Helicopter pilot, survival instructor, outback expert and adventure filmmaker – these are but of a few of the titles that can be bestowed upon the Filmmakers Podcast’s latest guest, Mike Atkinson. Starting with an inspiration from the film Top Gun, Atkinson has always been down a career path that would lead him to the niche intersection of survivalism and filmmaking. His film Surviving the Outback took 30 days to film, and Atkinson did it without food, water or a film crew in the remote Kimberley region of Northwest Australia.
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Atkinson joined the Filmmakers Podcast to talk in depth about his experiences in the Australian outback, working with and giving back to the aboriginal people who inhabit the region and embarking on a career change that lead him to becoming a filmmaker in his own right.
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Here are three key lessons to take away from his expedition.
Deal with discomfort…
“I had to divorce the side of my brain that gave into discomfort; I was obviously very tired and fatigued from the survival aspect. Because I’ve done a fair bit of those kinds of things I knew what my frame of mind would be, but I put so much effort and expense and risk into doing the expedition I thought I can’t get to the end of this and go I really should’ve put the effort in…so I just didn’t allow myself any break at all for the whole trip. So next time I do one of these trips (which I’m certainly planning on doing) I’ve just got to maintain that rage inside your head that you just have to keep going.”
All art requires some sacrifice, but when you’ve decided to embark on a project sometimes the most important thing is simply seeing it through despite grueling conditions.
Find your own film school…
An independent filmmaker in every sense of the word, Atkinson has no formal education in film production. Learning from filmmaking podcasts, YouTube videos and being on location by himself, Atkinson often times filmed as much as he could whenever he could and figured out how to extrapolate a story from the footage later on. With no film crew, Atkinson wrestled with camera equipment and learned the technical aspects of digital filmmaking while on the go. The end result being a gorgeously shot survival guide with an epic backstory.
“Everything was self-funded… but because it was something I was planning on doing a career change into, it was worth it. I didn’t do film school so that was also creatively deliberate; I didn’t want to learn the rules. Having been a pilot and done other jobs you have to think a certain way, but it’s nice to be able to break free and be more original… and the money that I didn’t have to spend on formal training I could spend on the film.”
No film school notwithstanding, Atkinson still took the time to prep his shoot with a shot list. The takeaway being, you don’t need film school to be a filmmaker, but you do need a process to make a film.
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Edit with emotion…
After surviving the bush, Atkinson had to pull from lots of footage to make his film but mapping out an actual story from his coverage proved to be one of the more difficult tasks. Keeping audience reception in mind, Atkinson strung together the footage in the most emotionally satisfying way and even went as far as to rent out a local theatre to screen footage and gauge audience reactions.
“After 6 months, I had got down in a chronological order an interesting selection of clips, but it really wasn’t progressing beyond that. I went through this really difficult creative churning process in my head… I knew that if I didn’t get over this barrier it would just stay a collection of interesting clips for survival nerds. I had written articles about adventures for magazines before and I just imagined that I was writing an article that needs a beginning, a middle and end and that’s the basis for the voiceover.
I wrote an article in my head of how it should sound and then I looked at sections of what I had written, the emotion of that section and then I found music which matched that emotion. Then I would fit that footage back into that musical clip; it’s a constant backwards and forwards process. Pick any emotion of what the story was and having fitting music was probably the main thing that keeps it coherent, but it also limits how much you can fit in a song, because you have to get out of a sequence before you can stay too long into it, so it keeps [the story] moving.”
Once the footage was compiled, Atkinson consistently sought feedback from his community. The film clocks in at a little under an hour, but it pushes the boundaries for what documentary filmmaking can be. The takeaway is to remember how the emotion of a story is what keeps people engaged no matter the subject matter.
Andrew Schwartz is a marketing professional and script reader working in the entertainment industry. He has written and read for outlets such as The Blcklst, BlueCat Screenplay, Final Draft and more. Find him on Twitter at @writingshorts or his Instagram page dedicated to The Sopranos, @sopranosgram.