Saturday, April 26, 2014
When I think of adventurers, a few names come to mind. John Muir, America's most effective naturalist, launching the national parks from the tip of his pen. Thor Heyderhal, a Norwegian paleontologist who sailed a balsa wood raft 5,000-miles to prove that Polynesia was populated from the East. Rheinhold Messner, the first man to summit the tallest mountain ... on every continent. Bear Grylls, well, he's really good at eating antelope balls and jumping out of airplanes.
Over the years the way in which we tell adventure stories has changed and, with it, the notion of what it means to be an explorer. Modern adventure content has transformed from exploration of the unknown into one-dimensional characters supported by massive film crews facing surface level stakes.
While this is entertaining, the focus of these series destroys the perception of the places where they are filmed. Instead of the wild being a place to escape to, it's become a place to escape from. It's become unapproachable. The average American's detachment from nature has developed into destructive tendencies.
I worked for five years with companies like National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and Travel Channel. And I hold myself responsible for the deterioration of the voice of the wild. I say this having actually heard that voice -- not within one of my scripts or on a film shoot, but within actual experience, on a thru-hike.
In 2009, without ever having backpacked a day in my life, I left everything behind to hike over 2,000-miles on the Appalachian Trail, in the dead of winter, alone. This adventure ultimately transformed me. Once a hot-tempered, rigid kid, I walked out of the woods a humbled, confident, and balanced man. The lasting effects of this journey didn't just reshape me as a person, they transformed my career. Leaving behind broadcast news, I chased a new passion: Adventure TV.
Starting out in my career, like any production assistant, I had used my college degree for taking coffee orders, babysitting production equipment, and driving around big-wig producers. By taking care of the grunt work, I left the experts to the real job: capturing the story. Over the years my responsibilities grew. I became closer with the creative minds and processes within the industry. This changing professional proximity to the top revealed an alarming trend: the folks in charge had no clue what real adventure was -- they'd never experienced it and sure didn't know how to capture it.
Instead of filming organic journeys, missions, and challenges, we worked every day to produce fake characters, scenes, and stakes. The time constraints didn't allow for anything else -- or at least that's the excuse I forced myself to believe to continue creating this synthetic nonfiction. Before flying out for a shoot we already knew the story. After landing and dropping off luggage at a hotel in town we'd head out to create the adventure -- scene by scene, shot by shot, line by line. At the end of the week the host would sit down, re-read lines, and connect story points to ramp up the drama and make sure the narrative came to a clean end. After delivering the last line we'd head back to town and drain any remaining food budget at the bar before flying back to New York.
Show after show this scenario played out until I landed a position within Discovery Channel's development team. Excited to be on the forefront of new programing, I began work on concepts with titles like Alaskan Gold, Killer Crocs, and Off the Grid. Months into this new gig I wrote a pitch grounded in an unusual hook: Anything can happen.
By this time I'd gone on my life-changing journey on the Appalachian Trail and, trusting that experience, I mapped out a plan to hike and film a 2,500-mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. Dropping this pitch onto my boss's desk, I was confident the concept would move forward. By five o'clock that day, they had rejected it, citing high cost, impossible filming permits, a long shooting timeframe, and -- the kicker -- unpredictable grounds for story.
While the rejection stung, I thought about my pitch from the perspective of the network. The high overhead at these aging networks equates to every episode of a series costing roughly $100,000 to produce. This extreme budget compounded by expedited turnarounds forces TV producers to create only one kind of product: pre-produced adventure. Yet the very foundation of adventure is in the unknown. To capture it, you cannot predict. You cannot plan. You can not perseverate on details that have not yet transpired.
Fed up, I left.
Now, on my own path, paychecks became less frequent. I biked to avoid paying for the subway and ate a lot of pad Thai and Ramen noodles with peanut butter and hot sauce. Every night I lay awake, paralyzed by the fear that perhaps I'd made a mistake by leaving the industry. But by morning I buzzed again with determination -- out of the machine, and determined to capture something real.
During this time I filled my wallet with part-time lighting gigs. This experience not only paid the bills, it got me working with the best cameramen in New York City. Shadowing their skilled eye I prepared for the next chapter.
After pulling together enough resources, I set out to create the pitch that'd been rejected a year before. With just a buddy and a camera I flew to the Mexican border and began walking, trusting that the stories worthy of a feature film would rise out of this near impossible journey between Mexico and Canada.
This unwavering faith was well placed. Within those six-months I again heard the voice of the wild, but this time captured it in vivid detail. The days inside this journey became a storyteller's sandbox, recording real stakes, real people, and real struggle. After finishing in British Columbia I caught a flight east. Drifting over the Canadian Rockies I scribbled in my notebook:
Adventure is simple -- combine an insurmountable challenge, with a determined team. The highs and lows of that struggle define not only the path you walk, but the powerful narrative within it. To share that power means capturing the journey as it happens.
Over two-years after writing these words I completed the film As It Happens: Pacific Crest Trail. For me, the process of finding the story within my journals, composing the soundtrack, and editing the piece in my Brooklyn apartment was an entirely new journey. In many ways this process of reflection and creative effort was more difficult than the hike itself.
The result of this independent effort -- a timely, yet timeless film -- carrying viewers into a unique world, filled with moving imagery, surreal sound, and a story that could only be told by someone who's walked over 2,500 miles.
With the documentary's release I launched As It Happens TV, a platform that not only respects what it takes to capture real adventure, but also the places in which we do it. Taking the lessons learned, and expanding upon them, three friends and myself will head out in summer 2015 on the Continental Divide. We hope the stories captured and shared while on this 3,000-mile journey will ignite a spark within every viewer.
That flash of light is our mission. We are not focused on ratings, or money; there's plenty of room for those things in traditional TV. Instead, this work is a passion. Each journey, better captured. Every film, filled with unique narratives, compelling characters, and life-changing experience.
It is within this cycle of inspiration, activation, and sharing that As It Happens TV finds its pulse -- a heartbeat for the future of the true voice of the wild. Because the more people inspired to go out and explore nature, means there will be more people to protect it.
--Andy Laub, Founder & Director of As It Happens TV