Elia Saikaly, final: “I think the human stories is what sold the series”

Today Elia talks tech, sponsors, media and how to tell stories in a sound byte world

They met in 2013 as PK was assigned to work with Elia on a reality TV series on Everest called ‘On the Top’ which earned a CINE Golden Eagle award. The Sherpa and the film-maker survived both Everest avalanches together, forged a great friendship and have worked together ever since.

They collaborated on a Google Street View project in 2014 and UnderArmour’s ‘Mission 14’ project in 2015.

In this final interview about their current attempt to climb the virgin Hillary and Tenzing peaks, Elia Saikaly details the technology he uses. We chat also about sponsors, social media, and the psychology behind filmmaking.

Pythom: You made a name with us shooting spectacular time-laps of the stars and climbers on Cho Oyu back in 2011. I see you’re shooting 360 and VR these days, which are your favorites and why? Any fun stuff that could be made with augmented reality? Any pokemons around? 🙂

Elia: Ha! Funny, I requested that the team members load the Pokemon app on their smart phones before coming up here.

I’m a time lapse geek for sure. Nothing energizes and inspires me more than sitting outside my tent and running 3-4 DSLR cameras and capturing the awe inspiring Milky Way dancing across the sky overtop the highest peaks on Earth. You can see some of my favorite images in the ‘On the Top’ video on Vimeo.

The picture I took from basecamp of the Milky Way and the south face of Cho Oyu a few nights ago?)

I am very fond of the Theta360 camera. Very light, easy to use, app friendly – perfect camera for climbers. Affordable too. I think you’ll be seeing this little camera in the hands of many mountaineers in the coming seasons.

I also have a Samsung 360 with me which sadly (because I’m a Mac user) I can’t even view! We had them brought in to Kathmandu from Korea last minute as they weren’t available in North America.

These cameras are in my kit for one reason: they’re light. I have so much other tech (and shooting 4K video is my main priority here) that VR has to be a secondary. I’m hoping to assemble a short film with the 360 footage we shoot.

Pythom: Walk us through your hardware and software pls, pros and cons of what you’re using right now?

Elia: I’m a Mac user – solid state internal hard drive in my MacBook Pro. I’m using Adobe Premiere to edit, Lightroom to process photos and time lapses and Media Encoder to compress video. I’m using Lacie Rugged hard drives to back up my data, which work consistently up to 5300m. Everything is double backed up.

The downside of the Mac is the power consumption. We’re well equipped here with two solar generators and a fuel generator as a back up, so power is not a concern at basecamp. Once you tether two Lacie hard drives to a Mac you’re consuming power quite rapidly. I’ve got enough media storage to climb high and only back everything up once at basecamp.

We’re equipped with two Thuraya sat phones, a Thuraya IP for Internet which goes online Oct 1. I’ve got two DSLR’s, a mirrorless camera, a bunch of GoPro’s, extra batteries, a DJI OSMO, tripods and accessories. My favorite tech companion is my Delorme InReach. This is an amazing piece of tech that every climber should have in their kit. You’re always InReach with this device.

Before the evacuation I had my Phantom 4 drone here, a DJI Ronin, slider and many other toys. I paired everything down once Gab flew home and then walked back to basecamp from Lukla.

The drone flew perfectly at 5200m. I flew it high over the 5th Gokyo lake. You can find a screen shot on my Facebook page or the video on Instagram.

Pythom: You work with Discovery Canada, what was your selling point and how is it going with the web-tv format you mentioned before?

Elia: The campaign is already rolling out nationally online. It’s an 8-part webseries and a 1-hr broadcast special which will air in November. Apparently commercials are airing across Canada right now both on TV and on the web.

Bell Media, who own Discovery Canada, have been a dream to work with. You have to remember as well that this entire project is presented by Jeep Canada. I can’t say enough about working with both companies.

Jeep have been incredible and it’s been a wonderful experience working with them.

The production crew at Bell Media, in my humble opinion, knocked the series out of the park. I’m in the business and I know how quickly these kinds of projects can go horribly wrong.

We essentially gave them everything. Our life stories, unseen archived footage, tales of hardship and survival, access to our families and in the end I am very proud of the level of production and more importantly the integrity of the storytelling. Big shoutout to Travis Wood, Graham Garside and Cos Prochillo. Not to mention the dozens of people working behind the scenes at all levels.

Bell Media were also given access to Pasang Kaji’s world in Nepal including his family life. I’m really excited for the public to experience this.

The selling point: they should probably answer this question, but I will give it a shot.

I think the human stories is what sold the series. Three guys climbing a mountain isn’t enough of a sell in any broadcast market. You need layers and layers of storytelling.

Between myself, Gabriel Flilippi and Pasang Kaji, coupled with the fact that we had a lot of footage to contribute to the series from the Himalayas, we brought not only an innovative idea and concept, but we were able to back it all up with who we are as individuals.

Unclimbed – ‘Reaching the summit’ is far more than a series about climbing. It’s designed to hopefully reach the masses. There is something in there for everyone. The best way to fully understand it is to watch it.

Pythom: You’re mainly on facebook with this expedition, would you say FB is overtaking internet?

Elia: I only have so much bandwidth as a one man film crew and climber. So yes, I do my best to share on FB and Instagram.

According to Gary Vaynerchuk, someone I deeply respect and admire, he once said: ‘FB has almost become the layer on top of the Internet.’

I really enjoy sharing my adventures with my community on Facebook. I don’t have a huge following, but I feel like I have a very engaged following and that motivates me to go to extra lengths to post as often as I can and interact. I feel as though my expeditions positively impact the community and inspire others to take action and follow their dreams.

Pythom: I’m not of facebook myself, I find the posts gossipy, phony, showy, narcissistic and lack of reflection. (To name a few negatives 🙂 I also think the gamification part (the “likes”) is downright dangerous as it fosters conformity. Tell me why I’m wrong?

Elia: I think you’re hanging out in the wrong places on FB. 😉

I think FB, as with the Internet as a whole, has content that caters to all types of people. If you’re into cats and cute dog videos, then there is a space for that. If you’re into superficial content, you can find that almost everywhere. If you’re into meaningful content, filled with insight, adventure and depth, well there is a space for that as well. It’s all about setting up your feed and using the technology in a conscious way.

Pythom: You told us before there is a psychology behind filmmaking, I say there is psychology behind telling a story – how will a world of increasingly shorter messages change us? Can we make it meaningful still?

Elia: We sadly live in a sound byte world. I’ve been watching trends very carefully and my main comment would be to adapt and try to see it as a positive thing. It’s where the world is at.

There will always be room for thought provoking feature length films, docs, lengthy podcasts and books. The current trends, if we take Snapchat or Instagram stories as a case study, are that people consume bite sized chunks of information before they swipe or scroll to the next update. Rather than see this as the downfall of quality and insightful content, I think it’s up to us to move with the trends and adapt to what people want and how they want to consume their content. I see leaders out there creating incredibly valuable content using these shorter formats.

In the same breath: human beings are wired for story. We always have been and always will be. I prefer to look at all of these tools as new and exciting methods to tell a meaningful story.

Pythom: You also said that climbing peaks is not enough for you, what’s the one deeper messages us you want to send here, if you had to formulate it in such a modern, short message – max 3 lines :)?

Elia: I’d say there are two main messages here and I think they’re best understood once you’ve seen the whole series and understood our back stories and where we all come from.

1. Regardless of what happens to you in your life, whether extreme hardship, loss of life, a difficult upbringing, whatever you define as ‘your story’ and the hold it may have on you, you have the power to shape your destiny and life as you see it. It’s your masterpiece. Why not live it to the point of tears?

2. I’d love for people (non climbers) to take away a renewed perspective of the Sherpa people. Rather than see them as stereotypical load carriers or porters, see them as leaders. As athletes. As men (and women) with families and dreams who belong in the spotlight rather than in the shadows where they are often wrongfully cast.

Pythom: You always wanted to inspire kids. I find kids do not what I say but what I do (and try to hide from them). The young today increasingly stay indoors, if they climb they go to climbing gyms, there’s even a parody show made about it. How can we get them to appreciate the real world? Should we even try, maybe we’re all just preparing to become a space-faring species bound to inhabit spaceships most of the time?

Elia: I’ve spent many years sharing my adventures on my Findinglife.ca platform. We took thousands of kids virtually to the top of Everest, twice. We’ve led virtual learning expeditions to Kenya, Tibet and beyond. I’ve seen communities transform, both at home in Canada and abroad because of these shared experiences.

Students, sometimes as young as 8 years old, through the adventure learning program, have changed the lives of children in various parts of the world, including Nepal through fundraising efforts. They learn about teamwork, compassion, empathy, challenge, adversity and many other important characteristics required to be a well rounded global citizen and human being.

Am I living in a bubble? I don’t think so. I choose not to be a cynic. Young people are bombarded with pop culture and meaningless content daily. Combine that with the ever increasing speed in which life moves and information travels, can we really expect any different?

Personally, I chose to be an optimist. Young people need exposure to the outdoors and require positive role models. They require a channel in which they can get involved, not as spectators but as active participants. This is the foundation of my new Findinglife platform which is being unveiled in 2017.

Right now, we have a team of students in the US who we are in contact with who are geo-mapping our positions daily and using satellite imagery coupled with our coordinates to help us map a safe route to the summit. This is all linked into their curriculum. I’m told by their teachers that this takes their learning to incredible new heights and has them engaged on a whole other level.

Pythom: Your most favorite climb yet and a dream climb in the future? Any other adventures you’d like to try?

Elia: My favorite climb was my first Everest summit in 2010. I had 20000 kids following online daily as we shot, edited webisodes and regularly went live from Everest to their classrooms from as high as camp 4.

When I stepped onto the summit, I had my mentors ashes in my hands and heard hundreds of kids cheering through a radio connecting to basecamp by sat back to Canada. For me, it was one of the most rewarding moments of my life.

Future adventures:

You’ll always find me chasing the more profound story. For now, I’ve got an incredible lady back home who supports me at the highest level, so I’m gonna have to say that after this: a beach adventure in Fiji with a side of wine, a sunset, a motorcycle, a diving regulator and a hot shower would be heaven. 😉

Part 1 of interview

Elia Saikaly on Facebook

Touching the Sky time lapse video on Vimeo

Watch Elia’s spectacular panorama Everest summit video

Some cool links to 360 imagery

What Gab was climbing when he fell

The team in 360 and one more

3D maps provided by ESRI who tagged the summits and created an interactive map. Fly around in 3D and experience it for yourself. The GPS positions of both mountains provided by Nepal Goverment and Ministry of Tourism. Elia: “Contrary to what Google Maps says, (no disrespect to Google Maps) according to the MOT in Nepal, these are the correct positions of the two mountains.”

Link to their story map that the kids are using

Unclimbed is an 8-part web series and 1hr broadcast on Discovery. Watch episode 1 for more background on the team.




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