Adventure Film Academy: Teaching travellers how to make short films anywhere

From under the sea-ice to storm-lashed peaks
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The Independent Travel

My neighbour was watching Horizon on BBC2 the other week. It was a film about an expedition of doctors climbing Mount Everest, and he said to me: "I was wondering to myself, who was filming them wobbling across those ladders?"

Well, I was able to tell him. It was me.

The long-running Holiday programme may have been put out to grass, but travel is never far from our screens. There's been a spate of adventure films on TV recently: Kate Humble abseiling into potholes, Griff Rhys Jones climbing mountains, Bruce Parry living with tribes, Ray Mears eating bugs. But how does the camera crew get there?

We have a convention in television that the people behind the camera should never appear in front of it. It all goes to support the illusion that the viewer's eye is roaming around the location without the messy apparatus of lenses and wires.

Yet as audiences get more media-savvy, they start questioning the media's tricks. The 10-minute stories from the production crews at the end of the BBC Blue Planet films were the result of filling in a scheduling shortfall. They told of sitting for months waiting for a snow leopard to turn up, and of being nearly eaten by polar bears – and they were very popular with audiences. As viewers start shooting their own video, many seem to want to know how we do it.

But the skills you need to film in extreme locations are additional to those you need as a normal TV crew. You have to keep cameras working in extreme temperatures. You have to watch that your cameraman isn't backing into a crevasse. It is hard to learn these skills without actually doing the job – and you don't get booked for a job unless you have experience, a Catch-22 familiar to many young people.

Until recently, there hasn't been a dedicated school teaching people how to make adventure films, but now there is, because I've started one. The Adventure Film Academy actually began because we had a pile of cameras in BBC Manchester that we'd used on the Travel Show. I mentioned them to Brian Hall, who did the safety work on Touching the Void and the Bond film Die Another Day. Between us we came up with the idea for the school.

We wanted to attract all sorts of people: adventurers, mountaineers and extreme sports enthusiasts – people who used to take stills cameras to record their expeditions, but now tend to take video cameras. Because they don't yet have editing or storytelling skills, the resulting tapes tend to stay in the drawer. But most of all, we were looking for film-industry professionals wanting to learn more about adventure film-making.

The first year, we had a group of disparate people and put them into teams. An extreme diver with a pile of film he had shot under the Antarctic sea-ice we teamed with a young poet. The result was a beautiful short film with a lyrical commentary accompanying amazing images of swimming under the ice floes.

Two minutes turned out to be a good length for these films – think how much content can be packed into a two-minute TV commercial. We decided that the course was perfect to run during the Kendal Mountain Film Festival, in the Lake District, which Brian directs and which attracts over 6,000 fleece-wearing enthusiasts every November.

The winner in 2005 managed to feature mountain biking, rock climbing and naked bracken-sledging (a new sport) around the Lake District. Last year's winner was set in Kendal itself. Kendal's Dark Secret begins in a bar, and pretends to discover a huge maze of caverns and potholes under the town itself. At intervals, the explorers burst through manhole covers into pubs along the high street. The caving sequences were filmed elsewhere, but the result when cut together is very convincing.

Not everything we do is extreme. Another film was about a very gentle walk to Friar's Crag, along about two miles of smooth paths near Kendal. And one year, we even made a Bollywood short that involved a slow walk up a very easy mountain.

Our absolute priority is safety. Once we've heard the students' ideas, Brian takes them through their risk assessments, and suggests better ways of getting their shots in safety. The other tutors – world-class adventure film professionals in their own right – teach camera, sound and editing skills during the week.

This year, the students will film each other in kayaks on Kendal's River Kent. Then they will learn how to edit the results. After that, we will run our 48-hour filming marathon. The challenge is to plan, shoot and edit a two-minute film in just 48 hours; the results are judged at the main festival.

Some of the films are about the people of the Lakes, such as Russell Burton. Once a painter and sculptor, Burton is now a trail-builder who sculpts mountain-bike routes through the local hills, trying to follow the contours and character of the slopes. Another short documentary film asked local farmers "Is it right to roam?", and got fairly short answers. Some require specialist skills: Monster needed a scuba diver to get underwater shots of Lake Windermere. If you watch the film (many are available on the website), you can see the moment that the housing started to leak and destroy one of the cameras.

The school is non-profit, and costs quite a lot to run, especially when cameras break; we are supported by North West Vision and Visual Impact. Over our five years, more than 400 people have attended our workshops; 125 have made a two-minute film. Some of these "shorts" have been shown on TV – such as Not Permitted on prime-time BBC1 – and at festivals worldwide including Banff, Telluride and Trento, not to mention a variety of websites: No Cycling has received 690,000 views on YouTube.

There is a huge revolution taking place in television; YouTube is just the tip of the iceberg. When I was on Mount Everest this spring, we were shooting short science videos, editing them on a laptop and sending them up to a satellite. A few hours later they were on the BBC2 Horizon website.

But anyone can do this now. What has struck me is that so many of the people we train at the AFA are now making their own short films and sharing them online. Because it was so expensive and cumbersome to make, television used to be owned by the large broadcasters, and programmes were shown at set times. Now, with a video camera costing a few hundred pounds and some free software, users can make and broadcast their own online "TV". And soon, everyone pursuing their travels will be able to share their experiences with almost everyone else.

The Adventure Film Academy (www.mountainfilm.co.uk) runs from 12-16 November at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

Oxenholme station, on the eastern outskirts of Kendal, is on the West Coast main line. Kendal station is served by TransPennine Express from Manchester. Details: 0845 748 4950; www.nationalrail.co.uk.

STAYING THERE

Youth Hostel, Kendal (01539 724 066; www.yha.org.uk). Dorm beds from £18.95.

Stonecross Manor, Kendal (01539 733 559; www.stonecrossmanor.co.uk). Doubles from £83, including breakfast.

Castle Green Hotel, Kendal (01539 734 000; www.castlegreen.co.uk). Doubles from £118, including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

The Kendal Mountain Film Festival takes place 9-18 November (01539 738 669; www.mountainfilm.co.uk). Tickets for events range from £5-£75. Places for the Adventure Film Academy are available through the festival box office (01539 725 133). Workshops cost £75 each; the full five-day academy costs £250.

MORE INFORMATION

Cumbria – The Lake District Tourism: 01539 725 758; www.golakes.co.uk

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