When deciding to make a film, there’s always a grand idea of how you’re going to make it. But without proper planning, unforeseen events, and sometimes just bad luck, once in a while, what you end up with doesn’t turn out the way you had intended. What went wrong?
Azerbaijan – The Falcon Hunting Adventure
Back in January of 2015, myself and a few colleagues were tapped to help film a falcon hunting trip in the country of Azerbaijan. I thought, great! A new place I haven’t traveled to yet, I get to work with some great folks and film some amazing falcon hunting. What could go wrong here? Well for starters, when approaching any project whether it’s your own creation, or you’re a gun for hire, proper planning is a must.
This adventure began with the usual questions about how long the trip would be, where would we be staying, what kinds of shots were we looking to get to tell this story. When the majority of your questions can’t be answered plainly, that’s the first red flag that things may not end up going as smoothly as you would hope. In this case I chose to roll with the punches because life is a great adventure worth taking.
Once committed, I found myself meeting some great folks from around the US at various airports during our connecting flights. We had drone pilots from a few states, some filmmakers from overseas, and what we got was a well rounded group of folks who all signed up for the same thing. To film an adventure. What we ended up with however was not what we expected at all. Where did we go wrong?
No one seemed to care about the warnings we all knew were there. We had an idea of what we were supposed to shoot but there was never an actual script. There wasn’t much to go by on reference material either. It seemed like the allure of travel blinded us to the fact that we had no proper direction. Unfortunately no matter how talented our collective group was, and we certainly were veterans, with no plan, you won’t accomplish much.
Forces of Nature – And more poor planning
When we arrived at our hotel about forty minutes outside the city of Baku (which is pretty spectacular by the way), we learned that the location we would actually be filming at was approximately a two and a half hour drive from the hotel. Thirty of those minutes would be spent driving off road to the middle of an expansive flatland. Miles of nothing scattered with a few sheep farms here and there.
No one really considered that a five hour round trip would eat into an expected ten to twelve hour work day. Our terrible realization came when nine hours into our first day, we still hadn’t had a meal. It was somehow expected that our work day, and eating schedule would be dictated by the time we arrived on the set. In all fairness, even our producers were in the same boat. No one was eating, or resting for that matter. Needless to say, work performance is poor without proper meals and rest. Oh, and also with no plan.
Our talent, who will remain nameless I consider a secondary force of nature. Nothing could really happen without their approval. At all. In the Country. So, when we ate the first day, we were allowed to pick from scraps left over. Literally scraps. We gathered in a tent and sat on the floor, no utensils, only our dirty hands (no bathrooms anywhere for us) and we dug in. I tried to fashion a fork from some foil but it didn’t work.
Our producers felt terrible. They didn’t expect this to happen. Again poor planning. They never spelled out or had anyone from the production side handle the catering for a crew of over twenty filmmakers. By the second day and a lot of arguing in a language I couldn’t understand, they seemed to have sorted out our meal situation. We had lamb and rice everyday and it was honestly delicious. I did however have to smuggle a fork from the hotel to eat it.
The tools for the job and working together
We came to film a falcon hunt with some specific equipment that was requested of us. Highspeed cameras capable of capturing over a thousand frames per second, heavy lifting drones that could handle cinema cameras like the RED, and even a speciality camera that was being built specifically to mount to the back of a falcon. Which in hindsight, considering our actual working conditions, were the completely wrong tools to bring.
The talent, who hired the producers, who in turn hired us, seemed to do everything they could to actually stop us from filming the event we came to capture. Sounds confusing right? It sure was. Here we discovered a disconnect. A breakdown of communication as to what was expected of us. The reality was, the hunters had the most expensive high tech vehicles that could traverse any terrain at high speeds. We had SUV’s and pickup trucks.
In addition to having transportation that could never keep up with our hunters, on the rare occasion we did catch up, they intentionally blocked our cameras line of sight either with their vehicles, or their bodies. We were even requested to stay as far away as possible while they were tracking the flocks of birds they would release their falcons on. Sometimes, they just wouldn’t communicate where they would be, so the solution was literally, “drive around until you find the hunters”
What does this mean. Lack of communication and again, planning. No one realized many things. Our talent actually didn’t want us there. We were going through the motions. But they wanted great footage. Sounds crazy? It was. No one said, hey in order to get great footage, we need your cooperation and we need access. What we needed was an assertive leader. Lack of leadership, in addition to a plan and communication was our downfall. Starting to see a pattern?
Weather – What finally beat us
Finally, nature beat us. This one is tough because no one has control. We also didn’t have the luxury of something like a cover set or pick up days where we could just postpone a schedule. We had to just keep showing up and fighting the good fight. Unfortunately the ground got so soft and muddy due to rain that our two and a half hour commute one way became five hours one way. In addition to the hours expected to work.
This translated into crew fatigue, vehicle damage, equipment damage and a ton of time wasted towing vehicles out of the mud to get to a set where we would inevitably do no work, to repeat process and exit the same disastrous way we came in. What should’ve happened was a regrouping. An alternate plan should have been made to make the best use of our time, tools and skills. But I’ll go back to what I said before. With no real plan to begin with, how do you fix it?
The Azerbaijan Adventure ends – What did we learn
After nine days of minimal accomplishment, the journey came to an end. The biggest lesson to be learned from this experience is preparation and understanding of what your goal is. No amount of fancy equipment or talented people can make something from nothing. It all starts with an idea you believe in and understand. And when your script or concept has been fleshed out in a way that you can very clearly articulate to other specialists you decide to employ, you’re in good shape.
Although we did not leave Azerbaijan with enough substantive material to form any kind of film (even something experimental) we did ironically create lasting memories, good or bad. I met some great likeminded folks along the way and managed to learn something as well. Every experience can be a lesson. If anything else, besides the stories we want to tell, it’s the people that make the experiences what they are. Isn’t that why we do this?
Post Script – I had to Share this
Here’s a funny little video of how insane our camps power distribution was. Just follow Edward Richardson as he tracks down the source of power for his laptop at our basecamp.
Some of these photos and video are courtesy of Glen Chin, Steve Romano, Daniel Fiorito and Edward Richardson. Thanks to these awesome folks, we were able to share these memories with you.
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