You don’t need vanloads of equipment or even years of training to become a professional adventure filmmaker. You just need a decent camera, some innate talent, and guts. Rush Sturges is proof. The 28 year-old professional kayaker and filmmaker started his career when he was in high school, shooting paddling groups on the Salmon River in California with a Canon camcorder. In 2009, he started his own production company, River Roots, which has since produced three full-length paddling films. He has worked on projects on almost every continent, most recently in Mexico directing aerial footage for a kayaking, surfing, mountain-biking, and BASE-jumping video for the Mexican Board of Tourism.
We caught up with him in-between edits and asked him what it takes to become an adventure filmmaker.
1. It’s Not Your Equipment; It’s How You Use It
In the modern era of (relatively) affordable digital SLR’s, the playing field has never been more even for aspiring filmmakers. “Take the fact that the Canon 7D, which only costs $1,500, has been used to shoot Hollywood movies,” Sturges points out. “The reality is that, to the average eye, the difference of quality between top-level cameras and consumer/prosumer cameras has become increasingly thin.” According to Sturges, “It’s not so much what you shoot with, it’s how you shoot it.”
Good Options for Starting Out:
2. Listen to the Music, and Keep It Eclectic
According to Sturges, music is the root of all of his projects. “It’s the heartbeat and driving force behind cinema,” he says. “The best directors also tend to have the best soundtracks.” (Think Tarantino, Scorsese, Anderson, etc.). Sturges tries to find songs that are not yet popular, or underground enough that he can afford the rights to them. “There is a real art to this,” Sturges says. “And it often requires countless hours on music blogs or programs like iTunes, Soundcloud, Spotify, or Pandora.” If you are having trouble finding music you can afford, Sturges suggests getting a composer to create something original. “For my DVD projects, about 40-50% of the music is original,” Sturges says. “This will also make your project more unique.”
3. Tell a (Good) Story
“Storyline should always play a role in your filmmaking,” Sturges says. “I’ve always been a fan of action-sports porn, which is generally just epic footage set to a bumpin’ soundtrack. There is a time and a place for this, and God knows I’ve put in my hours making these kinds of movies. However, as you mature as a filmmaker, most people tend to go in the direction of being more story-oriented. This is the trend in action sports, too, and it’s exciting to see it move in this direction.” In a nutshell: You need a beginning, middle, and an end. “The three-act structure has been a tried and tested format since the dawn of entertainment,” Sturges says. It works.
4. Create a Solid Team
When Sturges selects the people he wants to work with on projects, he tries to pick out the ones that he knows are going to be efficient and fun. “When creative people are having fun in the field, they are usually doing a good job,” Sturges says. ”As the director, it’s your duty to choose a group of like-minded and positive individuals who can get the job done. “It takes just one big ego in a group to throw off the balance,” he says. “You need to be able to accept your own faults and also point out the faults of others in a way that is diplomatic and favorable to progress.” It simply won’t work if you have everyone on your team working on a different film.
5. Prepare Yourself for Postproduction
Sturges often spends more time editing his films than being in the field shooting them. Get ready to spend a lot of time at the computer. “I tend to be meticulous about making sure my shots are all on the right beat within my edit,” Sturges says. “This is easy to overlook, but if you watch your edits enough you will start to see your faults. If you are just starting out with editing, your best bet is to learn Adobe Premier. Adobe has a few more options and also enables you to mix most formats.”
6. Fake It Till You Make It
If you feel like you’re not sure what you’re doing or that you’re in over your head, there’s a good chance you are. “The best thing you can do is roll with it,” Sturges says. “From my experience, this is a big part of filmmaking in general. The reality is that, like any art form, there is no exact science. The best you can do is to maintain a positive attitude, and do your best.” As long as you remain confident and open throughout the creative process, you will probably be fine. “Work hard to make the best product possible with your team,” Sturges says, “And chances are you will get hired the next time.”