Video: How to Make a Great Adventure Film—When You Weren’t There

Tips From Nobody’s River Director Skip Armstrong

The Nobody’s River expedition was supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers grant

Knowing and working with a handful of filmmakers, I’ve seen my fair share of the “real life” behind the finished product and much of it comes down to the editing room—or cave, as many of my friends call it. I’ve witnessed friends sift through hundreds of hours of footage, cataloguing and piecing together a skeleton of story, and turning into zombies in the process.

I’ve also watched in awe when these same zombie friends somehow weave beautiful tales, images, and music into the films we all watch on the big screens at festivals and the small screens of our laptops. A good editor changes the game—and Skip Armstrong is one of the best.

That said, with the Nobody’s River project, Skip took on quite a challenge: He had never edited something he hadn’t filmed himself and most of the expedition team had never shot video before. Throw in changing travel plans, heartbreaking loss, remote locations with no access to communication, and a story that turned out much different than the one he set out to tell—and it was a challenge more difficult than anyone could have imagined. Something the team quickly realized once they began shooting. Watch the trailer for the award-winning film here.

So how did he do it? I caught up with Skip and asked him…

Adventure: How do you build a story from the ground up without actually being there?

Skip Armstrong: Great question. Amber Valenti, the team leader, and I had spoken at length about the trip for years before the expedition actually departed, and I was intimately familiar with the details and logistics of the project. Because I knew there were so many different ways to tell the story, I thought it would be smart to create what I ended up calling a “field guide” for what sort of shots, shot compositions, and details I was looking for in the footage. I definitely shared plenty of techniques and scenarios that I wanted to avoid, too. No camera zooms, don’t follow subjects on every frame are some notable constraints.

A: A lot of outside factors and emotions affected the team leading up to, and during, the trip. How did you tap into their vibe when creating this story?

SA: Honestly, it was hard. The story we told was definitely not the story Amber or I envisioned. I wanted to reveal the four wild, if not innocent, sides of the ladies as they discovered a remote part of the world. I always envisioned the film being light hearted, carefree, and funny. Telling the true story of their journey was difficult because it was a story none of us wanted to accept. Losing friends and family is devastating and all of us were heartbroken with the passing of Zach.

A: This project was a pretty massive undertaking for you. Why did you take it on?

SA: Haha! I had no idea what sort of undertaking it would be in the beginning. Who wouldn’t say no to working with four babes? I didn’t want to be the first. But seriously, I wanted to support Amber and the expedition team members in any way that I could. I knew it would be a challenge to edit footage that I didn’t shoot and I was excited to push myself in ways that I hadn’t yet. This is the first project that I cut that I didn’t actually shoot myself. It was incredibly challenging.

A: What were some of the biggest challenges?

SA: Top of the list was accepting the truth of the actual story. I battled that for a long time. Second was figuring out a way to tell a very disparate and potentially confusing journey and then distilling it down to what I thought weaved the story together best. Third would be the massive amount of time it actually took to sift through all the 60 days of footage and cut the story. All in all, including sound design and color work it probably took 30 contiguous days to put the film together.

A: How did you prepare the team? How much guidance did you give them?

SA: I wrote the field guide that I sent along with the team for reference on the trip. Additionally, we met in Arizona three months prior to the trip to use the cameras and to practice. We spent an awesome three days on the Colorado River testing gear and having fun.

A: How were your expectations different than the final product?

SA: I was really looking forward to a fun and light-hearted short documentary. Nobody’s River instead is an honest and revealing story of the peaks and valleys of being alive.

Nobody’s River was an all-women expedition on one of the world’s greatest and least known free-flowing rivers, the Amur.  The goal of the two-month, 4,400-kilometer project wass to travel, document, and collect data on this incredible river from its remote Mongolian headwaters near the birthplace of Genghis Khan, across the vastness of the Russian Far East, to the Pacific Ocean Delta. The team received a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant for this project.