How I Was Paid to Travel the World for a Year

HOW I WAS PAID TO TRAVEL THE WORLD FOR A YEAR

This isn’t a Five steps to cracking the TV industry, just as much as I don’t claim to have cracked anything other than Virgin Frequent Flyer Gold status and the top of one too many overpriced minibar Heinekens. This is simply my story of how I worked my way up to a phenomenal year of travel as a junior cinematographer.

My intention, to inspire others to do the same.

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1) I’VE ALWAYS KNOWN WHAT I WANT TO DO
           What do I want to do? I want to shoot epic snowboarding documentaries… but I haven’t done it yet.

     Cine:ma:tog:rapher – Fancy word for man who stands with a camera as close as he dares to people who do fun/dangerous/important/boring – but important/ interesting shit.

The first day I worked (for free) on a reality sports star TV shoot it hit me like man-flu at 2pm on a Monday afternoon, I wanted to be a cinematographer. The camera guys (Camos) on this shoot were getting paid to hang out of helicopters, ride jet skis, scuba dive, and strap themselves in the tray of speeding trucks – anything for the shots, right?

At the end of my first day of barely managing to lug around the legendary late Drew’s ridiculously heavy camera tripod, (Stix) lights, (Kinos and a Flec’ bro) and even occasionally the camera itself, (Digi) I knew two things: I wanted to be a Cinematographer and I needed to hit the gym. (That was six years ago… I’m still piss weak.) By the end of day 4 I had a permanent grin stapled to my mug and that’s when I met Camo Gav.

Gav hit me up on the last day and said, ‘You really love this don’t you?’
     ‘Yep!’ I sad.

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Well if you really want it you should move to Sydney where the work is and start from the start. Get a job, make coffees, be a runner – do whatever comes up and start there.’ Is all he needed to say.

He gave me his card, and the contact of a production manager in Sydney and four days later I ditched my teaching career and drove to Sydney. To this day I can link every person who’s employed me to Gav, and every day I shoot, I use techniques he taught me – and he wanted to help me because I knew what I wanted to do, and showed I was committed to it.

That doesn’t mean I started wearing Panavision shirts and telling everyone ‘I’m the next Peter Jackson.’ In fact, I don’t tell anyone what I want to do unless they ask.

A few years ago I took a job in Darwin for a History Channel series, as a crew driver. I had already shot news, and a few second camera jobs on ABC documentaries and initially thought the job was below me. But, as I came to terms with it, ‘below me’ turned into, ‘What the hell, I’m going to meet people who work for History Channel.’

   The US executive producer figured out soon enough that I could hold a camera steady and I spent 6 weeks in Darwin as a second camera operator for the History channel, and the friendships and experiences that stemmed from taking that job as a ‘driver’ are invaluable to me now.

2) I KNOW MY SHIT, BUT I DON’T KNOW SHIT.
         – There’s a difference between knowing your shit, and not knowing you’re shit.

“Once you think you know everything in this industry, you should get out.”
                                             – Gav
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When I assisted the likes of Gav and Rhino on and off for a few years, they (literally) made sure I earned a place at the table. Instead of a lunch break, I’d be handed the Digibeta Cam and a ‘practice’ news overlay assignment with a riveting theme.

‘I want 10 shots for: Betty Grew a Flower, or The fantastic expansion of the Chermside RSL carpark.’ Gav would say. The tape would be reviewed, and my hot, (over-exposed) soft, (out of focus) erratic vision would be deconstructed and examined like a dropped pie.

But I wanted to be good so I’d set lights for interviews and I’d watch monitors. And when Gav said to me at 2am in a the kitchen of our Gold Coast accomodation, ‘Mate, if you really want to be a Camo you’ve got to go shoot news somewhere. It’s the best training. I mean shit, when I was your age I’d already covered two wars, met a few kings, and been to god knows how many countries.

     So with Gav and Rhino’s help I hooked up a job shooting news in Townsville, and I did what they told me to do. I got the camera and company truck and on weekends I sat and chased car number plates to practice holding focus.

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The first news story I shot was a Christmas in July presentation at a local primary school. Santa’s white beard was blue, and all the kids’ faces were 3 stops under (very, very dark) It was as my mates would say, FOUL.

A year later, I took a job in Cairns as a fixer (whatever the hell that was) for a Discovery Channel program Biggest and Baddest – and met Peter von Puttkammer – a legendary Canadian director and producer. I drove the crew around for two weeks in awe of the places they’d been and projects they’d worked on.

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And then one afternoon in the Daintree rainforest we got lucky, happening across a mother Cassowary with her two chicks. Peter thrust an EX1 (Handicam on steroids) into my hands and Todd, (Director of Photography) Niall (host) and I (Just Me) tore off into the forest after them. I helped Todd cover the scene and jagged a shot that managed to find its way into the titles for the series.

When the opportunity arose I knew what I was doing, but never once did I assume I had earned the right to do it.

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This year they have kindly added me to their principal team as an additional cinematographer and I’ve shot for Peter, alongside my now good friends Todd and Andy, in Uganda, Venezuela and Louisiana.

3) I MADE MISTAKES AT THE RIGHT TIME
     ‘Oh, Shit… I wasn’t rolling.’
             – Every single camera operator at some stage in their career.

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This is a paradox, really. There’s never a right time to make a mistake, and hell I have made a few. But I guess the point is, the likes of Gav and Rhino knew I needed to make my mistakes when the stakes were low, and learn from them so I didn’t make them again. The fact is, it didn’t really matter that Santa’s beard was blue, or that my tape contained ten quality minutes of the ‘ground’ and cuts out just as the journalist fixes her last bit of hair, with the top mic picking up my voice as I say, ‘set.’

Sure, the news director of Townsville was pissed, and the journo’ wouldn’t work with me for a week because she had to get herself made up again, and stagger out into the 38-degree sun for another take, but they were my mistakes and I had to own them.

The other thing I learned by making mistakes is how to, ‘not panic’ (or flat spin, as the guys say) It’s natural for your heart to race, and your mind to fluster when you’re in the shit – but somehow, you get used to it.

I remember panicking when a Quoll took at a swipe at me while shooting for Totally Wild. I lost the shot and nearly took the presenter’s head off with the camera as I lunged out of the way.

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Since then I’ve been chased through a car park in the Northern Territory by a pissed 12ft crocodile at 2am, charged by a gorilla, had countless deadly snake encounters, been cut off from the presenter and guide by a grizzly bear in Alaska, fallen through a floating reed bed while relocating a Nile crocodile in Uganda, and bolted when a lion sprung to life at my feet as it defied the anesthetic reversal agent.

My initial reaction is always, get out of jail free – but the camera is still rolling and always aimed in the general direction of the action. In every case the shots have made it to air, and getting myself in the shit has even become the story

I’m not saying one Quoll taught me how to ‘not panic’ but the feeling of ‘missing something rad’ never left me, and I learned from that.

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4) I MADE FRIENDS
   I’ve found that people like working with people they like.

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Most people who work in film and television are freelancers, and freelance industries are driven by word of mouth.

Everyone has work friends, no matter what profession you’re in – but it’s not that common to share a van for three weeks as you trek Spain together, or bunk hammock to hammock for 5 days without a shower in the forest with your colleagues. Most people who work in film and television are freelancers, and freelance industries are driven by word of mouth.

Irrespective of the length of a gig, the crew is like family. We spend so much time immersed in a project, working long hours on little sleep, and often unwinding with a few late nights and some existential banter together. In this process, I’ve come to make life long friends.

This line of work attracts a certain personality type – and it just so happens that I get on really well with these people. That being said, people that know me often say I’m a high-energy person – and while it helps to get the job done well, I’m sure it can be over bearing at times. For this reason, I make my own mind up about people, irrespective of what others think of them. I hear it all the time, ‘It’s a small industry.’ And it is, but it’s filled with big people.

Whether it’s been a three person crew hitting all the major cities in the world in a matter of weeks, a 50 crew reality show that stomps across the nation for three months, eight stinky boys in mud huts in the jungle, a home made tent for 20 Indonesians and myself in the forest of West Papua, or a five star posh documentary with the likes of Sam Neill in Europe and Turkey – it’s been all the more fun because the people I’m surrounded by are intriguing, and I love that.

5) I LOVE WHAT I DO
     ‘Insert clichéd saying that parallels work happiness to life happiness’

      I know it’s lame – but it’s true. Julian Mather wrote a book called, ‘The second best job in the world – The extraordinary adventures of an ABC cameraman.’ And it is true. Wherever I go, it’s unique access to the most interesting and exciting people, places, activities and animals; it desensitises my perception of what is exciting in day-to-day life.

I’m learning quickly that there is no room in the industry for complacency, there’s always going to be someone younger, more talented and more driven that would kill for my position – and this is what pushes me on. The day I don’t pick up the camera and want to make something look better than yesterday will be the day I buy a coffee shop.

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I think you have to love this job. For every sixty seconds I spend pinching myself, thinking, ‘Holy shit, I must be dreaming – this is insane.’ There are days and days of lugging, sweating, waiting, rashes, rain, waiting some more, bug bights that drive you insane, hundreds of early, long-haul economy flights, straight into cramped crew vans for just as long, up before the sun – working into the night, eating from a can for days, working through the worst case of diarrhea you could imagine – because there’s no time for a sick day, and so on. It’s just the reality of it, and I’m sure my work mates of 20-30 years have far worse horror stories than I do. (But don’t worry; with the free alcohol at a wrap party every few months, it’s easy to forget the particulars.)

It’s not a glamorous job but it’s a glorious, rewarding job – and from the first day I walked onto a set I knew there was only one job I could do for the rest of my career.

Chasing Light: Lost in West Papua

CHASING LIGHT – LOST IN WEST PAPUA

It was 5:30 in the afternoon and we were running as fast as physically possible up the side of a mountain, deep in the forest of West Papua.
‘Come on, come on!’ I yelled, almost to myself as I lost my footing in the mud. The local boys chattered to each other in Bahasa; I was sure they were saying something like, ‘What the fuck is this crazy white guy doing running us through the forest like this?’

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I could see it about to happen, the golden dappled dance of sun squeezing between green leaves was a giveaway. Soon white clouds would be bleeding red and the blue sky would bruise with it.
Mr Sugiono lowered his machete and stared at my sweat-drenched face.
‘Ok?’ He pointed over Wijaya Sentosa and I followed his gaze.
‘A little further?’ I asked. It was starting without me. The highest streaks of white had already begun to paint themselves for a ceremonious end to the day.
Sugi didn’t understand and he pointed out again, ‘O.K?’
‘No, NO!’ I snapped and pointed uphill. ‘A little further!’ He didn’t understand, but he understood, and conceded, faithfully. With a final ‘Ok.’

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And off he charged, sensing the rush in my voice. I followed, and so too did Mr Hanozono with my tripod, and Mr Ramat, (barely a Mr, and more an 18-year-old kid from Jakarta) our translator – hauling more of my kit.
But the forest didn’t break apart like I had hoped. It was wearing us like a glove. I pushed my muddy chest against a fallen tree, spun over it and charged on.

‘This is stupid!’ I thought to myself. ‘Someone (me) is going to hurt themselves, or break this gear.’
Even still, Sugi pushed uphill for me. I stopped and watched him move through the thick forest without the slightest of effort. Every brush of his knife artistically crafted for the next to follow.

I looked up at the orange burning blanket and knew we’d missed it. ‘Fuck.’ I muttered, out of breath and defeated.
‘Come on.’ Said Ramat.

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I smiled at him. Just a kid like me, a kid from Jakarta without a clue as to what was so damn important about getting a shot of the sun going down that we needed to hock ourselves through the rainforest like .
He looked at me and asked, ‘Why do you stop?’ He pointed west through the trunks of the forest and said, ‘Come on, look – It’s beautiful.’
And it was beautiful. Broken and obscure the sky peeked through at us as it tried to decide which shade of magenta it would like to be and I sat down on the forest floor.
‘SUGI.’ I called. ‘SUGIONO…’
‘EH?’ He called back.
‘SUGI COME BACK.’ I yelled.
Ramat translated, yelling into the forest towards Sugi.
Sugi yelled back, Ramat translated. ‘He says, “Why – It’s beautiful?”’
I laughed, ‘Tell him we missed it.’

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Sugi ambled back down to us, the game now over. He slid his machete back into its holder and sat down beside me, saying something in Bahasa which I knew meant, ‘We missed it.’ His empathy was so profound; but I guess I didn’t miss anything at all. The beauty was there in front of me as we all sat on the forest floor and watched it burn.

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Lost in Niseko

Lost and Found:

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For me, Niseko is Neverland. It’s a place where age doesn’t define you and merit is granted for how hard and fast you like to play. Everyone is chasing their own line, their own adventure. The further you venture the more you are rewarded. It snows hard, it challenges, and every morning it has stamped a polaroid into my mind, a snapshot of untracked snow. In the split second between trees I’d process it, plan four turns and charge – never forgetting what it looked like before I thrashed it into the air behind me.

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Every time I make the trip I thumb through a carbon copy of emotions. In the weeks prior I start to check the forecast, anxious; excited – it’s always snowing. The night before I go – beyond excited; no sleep. I arrive and Sapporo airport is a shrine of Burton or Dakine bags. The bus from Sapporo to Niseko (NB: sit on the same side as the driver) makes me physically sick with anticipation. It’s a slow uncapping of a heavily shaken bottle of lemonade. There is always so much snow on the ground, and although the drive is beautiful, its 2.5 hours of torture. It reminds me of travelling to the Australian snow-fields by bus as a high school student, no one sleeps, ipods are in, cards are flicked – but no one sleeps!

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And then it pops, you drive the front entrance of Hirafu village and sugar is pouring from the sky. Homeowners are shoveling meters of snow from their rooftops. A skier bombs the main street in a hurry to jam some food in before an afternoon session.

Taking the first gondola trip has your face pinned to the glass, where can I hit, what’s left for the afternoon? You spit out, strap in, jump a gate to the backcountry first run and you plow into pockets of waist deep untracked snow at 2pm on a wintery January afternoon. You can’t see much because it’s snowing so hard, but you make three turns and hit a gap in the trees, turning around to watch the snow you’ve hacked float around in the breeze, waving you on as you do it all again, and again, and again.

It’s peaceful, it’s freedom.

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The snow is the main reason I find myself retracing back to Japan so often, but the world around the snow is intricate and unique. I barely scratch the cultural surface every time I go, but if I have any advice it’s talk to the locals. Eat where they eat, and ride where they ride. I’ve never met a more giving and considerate race, and they will do everything and anything to help you if you ask.

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If I learned anything else this trip it’s; 1) Take yen to Niseko – issues with cards and currency conversion (nowhere takes Mastercard or converts Canadian dollars.) 2) If you’re serious about dodging the crowds and riding untracked pow, stay at Annupuri – If you want to party as well, Hirafu is your bag. (I stayed at Bistare Kana and it was outstanding) 3) It’s going to snow hard – so take the appropriate gear, or hire longer boards/skis over there.

The Lens Grease Life

Beware the barrenness of a busy life. -Socrates

On a film set, it is the role of the first assistant cameraman to mark the focus points on the barrel of a lens for each take. He/she uses a grease-based pencil (chinograph) which is easily removed and remarked. With precision they cue the barrel to the first mark. Set falls quiet. Inhale. Action.

Regardless of the commotion in front of, beside and behind the lens, the 1stACs hands dance with artistic rhythm, spinning the focus wheel from one mark to the next. Their sole focus is to align two small white grease lines at the ideal time, and then slide the barrel on to its next destination.

Today marks three months straight on the road for me, (at the end of an amazing year of travel). It’s been an adventurous three months – not having slept in the same bed more than seven nights in a row, with these beds scattered across six countries, and in four states of Australia.

It’s the good life. I’ve an outgoing expense of $150 a month for my phone – and that’s it. The rest of my world is organized, managed, and paid for. I know, nailing the bach life with NFA, (no fixed address).

In return, I do my job. I hit my mark, linger until the action plays out, and then spin, finding focus somewhere else – a new town, a new city, a new country. The marks are rubbed, reset, and the world around me is called to life again.

It’s only in reading a book of no relevance to all of this that I realized what happens emotionally when I live like this. I’ll have to paraphrase as I left the book in a hotel after only reading 45 pages, (wasn’t focused there I guess).

According to this book, emotional sensitivity impacts your ability to make concise decisions. If you know how you want to feel, you make decisions that reinforce your emotions. In the same regard, people who are emotionally disconnected are more likely to make poor life decisions and develop counterproductive addictions, because of the lack of care for themselves and those around.

And so I filtered my own life through this theory, and realized that every time the barrel spins involuntarily, I ‘bubble’ the emotions of my immediate world and switch off the rest. It all fades; the feelings of connectedness and care for friends and family not directly affected by any decision I make. It’s a light switch that illuminates a pool of care for people; based on their proximity to the ‘set’ I’m focused on.

It’s not as if the love and care for people not directly associated with me disappears, but as a mechanism for emotional survival, I’ve had to learn to switch and separate as life changes.

This is the beauty of travel as a camera operator; you’re constantly embedded and re-embedded in a new crew, a new location, and a new culture, and usually you’re the closest person to the most fascinating people, animals and places on the planet. What I’m learning is that it’s easy to be too encapsulated by it all – and that when chance permits, some of the most fascinating people are in the most comforting place you’ll find – Home.

Lost in Kathmandu

The-ball birds

I have to start the story in a tight transit ally that separates the British and Indian Embassies in Kathmandu. We were in a panic. My producer and I had spent six hours sitting in the gutter waiting for our bribe visas to be fast tracked. The day before we had cut a deal over a small brown desk, and before we knew it our passport and the fate of our trip was out of our hands. With an hour to spare before we missed our ride to New Delhi, the Indian Consulate finally stormed out of the Embassy and into the adjacent cramped office spaces to sign the sticker on our passport. The yellow string-hung sign on the sliding door waved him farewell as he slammed it behind him and stormed back to what technically is India. The sign read, ‘Photocopies, Passport Photos, and Flights to Dehli’ but said nothing of express visa processing.

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We were in a panic because our visa stickers were in the wrong passports. The ally was a crammed frenzy of scooters, pushbikes, trucks, and us, with our passports pinned to the blue concrete wall as we carefully peeled our visas off the page. I took a breath and looked up at the razor wire decorating the top of the blue concrete wall of the Indian Embassy and thought to myself, ‘If this rips, we are screwed.’

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And that exact feeling is ‘Kathmandu’ – adrenalin heaving through my chest, as I embraced the chaos that was happening around me. Nepal sucked me in, it demanded my attention, held my focus, and it expanded me. As an outsider I had no control over my surroundings and no real comprehension of what life is like for the Nepalese. And when I gave in to it, rather than ogle at it from the comfort of an airport taxi to my hotel, the chaos was charming.

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I walked.  I just picked a main road, committed to it, and walked. I actually couldn’t process anything fast enough. The insanely busy streets happened around me at first. I found myself in the way of motorists and pedestrians. I held up traffic as a teenager hanging from the side of a van tried to convince me to get on the bus for 10 rupees. I felt like a rock in a blender full of fruit – everything else soft enough to slice and spin. It wasn’t until I stopped to take stock and two men fixing a motorbike came over and struck up a conversation, that I started to feel the ‘flow’.

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They asked me where I was from, I said, ‘Australia.’
The older man said, ‘Ah, Australia, beautiful.’
I said, ‘It is.’ Happy they knew where I was from.
Before I had time to continue, the younger man shouted, ‘Nepal, beautiful as well.’

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I could not help but smile and agree. Nepal and the Nepalese people are beautiful. My first single serving friends in Kathmandu. I took their photo, and then they continued to fix the motorbike. The words mulled in my mind, ‘Nepal is beautiful as well’!

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I stayed on the same road until busy roads and incomprehensible roundabouts squeezed into small stalls and dirt tracks, and further into foothills of mountains. People slowed, and began to stare, and smile, and wave, and stare. The photos I have are what I saw, but what I felt was peace. I walked, visually intoxicated, until I couldn’t walk any further – and then I turned around and walked home. If I have any advice, it’s pick one road and walk… you’ll experience it all – and you’ll be able to find your way home.

Instagram: @the_lostboys

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Sydney:Home

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Familiarity is what makes disorientation so exciting.  Exploring other lifestyles is what builds an appreciation for what’s yours. It’s only in coming home this time that I’ve really started to  notice this.

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Home is comfort. It’s an ease or a calmness in how you move about town, where you eat, who you see and what you talk about. It’s a list of people and places with memories attached to them, rather than a fascination with something new.sun

The trip home from Europe was just that – a trip. I said goodbye to one film crew, and walked straight into another. I think it’s better to keep the move, shoot, move groove going rather than stopping for a few days *(even though I don’t know what day it is, and tend to fall asleep at the strangest of times).

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With five days shooting at home before I jet again I’m on my tour de’ favourites – favourite people, places, food and coffee! It’s about getting the hometown fill, enjoying the things you miss when you’re away. Walking through the street this morning on one of Sydney’s finest spring mornings I couldn’t help but be grateful for the place I have to come back to, the place that’s mine; It’s always waiting for me to get home.

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It will always be familiar.

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Lost in Bilbao

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I’m tempted to not write anything about Bilbao; I can’t do it justice. For the first time in a long time I’ve felt lost lost. No one in Bilbao speaks English, and no one cares for it. Prague felt foreign, but Bilbao is rural. It has that small town glue that binds the locals together.dog-spring
Nursing one of the sorest heads I’ve ever had, I crawled out of bed with vague recollections of my first night in Bilbao. I remember pinchos, oversized gins, cobbled streets packed full of eating and drinking Spaniards, dancing with a blow up elmo doll, and a disjointed georgraphy conversation with two helpful foreign students on a bridge.Let’s just say itwas Bilbao 1 Lostboys 0 when I went to bed.stairs

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Avoiding the main city I just walked up. Bilbao is a bowl, with the center of town at the bottom. It was mid-afternoon, and I walked slowly, with no intention of stopping. I twisted and turned on mesmerizing backstreets for a while. Hundreds of people stood in the street and ate, so I did the same. I stood and ate a prosciutto roll in the Saturday afternoon sun, it was better than any KFC remedy I’ve had. It was like a saline drip.

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With a newfound exuberance I left the bottom of the basin and climbed a set of stairs off a side street. Old town Bilbao transformed into suburban Bilbao and the people stared at me and my camera. A drugged up teen chased me through a park, chanting Spanish at me and pointing to my camera. ‘Amigo…. Something… Amigo, amigo.’ I ran – no brainer. *The bag of smack and dark glasses were a dead giveaway. (NB: Pretty quick on the old pins, so no real danger) By the time my heart rate returned to a respectable pace I was lost, so I kept walking. But I couldn’t stop. Every time I decided I’d had enough and I’d take on one more block, I’d round a corner and the camera would be back in my face. It was an ancient looking church balanced dangerously on a cliff’s edge or an old stone archway, or a scampering set of stairs that drove the cogs in my legs to keep walking. By the time I finally gave in the light was gone, and I just let myself trickle down the side streets and back into the city.

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My time in Bilbao is definitely the highlight of my trip. The food is to die for, the people I met are already close friends, and the city is intoxicating. It sucks you in, and traps you in small, stunning pools of activity, but then changes and traps you again before you’re even aware you’d moved.

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It’s definitely the most fun place to get lost with a camera, and should be noted in remedial books as a great hangover cure.

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