Reaching the peak

How the team from NatGeo Abu Dhabi documented the UAE Army's Everest expedition
Base camp, Canon 5d, Documentary, Everest, GoPro, High altitude, Kathmandu, National Geographic, Sherpas, Sony fs7, UAE armed forces, Videography, Analysis, Content production

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When Alex El Chami, executive producer at National Geographic Abu Dhabi, first heard about the idea of filming a group of soldiers from the UAE army scaling Everest, he had some reservations. If the freezing winds, low oxygen levels and lethal crevices associated with Everest were not enough to give El Chami the jitters, the logistics of such a project proved equally as daunting.

The idea, mooted by the UAE army and National Geographic Abu Dhabi, was to make a one-hour documentary charting an expedition by 12 soldiers from the UAE Army as they scaled Everest in April and May 2016.

“The first time I heard about this project I thought ‘there is no way on earth we can do this’,” El Chami says. “We don’t have the man power or the skill to do this, because if you look at the region no one has done anything like this before,” El Chami admits. “We don’t have a high altitude cameraman who can go all the way up who speaks the language.”

But just as the 12 Emirati soldiers who were preparing for the climb were no doubt overcoming their own personal fears, so El Chami and his team also rose to the challenge of documenting the historic climb. After shaking off his initial doubts, El Chami reminded himself of the size and scale of the National Geographic organisation and realised that the production would need to tap into a combination of regional and international expertise.

“The beauty of working at NatGeo is that you get a lot of support from your management and offices abroad. We managed to keep it as a regional project from Abu Dhabi, produced in house but making use of expertise from around the world,” he says.

After initial meetings with the UAE Army to discuss their plans and what they wanted to achieve through the documentary, El Chami and his team started working on assembling the crew. High altitude filming is a highly specialised skill, and the team eventually settled on two seasoned professionals: a cameraman from New Zealand who had already summited Everest seven times and a cameraman from Montana in the US who is an experienced mountaineer but had never actually summited Everest before.

The final crew in total numbered about 23 people. Of these, six were based on the mountain for the shoot, one of whom summited: the cameraman from New Zealand went as far as the fourth base camp while the cameraman from Ontario went to the summit.

The rest of the crew and production team were spread across base camp, Kathmandu, Dubai and the UK. El Chami spent two weeks coordinating the project from Kathmandu and had numerous logistical roles to oversee, including ensuring that the production equipment arrived safely at Everest’s base camp on time and in one piece.

The first few days in Nepal were a steep learning curve for many members of the international team as they assembled in April. “The team was multinational; we took people from countries including the UK, US, Germany and the UAE. Most of them met for the first time at base camp and they were freaking out because they didn’t know each other and they were going to work in a really rough environment,” El Chami says.

The production team had already decided on a script, or outline, for the 60 minute documentary and knew that they wanted to keep the action centred on the soldiers’ climb up the mountain, without too much time spent on the backstory.

“The idea was to shadow the army, not to be part of their expedition,” El Chami says, adding that the 12 soldiers making the climb were accompanied by three trainers, as well as local guides, or sherpas, who are present for all expeditions up Everest. “Our mission was to shadow and that means sometimes you have to be ahead of the action to catch the footage you want.”

Members of the crew spent about six weeks on Everest from mid-April through May. As El Chami explains, climbing the mountain takes time due to the need to allow the body to acclimatise to the altitude and low oxygen levels. “People go to base camp and stay there for a while to acclimatise, get their bodies used to the temperatures and pressures and then they go up to camp one, stay there for some time, return to base and then push to camp two. The idea is to keep acclimatising your lungs to the pressure until you feel comfortable and confident that you can push to summit.”

The added challenge for the crew on the mountain was that they had to make the climb with camera and audio equipment, batteries, lots of hard drives and a laptop, according to El Chami. “We had to consider all the technicalities of what cameras to use going from one camp to another because each camera has different lenses and different weights.” Unlike filming in normal weather conditions, on Everest, the life span of batteries is shorter and record buttons on cameras can freeze.

In terms of capturing the footage, the crew used two Sony FS7s, one at base camp and another following the army team on the ascent. The crew also used a Sony PMW 100 and 200 for the ascent. They also used a number of Canon 5Ds and 7Ds and numerous GoPros at base camp and on the ascent. It was important to capture the action at base camp, where the army based its support team operations for the climbers, El Chami explains.

The GoPros proved particularly useful and were placed at strategic places, such as underneath ladders used by the soldiers to pass hazards such as crevices. The crew also sometimes wore GoPros to catch different angles.

El Chami says that the support of the Sherpas was vital for the crew. The crew and the soldiers all carried their own baggage and equipment as the sherpas were there for support and their knowledge of the mountain. “I have so much respect for them. They are the guides for the mountain. We found a great Sherpa who was camera assisting on the mountain, so we do have some of the footage on the documentary shot by a sherpa, who will receive a credit,” El Chami adds.

In terms of sound recording, the crew could not fit mics on the soldiers as this would have created too much of an intrusion. It was instead decided that separate interviews would be done with the soldiers after the mission was completed. Sound on the mountain was captured with the mics on the cameras and by a boom that was used as a second unit. In the upper camps, sound capture became more difficult, making the post-climb interviews even more important.

Another challenge was ensuring that the key sequences were caught on camera without any hiccups, such as camera buttons freezing. Recording at the summit also brought its challenges because the mountain was so busy. This meant each group of climbers could only spend a matter of minutes at the peak.

Another sequence that the production team anticipated would be important for the narrative of the documentary was passing Khumbu Icefall. This is a moving glacier and one of the most hazardous sections of climbing Everest’s South Col route.

The crew captured a huge amount of footage from the mountain with about 36 hours of footage. On top of this there were the post-climb interviews and footage showing the expedition team making their journey from Kathmandu to base camp. This volume of footage made postproduction a big challenge.

Thankfully El Chami had arranged a strong postproduction team consisting of a main editor, and an editing director based in the UK who doubled as a script doctor and editing director. There was also an executive producer from the production house that El Chami had commissioned, who co-produced and co-directed. Three other assistant editors helped cut sequences.

Adobe Premier Pro was used for the selection, rough cut and offline editing. “It’s great to use because it’s so easy to transfer the files. You don’t need to render anything, no need to convert anything,” El Chami says.

For the online editing and colour grading, which was going on when Digital Studio met El Chami, the postproduction team worked on DaVinci Resolve. Skilful colour grading was essential for the documentary, not least because of the high luminosity during the day on the mountain, and very low light at night. This also had to be factored in during the shoot.

“The other thing is you have three colours on the mountain and most of the time from the footage there are just two: white and black. Even the sky most of the time is a grey white because it’s cloudy, so when you take your footage to grade you don’t have many tones or scale to work with because it’s very flat.

“I’m very happy with the results because of the way it was shot. Part of the brief we gave the DoP was don’t just focus on the action, also focus on the backgrounds to make it more visually stimulating,” El Chami says. “Capture action from different angles and change the background and it will be more interesting. That is why we have really good material.”

Another challenge in post was developing the story and narrative arch. With 12 soldiers and three trainers to film and only one hour to develop a story, the editing process was always going to be tough. El Chami said that the way the expedition unfolded on film was different from the original plans the team had drafted, but certain key sequences stood out and helped the team develop the narrative, including the Khumbu Ice Fall sequence and several times when the soldiers came to each other’s aid to overcome obstacles from storms and frostbite.

The final film will also include sequences of 3D graphics that provide information such as the path up the mountain and the effects of the climate and altitude on the human body.

The film is due to be released between December 7-13 on NatGeo Abu Dhabi and El Chami is optimistic that it could also resonate with an international audience. “We are going to push for NatGeo global as I think it might have a global presence as a documentary,” he said, pointing to the universal appeal of the film. “

“It’s a very emotional piece that has beautiful visuals in it and really tells the struggle of humans with nature and the determination that we have as humans to pass the difficulties and challenges that we face. It’s not only a team climbing a mountain, it’s beyond that. We showed what it means to be human in the documentary and what team spirit really means.”

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