Winning in Adventure Films - what it takes

While at the 2018 Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, I spoke to Emily Pitts (EP) and Niall Grimes (NG), two of the judges of the BMC TV Women in Film competition. This competition is aimed at amateurs and is now in its fourth year. In 2018 year entries more than doubled, totalling 30.

There were three judges, Niall, Emily and Claire Carter. They watched all the films, came up with a shortlist of eight and then through discussion reduced to their top 3 or 4. Then the debate started over who should win. The judges admit that it is always going to be a subjective choice. 

NG: The judging can be totally random. It depends on the entries.

EP: It can seem totally arbitrary, but there is a method to the final decision-making! 

There are key mistakes that ensure you won’t make the shortlist, and elements that have to be there for you to have a chance at winning. 

The YouTube playlist of all the entries

What ensures that a film won’t make the shortlist? 

Technical failures, particularly sound 

EP: A lot of films falls down on the technical aspects. Small errors can bring down an otherwise impactful story. One film had an incredible story, but the protagonist / filmmaker needed to bring in outside help with the production and post-production. The technical stuff needs to be better. 

NG: A lot of them, I think ‘amazing, yes, you did it’ but the films lack the technical skill. 

EP: Sound is a key technical aspect, it’s really important. Background noise, wind, too loud or too quiet, inconsistent sound levels - it is all off-putting. And music makes a massive impact.
[Watch A Crash Course in Sound for Adventure Filmmakers]

NG: People do what they think needs to be done in a film, rather than thinking what that film needs. Like putting poor royalty-free music tinkling away in the back. 

Poor storytelling

EP: I would like to see better storytelling. To be effective, it needs to be nuanced. It needs to be organised, following a path of ups and downs. 

Lacking impact and/or connection 

NG: A winner has to provide some kind of wow factor, but also be human, and provide connection. For a compelling film the skill and expertise [of the athlete] do come into it. Otherwise you are thinking, fair play, but….. 

EP: If the film doesn’t have a strong purpose, then it needs to be beautifully executed. If not, what else is there?  

There is clearly some tension here, a divide between judges looking for the outdoor action sport WOW! and the recent trend towards personal, human-level films, ones that people can connect with. One of the women on the Women Adventure Film panel commented "Yes, those people look amazing, but I could never aspire to that. These stories are real, relatable women."

But being real and relatable still isn't enough without a strong purpose. From another panellist: "What’s the story? What’s the point? It needs quirkiness and humour, then it becomes fun to watch."

I want to think: I’ve not seen this before! And it’s well executed.
— Niall Grimes

What makes a film stand out?

NG: For the winner, I want to think: I’ve not seen this before! And it’s well executed. 

EP: Take Salty Dance Floor as an example: I felt really transfixed by it, it felt really different.

NG: It’s great when the music is amazing, when you can see that somebody really cared about that aspect. 

EP: It comes down to the energy of something. The filmmaker needs to know what they want to do with the film, and then it’s about how close they got to their artistic aim. Music makes a massive impact.

The judges' top films are here. The winner was Night High, featuring Sarah Rixham on a high line in an urban setting. The most viewed (19,000 views to date) was JumpScare, about overcoming the fear of falling in climbing.

If you want to do this well, you need to be a film watcher, as well as a film maker. 
— Emily Pitts, of Women Climb

Tips for making good films, from Emily Pitts 

Emily Pitts, BMC TV Women in Film judge, and Women Climb founder.

Emily Pitts, BMC TV Women in Film judge, and Women Climb founder.

Emily Pitts provided the original inspiration for the event, frustrated after watching films at the  Banff Mountain Film Festival and seeing no female protagonists in any of them. She is also the founder of the Women Climb community. 

while on your trip

  • A pro film can be made with a ton of money and still not really connect with the audience. That being said, some budget for your film is useful. 
  • Films need to be planned in advance, with the project executed as a piece of film. Don't just string together bits of documentary footage afterwards. 
  • On a trip, you should film every stage, from the very start, the earliest planning, right through to the end. You need footage right from the inception. 
  • Always aim to have more footage that you’ll ever use. And shots need to be varied - the protagonist, the landscape, close-ups. If you are missing elements afterwards, use stock footage. 
  • You need to film right through the trip, and particularly when the protagonist doesn’t want to be filmed. She needs to be filmed when she’s in a mess, she’s got to be prepared to be vulnerable in front of the camera. But also, not ham it up. 

during production

  • Think about how to tell your particular story. Do some research into film making techniques. Be sure the capture the ups and the downs, in ways that the viewer can connect to.  I want to think that maybe the goal won’t be achieved. Don’t make the outcome obvious. 
  • For a biographical film, the story needs to be interesting you need a really good protagonist. Watch Paul Diffley's lecture about classic film structure: goal - jeopardy - action - solution. [60 Minute Fllm School: Paul Diffley's Guide to Adventure Documentary Filmmaking]
  • On a long trip, positioning the timing is important. For example, on a film of an ocean row, having something quick from every single day would be great. Or a running counter of the days.
  • Edit the hell out of the film. Shorten each section, condense it right down to the essence. Get to the point quicker. Films are much more likely to be too long than too short. We had a three minute film in the top three. 
  • If you are going to use free music, you have to choose well. Honestly,  you are going to spend at least a day looking. Better to work for that day at whatever you do, and then use that money to pay someone who knows film music to do the looking. 

L-R: Cathy O'Dowd, with Sarah Williams and Katherine Knight, at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival 2018. 

L-R: Cathy O'Dowd, with Sarah Williams and Katherine Knight, at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival 2018. 

Why enter, if you are unlikely to win?

I asked two women with films in the competition what they got out of the experience.

Sarah Williams, founder of the Tough Girl Challenges podcast and the Tough Girl Tribe on Facebook, put in a film about her Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Sarah's film

  • It's about trying something new, such as creating a short film with all the video content I had available from my hike.
  • I really enjoyed getting to attend the Sheffield Film Festival, but with a reason to be there. It’s a great opportunity to meet up with other individuals who are inspired by adventure and the outdoors. That included other member of the Tough Girl Tribe, as well as individuals I have connected with via social media. It’s always good to meet in real life!

Sailor Katherine Knight, founder of Narwhale Expeditions, decided to recreate the classic Swallows and Amazons adventure with a modern twist, by exploring a wild, uninhabited Scottish island in a boat that flies. Katherine's film.

  • I have some sailing expeditions to the Arctic planned and my goal is to share these experiences in film. I entered the film festival as a push to get myself started in film making.
  • The competition element was also a draw, not in the sense of winning or losing, especially since I had no expectations of my film winning, but as a way to forge links with the other film makers in the category. Through the shared experience and by being able to meet in person at the event.
  • The festival certainly lived up to my expectations, I learnt so much from the process, from watching the other films and from speaking with many inspirational women from behind the lenses.