Pro Film-Making in the Back-Country

22 November 2019
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Turning an Expedition into a 3 Minute Movie

It’s ironic – today’s tech allows nearly all of us, even in the back-country of Mongolia, to capture any experience on film (well, I’m old-fashioned, it’s really digital). But the sheer volume of shiny images out there can seem to somehow mean even less. What’s real, and how does it really matter?

After all, it’s not easy to directly convey the good stuff, even from an intrepid or unique expedition: a new friendship kindled, a hailstorm survived, a gallop savoured, or a high-mountain vista soaked in, together. Even the wide-open valley essence can be elusive.

For us at Zavkhan Trekking, though, it’s really important to show who we are, what we do, and why, for lots of reasons. Not only do we want to get the word out, in order to keep our Mongolia and Kaz teams doing their thing, but we want to be vocal about a different way to do travel and business, and a different way to relate to each other.

Less bullshit, more authenticity, better ethics, and if it’s out of your comfort zone, great. We will help you dig in and get what you can out of being there. 

How we ended up with a pro filmmaker on a Mongolian horse

As for film-capture potential, we get tons of inquiries and emails from volunteers, bloggers. photographers, and vloggers hoping to come riding and do some work in exchange; so much so that it’s hard to know whom to give a chance.

Realizing the limitations of John’s ability to gallop ahead, hop-off his horse, and score some less-bumpy horse trek footage, however, we couldn’t help but admit interest in getting some lucky dedicated artistic visionary out on a trek with, yes, a drone (they’re everywhere now, I guess) and a fancy camera or two. And when we saw the striking, professional but intimate and expressive portraiture and thoughtful environmental filming/photography of Sonder Media, via Australian filmographer Lewi Haskins, we decided it was time to give it a go, and get him out on one of our scheduled (but non-itinerised…) Classic Mongolia Zavkhan 17-day horse treks.

As it turns out (shocking, I know), the pro filmmaker’s process immediately surprised us.  While straight-up gallop sequences interspersed with gorgeous drone shots sound pretty tempting (I mean, I’d watch that…) three minutes of final-cut (and 80 gigs of raw footage…) actually started with one simple question: In a single sentence, what do we want to tell people about ourselves? Not such an easy question to distil down and show visually. But a few Skypes hours and plenty of emails later, we had a direction, and it was finally time to make it happen as best we could, out in Zavkhan Province, the place which inspired our company “statement:” Original, authentic, ethical Mongolia and Central Asia, with the experienced local teams and NZ partnership to immerse travellers in places where others rarely reach.

The story of the trip

So to get from idea to movie, next up was the shot list. Think of a pure brainstorm of dream trip shots, and you’re there. Luckily for us, Lewi had plenty of fantastic ideas beyond the old gallop shot, and his eagerness to make it a truly collaborative project helped shift the concept from someone’s first impression of Mongolia to a reflection of ZT’s philosophy of travel: close-up, unfiltered, supportive, friendly, caring, personal, gritty, gorgeous, poignant, local, reflective, willing to go the extra kms for the authentic experience. We all actually spent a lot of kilometres riding through the mountain-steppe considering just how to boil down everything that Mongolia, and what we do there, means and how to get it across. Good thing we had a pro along to help it be more than my standard “landscapes with tiny horses” shots. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! With ten ZT riders along, as well as our company’s most experienced local pro-team, everyone’s enthusiasm, patience, and ideas inspired constantly and helped make the shots happen along the way, even at a cold, windy mountain-top crater lake.

We did go for plenty of gorgeous horse and landscape shots, however, never fear. Because film-pro Lewi Haskins not only shot the trip, but immersed in it for the first time himself, he fell in love with his paint horse Aleg along the way (whom you’ll see featured lovingly in the piece). I am glad to say that’s an experience a lot of us can relate to. Acclimating those Mongolian horses to drone shots, closer and closer overhead, however, proved an early challenge. Getting some late trip close-follow drone shots of the wranglers and team riding, however, made all the evening flybys and tests so worth it.

And best of all, it gave the team a chance to practice their drone skills. Another bad-ass move: driving the drone into your own hand to catch it, to help protect it from a dirty or damaging landing. That is definitely not how my uncle in Florida does it. Who knew.

The Gear

Even with careful treatment of all the gear, and plenty of preventative measures like offloading shots from cameras to hard-drives and charging several spare batteries at all times with the help of a beefed-up in-vehicle inverter, the famous dust of Mongolia won at least some of the battle. Lewi’s Mavic Air Drone made it through the trip unscathed, but the Sony A7R2 camera needed a few critical new parts by day 17 in the back-country. Guess riding horseback will do that, even with dry bags and saddlebags! Tripod plates also had to be improvised after off-road damage. A big gear challenge for this kind of film-making, of course, involves walking the line between getting the shots that really show the team shine in the harder conditions (think bog, mountain top, snow…) versus protecting the gear to survive another day.

Strategising around the evening or morning light, or “Golden Hour,” proved one way to get some magical beauty shots without having to carry a camera up a thousand rocky horseback meters. Although I am still not convinced that the Mongolian golden hour is longer than 5 elusive minutes, depending on your local ridge-line…


The Team

Attempting to get portraits of our rather stoic Zavkhan team within that time-frame certainly defeated us more than once. Despite that, those of you who are Zavkhan alumni riders will recognize the extremely photogenic faces of ZT guide Haldi, Head wrangler Dondov, wranglers Adiya (his son) and Tsooj, drivers Byamba, Ganbaa, Cook Lkhagvaa, as well as (not QUITE as photogenic…) ZT Operations Manager Jen, and others in the final cut. And we had a lot of fun, becoming a new team all together, Lewi and ZT riders included, even in front of that damned camera, along the way.

So, this is who we are - and there's a lot more!

Back in Ulaanbaatar, showered and ready to put in some screen time (provided ramen, chips, and beers were plentifully accessible), Lewi led the pulling of shots (choosing which were most striking, definite keepers, which were redundant, etc) and putting it all together. I was surprised at how crucial one shot could feel, for example, grabbed as an after-thought for just a few seconds, once the nostalgia of the trip and distance from the peaceful countryside set it. I can’t really tell you how 80 gigs got trimmed down to three minutes, but I know it took an amazingly short time (2 weeks) and lots of discussions and intuitive experimentation.

In the end, we did it, and we made something following our own instincts. We are proud to feature our original, most experienced team, the Zavkhan Crew, in their element – since meeting and working with them out in Zavkhan is what takes our trips from being more than just a horse trek to a life-changing experience as part of our own motley Mongolian family. We hope you enjoy it! And sure, you can share it if you really want to…

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