Persevere or perish in Australian Adventure Documentary

OzDox (the Australian Documentary Forum) in association with ADG (the Australian Directors Guild)  organised an evening seminar about Australian Adventure Documentary. Held at AFTRS, the event featured an inspiring panel of adventure documentary filmmakers who have literally risked life and limb in their quest to tell such inspiring stories of human endeavour.

Perseverance in filmmaking can be characterised in many, many ways. Tonight, I discovered it in its most ultimate and brutal form. If you don’t persevere, you perish.
Filmmaker Jen Peedom produced the doco ‘Solo‘ on Andrew McCauley‘s ultimately fatal attempt to kayak across The Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand.
Jen showed the clip when Andrew is starting his quest and has paddled 200 yards offshore, his wife and son waving him off, and he completely breaks down, aware it may be for the last time, and of course sadly it was. Not a dry eye in the house.
I was attracted to this event to see what made these people become adventurers, and filmmakers. What was the spark that got them excited about their mission. And how did they persevere throughout the traditional filmmaking process of development through production to distribution.

What struck me when listening to the speakers was how happy they all were to plough into a filmmaking project without a real narrative, or even a structure. They knew their adventure was big, was epic, but they didn’t even know if they were going to succeed.

Everest filmmakers Michael Dillon and Jen Peedom agreed that the mountain was the main protagonist and always provided an unexpected narrative. As a storyteller you have to be flexible and react quickly to a new story that develops. No more so than on Jen’s recent film Sherpas, when, only three weeks ago, an avalanche on Everest killed 16 Sherpas – the highest fatality count ever on Everest. Jen chose to read out the email she sent to her family and friends on the day of the accident, to describe what happened, how she felt, and how it affected filming. Very poignant it was too. Everest is closed for the rest of the year.

Michael Dillon has 40 years experience making adventure films, and yet he has only ever had a pre-sale once. Yes, just one. And this is from a man who was Sir Edmund Hilary’s go to man for filmmaking. Yes, he of conquering Everest fame. Kinda makes you wanna give up. But persevere my friends, read on!
So pre-sales makes it hard to get cash up front. Traditional government funding for adventure documentary  is also sparse compared to it’s big brother of feature films.

The ace in the funding pack though is of course corporate sponsorship and product placement, and I was amazed to see how far it goes back. MC for the evening was Frank Shields, who started proceedings with an amazing retrospective of Australian adventure documentary making.
For this ignorant English immigrant, this was an eyeopener as I was introduced to Francis Birtles who first cycled around Australia, and then in 1927 was the first person to drive a car from Australia to England in his trusty Sundowner (the Bean Fourteen car). He then showed clips of Frank Hurley and footage of his attempt to pilot a submarine underneath the Arctic ice cap.
In more recent times, there has been The Leyland Brothers, and more recently of course The Crocodile Hunter himself.

Adventurer Francis Birtles and his Sundowner.

Filming in extreme conditions creates specific facets of perseverance. Michael Dillon brought along some of his old cameras, and gave all sorts of war stories of equipment freezing.
But it can still happen today. Justin Jones commented how in Antarctica, they strapped the camera batteries to their bodies as their body heat would keep the batteries warm. A cold battery runs out of juice quicker! The things you learn.

Clark Carter compared footage from his two trips – ten years apart. The first film shot on SONY Z1’s and tripods was framed well and looked beautiful. The second film was using digital HD cameras allowing close ups and hand held movement. The panellists agreed that the close up and immediacy of the digital camera allowed for more footage to be captured and a more human element to be created.

Justin amused us revealing his initial reluctance to film himself, but knowing that he had to remove his ego, he started calling the camera ‘Mr Camera’ to make it easier doing his video diaries.

Clark gallantly backed this up saying ‘you’ve got to allow yourself being a dickhead on film, as that’s authentic’. I’m not so sure he was too happy when his Director Julian Harvey said there was plenty of dickhead material in the rushes!

Jen also demonstrated how technology now allows stunning content to be created when she showed a clip of an Everest explorer Tim traversing a crevasse. Previous explorers had tied aluminium ladder’s together by rope, which swayed as Tim traversed one handed so he could hold the camera, whilst his voiceover informed us of how many people had fallen to their graves below. It was truly edge of the seat stuff.

Shooting in extreme conditions can also be very difficult. Justin estimated that their trip could have been done days quicker if they weren’t filming, and yet only managed 24 hours of footage to be captured. Some of their takes would take an hour to produce, which might not sound a long time, but when you are pulling a sled in blizzard winds, it is a very very long time, only for the camera to fall over, and you have to start again.

Bear in mind, that they are the whole cast and crew – the Director, DOP, Sound, Art Direction, Script, Presenter and more, whilst mentally and physically exhausted in extreme conditions.

Post Production

So the adventurer returns, bruised and battered but elated. Now its time for the slightly less extreme location of the edit suite. Clark Carter hadn’t appointed a Director prior to his trip, and only sourced one on his return in Julian Harvey. Julian’s love for mountain climbing meant that they were on the same page. Julian’s first task was to sit through 100 hours of footage which took him three weeks to log!

Of course , edits can be done on location these days, although Marcus had the audience in stitches when he showed a picture of him in 1996, editing on the first laptop version of Final Cut Pro, editing 2.8MB downloadable clips for the website, which was uploaded via a 14k internet connection. Moores Law theory in evidence.

Despite the woes mentioned in the Funding section, its Distribution which is providing huge opportunities for the genre. The internet has opened up access to all sorts of genres and niches, and as Julian Harvey said, its possible to own that niche. Kayaking will never be a premier blockbuster sporting event, and most of us know very few people interested in it. Yet look at the available audience online, globally, and all of a sudden you are talking big numbers of very very passionate people interested in kayaking.

Marcus Gillezeau illustrated the point further by creating a franchise model for Storm Surfers so that he created a movie, a 3D movie, a tv series, a web series, an eBook and a game, and possibly more I couldn’t write them down quick enough!

He can now cross pollinate audiences across each format, and when a new format comes out, he already has a loyal and passionate audience base to attract funding, and then market the film to.

In summary, at times filmmaking can feel like ‘you are up shit creek without a paddle’. Clark Carter has gone on two filmmaking kayaking trips and both times lost a paddle. Now that’s shit creek without a paddle.  But you know what? He persevered, he learnt, he adapted the story, and he conquered.

As did all the other panellists who perservered to a level that very few go to, to fulfill a passion, and tell a story that they have shared with the world.

Nick Bolton



OzDox presents Adventure


MICHAEL DILLON “Beyond Everest
JEN PEEDOM “Miracle on Everest
JUSTIN JONES “Crossing the Ice

More about the panel:

One of Australia’s leading cinematographers and makers of adventure and exploration documentaries, having won more awards in this field than any other individual worldwide.

He has made five adventure documentaries with Sir Edmund Hilary, the conqueror of Everest, and his latest “Beyond Everest” about Sir Edmund Hilary’s ongoing work with the Sherpa people of Everest has won five international awards.

AACTA and Emmy Award winning filmmaker, executive producer and entrepreneur Marcus Gillezeau is the CEO of Firelight Productions, a Sydney based film and TV company specializing in all-media, documentary and 3D production. Marcus has over 20 years experience in the film & TV industry. He mastered cross platform delivery and promotion techniques with the tele-feature “Scorched” and applied same to his latest adventure documentary, the multi-award winning “Storm Surfers- 3D”.

Drawn to exploring the human condition in extreme conditions, Jen Peedom has succeeded in directing a number of award winning documentaries, among them “Solo”,  “Living the End”, “Life” series, “Miracle on Everest” and “Race Around Oz” picking up several directing awards along the way.
In 2003 while working as Managing Director of IF Magazine, she was awarded NSW Young Businesswoman of the Year. Jen Peedom is recognised as one of Australia’s top Adventure filmmakers.


Part of the Cas and Jonesy filmmaking team, two Aussie Explorers constantly pushing the boundaries of human endurance.  First, paddling 3300km without assistance across the Tasman Sea from Australia to NZ as seen in their documentary “Crossing the Ditch”.
Then in 2012, they made history by completing the longest unsupported polar expeditions of all time, walking/skiing from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and back, a voyage of 2275km as shown in their latest film, “Crossing the Ice”.


No stranger to adventure, director Julian Harvey has tagged four of the “Seven Summits” including a five week expedition in establishing a new climbing route of Antarctica’s highest peak, Mount Vinson. His credits include the award winning feature “The Tunnel” and the adventure feature documentary “The Crossing” Of the latter, his passion for adventure has given him a unique insight into telling this story.

Adventurer CLARK CARTER is a member of the prestigious Explorers Club and is passionate about two things – adventure & filmmaking. Along with fellow adventurer Chris Bray, he set out to cross 1100kms of Arctic wilderness that is Victoria Island, unsupported – the focus of the adventure documentary “The Crossing”.


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