(A kayaker hurdles off a massive waterfall in Mexico during a 1991 expedition. Photo by Nick Brown.)
One of the best aspects of being a filmmaker is that, through our jobs, we get the opportunity to work with some remarkable people. In the proposal stage of creating a film, we seek out athletes with the strongest reputations and do our best make sure that they are being paid for their skill.
The practical reasons are pretty obvious: You get a better and safer result in the film. The less obvious reason is that some of their skill will rub off on those of us who are mere mortals. You’ll pick up subtle details of form and attitude just by being close to these people. Watch how they do things, how they approach problems, their attitudes about their sport or profession, and the places they go. What you may not realize, is that these people are often delighted to mentor someone who is new to their sport.
I’ve run the gauntlet when it comes to working with athletes and almost every time, I take some thing positive away from the experience.
In May of 2000 I was able to reach the top of Mount Everest, and I credit much of that success to my experience in the Himalaya the year before with high-altitude legends Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker. Alex had an ability to always have fun and see the beauty of the peaks and his confidence was infectious and empowering. And Conrad Anker, who was part of the team that discovered the remains of George Mallory on Everest, is one of the best mountaineers out there.
I was able to gain the confidence to climb a 1000– foot 80 degree ice face on Pumori in the Himalayas, and that was all because of Chris Holland who had been my mentor there and the hardest rock I ever scaled was with climbing savant Todd Skinner belaying me offering encouragement.
I’ve also been able to watch climbers like Lynn Hill and Kevin Thaw and learn from their skill and attitude. In whitewater my first lessons came from my Dad and brother Gordon. Later, I was able to see kayakers Doug Ammons and Gerry Moffatt in action.
When you work with true masters in any number of sports, you never even see bad habits and it’s the best way to learn.
On of the most vivid instances of this kind of experience I can think of occurred in 1991 when I worked with Ammons and other kayakers Marcus Schmidt and Bob McDougall in Chiapas, Mexico on film for National Geographic Explorer.
(Expedition members lower a kayak into a cave near Chiapas, Mexico during the 1991 trip. Photo by Michael Brown.)
They would paddle themselves off huge waterfalls on this incredible blue river called Agua Azul. At first it was terrifying and it seemed like it was only a matter of time until someone would get hurt. But, because of their professionalism, they examined their lines carefully and found that the waterfall created so much aeration that the impact was manageable.
The storyline also had them descending into a cave on another river. The cave was huge with the river disappearing for about half a mile. The river tumbled over a waterfall into a giant sump and into a submerged hole. On the other side of a dense jungle it emerged from a giant opening so it was easiest to paddle up into the cave from below. Thankfully, we had expert caver Scott Davis of Ceiba Adventures outfit the trip and he discovered that he could enter the cave from below and get to a point in the cave where he could see up through the entrance. Through this opening he and the kayakers were able to rig a safety line. Without Davis’s expertise and the smart decisions of Schmidt, McDougall, and Ammons, who knows what could have happened.
Since then I have had the enormous privilege of working with more of the best athletes in the world. In addition to Hill, Skinner, and Lowe, I’ve followed Laird Hamilton as he chased monster waves, Doug Coombs into the backcountry, and Dave Hahn up mountainsides. These people were and are great athletes but also shared another common trait: an amazing outlook on life. I think that is what defines the very best in their sports, not so much the skill but the attitude they bring to what they do.
The moral of the story? Find people that love what they’re doing and are great at it. You’ll pick up essential knowledge that you never knew you needed and, in the process, become a better filmmaker. Who knows, you may even find yourself on the top of Everest. I didn’t think I would.
For more filmmaking advice from Michael Brown, check out the Adventure Film 101 Archive.
PLUS: Get Michael's essential tips on shooting in any condition and see his tips on filming your own adventure. For more, go to www.seracfilms.com .