Travelling into the unknown in China
“The moment I have to stop filming and actually get a chance to look around me can feel quite surreal at times like this”
Adventure Filmmaking involves traveling to unknown places, with unknown people, the experience is not without its challenges. Arriving somewhere unknown is initially struggling because I’m immediately out of my comfort zone.
On a past shoot in China, the only traveller from the UK, I flew out on my own and didn’t have a clue as to who I was meeting up with or where I was going. I mean, I knew the whereabouts I was aiming for in the country, but it’s tricky to visualise what it will actually be like when you get there until you see it with your own eyes. So, with the call sheet, itinerary, and my camera kit, I set off to Beijing. A quick stop there and then on to the provincial town of Xi An (home to the Terracotta Army).
On arrival, I was met by a friendly member of the production team. We jumped onto a minivan and made our way to HansZong in just 4 hours. If you have been to China, you’ll know that the driving can be, well, interesting… especially on roads cut into the side of cliffs, hundreds of metres drop off one side with the driver constantly beeping his horn to let other drivers know of his existence like a pulse of sonar; it’s stunningly beautiful, annoying, fun and terrifyingly scary all at once.
We arrived, had a quick meal where a chicken’s head and foot got scooped onto my plate, along with some blood tofu and vegetables; went to bed, and got an early rise to get the kit ready to shoot the next day. My room was freezing and initially I was a little shell shocked, confused, and anxious about what was to come. Fortunately, since I have been in this kind of situation a fair amount of times in the past, I was able to pull myself together, got all the sleep jet lag would allow, took a deep breath, and got out the next day ready to shoot.
What proceeded was one of the most fantastic adventures I have had to date. Huge repels into unexplored sinkholes, sleeping in the beds of old miners’ quarters, filming incredible rooms of stalactites, flow stone, and quartz that you would only expect to see on the set of a movie, and travelling nearly four miles into the Earth’s crust in search of underground vistas.
I always find it strange looking back on a lot of the things I have filmed across my career and this was no exception. If I were to watch something in a film or on television where I could see the cameraman squeezed into such a small space that you could hear the presenter saying “you have to breath out in order to move forward,” I would meet it with a mixture of shock, horror and repulsion at the idea of doing such a thing. The camera seems to paradoxically provide me with the mental strength to maintain a level of composure in such situations, providing me with an opportunity to comfortably step outside of my comfort zone.
I think a lot of this motive has to do with making sure I come back with the relevant content to tell the story. By putting myself in circumstances that many people may never find themselves in, it means that I can, in a small way, transpose that experience to the general public. I’m incredibly privileged to have this opportunity and I take the responsibility of this role very seriously. Arousing and driving emotional response from somebody who watches what I have filmed is my ultimate goal. Whether it’s repulsion, fear, happiness, shock or bewilderment, it’s all about the rollercoaster, the ups and downs of what happens around you that must be conveyed… It’s not always just about framing up a pretty shot.