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Video Tips: Behind the Scenes with The Muir Project Team

Is it possible to make a great movie about backpacking?

If the first trailer and second trailer for the upcoming Mile… Mile & A Half movie are any indication, I’d say yes! Despite a lack of daredevil stunts and the inherent monotony of backpacking, the trailers’ dazzling scenery and group camaraderie—and outstanding production values—make this surprisingly enjoyable.

The movie is the work of The Muir Project, a group of video/photo/audio artists who hiked the 211-mile length of California’s John Muir Trail with their camera gear in tow.

How did they do it? Check out this video and the interview below with team members Ric, Jen, Jason, Durand and Zee. And consider helping out the movie’s production by visiting their Kickstarter page.

REI: What was the biggest challenge of videotaping your JMT adventure?

Ric: The biggest challenge for us was striking the balance between shooting and hiking. There were so many beautiful places that we could easily spend hours and hours shooting, but we also had 10-12 miles we had to hike each day in order to complete the trail in our allotted time.

Jason: I would say it’s the physical challenge. We would only have a short amount of time to shoot most of the locations along the trail. Ric did an amazing job of running ahead and shooting us as we were walking by. Also, the added weight of our gear definitely added to the challenge.

Durand: From a sound perspective the biggest challenge was finding situations that were aurally engaging. Due to the high snow pack in 2011 all of the rivers were running well above normal and generally washed out the more subtle sounds that you generally encounter in the backcountry. The granite features acted as monumental reflective surfaces and caused the river din to become inescapable.

Zee: I concur with Ric; you’re hiking this trail, and have your miles to make. The trail goes by one side of the lake, and you look to the other shore, just knowing that you could get a beautiful shot over there, with the way the sun is hitting the peaks. You know, that’s the shot to get… but it’d be a 30-60 minute detour, so the shots you get tend to be the shots from the trail, or a few yards either way.


REI: What type of camera gear did you use?

Ric: We had 3 DSLR’s. A Nikon D7000, Canon 5D Mark II and a Nikon D3s (which was primarily for stills). We also had a Canon Vixia camcorder for the more casual moments and a GoPro Hero (for underwater shooting).

REI: How did you protect your gear from the elements and from stream crossings?

Ric: As best we could. We had dry sacks that we would stuff our gear in before each crossing, but I’m not sure how much it REALLY would’ve protected our gear had it been fully submerged. I think each of us paid particular attention to protecting our full memory cards.

Jason: We were pretty careful. We knew before we left that there was way more snow and water up there than in a usual year, so we planned accordingly. We had several layers of waterproofing for most of our gear. For the rainy days and more intense long crossings we put our cameras inside our packs in dry bags.

Jen: And the guys would carry across my pack, because unless I carried it over my head, it would’ve been in the water with how short I am.

Zee: Even with all the prep we did, it pretty much boiled down to: don’t fall in!

REI: How did the solar chargers work out?

Ric: They worked great. We only had one medium panel/battery for the 5 of us, but we knew we’d hit a few moments along the trail where we could recharge with AC power. So, the charger was basically there to top off the batteries and charge our phones. It wasn’t until we started having cloudy days that I realized how great it was having the solar charger.

REI: How big of packs did you carry?

Jason: We all had really big packs. Mine was 7,000 cubic inches.

Zee: It was the biggest pack I could get… I believe it’s 90L.

Ric: I think the trooper was Jen. She’s 5 foot even and carried a heavy bag.

Durand: I’m not entirely sure of the exact measurements of my pack, but I did manage to carry a full grown, wayward Tibetan yak over Forrester Pass, so I’d wager it was somewhere between a weekender and an Airstream trailer.


REI: How much did the camera gear weigh, and what was the total weight of your pack?

Jason: I would say the extra gear weighed between 20-25 pounds.

Ric: They certainly weren’t light, and I know we were all a little envious of all the lighter packs we passed, but it was a decision we made and we stuck with it. All the guys were carrying between 65 and 70 lbs. at their heaviest (the days we restocked our food supply). Jen’s pack weighed in just under 55 lbs. at its heaviest. 

REI: What advice would you give to someone who wants to videotape their backpacking trip?

Jason: I would say make sure to bring as much media and power sources as possible. I don’t think you'd ever hear someone say, “Wow I shot too much.” We shot over 33 hours of footage and still wish we would have shot more. As far as technical recommendations, I would say good fast lenses are a big help. If you’re bringing zooms they should be the fixed 2.8 ones. Primes are even better. Also, bringing a tripod, a decent microphone and even a pocket dolly will really improve the quality of your shots.

Ric: Stop and talk to everyone you meet. We met and interviewed some incredible people without whom we wouldn’t have a feature film. Their stories and the bonds you form with them are what makes thru-hiking such a memorable experience.

Durand: The trail and beauty is astounding in the Sierras, but what you leave with is the experiences and encounters you have with others. From a filmmaking standpoint, people should invest in at least a cheap audio recording device. Nothing ruins an otherwise stunning film faster that audio that distracts the audience from what is happening on the screen.

Zee: I’d say, practice. We all have experience shooting professionally, and there’s a marked difference between home movies and professional… and the thing that marks that difference is not just equipment, but intent. Shaky cam may be present in a lot of Hollywood movies, but it’s always intentional. A steady shot is a skill that can be learned, and it’ll make your footage that much more watchable. Take your camera out and shoot with it for a day, on your weekend hike, or a day at the office… then go home and watch what you’ve shot on your biggest TV. See what worked and what didn’t.

Jen: We each have our own story to tell. Our trip will be remarkably different than someone else’s—even one taken around the same time. So figure out how you want to tell the story and go for it.

If you live in Southern California or will be visiting soon, come join The Muir Project team at a free event featuring music by Opus Orange, a panoramic photo exhibit and a screening of the short An Inside Look at Shooting the Outdoors.

Friday, Aug. 31, 6:30pm: REI Tustin store (wait list only)

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 6:30pm: REI Manhattan Beach store (space available)

Wednesday, Sept. 26, 7:00pm: REI Arcadia store (space available)

The Muir Project team

Posted on at 9:30 AM

Tagged: John Muir Trail, Photography, The Muir Project and backpacking

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Bring it to Fresno!

Also, what is videotaping? I thought everything is digital. HA! Just kidding.

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And bring it to the bay area! Can't wait to see the whole thing. It's gonna get me the motivation, and the buy in from loved ones, to do a thru-hike, next summer, 2013, 11th anniversary of my last JMT hike, which was from VVR to TM.

Rob in San Jose
one of your Kickstarter supporters


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