together, they’ll make more compelling scenes.
Keep the camera rolling. Without enough footage, your audience can’t take in the scene. Keep your lens trained on your subjects for at least five seconds before and after they complete their motions, to avoid jarring cuts.
Master the time-lapse. In fast-moving weather or during sunrise or sunset, stabilize your camera, press record, and stand back for 10 minutes. Speed it up while editing for a dramatic effect.
Edit like a pro. Learn Final Cut Pro ($300; apple.com). With the industry standard in editing software, you’ll have the most control over video, audio, and effects.
Take a class. Join Michael Brown on a film-school expedition (seracfilms.com).