December 4, 2012
?The following is a guest post by Tom Allen, whose most recent documentary film, Janapar, was just released and is available at janapar.com. Janapar documents Tom's 12,000-mile bicycle adventure, which takes an unlikely detour when he falls in love with an Iranian-Armenian girl. Self-shot over four years, Janapar is an honest and life-affirming tale of finding what you’re looking for when you least expect it. Read on for some great advice on how to apply the art of storytelling to your bicycle-travel video.
No two tours are the same, and so no two videos will tell the same story. But regardless of the specifics of your trip or your filming ambitions, the same key considerations will make your video project as successful as possible. Some of these considerations relate to the technical aspects of filmmaking, or of shot composition, editing software, and the like. But this kind of information is readily available, so I'd like to touch on something less-often mentioned but even more fundamental to success: the science of storytelling.
Remember the age-old business concept of an 'elevator pitch', in which you have ten seconds to convince a perfect stranger that they should pay attention to you and your ideas?
Take that concept and apply it to your project. You are in an elevator with a disinterested TV executive. Cutting through all the layers; what is the key question that you want to explore? Where does your need come from? And why should the listener care?
The question might be in the realm of physical limits. It might be cultural or social. Or it might be a very personal one. In my case, with Janapar, it began as the naive curiosity of a 23-year-old guy. What exactly is out there? And what might I learn from exploring it?
It might sound obvious, but you'll also have to identify who is asking the question. Is it you yourself? Another member of your group? Answers will be explored through this character's eyes, with them as the story's protagonist. The lens should keep coming back to them (or you).
There may be other characters with other questions, too. But one must emerge dominant in your narrative, else you'll end up with a soap opera.
It's worth mentioning that you don't need to fabricate this question. It already exists. It's why you're already thinking about journeys and cameras and filmmaking projects. It might take a little time to find it, but it's there.
The question will drive your filming efforts while you are on the road, as you look for the events, meetings, challenges, and developments that signpost the direction towards an answer.
You'll be asking it again during the editing process, when you're sifting through material, seeing what remains relevant and considering how it might best be used to build the story.
And it's the question you'll be presenting to the audience when they sit down to watch your finished film, whether two minutes or two hours in length. The importance of this core question cannot be underestimated. It lies at the heart of all storytelling projects, regardless of medium.
Interesting questions are ones which require their askers to take on challenges and go beyond the average. This will inevitably lead to conflict.
Conflict situations will drive the story, because, through thoughts and words and behaviour, they are a way into the characters' minds. Characters learn something about themselves through conflict and its aftermath, bringing them closer to an answer.
It is inherently entertaining for an audience to watch cause and effect play out within these conflict situations. It is where empathy is at its strongest — especially when the audience cares deeply about the conflict, and wants to see it resolved.
Empathetic audiences also gauge their own reactions against those they see before them. They too learn something about themselves by doing so. And that is what makes a story satisfying to follow.
Conflict does not automatically mean violence. It can be internal, stemming from preconceptions and personality traits. It can come from the environment, the physical element, or from the clashing of characters' desires. And it can be positive, in the case of a happy surprise.
The problem with conflict in cycle-touring vidoes is that it will often coincide with the moments you least want to be filming. But you must! If you shoot with a single rule of thumb, make it this: if the last thing you want to do right now is get out the camera — it's time to get out the camera.
Conflict is difficult to make sense of without context, and this is where a film must build a 'story world' of landscapes and interactions and daily routines that sets the scene for stories within the film. Neither can be effective without the other, and it is critical to capture both.
Your audience must quickly invest in your story; in the needs of its protagonist. In a feature-film, you have mere minutes to achieve this. For a short film, the time is measured in seconds. In a book, it's the contents of the first page.
For this investment to take place, audience must be able to identify with the core question, which must be communicated clearly and early: what is at stake here? What does the protagonist care most about?
If your intended audience is already interested in the context (cycle-touring), this is easier to achieve. But for a broad audience that also included non-cycling-enthusiasts, the context may be highly unfamiliar, and so the question must compensate by being universal and recognisable.
In Janapar, the film begins in the middle of the journey in a situation of jeopardy, the main character alone on a bicycle in the Sahara Desert. But the questions presented in that first scene are universal: what's a normal-looking English guy doing here? Why is he having such doubts? And who's the girl in the flashbacks?
This gives the story a clear starting point from which to explore each of those questions, and to move towards a resolution — which may not be the one that anybody expects.
Rather than setting off and hoping that a story may emerge from your footage, considering these questions will help you to identify the film you're going to make before you begin your trip, focusing your filming efforts.
One of the defining characteristics of bicycle touring, of course, is the freedom to be spontaneous, and the freedom that the world has to throw at you things you may not be expecting.
But there are certain kinds of events that you can nevertheless prepare for. Having made a mental note in advance will help you identify them and get out the camera in time to capture them.
No matter what your journey, you're likely to meet with physical challenges — unpredictable weather, bad road conditions, challenging riding due to remoteness or terrain.
In a group, you'll always have politics and disagreements, which may affect the journey in ways that you didn't foresee.
On your own, the politics will become internal, and there will be times of fear, doubt and uncertainty that only you will be able to explain and process.
And, by exposing yourself to the world on a bike, you'll come across events that will challenge your view of it. In many cases this will be people you meet on the road. And it might not be immediately obvious what these meetings have taught you. Capture this.
Finally, you will need material to create a world for your story to exist in. You'll need shots of the characters riding; shots of the landscape and the places and people you see. But don't forget that — in a narrative film — this will only ever be a backdrop to the events that drive the story forward.
There are two main types of cycle-touring video: slideshow-style films with beautiful landscapes and appropriate music which will appeal to genre enthusiasts; and narratives in which the audience follows the characters and their personal journeys during their time on the road.
I've tried to cover the main considerations for producing a video of the latter type. It's a challenging undertaking, and there are ever so many ropes to learn along the way. But by taking a little time to find the core question driving your project, and being on-the-ball enough to shoot the components you'll need to answer it, you'll be well set up to tell a story that does your experience justice.
Photos by Tom Allen, all rights reserved
TOM ALLEN'S BIO: I'm Tom from England. Since 2006 I've been going on bicycle adventures to places like Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Mongolia, Lapland, and Scotland. A love of learning is what drives these journeys. I have no fixed abode, have bases of sorts in England and Armenia, and I'm married to Tenny. My latest trips and projects can be found at tomsbiketrip.com.