(Tina Sjogren) It was 2005 and we were headed to Bogotá to check up on an enigmatic river boat named the Amazon Queen. It was owned by Vietnam veteran Phil Gonzales who used his paramedic past to provide tribes along troubled parts of the water with medical aid.
The American Captain took us on an unforgettable journey through remote parts of the Amazon flow. We slept in tents on deck, made fires on shifting islets, drank dark rom, learned salsa, took turns with kids on mudslides into the river, survived a few nasty storms and a capsize.
Phil, his wife, daughter and the rest of us: the Captain's teenage cousin from California, a nanny from Bogota, a local celebrity TV girl, Tom and I - and with his producer girlfriend; Colombian documentary film maker Luis Hernan Reina.
We'd spend humid evenings on deck playing multi-lingual charades or debating Luis wildly about ancient philosophy, cryogenics, adventure, science and space.
After the journey we scattered to the wind, and then the Amazon Queen sank. The Captain went back to war to rebuild his boat. Luis toured Colombia showing people movies about themselves. We left NY for Silicon Valley's innovative tech.
When this series came about, it was time to call on Luis again. Here goes his take on the future of adventure film and television.
ExplorersWeb: How long have been in the documentary film making business and what is the biggest change you've seen?
Luis: I've been in the business since 1994 when I started working as a foreign correspondent for a Colombian newspaper and a TV newscast. I was stationed in Cuba and covered the island, Central America and the Caribbean.
I worked for TV until 1999, and since then I only work on film projects (understanding film as the language not the medium). The biggest change, without a doubt, was the transition from analog to digital.
ExplorersWeb: What would you say is the biggest difference between Colombia and US in the field of adventure/lifestyle documentary?
Luis: The field is almost non existing in Colombia. I'm the only director who keeps working in it. There are a few very low quality production TV shows. Once in a while a local production company will produce an adventure/lifestyle documentary for a global cable channel (Discovery, History Channel etc...). Of course I'm not counting Reality Shows like 'The Island', which I don't consider real documentaries.
ExplorersWeb: You made a spectacular project where you filmed kids in remote villages and showed the movies to kids in other remote villages on big, inflatable, outdoor screens. Can you tell us more about that?
Luis: About 95% of our population don't have access to cinema. Over the last three years we have done four nation wide tours called the CineGira.
We setup gigantic inflatable screens (15x12 meter) on the main square and show movies for free. More than two million people in close to 700 villages have seen the screenings.
ExplorersWeb: How did they respond?
Luis: On any given night, about 30% of the spectators are watching a film projection for the first time. Of course they have seen movies before on TV, but for the first time they watch next to hundreds of other people who laugh and gasp in unison, with the magic of the light reflecting from the big screen.
ExplorersWeb: You and your brother have been doing web production in Colombia for over a decade now. What's your take on the future of television?
Luis: The short term future (next 10 years) of TV is almost here, services like Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus will expand and eventually you'll be able to watch what you want when you want for a low monthly fee. Everything will revolve around the Internet and traditional cable will eventually disappear.
ExplorersWeb: Brazil seems pretty active online, what do you think?
Luis: It's huge, but they are limited by their language. Although contents and culture are perfectly agreeable with Central and South America, the language barrier keeps Brazil 'isolated'.
ExplorersWeb: What's the situation in Colombia? I believe mobile is huge, how do you incorporate it with TV?
Luis: Mobile is huge but not so with data service which is expensive. Prices are starting to decline and eventually a larger segment of the cell phone users will have access to data packages.
ExplorersWeb: There have been several adventure reality shows - do you see a future for that?
Luis: Hmmm. Yes they have an important 'present' and future. In my opinion they are just soap operas with an 'adventure' veneer which adds drama and a chance to show some skin - girls in bikinis and buff guys in shorts.
ExplorersWeb: One TV documentary producer (for Discovery) told us "before it was the Deadliest Catch" now it's Antique Shows". Have you noticed shifts in interest and how do you adapt?
Luis: Very true and it'll keep changing over time.
ExplorersWeb: Are stories told differently today in adventure documentary compared to 20 years back?
Luis: In true documentary the story principles are the same, as they are the same in fiction film-making and they won't change as long as humans are humans. The changes in technique and pacing do not touch the core principles. Aristotle could show you how Casablanca, Nanook, Riding Giants, Titanic and Avatar share the same principles at an structural level.
ExplorersWeb: Adventure documentaries can be slow and boring. Do we need a change of pace?
Luis: NO!!! Pacing should be a combination of viewers' rhythm expectations and the story's own pulse. If you want to fight boredom and 'slowness' you have to address story-telling issues, not just the pacing.
ExplorersWeb: The first video posted on YouTube was apparently a 19-second clip called "Me at the Zoo." People's attention is shrinking. Has Youtube made an impact on adventure film making?
Luis: People's attention has always been very selective and finicky, it hasn't changed at all, it's hard wired from millions years of evolution and our 'predator' origins. Tell a good story and they won't mind sitting in front of you (or the screen) for two hours, tell it badly - or worse - tell a 'bad story' and they will fall a sleep or start texting in a minute.
You can see how TV series in which the attention span most be kept for weeks, keep going strong (Game of Thrones, etc...). The fault lies with the storyteller, not with people's 'attention'.
ExplorersWeb: Really cool videos posted by expeditions on YouTube and Vimeo often have very few viewers. Why do you think that is?
Luis: Publicity. Recently three major events happened in the world of skydiving (sorry, no names): One had major coverage, the other two had very limited coverage because they didn't have the publicity machine of a major corporation behind them. With so many offerings it's very hard to get to your viewers without the help of some serious advertising and marketing effort.
ExplorersWeb: Interestingly, adventure is no 2 top grossing genre (after comedy) in movies. Only it's not OUR adventure, but Batman, Lord Of The Rings etc. Reality usually beats fantasy, so how can real adventure films beat Men in Black and Harry Potter?
Luis: We come back to storytelling. The movies you mentions are 'adventure' only in name, in essence they are 'stories' with a heavy dose of fantasy. The only way real adventure films will be able to beat fantasy films is when the film-maker understands he's firstly telling a story.
You can only watch Jeb Corliss Grinding the Crack for a few times before it loses its magic and you would never pay a ticket to sit and watch Corliss flying for two ours. The ordeals facing a K2 expedition might seem super interesting on paper, but they don't mean anything if you're not involved with the people actually suffering them.
Documentary film-makers only compete with fiction when they are able to transcend the visuals and niche aspects of the 'adventure' they are filming, and get to underlaying characters and story. A good example is Stacy Peralta's 'Riding Giants' which although it is about the surfing culture, crossed boundaries and became a film which 'anybody' can watch because the characters and the story are so compelling.
ExplorersWeb: In US, print media have experienced a sharp drop in advertising; and broadcast TV may stand before a similar 'cliff'. What's the situation in Colombia?
Luis: Exactly the same, things happen a bit slower but the trends are very similar.
ExplorersWeb: Revenue at movie theaters is generally also down (last year reported the smallest audience since 1995). Rising ticket prices and competition from other forms of delivery are blamed (bigger TV screens, internet TV etc). What do you think is going on?
Luis: Exactly the same thing that happened with home video. Movie screening death has been foretold so many times that it has become almost a joke. The business side of exhibition is HUGE, they make more money selling candy at the theater than charging for tickets.
When you hear that this or that movie made so much money from the box office, you don't remember the theater made as much or more, selling Raisenet's and Milk Dud's. Like any other business, cinema exhibition will have cycles, it will go up and down, but it's not going anywhere, it keeps being a very profitable business model.
ExplorersWeb: Demand is reportedly up for Indie, foreign and documentary films. Have you noticed any of this?
Luis: Yes, but in a very small way. The major studios still have huge control over what will be seen on the screens.
ExplorersWeb: Out of the 40 most expensive box office productions some 30 were made only in the past 5 years. Can their resources preserve the current power balance or is there a paradigm shift brewing?
Luis: Remember that the movie theaters are just one part of a complicated equation. Huge amounts of money are made post-screening, with home video, cable, merchandising and on demand web screening. Revenue streams are becomng more and more diversified and content is king. If you have a movie that people want to see, you'll profit from many sources. Of course the problem for indie film-makers is how to access the publicity and marketing machine.
ExplorersWeb: There's lots of new and increasingly cheaper film-making technology. Meanwhile, skilled pro docu-makers for the outdoor lifestyle say it's increasingly harder to finance projects. "Nobody buys documentaries anymore." What can be done?
Luis: I think Kickstarter and other similar setups are a good bet for documentarians. Your audience buys the ticket or the DVD in advance, which allows you to make the movie. We're working on two projects which are kickstarter-centric and have high hopes for their success. Unexpensive films funded by the people who want to see them.
ExplorersWeb: Could we see the birth of an entirely new medium? What kind?
Luis: I don't forsee a paradigm shift in short term. I think we will see a rapid evolution of the convergence that has been developing in the last ten years. In the following decade everything will become more and more web-related in surprising and exciting ways.
I think there is an opportunity for small 'boutique' web channels in the mold of Hulu or Amazon prime, that specialize in niche audiences and offer a good amount of on demand content, for a fixed small monthly fee, about their 'theme'. But under some sort of editorial control that helps all these budding film makers to deliver a product that meets the audience's expectations.
ExplorersWeb: What about the new online platforms (EpicTV, WildTV, etc). Often well funded some even sponsor productions: will they be the new specialty channel giants online?
There is room both for format channels and for free flow ones, as long as they offer quality content there will be people willing to pay for it.
It will be a hit and miss situation until someone develops the right combination (money for the film-maker, money for the exhibitor and good content for the viewer).
ExplorersWeb: The most interesting internet media platforms you've found?
Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. A place that for a small monthly fee lets me watch what I want when I want it. Their only real obstacle is to expand their offering up to a point where any content the user wants is available.
ExplorersWeb: Have you seen demand for adventure related Web TV (short and episodic videos created specifically for YouTube, Blip.tv etc) at all?
Luis: There is great demand. For example the skydiving community revolves around their own web video postings, which for the moment continue to be fragmented and very uneven in terms of quality. There is a huge need for some sort of editorializing which will raise the quality of the end product, but people don't like to have their creations changed unless they are paid for doing so.
ExplorersWeb: What about truly live adventure video (Space Jump) does that format have a future?
Luis: Positively yes. I'm certain that thousands of persons would have been happy to pay a one dollar one time fee to watch the jump. The problem is the cost of publicity and marketing to let people know about your project, that simply is out of reach for most of us.
ExplorersWeb: Anything cool on mobile?
Luis: Screen size. My current phone is larger than the phone I had ten years ago. Size does matter fo certain applications. I think we will see many develpments towards HUD displays and eventually they will become the norm and you will be able to see a movie, while riding on the subway with the same quality as a top notch theater.
ExplorersWeb: What about 3D?
Luis: I think 3D in it's current form is just a fad, but it's also a predecessor of what's coming. I think we are less than 20 years away from true viable immersive virtual reality. The concept has no major obstacle it's just a matter of processor power which will eventually arrive.
ExplorersWeb: How could you as a film maker create products that viewers can interact with? Will you adjust your filming and editing technique to the way people interact with the content?
Luis: No because it doesn't interest me, but it's obviously a viable and interesting style for others.
ExplorersWeb: What about personalized TV (single-viewer units, mobile, pads). How hard/expensive is it to adapt to all the new platforms?
Luis: Not too hard, any good post house or person will output on any number of formats without a sweat, and editing specific versions from a primary cut is fairly painless.
ExplorersWeb: Do you have any experience of Social TV (interactive - tweets, polls etc)?
ExplorersWeb: A polar skier recently told us kids don't watch adventure video; they don't go outside at all in fact but stay indoors to play computer games. Is this a trend also in Colombia? Can we create adventure cinema that is as exiting as computer games?
Luis: Yes, during a recent meeting with a possible backer, I showed some people a few clips of Jeb Corliss, Jhonathan Florez and Roberta Mancino flying wingsuits. There were seven adults and two kids (11 year old girl and 13 year old boy). They were absolutely mesmerized, much more so than the adults which by the way were also pretty impressed.
I think children respond very well to this type of stories and images. The problem is how to get to them if you don't have access to a hefty marketing machine.
ExplorersWeb: Will we need to merge the two, that is use gaming tech and bring in sensor information?
Luis: It might be an interesting path.
ExplorersWeb: There is a merger of web and traditional TV (Google TV etc). Seems like a good idea to check statistics, maps, gear and stuff while watching an adventure documentary but currently most such attempts have flopped. Could it be that we just want to relax when we sit down to watch TV? Or is it only that the concept needs time?
Luis: If somebody is caught in a story they won't stop watching to browse for a canteen or GPS device, but you can certainly plant the seed for them to do so afterwards.
ExplorersWeb: New kind of tools are emerging: drones, contour cams, various robotics with built in cams for extreme shots - what cool gear do you know of out there?
Luis: I think the GoPro camera is an amazing concept that will continue to evolve and allow people to chronicle their own small adventures while becoming a powerful tool for the pros to use in more elaborate ways. The quality is very good right now and will only become better.
ExplorersWeb: Finally: Will folks like you become redundant in the future; will everyone make their own videos and will that suffice?
Luis: No, for the simple reason that very few people are good storytellers. I know skydivers who have produced very good quality short, medium and even feature length movies, with amazing footage that despite the good production level, are flops on the web and are not appreciated even by their creators. Which is not surprising because they are just collections of beautiful images without a strong story behind them.
People need and want good stories to escape their reality for a moment and live vicariously in someone else's shoes.
(Ed note: If you'd like to get in touch with Luis his email is email@example.com).
Amazon Queen update: "Life's misfortunes... fates caprices's... here I am, huddled in a bunker"
The future of adventure film and television, roundtable kick-off: Tom Sjogren, HumanEdgeTech
The future of adventure film and television: Michael Brown, Serac Adventure Films
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