Filming in the Swiss Alps
Last September a couple of friends and I hiked a bit through the Swiss Alps and shot a short trail running video called Swiss Trail Running: Mt. Santis (https://vimeo.com/54406713).
We also put together a video interview with our photographer Matthew Anderson (http://www.matthewandersonphoto.com/) on how we approached this project, called Swiss Trail Running: Shooting in the Alps (https://vimeo.com/62903221).
What follows here is a reasonably full description of how we produced our short film from concept planning to shooting, and post-production stages. This is a recollection of what worked, what didn’t, and will give you insight into producing your own project if you feel motivated to do so.
Concept and Ideation
If you’re going to hike into the Alps with backpacks of film gear, it’s pretty much a waste unless you know what you want to capture and what story you want to tell (more or less). We were a team of three, and had been discussing informally about shooting a trail running video since early 2012, but hadn’t nailed down a story.
We were inspired by films like those of Kilian Joret running up Mt. Olympus in Greece for Salomon (http://vimeo.com/25549975), or of the Nikon-sponsored film “Why” (http://vimeo.com/34666308) by Corey Rich (http://vimeo.com/coreyrich). The true motivation was basically to just communicate a bit of what we love about trail running and to show the Swiss Alps (where we love to run and climb).
In the end this meant short interviews about trail running mixed in with beautiful shots of mountain ridges and rocky terrain, weaving a little story to share.
We lacked vast resources like a film crew, and weren’t in a position to raise money for the project (and the point wasn’t to make money off of this), so we decided to go lean with what we had and have fun telling our adventure story. Like many creative projects, the most important thing is the team because without the ability to execute, the idea is worthless.
We were just a team of three: two runners and one photographer/camera person. We all worked together in concept planning, shot execution, and the final product. I knew Christian from mutual friends and running different races in Switzerland, and we both knew Matt, our cameraman and director of photography (who is also a climber/mountaineer).
Between our busy schedules we found time to finally do it in Sept. 2012. We picked Mt. Santis in the Alpstein region as the location, and set about planning the story and organizing the equipment we would need for the production.
After defining the team, pre-production planning is the second most important task. Here you ask yourself, “What story do we want to tell, and how will we tell it?” Then you determine the best location, what equipment is needed, and then just pick a date and do it.
Our story wasn’t scripted out, rather our plan was to shoot interviews in the mountain environment with Matt asking Christian and I questions about trail running, and then we would combine this footage with visuals of us running along trails around Mt. Santis to illustrate the Swiss mountain running experience.
Matt prepared questions beforehand and we met to fine tune the story direction before we started shooting.
When you’re kicking off an independent film project, you have to find ways to do as many things as possible for little or no money and leverage all the things you already know to make your vision happen. We didn’t have time to do extensive location scouting, and we chose to shoot on Mt. Santis because myself and Matt already knew where to go, what areas would be great to shoot at, and how the logistics would be of hiking in with our equipment.
We were able to take the cable car up from Schwägalp, and then hiked along the ridge of the mountain until the Rotsteinpass. There we dropped off our gear at the Berggasthaus Rotsteinpass (http://www.rotsteinpass.ch/), which served as our base camp and where we could sleep overnight (without the need for setting up tents and camping).
With the wealth of indie filmmaking accessories today, you might be tempted to pull out everything from a travel jib and sliders to multiple steadicams, but when you have to pack everything in, it just makes sense to just go light and focus on creating quality shots for the production with minimal equipment.
Given the limitation of carrying in everything we needed to shoot with, we packed light with a camera pack, plus some tripods and a small Cinevate slider. Matt had a Nikon D800 to shoot video with, and primarily used two lenses, a Nikon 70-200mm and the Nikon 12-24mm. The 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens was good for our interviews and long-range action shots.
When we ran past Matt on ridges he would use the 12-24mm wide angle zoom lens, which allowed him to set up the camera where there was little room to move. For the interviews we had a Zoom H1 with a Sennheiser lavalier microphone, which allowed us to record good quality audio even in the mountain wind.
It’s nice having a large sensor video camera like the Nikon D800, but it’s the quality of camera movements which allows a director to produce quality footage for the story. Matt had the camera and a tripod, while I was able to bring along my slider to add dynamic movement to our shots.
The fluid head was essential for allowing the camera to pan horizontally or vertically with a smooth motion.
The camera slider allowed the entire camera to physically move (slide) along a linear path, which gave dynamic movement to the footage. The fluid head could also be mounted on the slider to combine sliding with panning. A Manfrotto leveling base was also used to allow us to level the camera so that pans would be inline with the horizon of the mountain background.
With the compact design of the Atlas FLT, it could be placed low on the ground (with the all-terrain legs), or supported on the tripods to give a higher perspective off of the ground. The Atlas FLT could also be used in a jib configuration (like a mini-crane), which allowed the camera to move in a sweeping vertical arc. So, with just a few pieces of equipment we were able to execute a large variety of camera movements with a lot of freedom to move to different locations since the whole setup was easy to build up or breakdown as needed.
Matt mainly shot with the D800 on a tripod or on a slider. This would allowed him to get solid shots while still being mobile, so we could setup and breakdown the equipment quickly to move over the mountain terrain. After all, being light and fast is one thing that we love about trail running, and we wanted this reflected as well in our shooting style. Our goal was to tell a little story in the mountains, not to go crazy with equipment.
We mainly shot on mountain ridges, with Christian and I running towards the camera, or as we passed by on a ridge. Matt used the telephoto lens (70-200mm) to focus tightly on us from far off, and for the interviews. He used the wide-angle lens (12-24mm) as we ran by on the ridges and were close to the camera. The wide angle lens also worked well to include the mountain environment in background, giving the wonderful sense of freedom in the mountains.
The one thing many photographers and videographers gravitate towards when thinking of mountain sports projects is getting amazing aerial footage. This is best done with a multi-rotor copter flown remotely by an experienced pilot with a camera on-board like a DSLR.
While we weren’t at that level of production, I had a deep desire to try out a copter shot. I wanted to learn more about this stuff and in a sort of impulsive action bought a mid-range quadrocopter called the Bumblebee with the intention of flying my GoPro 2 with it.
After building it I gave it to Matt to learn to fly before the shoot. He didn’t have time to test out shot ideas and barely had time to learn to fly with the copter before we headed into the mountains, so it’s actually rather amazing we got anything usable at all, and that the Bumblebee didn’t get blown off the mountain and smashed into a glacier. The philosophy here was simple, if the aerial footage was good we would include it, but not getting those shots wouldn’t have killed the whole production.
In reality, the prep work, the shooting, the interviews, the quadrocopter, all that stuff is basically meaningless until you start editing the footage together in the post-production phase. This is the point where it all comes together, the concept you started with when it was just a flicker in your mind taken through the mountains with cameras and a quadrocopter and microphones and now it’s ready to bring to tell a little story.
You can plan and storyboard as much as you want in the pre-production phase, you can have an energetic director of photography with awesome camera equipment but at the end of the day, it’s the editor who tells the final story.
Video Editing Software
The best thing to do is know what you want to do in post, and pick an editing solution which fits your needs and budget. There are many free and paid software options out there, and I recommend you use what you can afford. I used Adobe Premiere Pro as part of the Adobe Production Suite for our videos.
It’s a high quality editing solution, with powerful tools for importing footage, color correction, audio editing (with Adobe Audition) and animation.
I used a ShuttlePro jog wheel, which allowed me to quickly scan through the raw video footage, define in/out markers of clips. Everything was then placed into a timeline, and moved around as I developed the storyline for our films.
Other video editor options include Lightworks (on the PC), Premiere Elements (still capable for many projects), Final Cut Pro X (FCPX) or iMovie (my least favorite option). There is also the option of using an online editor like WeVideo, which has many strong features and is a true online platform for collaboration. You can use WeVideo for free for small projects, and then pay for more storage space and export resolutions as needed.
Getting great mountain vista shots is great, but audio is 50% of a film. The quality of the audio you collect during filming and the music you choose can be more important than the visuals of the story. This is why we did separate audio collection. During our interviews Matt recorded video and on-board audio, but we used the Zoom H1 with a lavaliere microphone to record the interview audio.
Then, I used a program called DualEyes (PluralEyes is a sister program with similar functionality) to replace the poor audio on the D800 with the much better audio from the Zoom H1 (this can be done in FCPX as well). We still had some issues due to wind noise on the microphone, but it was much better than using the D800 audio recorded with the Nikon stereo microphone.
For the music we were able to partner with FNDMNTL (http://music.fndmntl.com/), a band from Canada that granted us permission to use their song BUOYS CELLO for this production. Their music provided a slightly non-linear rhythm which mixed in well with the visual velocity of the camera movements. The pace of camera movements, the scope of mountain environment, I felt they mixed very well together with the FNDMNTL music.
Enjoying the Moment
The best part of our trail running project is that it was fun to do. We pooled our resources together, made a little plan, worked hard and had a great time in the Swiss Alps. We hope to do more projects in the future, and have a learned a lot from our first experiment. If you have any questions on filming in the Alps and trail running, feel free to contact me (www.idezo.ch/contact).