Day one I was like ‘oh it’s fine, point and shoot’. But then you actually get down to it… I studied film making, but this was more like guerrilla film making - we had to do everything from shooting, to writing the script, to acting, to everything.
Niela Gie was support crew and videographer for Tegan Phillips, winner of the 2016 Altum Challenge grant, during her New Zealand Epic adventure triathlon. Niela spoke to us about what it actually takes to create those video shorts - from camera to social media, every day, while on the road.
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I’m Niela Gie, from Cape Town. Tegan and I were in high school together. I slowly developed a passion for adventure and the outdoors, rock climbing and surfing. Cape Town has so much to offer.
Niela studied film in Pretoria and then went travelling, first to America, and then to New Zealand.
With our stupid South African passports, it’s really, really difficult to work and travel anywhere. New Zealand is one of the places that offers possibilities. Tegan was like ‘hey, I'm going to New Zealand. I'm going to be doing this adventure thing; do you want to help me? I was ‘definitely!’
Before I left for New Zealand I remember meeting with her dad. He said ‘are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into? You know just how much work helping her is going to be?’ When we actually started, it was probably the most intense thing I've done. It was so draining - emotionally, physically, everything. But at the same time, it was a lot of fun.
Tegan was doing the cycling and the running and the swimming. You were doing both filming and acting as her general support crew. How was that draining?
I’d have to wake up really early in the morning to make her food. Then it would be the whole day travelling, and I would still have to stay up and finish the videos. Tegan would also be up working anyway, so we basically weren’t sleeping. I also didn't realise how much I’d actually be having to look after her, almost as a parent. We just kept reminding ourselves at the end of the day we both love sports and adventure and just being out there.
The whole experience was meant to be fun, so even if we’d only had three hours sleep and she was crying or sleeping in the car or I was annoyed.
Watching the videos, it looks like you’re doing some of the filming and Tegan’s simply turning the camera on herself some of the time?
That’s what felt the easiest. For me compelling video is definitely about how it looks visually how it looks. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to concentrate on aesthetics. What is compelling is drama and just having your audience invest in your character. You want them to feel connected, to relate to her. The best thing was for us to see Tegan - how she was feeling and what she was doing.
Some of the most compelling footage is when Tegan is tired or worried or in tears. What does it feel like to push a camera into her face at that moment?
Oh I felt horrible. When we first started, I was tentative, and timid about been too intense with the camera. She was always amazing about that. There were times that she was really, really down, she would just take her camera herself and do the video. I just had to get more used to doing that stuff. I realised that at the end of the day, when you’re doing documentary stuff, you have to be shameless, and get in there.
Did you discuss beforehand whether there was anything that you simply wouldn’t film?
No, we didn’t and luckily nothing terrible happened. I was always very sensitive about how she was feeling and would kind of gauge the situation. If I’d felt that something was really inappropriate to film, I just wouldn’t have done it, or I would have spoken to her.
Once you’d edited a video, did Tegan check it or did she just leave it in your hands to make your best choice?
When I first started I had no idea how I wanted to edit anything. I had this dreamy idea of making amazing videos. Then the first day I made one, there was no dialogue. We realised that’s not going to work, we need actual content and a proper video blog aesthetic. She did watch them at the end of every night but she did leave most of it up to me. She was so tired every day and she was chatting to sponsors and people.
We also got a lot of input from Altum. They would watch the videos and say something like, ‘there’s a lot of shots in the car’ or ‘could you add some more branded content’. At the end of the day it definitely wasn’t what I would have created if it had been my own project.
How much pressure was there from Altum to get in more branding and more action?
I think we ended up putting a lot of pressure on ourselves, just thinking ‘maybe they want more from us’. We did spend a lot of time doing photoshoots of Tegan wearing this t-shirt and doing that thing. We did end up spending a lot of time putting in branding. When I thought about adventure film, that’s not what I was thinking about, adding in the branding. It was a learning curve.
What did your set-up consist of?
I have a Canon digital DSLR, with a 24 to 70mm zoom lens. That’s what I was mostly using. I had a 50mm lens but that’s not as practical for the stuff we were doing. I brought a tripod and all this other stuff, and then I realised all I had time for was my camera. We also had a GoPro and our cell phones. Those were the most convenient thing.
You really, really didn't have time for anything. You get the shot, it’s done, you want the day to be over, you want get everything finished and start the next challenge. It was very simple, guerrilla-style film-making.
You’ve got a bunch of footage on various cameras, what happens next?
We had a hard drive, and we’d throw everything onto my MacBook Pro. I’d have to sit through all the footage and sort it. It ended up been most of the interviewee shots on Tegan’s cell phone or the GoPro. I just use all that, and then add in some nice shots that we got along the way.
Originally I wanted to make a short film, actually I still do. I just haven’t had time. I've got so much footage, it’s actually crazy. Maybe we used a third of it. I used Final Cut Pro - throw everything together, export, upload to YouTube, put it on the website - boom, done!
Did you get anything special for this project or did you simply make do with what you had?
Everything was just what we had with us, what we already had.
You were trying to put up about five minutes of video each day?
We were trying to do one or two minutes and then it just ended up getting longer and longer. Sometimes because the stuff that she was saying was relevant and we wanted people to hear it. Sometimes I was just too tired to do more.
How many minutes of footage did you have to look through to find what you were actually going to use?
It would probably take me four or five hours to get everything edited, exported and onto YouTube. And then there’s a glitch or a black spot in it, fix it, export it again. New Zealand has the worst internet. I’d be sitting at MacDonald’s for two hours, or at information centres with free internet. When Tegan’s aunt Jilly joined us, she’d take Tegan ahead and I’d have to stay, wait, upload stuff and she’d come back and get me. The technical side can end up being so time consuming.
So five hours of each day just goes into editing video and trying to get a decent internet connection. What social media were you doing besides YouTube?
The YouTube vide would go on the website. I’d have a nice picture from the day or a video thumbnail and put that on Instagram to let everybody know that there’s a new video up. And then we’d share the YouTube video link on the New Zealand Epic Facebook page.
Where you were getting most of your video views?
I think from Facebook..
Did you feel you were putting the videos out into a void of silence or were you getting a lot of feedback?
Half and half. There wasn’t that much feedback but there were some diehard followers who’d be watching every day. We didn't feel like the whole world was watching but it did feel like we were doing it for these specific people who were really interested.
Which video do you like best of all the ones you produced?
To be honest, I actually haven’t watched them since we did it. I think the first one that I made was my favourite because that was when I was most creative. As we learned what we needed to get out, it changed, we had a set formula - get something out on time, that is coherent and has all the requirements. There wasn’t too much creativity involved.
How many hours of footage do you have from the adventure?
Maybe a couple of days, there’s a lot of stuff. That was fun though. I’d run ahead and climb up a hill or sit in a tree and wait for Tegan to come past to get a good angle. Or we’d be in the middle of the road at night, to get an nice angle of the bicycle tyre. I think Tegan got tired by the end of it because I’dsay ‘Oh, sorry I didn't get that, can you go back and cycle again past me?’ She’d say ‘okay’ but she just wanted to get to where we were going.
The thing with film - at the end of the day as real as it is, it’s never 100% real.
Have you any idea what you’re going to do with all of that footage?
I would love to make it into a five minute short and enter it in an adventure film challenge.
In what ways did the whole experience turn out to not be what you were expecting?
I didn't realise how tiring it would be and how time consuming. And it didn't feel as free as I’d expected.
I’d like to be doing adventure sports videos but I do think it would have to be passion project I’d have to be working commercially in the industry to subsidies my projects. I've been looking at how National Geographic photographers work. It seems like you have to be really self-motivated, believe in your own projects and do a lot of your own stuff. Once you get noticed and recognised then maybe you can make money from it.
I guess it goes for finding a career in film and for going on the adventure. We learned is that you just have to do it. We spoke about it quite a bit. We both didn't really know what we were doing, but once you start it just happens. Nothing’s impossible.
You can find Niela on Instagram @NielaGie