Monday, March 11, 2013

New Zealand 2013 - Bottled Ships

Woohoo! Finally, we have stable internet! I forgot how difficult New Zealand internet is. I suppose it's a small price to pay for a country this beautiful. There could be worse things like cancelled credit cards, cancelled flights, and Kim Jong Un threatening my current home with nuclear war. Gotta take the small victories when you can.

Last time I talked with you fine folks, I was on the North Island just finishing up some Bungy Jumping and was about to do some filming in Waitomo Caves (the infamous glowworm cave in New Zealand. You travel along an underground river on a tube looking up at a ceiling full of glowworms. How cool is that?). That seemed like ages ago, so I'll try my best to catch you up.

Our next adventures took us to Rotorua, a city in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. It's an adventure city, and we took full advantage of our 3 days there. Our first stop was doing something I didn't get around to in 2008: Zorbing.

Whoever came up with this concept is a genius. A Zorb is basically a giant inflatable hamster ball for humans. You stuff someone in the middle, throw some water in there so they can slide around easily enough, and go rolling down a hillside. Easy enough, right?

It's a rather easy and cheap 'extreme sport' to partake in, and we were lucky to get some film privileges when we went to Zorb Rotorua. The guy there, Kevin, hooked us up with as many rides as we want for free and let us play on the hillside with cameras while our actors were rolling down. While most people are confined to a viewing platform, my coworker and I got to dodge Zorbs on the hillside while capturing some of the best footage we've gotten on this trip.

Our best shot, however, was really close to being something like this:
Although these things are like 10 feet tall, they move pretty silently down the hill. They also have no brakes and no steering, and all it takes is a little bump to set them off course. We were filming at the bottom of the hill, and him and I were placed between two tracks filming our actors racing down the hill. About 3/4 down the track both Zorbs, as if it was staged, took a turn and started coming straight for us. We had about 10 seconds to react before we ended up like the girl in the video, so naturally we thought running from the giant plastic balls like Indiana Jones was the best option. And, much like Indiana Jones, I was able to just escape as one of the Zorbs grazed the back of my head. We shared some laughs with the owner, mostly out of thanks that we didn't have to sign a ton of paperwork at the hospital that day.

After nearly getting crushed by some Zorbs, Kevin took us aside and called up his tourism buddies all around Rotorua. I guess our near death experience entertained him enough to hook us up with some free rafting. Producer tip #1: make friends with people on location.

The Rotorua leg ended with some mountain biking and forest shooting and, for about 3 days after, much needed rest.

We stopped for about 2 days in Wellington, where we took advantage of some time there to score some B-roll and pick up shoots. We also got to roam the streets a bit at night, making friends with some local bar hoppers and discussing the finer points of drunken politics.

Wellington was a good midpoint for the trip, and at night I would look at pictures of New Zealand from 2008 and try to compare them with this trip. The memories would sweep in, and I imagined myself in 10 or 20 years down the road and what I would feel about this trip.

I always imagined that, when I was done with this whole adventuring thing, I would settle down and get a house somewhere. One room would be my office or den, and I would fill the cupboards and bookshelves with the knick-knacks and trinkets I've collected on my adventures. I've spent 5 years building these memories for myself, and I want there to be some evidence that I lived this kind of life.

It reminded me of those people that build bottled ships. They spend hours, even days building this little ship in a bottle. They take their time. Each piece has a purpose, and needs to be placed right. Once it's finished, they put a cork in it and set it on the shelf for display. Over time, as that bottle collects dust, the ship will still be on display...but the memory building it would fade with time. You'll remember the finished product, but the finer details you saw while building it would be lost forever.

For this trip, it was as if I was opening that bottle and trying to build that ship again...exactly as it was before. I was digging up old friends and places I've been. I drove by my old house in Hamilton and the university I went to. I pointed out the window to places I've been as if the cast and crew I was traveling with would have the same emotional connection I had. It's hard, because at times when this job becomes difficult, I fear that I'm going to taint that bottled ship. New Zealand won't be the magical place I always built it up to be in my head. It'd just be...well, another stamp in my passport.

That jaded mentality comes from the age, I suppose. I'm older. I've seen so much more at 24 than I did at 19.

There are some good things that come with that age, however. I've learned to experience moments rather than try to capture them. It's hard to balance that as a photographer and filmmaker, as you feel obligated to take pictures of everything. I'm finding that balance, finally. It only takes 1 photo to capture a moment. I'm learning to spend less time behind the camera and more time in the scene.

We crossed the Cook Strait this morning, a journey I've never been on before. It was a new memory and experience here in New Zealand, as I've never been to the South Island. As the ferry crossed into the sound near Picton, the morning fog broke, allowing us to see the emerald green ocean below and the waves crashing on the cliffs next to us. Sailboats would cross our path in the distance. Feeling the ocean breeze as we cruised towards Picton seemed to wash away the anxiety I was feeling. I remembered that feeling of freedom you get when traveling somewhere new. It was exhilarating again, even if only for a moment.

We're 10 days out from heading back to Korea. I'm feeling a little homesick, but I was smart enough to save the best for last. We've got a couple days of shooting that will seal the deal on this entire production. For the time being, I still can't release the images I'm producing for you guys. It'll come in time...

Our next stop is Frans Josef Glacier and then we're off to Queenstown for some rock climbing. I'll see you all there!

Friday, March 1, 2013

New Zealand 2013 - Leap of Faith

Our first week of the New Zealand shoot is officially in the can, and we've all earned a proper day of rest. That means, of course, that everyone else is sleeping while I'm writing in my blog. Honestly, I couldn't leave you guys hanging for too long. It's worth dragging my butt out on a Saturday morning, grabbing a coffee, and going over the week.

Last time we chatted, we were in a holding pattern waiting for gear to come back from Customs. We were scheduled to have it back by Monday, but ultimately we got our gear late on Tuesday. Because of that, we lost 3 days of shooting (and, on this shoot, there's no room for lost days). If I learned anything from that ordeal, it would be these 4 things:

  1. Customs agents are lazy. It doesn't take 6 days to clear gear when we have all our documentation in order.
  2. Don't trust immigration. Always double check what they say, because one missing form (like in our case) can lead to your gear getting confiscated.
  3. New Zealand Customs Officers are super nice. They smiled and answered my mountain of questions with enthusiasm, and they never turned me away when I would prod a little bit concerning the $20k worth of gear stored in their office. US Customs should learn from these guys, as even as a US citizen I feel like I've always done something wrong when I land.
I learned later that I could have had my gear in my hands as I left the plane if I had claimed the gear as my own personal gear. While tempting, I don't condone lying or tiptoeing around the law. 

What filmmaking is really like....Photo by Steven Mortinson
It wasn't a complete loss. We spent plenty of time getting our ducks in a row and doing some on-the-ground producing. We got to spend some quality time at the beach and enjoy the summer weather...or, in my case, huddled on a couch answering emails about when I can get people footage.

Our first shots came on Wednesday in Raglan, New Zealand. Raglan is a surfing town located on the West side of New Zealand, about 30 minutes from Hamilton. It was a location I was familiar with, as I studied in Hamilton in 2008 and spent some time surfing and relaxing in that town.

We came out cameras blazing, but ultimately fell short of our targets. This was tough on me and my colleague, Steven. We each have a different way of filmmaking, but that's easy to mesh. Our hardest obstacle was getting use to the new gear. Because of the situation, this was our first time using all this gear together. We literally were buying gear the day before flying to New Zealand. For the filmmakers reading this blog, you are probably scoffing or cringing at that thought. The key to any shoot is spending less time setting up gear and more time setting up shots and working with actors. Even for a guerrilla film shoot like this, it's too difficult to just take gear and mesh it into a workflow that is, even at it's core, absolutely absurd.

That night, we came back a little defeated. We both have done better and know we could do better. Even though we are beating all our competition in this genre, we weren't satisfied. True filmmakers want perfection.

The next day we woke up on our game and with some bounce in our step. At this point, we were already behind by 4 days, and we had to shoot triple the amount of footage to catch up. It was a 6am-8pm kind of day, consisting of us only taking a break for lunch and a small surf break to let out some steam.
The office
We came back to the hotel and, although we weren't blown away by the footage we were putting out, we were satisfied. Unfortunately, because of how this shoot was structured, we don't have the luxury of getting re-shoots. Getting the shots and sound at a passable quality is sufficient enough for us, and getting those flair shots when we can really makes us happy.

There wasn't alot of time celebrating, however. We had to do the same thing again on Friday, dealing with similar issues. This time around, we were a bit more prepared. We also were going to a location pretty unique: in a little pod under the Auckland Bridge.

We had a hookup with Auckland Bridge Bungy, and we were going to shoot a scene based around our actors jumping out of this 'jump pod' resting in the belly of the bridge. It was a pretty simple shoot in that, for the most part, whatever we shot in that location would be something unique. It's hard to fail when they've granted you full access and you're allowed to drag your cameras around while walking on a catwalk floating 30 meters above the river.

I look goofy even when paralyzed with fear...
Our jump pod was 40 meters, or 131 feet, above the ocean. We got some shots of our actors climbing up into the pod and walking along the catwalk dressed in their bungy gear. It was a windy day, but remarkably clear and absolutely perfect for jumping.

For each actor, we strapped a GoPro Hero 3 to their hand as they jumped. It's been an overused shot, but like good cliches it's a money shot. We were able to get their reactions as they fell, and in good taste they would play it up by positioning the camera so they can scream and smile for the kids at home.

Now, as much as I claim that I'm an adrenaline junkie, I'm actually irrationally scared of heights. I don't know where it comes form, or why it's only standing on tall things...but getting near a railing and looking over makes my knees buckle and my heart pounding a mile a minute. And, just as irrational as it is to be afraid of high places, I couldn't pass the chance to jump off a bridge. Steven, our Korean coworker, and I also suited up for a bungy jump.

Steven made me look bad: he did a swan dive backwards, basically launching himself off the platform like an Olympic diver. It was awesome, and the footage we got from that was amazing. Before I could comprehend what was going on, I was already strapped in with a GoPro and standing on the edge of the platform looking at a watery grave down below.

As my feet waddled to the edge, however, I started to get some clarity on my situation. It might have been the adrenaline pumping to my head, or me just trying to not look down as my knees trembled to keep me standing tall. Negative thoughts would jump in my head, but would be decimated by fear and my survival instincts telling me how this was a bad idea. The man started to count down, and right before 1 I looked straight ahead and blacked out...just for a moment.

There was some perspective to be gained in this moment, and I only had a breath to grab it before it got lost in the adrenaline that was soon to come. I thought about only one thing: fight or flight. For most of my life, I've been a flier. When things get tough, I stick around long enough to validate the time spent there and get the heck out of there. Life's too short to be dealing with crap, and it's too short to be spent in a situation that makes you unhappy. For the most part, that mentality has lead me to some amazing places and pushed me to do things I wouldn't normally do. Flying makes me feel alive, because as long as I keep running I can keep experiencing and growing, right?

I regained myself just a split second after my feet left the platform. It was as if I wanted to run away but my body said "No, Ryan. You're doing this." That moment when you're falling for the first time is absolutely exhilarating. Your body freaks out, telling you that death is imminent. Your mind is racing, but all you can think about is how wonderful it feels to be this free. All that stress, all that anger, and all that drive I had came out in screams of joy. Your breath is stolen from you, and you try to figure out how you can remember this feeling forever. You are truly taking a leap of faith, as your life is dangling by a string (or, rather, a giant rubber band).

And, just like that, it's over. Next thing I knew, I was pulling my cord and sitting in my harness overlooking the city of Auckland. They pulled me up and, knees still trembling, I stood back up on the platform.

We all left the jump pod feeling relieved. We got the footage we needed, and we all did something we've never done before. The rest of the day was much easier as we got more of the shots we needed with a little less stress and more appreciative of our situation. We're going to need that drive in the coming weeks, as things are only going to get more intense from here.

Our next stop is in Rotorua, where we will be Zorbing (think giant Hamster Ball for humans), spelunking, and partaking in some Maori culture. Once our internet is stable again, I'll update you with some cool video and pictures. See you there!