Making Of The Wild West of Namibia

Making of the film The Wild West of Namibia

To read more about the film visit the main page where you can also watch a long preview of it.

The majority of pics on the page are from a little point
and shoot Nikon camera used by Richard Taylor

I was introduced to a guy in San Diego named Richard Taylor in 2010. I was editing my first documentary named Men of La Mancha and was looking for others to help. One person highlighted in that film, Tim Tam, told me about Richard, to contact him to see if he could help finance part of Men of La Mancha. Richard loved the idea of the film, mixing adventure travel with helping the poor, and wanted the story about Moises to be told, so he helped out the film as one of my Executive Producers.

Over time we became friends as we both lived in San Diego. Richard loves to travel all over the world on adventure trips and on some charity type trips. One day he invited me along for a upcoming trip. Initially we planned to go from the west coast of Chile across Patagonia to the east coast of Argentina by quad bikes but the trip fell through. The organizer of the trip was Henry Cookson out of the U.K. He runs a adventure tour company called Henry Cookson Adventures. Originally he was a stock broker in London but grew tired of the suit and tie life so started this tour company. He provides specialized tours, some very extreme such as a jump down to Antarctica over Christmas. He became somewhat famous in 2009 for a trip he helped organize called Walking With the Wounded, it was a trip to test a few veterans wounded in war, some of the men missing limbs, to see if they could hike to the north pole. Prince Harry heard about this group and decided to lend a hand with press but also he wanted to walk with the men, which he did a good part of the way.

Walking with the Wounded with Prince Harry
The Adventurer Henry Cookson
Pictures Courtesy of Henry Cookson
Richard met Henry somewhere in IcelandI believe, during an adventure trip, and Henry decided to organize this quad trip where Richard, myself and several others would come along. It fell through because of the problems with getting permits and the high costs of such a trip.

So instead Henry presented Richard with this 10 day trip to Namibia, Africa, with just the three of us, Richard, Henry and myself to go to some places rarely seen by anyone. Henry had substantial contacts here from previous treks.

Richard and I met Henry in Windhoek, Namibia in November 2011 at the airport after arriving from South Africa. We then charted a small Cessna and flew to our lodge in the Sossusvlei area, a few hours flight across barren deserts. It was the first time I had ever flown in such a small plane and was simply terrified, as my best friend had died in horrible crash in a similar plane just a year earlier (also highlighted in the film Men of La Mancha). The two guys let me fly up front while they packed in the tiny back end in order to help me stay calm.

We were each allowed only one bag each of supplies and it could not be hard case with rollers, had to be soft case so as to stuff in Cessna airplanes, and total weight had to be like 35 lbs or less. This was easy for the other two who had only clothes and one camera each, but I had all my documentary film gear. I took with me the Panasonic GH2, the 14-42 kit lens, the 100-300mm, and the 20mm, all panny lenses designed to fit on the GH2. I used one tripod and one monopod and several small joby pods. I had the Rode Video Mic Pro for audio which I fed directly into the camera. I knew I needed to do dual sound but having done dual sound in Men of La Mancha, and realizing how much of a hassle it was both in remembering to turn recorder on and off and then in post with sync issues, I decided to make this a simple film and record directly into the camera. In hindsight I wish I would have tried but nevertheless the sound turned out mostly OK, though there are times you will hear the AGC going up and down due to the high howling winds. The winds were just insane there, constant high winds howling. The fact is I did not have boom guy anyway so any sound I got was going to be compromised. My deadcat helped a lot and I tried to film many times from inside the car or plane looking at the interviewee just outside the door.

None of the guys I interviewed had any idea this was going to be made into a film. I simply told each of them what I was doing when I met them. The trip was arranged as an adventure trip, not a doc film trip. Of course my small camera helped but still they could see I was filming more than just clips. I wanted full stories. So much of my questions had to be included in the film because their responses were not good enough to stand on their own. Furthermore there was constant talking in the background from the other guys on the trip. In post I got rid of as much as this as I could but at times it was impossible, so I just made lemonade out of lemons and left in the dialogue.

Other stuff I brought was a nice Induro tripod that folds down to about 27 inches, the maximum length of a bag we were allowed to take, the smaller Manfrotto fluid head, and a hand made handheld rig. I made this rig with a flat piece of steel bought from Juiced Link and two handles I bought elsewhere from iKan. I could hold both handles and use the viewfinder cup against my face for a third stabilizer using my elbows folded against my chest. This kept the camera pretty stable. The most difficult thing was carrying that gear around all day. I see the pictures people took of me and I was bent over most of the time out of exhaustion.
Very high winds blew sand everywhere including all around the camera

The wind and sand was very high all the time. I was afraid for my gear. It turned out later then sand did get into some of my lenses and they never quite turned as smoothly as before. As some of you professionals reading this blog can notice the aperture was set at auto. I was still not that knowledgeable at shooting as I taught myself and for me story was always more important than craft. I regret this as now I always shoot fully manual as wide open as I can with ND filters. But at the time I simply shot in 24p with shutter mode priority at 50 and let the aperture and ISO fluctuate automatically. It ruined a lot of shots most of which I did not use but sometimes you will see this in the shots unfortunately.

I also had the GoPro Hero 2 which did not have the 24p option, so I shot mostly in 25p in 1080 mode which conformed nicely to 24p in Premiere Pro. I also used it as much as I could for off-the-wing time-lapses.  We were flying in a second Cessna for about 5 days with Bertus Schoeman owner of Skeleton Coast Safaris. Bertus has been conducting tours in the Skeleton Coast for decades (he told us one story of flying around Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as they heard about his great trips). His father was one of the pioneers of the park and helped found the Skeleton Coast Park to conserve the land there. I bought a small clamp which I attached to the wing to hold the GoPro. It was constantly battered by the winds and I really thought at some point it would fall off but it never did. However if there was any fog it would quickly enter the waterproof housing and ruin the shot. But I was able to get some nice ones. Since some of the flights were several hours I had to use a lower quality picture setting so it would not fill up the card and stop. But it turned out the lower setting was not great. This was my first time using a GoPro and I was not at all getting the shots they show in their advertising materials. Those time-lapses off the wing you will see are not the best quality in the world therefore but they are ok. I sold the GoPro as soon as I got back but I do want to give the Hero 3 a try with the Pro Tune settings on my next trip.

Near Angola in a moonscape of sand

Bertus flew us into the Skeleton Cost, landing right on the beach at a former outpost for diamond hunters, over the famous Seal Colony, into Mt Brandenburg landing near by, and up to the border with Angola where he has a inaccessible camp to the outside world. There we met a bunch of the Himba and learned about them. You can see most of these trips in timelapse in the film.

Eventually he took us back to an area of the Skeleton Coast that is restricted to scientists. He dropped us there and Pieter de Wit picked us up to drive us inland but we first slept overnight on the beach. Pieter runs a lodge nearby (well, 2 hours by plane as there is nothing more nearby then this), the Okahirongo Elephant Lodge (I made a promo video for him here) but helped be our guide and introduce us to Dr. Flip Stander, a researching scientist that has lived among the desert lions for decades to help conserve them with his Desert Lions project. He lives in his vehicle out there supported by solar panels and tons of water in the back of the truck, and sleeps on the ground.
Richard Taylor, Bertus and one scientist in the Park
At first Dr Flip was very upset with me filming anything and it seemed I was going to have to turn off the camera. But eventually he softened up and allowed me to roll with it and agreed to be in the doc. I don't really know why this is, perhaps because he was not told in advance, and is a bit of a hermit. However, he is a very communicative guy and was a pleasure listening to his stories. In fact he was a natural in front of the camera. It turns out the BBC did an entire documentary about him. Two cameraman spent an entire year with him living in the desert filming his life and work with the lions. It is narrated by none other than David Attenboro. I had no idea about it until he told us and later I watched it on YouTube.  I was amazed at all the lions in the film since we did not see any. We only spent about 3 days with him but for some reason he was not able to find any for us to see. Normally he sees them at night when they are active. One night he saw them but we were sleeping. He did show us a cool slide show, I filmed that, and we also came about a cheetah right after the kill, which my 100-300mm lens captured pretty well.

Photo by Henry Cookson
One issue was dealing with the data over 10 days. My laptop was too big to take so I brought a small 13 inch laptop that connected to an external 2.5 hard drive. I loaded up the 750GB hard drive from the SD cards over the 10 days and always made a backup on the external drive to be safe. I could even view the files since it was running Windows 7. Had I shot this now I would never have been able to use something like the Black Magic Cinema Camera since I would have had to take at least 2 or 3 3.5 hard drives and this would not be possible due to the weight restrictions. The GH3 should be great on the next shot or something like a Canon C300.
Photo by Henry Cookson

The GH2 was not hacked. I was afraid to hack it since I had problems with my hacked GH1 freezing and ruining some footage on my first film Men of La Mancha. So I decided not to hack it for this shoot. I did not know at the time that there was banding in the blue skies. But this is definitely an issue in some of the footage. I recently bought the GH3 and hopefully this problem was fixed. Also I noticed that the shadows are often noisy even in bright daylight. You can see this in the images from the Dunes of the Sossusvlei where on one side in bright orange and other is shadow, the shadows are noisy and even the reds start to band like the blue sky, this is a limitation of dynamic range. This type of stuff makes me long for the Canon C300 but it is out of my price range and at the time of shooting this film I needed auto focus as well since again I was not a professional filmmaker. The auto focus hunts often as you will probably notice a few times thought I was able to hide some of this in post with fake zooms etc. Nowadays I shoot full manual with a small follow focus.

I edited in Premiere Pro, mostly 5.5 but finished in 6. I colored with Magic Bullet, Colorista, some S Curves, Neat Video and some other stuff. The full film is 44 minutes and showing at a few festivals right now. The final 44 minutes will probably be released here on Vimeo Pro pay per view in a month or two.

The script took a lot of research. I read every possible entry about Namibia and the Skeleton Coast Park on Wikipedia and a great book by Amy Schoeman, mother of Bertus, called The Skeleton Coast for info. Music in the film is mostly free. I found these great classical pieces on Wikimedia  I always wanted to make a all classical music film and found it easy since all the copyrights are expired and the performers that post on Wikimedia do so with a creative commons license for films like this.I actually made a good relationship with one of the artists I found there, John Michel, that performs 80% of the music in the film and have purchased commercial rights to those. Another person that deserves great thanks is Neumann Films who has been giving away music tracks on his website. I used three of his pieces there. While the budget for the actual trip was very high, the budget for making the film was extraordinarily low, other than the time editing and writing the script.

GoPro on the helmet while riding quads out here.

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