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.

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Lost in Venezuela

One G&T and two Tamazapam later and I arrived in Venezuela feeling shaken and poured over ice. I met the usual Gryphon crew at the airport in Caracas and it was all bro-hugs and excited banter, exchanging stores and catching up before we piled into a tiny egg-beater of a plane bound for the small Pemon Indian village of Kavac.

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I stared out through my small plane window as the tangled concrete city peeled off the landscape, a hot sticker from the windscreen of a car. Less and less urban residue clung to the surface until there was nothing left, but rainforest.

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Clouds hugged the torso of Auyan tepui, its temporary clothing – more a ceremonious gown than for practicality. It was stunning.

That there, is ‘House of the Devil’, Said Juan Carlos, our guide. His voice belted powerfully over the roar of the Cessna props.

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     It wasn’t the only time over the ten-day trip that I just sat and stared at Auyan tepui. The way it constantly changed was charismatic. It loomed in morning light, and danced with the clouds in the afternoon. I watched it disappear entirely in a storm. Water erupted from its crevasses afterwards, fierce and stunning in its housekeeping.Rain

Home for the next ten days was nothing more than a handful of round mud brick huts and a dirt runway that separated the village from the Venezuelan Savannah like a seam. It stitched the village to the foothills of the tepui. I looked at the five guys standing there on the dirt runway of a small Indian village in the jungle of Venezuela. ‘For the next 10 days, these guys are my life.’ I thought to myself.

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Our first few days in the forest were spectacular. We set the premise for the show; shot the opening sequences, abseiled the face of a waterfall with the host, and swam a flooding gorge to another hidden mountain waterfall.

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The rainforest was our playground, and I found myself embellishing in it. I felt the tranquility that comes with the exclusivity of somewhere so remote. I lost myself in the adventure of it all.

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But on day five, it started to rain.

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Poor light ended the day, and home was an hour away in the back of a rusted out Range Rover with a shattered windscreen and no brakes. We bumped along in a muddy semicircle around the edge of the tray, cameras dormant in our laps. Immature banter and white knuckles kept me from nodding off and falling out of the tray.

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We could all see the storm building efficiently over the Savannah beside us. Alex, our Pemon Indian guide started to chatter to himself as he began to unfold a large black sheet of plastic that I knew was only for us because of our gear.

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The tepui, though still a few miles away, loomed above us in what only seemed like amusement, its skirt of clouds bubbled with excitement at the thrill of the chase unfolding below.

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The temperature dropped and the wind flexed. The storm marched into the side of us with authority, careless of our insignificance. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear sat wrapped in a black sheet of plastic in the tray at our feet. My teeth chattered as water found its way into places that hadn’t seen water for a few days. Todd (our director) looked over and a smile cracked in the corner of his mouth. With the water and his scruffy drenched hair whipping against his Amazonian sun-kissed face, he looked wild and alive.

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     ‘I might take a photo of this and send it to anyone that wants to get into wildlife documentaries.’ He boomed, the crack in his mouth shattering into a hearty laugh.

His eyes sparked, the discomfort and power of the wilderness – a flint striking his eyes, and I knew he intrinsically loved every second of it. They all did; I scanned their faces, Niall our host, Andy our key grip, Pete the sound recordist, and Juan-Carlos our guide all had the same structure of light in their eyes.

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They wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world, and being a part of such a talented and disheveled party in the middle of a tropical storm is not disorientation or friendship I take for granted.crew

Photo Credits and many thanks: Andy Dittrich + Juan Carlos

Biggest and Baddest show teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t50JXg7w96o

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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