Spotlight: An interview with Steve Hall ("Baffin Island: An Arctic Adventure")
Steve, congratulations on this incredible documentary. It's one of the most original pieces we've ever seen here at Festigious! This film is a true love letter to Auyuittuq National Park, the lakes, the rivers, and the wildlife.
Before we chat about the film, we would like to hear a little bit more about your own story. Between Death Valley, the South Pacific, and the Arctic, you've definitely traveled the world quite a bit. How did you become interested in visual storytelling?
I think that visiting such unique places in the world made me want to be able to share the beauty of what I was seeing with others. And that all started with Death Valley National Park. Living here in California, a majority of people that I know prefer the forests over the desert. Meaning, they prefer places such as Yosemite and Lake Tahoe over places like Death Valley and the Mojave. But I felt like they were missing out on something really special. So I began using visual storytelling through the means of photographs included in hiking reports in order to share over 200 hikes that I did in Death Valley. However, I realized that photography alone was not very good at capturing the essence of visiting a unique place and going through experiences. At the same time, my good friend Josh Leard was filming, editing, and publishing well-made videos of places he was visiting all around the world. So I began studying the filmmaking processes of him and others who had made travel documentaries. And that got me started in filming some videos of my own visits to the Arctic and South Pacific. I captured visits to Greenland, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Easter Island, American Samoa, and Fiji on film and made some short video documentaries out of some of those. That's kind of how I got started.
What is the first piece of film equipment you owned?
It was actually something really simple - a DJI Osmo Action camera.
Did you go through any formal filmmaking training, or is it mainly learning from hands-on experience for you?
I didn't have any formal training. Josh gave me advice and tips. But I mainly learned from trial and error, as well as studying the films of others to see what worked for them. I feel like I continue to grow and learn a lot with each short and long film I publish.
You've won multiple awards at film festivals worldwide with your directorial debut, Last Chance Solo: A Death Valley Adventure. How did you first come up with the idea of making a documentary nature film, and what were your main takeaways from this experience?
Last Chance Solo was quite a success on the film festival circuit, which was quite rewarding after all of the hard work that went into it. I had steadily been losing interest in doing nature photography (particularly in Death Valley) over the course of several years. And it got to the point where I found it burdensome to document hikes by writing accounts and sharing photographs. At the same time, my enjoyment of filming on video was growing and blossoming. And I had been planning for several years an epic hike into the Last Chance Range of Death Valley. I was going to be visiting an area that very few people had seen before and that had never before been captured on video. So I decided to take everything I had learned so far and do my best to film a documentary of the entire hike. My main takeaway was just appreciating how hard the entire process is from beginning to end. Before the trip, getting all of the camera equipment and spare batteries charged and ready to go. During the trip, trying to film all of the most interesting stuff and provide good quality narration of what is going on. And after the trip, putting it all together in a way that can allow the viewer to feel like they are along with me.
Are there any films or filmmakers that influenced your cinematic style?
I think the filmmaker that probably influenced me the most was Jim Baird. He does hiking and canoe trips into the Canadian wilderness and Arctic.
Let's talk about your latest film project, Baffin Island: An Arctic Adventure! As a viewer who loves backpacking and nature, I can't tell you how exciting and fun it was to experience this journey with you. It's also very informative and the cinematography truly captures the vastness of the park. How did you prepare for this journey?
Preparing to go to Baffin Island and film my hike there was a monumental undertaking. Just figuring out the logistics of getting there and understanding everything about the park took about three years of planning. I wouldn't even know where to start when trying to explain the entire process. But just in general hiking and filming in the Arctic is a different process than doing so anywhere else. You've got to have clothing and filming equipment that can handle the harsh Arctic climate and that are suitable for rain, snow, heavy winds, and rugged terrain. And you've got to be able to carry everything that you're going to need with you in one large backpack. So a lot of my preparation involved getting those things ready.
How did you go about the filming, what equipment did you carry with you and what are the logistics behind this? Must be quite a lot of planning you had to do ahead of the trip.
The first thing was to use waterproof cameras whenever possible. And when not possible, to have a good waterproof case to keep cameras dry during Arctic rain storms. The second thing was to make sure that I was able to capture the best audio possible. Auyuittuq National Park is known for fierce blowing winds. And wind noise can quickly ruin a production and make audio narration impossible to hear or understand. Even with using a good quality microphone, the audio still did not record properly a couple short times due to extreme winds. So I just added subtitles during those small parts. As far as carrying out the actual filming, we had surprisingly good weather for the Arctic. It was freezing cold most of the time but the rain mostly came only at night. So that made filming a lot easier than it could have been.
Seems that the river crossings were certainly not easy... what were some of the additional challenges of shooting the film, from a filmmaking perspective? The river crossings were the biggest challenge both for hiking and filming. I would have to cross the rivers up to five times each just to get the gear across and set up the correct shots. In addition, I had a bear monitor along with me to watch out for polar bears. He was having trouble with the river crossings so I carried his gear across for him most of the time to help out. Other than that, my biggest challenge was just capturing the full essence of the experience of backpacking through this remote area in the Arctic. There were a couple of times when Arctic foxes ran right by me but I was not able to pull out the camera and film fast enough before they were gone. One disappointment was that drones are not allowed in the park, which meant I had to tell this story without the use of overview footage from above. At the same time, the area was so windy I probably couldn't have used it much anyway. Also, the heavy winds made it challenging to set up a camera on a tripod and then not have it blow over while filming. Let's talk a bit about the editorial process, which I bet, is quite lengthy. You probably had many more hours of footage to choose from. How do you choose what ends up in the film, and what ends up on the cutting room floor?
There was a lot more footage which could have been included. But ultimately, the story has to be kept moving ahead. There has to be good pacing. I tried not to overdo it with showing too much of any specific area. Of course, Mount Thor and Mount Asgard demand extra attention because they are two of the most majestic mountains on earth. But even with a 9-day trip like this, I wanted to keep the running time as close to 1 1/2 hours as possible. Do you replace any of the narration during post-production, or is it all recorded live on camera? I prefer to record my narration in the moment as things happen. This lets the viewer experience the highs and lows along with me, as well as the challenges that are faced. But I did add in one section of narration during post-production during the end credits because it wrapped everything up perfectly. You've got some really great musical choices in the film. How did you go about placing the music, to fit the right emotional tone for the transition scenes? Selecting, licensing, and adding music can be quite a daunting task. But it is so important to get it right. So I chose each song very carefully with great thought as to how it would compliment the scenes during which it played. And for this film, I actually took matters into my own hands and co-wrote three of the songs which are included. The introduction song "Weasel River" is fast-paced and a perfect opener. Then, there is a song that is split up and can be heard during two parts of the hike called "Baffin Island" which provides lyrics that describe the area well. And a song which plays over the ending is called "Snowy Owl", which ended up winning an award for Best Song at one film festival.
What are you most proud of? That after three years of planning, I was able to first of all overcome all of the obstacles of just getting to Baffin Island and Auyuittuq National Park. And second of all, that I carried out the hike the best I could and successfully captured it on film to share with the world. What's next for you and what's next for the film? Are you currently working on any new projects? This film's run at film festivals worldwide is coming to an end shortly and then it will be released publicly. As for me, I will be returning to Death Valley to finish up production on my second feature-length film there. For smaller projects, I have the Trans Catalina Trail coming up next. Is there anyone you'd like to thank or something you'd like to add? I would like to take a moment to thank Festigious International Film Festival in Los Angeles for awarding me Best Indie Filmmaker. This is one of the best film festivals I have ever been a part of. Where (or how) can our readers follow more of your adventures?
The best way would be to subscribe to my YouTube channel. For more info visit my site at stevehallfilms.com