by Hank Leukart
March 8, 2011
Never stop hiking. Never stop filming.
How two brothers managed logistics while filming themselves hiking in Nepal for 17 days straight.
Hank adjusts a ContourHD head-mounted camera above Namche Bazaar, Nepal.
This is the second essay in a series about how my brother and I filmed our trek to Everest Base Camp. Watch the movie first, then read the first essay to get the whole story.E
VEREST BASE CAMP, Khumbu, Nepal — Anyone who has worked on a film or a TV show will tell you that most of the film shot doesn’t end up in the final product. Especially for documentaries, it is difficult to guess which real-life events during production will be relevant to the project’s final storyline, so producers usually try to capture everything to make sure that no possible plot points get left behind. In short, during most documentary film productions, no one has any idea what they’re doing.
Brian and I find that we too have this problem. As we trek, we film interviews with each other on seemingly every possible topic no matter how mundane, from the subtleties of altitude sickness symptoms to the ingredients necessary to create a rehydration drink. But, we also have a problem that most documentary makers don’t: we’re filming ourselves. Consequently, though interviewing each other is easy, it’s almost impossible for us to film scenes that include both of us simultaneously or capture unanticipated events.
Since our production’s budget is $0, Brian and I use comparatively affordable cameras which we already own for filming as we hike. We use three cameras, which often can be seen attached to our chests or heads in the film: the Canon T2i, a midrange, prosumer SLR which shoots stills and HD video, fitted with a Tamron super-zoom lens; the ContourHD, a head-mountable HD video camera; and the Lumix DSC-TS2, an amateur snapshot camera which shoots HD video and also happens to be waterproof and shockproof.
But, even with three cameras, we still find capturing important events to be difficult. We don’t have the batteries, memory card space, or boundless energy required to keep cameras running every second of the trip. Early in the hike, Brian sprains his ankle while walking on a long suspension bridge, which casts some doubt on whether we’ll be able to make it to Base Camp. But, even though I’m wearing the ContourHD on my head and filming at the time, he’s walking behind me, so I miss the crucial moment and only manage to capture the immediate aftermath of the sprain after he yells out. During the morning that we’re departing Lukla, Brian realizes that he’s accidentally left his hiking poles near our teahouse, so I wait for him near the end of town while he rushes back to retrieve them. While no one is around to film him, a group of yaks charge him, and he’s almost impaled. In the movie, Brian talks about this incident, but it’s unfortunately never seen. After this, we realize that we need to stay together as much as possible with our cameras ready, and, well, we need to be very careful around yaks.
By the time we arrive in Namche Bazaar, a village that used to be an essential trading post due to its location near a mountain pass leading to Tibet, we’ve learned how to be more vigilant about getting things on camera. As often as possible, when we find ourselves in front of a beautiful vista, we set up the Canon on a small tripod (we love the Joby Gorillapod, though ours broke during our trip because we didn’t have a model designed for our heavy zoom lens) and film ourselves hiking past the camera. Every time we do this, it takes 20 to 30 minutes depending on how far we hike (because we need to retrace our steps), but getting beautiful shots of us hiking in the film seems worth it. While on some days it takes us nearly twice as long as expected to hike to our destination because of filming stops, our unspoken mantra soon becomes: “Never stop hiking. Never stop filming.”
We also become more vigilant about possible story points. Near the end of our hike to Thame — the birthplace of Tenzing Norgay, the first Sherpa to summit Everest — on our acclimatization day in Namche Bazaar, we realize that we’ve lost the trail. Immediately, we spring into action and make sure to film everything: interviews with each other and scenes of us hiking with our head-mounted camera. We’re proud of how this vignette turned out, because it’s an example of us managing to capture the drama of a real incident as it unfolds even though we’re greatly limited by being able to film only each other.
During our trek (and after), we constantly struggle to find the right balance between educational segments (“How is the Everest Base Camp trek unique?”) and real-life dramatic segments (“We’re lost!”). Most films and TV shows rightly focus solely on story-based drama, but Brian and I are limited by logistical constraints: we simply can’t keep cameras trained on ourselves at all times. Furthermore, Brian and I decide that it’s important to give our hypothetical audience (which we expect will include one person: our mom) a window into what hiking in Nepal’s Khumbu region is really like, which leads to segments about bridges, yaks, teahouses, and religion. Still, we work hard to add personal touches even to these segments: we film an interview about Brian’s almost-impalement for the yak segment, we decide to incorporate Brian’s ankle sprain into the bridges segment, and Brian discusses his feelings on Buddhism for the religion segment. We’re sure Mom will love it.
In Tengboche, we start to feel like we’re getting into the amateur-film-production groove. We realize that we should be interviewing people on camera, newscaster style, and I have a great time talking to adorable Australian hiker Janelle this way (though we realize that using the built-in camera microphones for audio is woefully inadequate in noisy environments). We start doing a better job thinking in terms of how segments in the final product will fit together, and we film two self-encapsulated sequences: one about geocaching, in which we discover a hidden treasure in a forest high above Tengboche, and another about board games, in which Brian reveals my incompetence at a game we’ve christened “Space Opera.” (Neither segment was exciting enough to make it into the final film, but the ideas were sound.)
By the time we make it to Lobuche, we’re starting to fancy ourselves famous film directors. We’re interviewing more people; we’re shooting scenes that we know will tie into previously shot scenes and provide a story arc; and we’re being more intentional about what we say on camera. (Yet, despite our newfound proficiency, I’ll always regret that we didn’t have time to interview a couple of married blueberry farmers from Estonia whom we met in Pheriche.)
But, it’s always when you feel most confident that things go wrong. When I wake up in the morning after arriving in Lobuche, I feel so sick that I’m desperate to throw out our mantra. We need to stop hiking. We need to stop filming.
Read the final essay in this series about how we filmed our trek to Everest Base Camp, in which I reveal how we shot the mysterious morning-in-bed scene and explain how we managed to get to Everest Base Camp, despite our food poisoning.
Produced and directed by Brian and Hank Leukart. For fast connections, click “HD” for high definition. If you don’t have much time, try watching the two-minute trailer for a taste.