Behind the Expedition: Ecuador
A few weeks ago we returned from what I can safely call our most action packed trip yet. We had the chance to travel across the country of Ecuador- from the Galapagos islands to the Amazon jungle. From the day we arrived, client projects had been lined up back to back to back in a non-stop stretch of 22 production days. I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time so I was thrilled to finally start packing up the gear to fly out.
I find it easy to start feeling confident when I'm in the same environment each day. But when I found myself deep in the Amazonian jungle – far from the nearest CVS – fresh out of bug spray and with no quick release plate, I got a free lesson on how important preparation is.
The trip was a huge learning experience for me in the art of prep. Getting tossed out of your routine can feel really disruptive, even to an amazing destination like Ecuador, if you don’t stay disciplined every single day. When I travel, I prefer to go with the flow of what's happening in front of me. However, I’ve found that bringing the right equipment and habits is vital to succeed using the go-with-the-flow travel strategy.
Our trip was simple: fly into Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Next, we head into the Amazon jungle to film a lodge in a wildlife reserve, then fly to the Galapagos islands for a week shooting for our cruise client and finally back to the Amazon to shoot for another lodge. Sounds easy enough, right? Yeah, kind of.
Here’s a quick teaser for our experience at each production location:
Galapagos: Wake up every morning to a new alien landscape. Lava rocks scattered across red sand beaches with 100+ huge, sneezing marine iguanas. Playing with sea lion families, penguins and sea turtles in crystal-clear water. 500 pound tortoises roaming on grassy hills as far as the eye could see.
Quito: Highest elevation capital city in the world, located in a mountain range. Bright pastel colored Spanish buildings and vibrant energy. Clouds seem to roll off the top of buildings. We arrived during the controversial presidential election. Steep streets reminded me of San Francisco. Lots of ping pong. Quito loves their eggs wet...you've been warned.
Amazon Jungle: The most amazing sounds. Flocks of tropical birds abound. Strangely modern accommodations deep in the jungle… our floor was see-through. Pack of 50 monkeys swinging in the canopy above us as we canoe through the winding, narrow rivers. Hiking through thick mud in knee-height rain boots with no trails. Eating bugs... yeah, they were still alive.
With different environments come varying production challenges- from wading through knee deep swamp water and quick sand, to paddling with large Caymans swimming with our tiny canoe. Faced with these potential roadblocks in each location, we had a specific players in our gear package that out shined all the other eager equipment... we'll call them MVP Tools.
MVP Tools are pieces of filmmaking gear that make a huge difference in our ability to capture what we need to tell each location's story. My goal is to outline the challenges for each shooting environment and to share useful tips we’ve discovered to ensure we capture outstanding imagery for our clients in unforgiving locations.
location 1: Galapagos
Ahh, the Galapagos. Everyone hears about the Galapagos- blue footed boobies dancing and 150-year-old giant tortoises. Another common thing you hear is how close the animals let you get. I’ll be honest, when I planning the trip, I thought “this will be super easy! The animals will let me get within 5 feet. How can this not be easy??” Oh man, incorrect. Don’t get me wrong, it was a major help that the animals were abundant and not afraid of cameras. But I was naïve in thinking that this was the only obstacle to capturing amazing scenes.
This trip was with our longtime client, UnCruise. They lead incredible small-ship expeditions along the whole west coast of the Americas. What surprised us most was that despite having an average demographic of age 60+, the trip was very active – nonstop with activities. You’d have to seriously try to be bored on an UnCruise expedition.
The key ingredient on this trip was speed. We shot the film alongside real passengers, which meant that there couldn’t be any “one more take!”. We needed to keep pace on the hikes and snorkels. The country of Ecuador is also very strict with who can be on the islands and when. No wandering off to get a cool shot and we could shoot only at very specific times. All this to say: we wanted Planet Earth 2 imagery, with <1% of the time they had.
You should have seen us on Day 1 at the first island we visited. We land on that beach and in every single direction we look there is stunning, gorgeous animal life and scenery to capture. We look like toddlers that wandered into the Chuck E Cheese arcade for the first time. Stimuli overload. Shoot shoot shoot. Our guide had to assure us that yes, there indeed would be much more of this beyond the 10 feet we made it past the boat.
Because of the speed required, I developed a monstrous hiking setup that allowed me to switch from shooting wide shots of passengers hiking, to stable 350mm extreme close ups of animals at high framerate in seconds.
The MVP tool on this location hands down is the CineSaddle. Admittedly, this thing looks pretty unimpressive. A CineSaddle is essentially a large bean bag/ oversized hackey sack that you strap to your chest to stabilize the camera.
What was amazing about the cinesaddle was that it replaced a tripod- even performing better in many situations. When we saw something amazing, we could throw the bag on the ground and be ready to shoot at extremely long focal lengths or shoot stable handheld at 200+ mm which is unheard of. Usually the footage looks like Cloverfield outtakes. Not with the cinesaddle. I had it strapped around my shoulder for our week of nonstop hiking.
Since I was shooting on a fully rigged Sony FS7 (20+ lbs), it helped to rest the camera on the saddle while hiking to take some weight off my arm. I’d highly recommend picking up a beefy shoulder strap because the weight starts to take a toll on your shoulders very quickly. Without the CineSaddle, we wouldn’t have been able to shoot the extreme animals closeups we’d been drooling to capture- a tripod simply wouldn’t have cut it with how fast the guides were taking us through the islands. With two simple zooms, the Contax 28-85mm and the 80-200mm, we were able to get a massive range in focal length with minimal lens switching.
PS: ALWAYS bring a good polarizer on outdoor shoots. Please. We found the B+W Polarizer to perform excellently.
location 2: Quito
Being in Quito was radically different than the largely deserted Galapagos islands. Buildings were packed tightly together with people everywhere in the streets. The city was vibrant and full of life.
Naturally, we wanted camera movement to capture this energy. This equated to having people stare at me as I incessantly performed my heel-over-heel-glidecam-walk everywhere in the city.
I’ve struggled with going out in the morning to film solo in foreign countries- it can be very intimidating to purposely make yourself standout in a totally new environment.
My personal tip is to simply bring a person or two with you. For some reason when I was with other people, I felt very comfortable doing complex glidecam dances amongst huge crowds in the city. When someone has your back, it allows you to relax and focus on the task at hand-which is still no easy task. For anything other than handheld shooting on a small DSLR, I highly recommend to always have others accompany you so you’re not a target. The key in this environment was being inconspicuous while capturing dynamic shots.
The MVP tool to capture the dynamic movement we needed for Quito was a tie between the Glidecam camera stabilizer (gasp: no Movi?!) and the new DJI Mavic drone.
Glidecam: Yeah, old school. But requires no batteries. Easy to strap onto your Osprey. And you definitely don’t want to be pulling up the calibration software on an iPad for your Movi in the middle of downtown. The Glidecam takes a bit more practice to get good stuff, but it’s well worth it for ease of use/price. We were able to capture beautiful floating shots through the streets that helped to portray the liveliness we felt being in the city.
DJI Mavic: The Mavic is ridiculously small. Easy to carry around in a tiny backpack and performed just as well as our DJI Phantom 4 Pro. Hiking through the city this thing was a dream. No more massive box backpack that we used to travel with.
One tip: the 1080p 60fps looks awful. Moire and aliasing galore. Shoot 2.7k or 4k in 30fps, then conforming to 24 in Premiere will slow it down a bit.
Something I’ve noticed with drone footage: there are tiny slivers in time where the buildings are unreal beautiful. The other 99% of the time- meh. It’s not as simple as sunrise/sunset (although that helps a lot).
The key is to always be eager to get out there and try again, even when you’re not sure how it will look. The Mavic helped to make this process easy since it took seconds to deploy.
I remember one morning waking up at 6am after capturing some disappointing and sad rainy city footage the night before. I walked up to the roof of our hotel and sent the drone about a mile away (this thing has killer range) toward La Basilica- a massive cathedral towering above all other buildings in Quito. I managed to stumble upon this massive cathedral at a magical moment- there was this atmospheric haze sitting in the air around the church that gave life to massive, glorious shafts of lights that sliced through the bell towers. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the footage from that impulsive 10-minute flight ended up being…I couldn’t even see how beautiful it was from where I launched the drone.
This flight is a great example that you must be persistent and enjoy the process through failure to capture stellar images. There are so many variables involved that you simply need to take every chance you can… there’s no other way.
location 3: Amazon Jungle
This location truly felt the wildest and most remote. We had to fly from Quito, over the Andes mountain range, to a small town called Coco. From there, we took a two hour motorized canoe ride, then an additional two hour you-row-the-boat-yourself canoe on a narrow river that twisted through dense jungle, before finally arriving at Napo Wildlife Center.
On our journey to Napo, we turned a corner and I swear, with movie-perfect real life timing, Maria, our guide, excitedly says “Welcome to Napo” and suddenly the narrow river opened into a massive lagoon. In the distance, a colossal, 120-foot thatched tower appeared among the trees. This was a seriously bizarre sight for my brain to process after we’d paddled so far into the jungle. One of those moments you have to ask yourself “is this really happening?”.
Our time at Napo was filled with countless hikes/canoe trips through the surrounding area to see an astonishing array of native animals and to visit the local indigenous community, the Kichwa. Huge cayman and giant sea otters were plentiful in the lagoon that Napo was situated on. We paid close attention to the “no swimming” sign at the dock.
What stood out most to me in the Amazon was the symphony of sounds. I didn’t even recognize most of the sounds I heard. Flocks of bright colored parrots soaring by, the crack of giant otter crunching fish bone as they eat, the powerful clap of a thunderstorm rolling over the jungle canopy are all extraordinary sensations.
With a skeleton crew of two, we had to be lean and make sacrifices with equipment like audio gear. Normally, we like to have our foley extraordinaire, Lawrence, doing this on every trip. But sadly his boom pole was too big for the overhead bin.
I knew that I’d need something incredibly mobile and easy to use in the face of a crazy schedule and inhospitable environments. For that, the MVP tool was our trusty Zoom H1 portable audio recorder.
These things rock... less than $100 and they’re tiny, durable and sound incredible. We started using these over 4 years ago and still use them everyday, even after using recorders that cost several thousand. It’s very simple to always have one ready, with lavalier, in your pocket no matter what. This proved invaluable because there were many unexpected moments of audio-amazingness that would have sucked to miss.
I remember one distinct night when a massive thunderstorm, no rain, came rumbling from the horizon. Maybe my senses were more heightened, but this thunderstorm sounded far more intense than any other I’d heard. The echo of each thunderclap seemed to roll on infinitely into the jungle. Each time, the following lightning flashes would expose a small cross section of the surrounding pitch-black jungle across the lagoon. Experiencing these massive forces of nature made me feel small and insignificant.
By having the Zoom H1 on hand at all times, I was able to never miss out on capturing experiences like this thunderstorm that would constantly take us by surprise each day. Without being prepared and ready to roll, even if it’s while you’re brushing your teeth or eating breakfast, we would have missed special moments. It can be easy to think you can relax/take it easy in a beautiful environment like this, but it’s all the more important to stay disciplined and be prepared for every single minute. The best shots are usually the unexpected shots.
This trip was an unforgettable experience and I’m grateful I had the chance to experience a part of the world so different from my typical routine. I hope that sharing some of these tips will help other filmmakers get the most out of their own projects. Shoutout to UnCruise Adventures, Napo Wildlife Center and the Gaia Lodge – we’d highly recommend checking them out for your next adventure.