I’m in the middle of the Australian outback, its hot, its dry and we are walking across Australia, yes walking! How did i get my self involved with this?
Film maker James Blannin Ferguson got his first post film school opportunity shooting a charity documentary that entailed walking across Australia. When you get an opportunity like this you dive right in.
This is a guest post by film maker James Blannin-Ferguson.
This is part 1 of a 2 part story.
At the start of 2010, I’d just finished film school; amped up & feelin’ qualified, ready to jump into an industry job! But it wasn’t to be, straight outta the gate… Settling for bizarro late night shifts in a bar & filing on weekends at an accountant’s firm, needless to say, I yearned for some outdoor activity. And I’d read about my peers in the weekly film school newsletter: so-&-so in Sweden working on a feature, so-&-so roving South Australia shooting exciting underwater stuff. What the hell was I doing? Pouring pints & shuffling papers?!
Well, who’d have guessed my yearning would lead to a 4 month 4,500km trek across Australia filming a bunch of guys pushing a wheelchair? And 2 years later, a 50,000km odyssey around the world filming 2 Aussie clowns in matching Hawaiian shirts push a giant, inflatable globe of the Earth, that would emerge as a feature & screen at the Sydney Football Stadium in 2013?
Birth of The Big Roll
I still remember that hectic night in the bar of early 2010, polishing glasses, & just observing the customers coming & going, when it really hit me, I was like a mouse on a tread-wheel; moving, but in a constant state of stagnancy. I HAD to break free.
Alone with my thoughts on the bus home that night, I promised myself I would not give up & get off my ass & just find something, ANYTHING, paid or unpaid in the industry, because that’s going to be the only way I’m ever going to transition. I knew it was going to be tough, but there was no 2 ways about it.
As luck would have it, I saw an ad for something called ‘The Big Roll’, which caught my eye as it insinuated that desired momentum I longed for. The Sir Roden & Lady Cutler Foundation were in search of a filmmaker ASAP to capture the ambitious task of crossing Australia from Perth to Sydney in a wheelchair. An epic adventure that was to become known as ‘The Big Roll’. The charity’s aim was to raise both money & the profile of disabled mobility. The ad also mentioned that a camera, accommodation, food, & all the beer you could drink would be provided… so I jumped on it! This was my dangling carrot, & I’d be damned if I didn’t do everything I could to snatch it.
I got talking with Christopher Williams from the charity, & mustered up all that pent-up enthusiasm for the outdoors & passion for telling yarns with a camera. He was in Perth at the time & I presume took to my energy, because I was hired over the phone. Couple things I learned from that conversation: we’d be eating banana bread & turkey for the next 4 months, be camping out in the bush for the majority & be rolling the wheelchair with a stuffed bear in the seat along with a rag-tag bunch of fella’s who called themselves ‘The Rolling Bones’. Chris asked when I’d be able to make it over, & I asked him if that was a rhetorical question! I was on the red-eye to Perth in a heartbeat.
The Rolling Bones
When I first met ‘The Rolling Bones’, it was apparent to me they were men on a mission; strong-willed characters with a passion for promoting disabled mobility. There was our ‘tour director’ Wayne, never without his maps, always on lookout for the ideal camping spot. Vic aka ‘Conan’, fit as a fiddle, & though the eldest, would claim he could knock over no less than 10km’s a day; a statistic we would hear constantly! Adam & Lucas; 2 energetic youngens attuned to city living, whose back & forthing was like watching an Abbott & Costello routine, & of course ‘Charity Chris’ Williams; who was leading the charge, manning the support vehicle, & spruiking to each township that ‘We’ve arrived!’.
Gear-wise, I was given a Canon Legria HFS10, which is this pip-squeak consumer handycam; no professional connections like XLR’s, nor did I have any external mic for that matter. Though it wasn’t what I was expecting to use to capture this behemoth of a journey across Oz, I knew that content would always reign king & after meeting the quirky ‘Rolling Bones’, I’d have that in spades. I’d also have to come up with some creative mounting solutions because I didn’t have a tripod!
So ‘The Big Roll’ kicked off from Perth Parliament House, where Trooper Donaldson VC imparted some inspirational words & waved us good luck & goodbye. We were off & truly racing, & I was too… NB: anyone who is running & gunning, & going solo, make sure you have the ‘running’ side down-pat. Because chances are, as I found out, you will be doing a lot of it, & fair enough… your subjects are not going to be overly favorable to walking back & forth just for you to ‘get that shot’… Especially when there’s 4,500 kilometers to come! Be fit, be fast.
It was during this first shoot with the Canon Legria HFS10 that I realized it was perfect for this particular project. Why? For me it was size. I’d store it in my jacket pocket, then ‘WHOOSH!’ whip it out & capture some sweet rolling action… Especially when you’re traversing across a landscape where literally ANYTHING can just pop up out of the blue like a giant eagle swooping towards you, or a flock of running emus, compactability equalled speed, which equalled getting the shot. My stability solutions were achieved via fence posts, car rooftops or the scorching bitumen, or whatever the camera would stay balanced on. Though, the majority of footage was handheld; we were on the move constantly, it didn’t feel out of place.
All across the land, whether it was Tammin, Cocklebiddy, Widgiemooltha or Norseman, The Rolling Bones presented medals & certificates of appreciation to the carers of those with a disability, & met with mayors & representatives of local charities to say g’day, raise awareness, & show off the support vehicles; which featured passenger seats that could transform into motorized wheelchairs.
Walk Film Repeat
Walk. Film. Repeat. This was my daily rigmarole. And each night, I’d plug my laptop into a generator, offload the footage from the SD card, & cut together a short 15-30 second scene, which was uploaded next day at the nearest roadhouse. It was very easy to end up with miles of wheelchair rolling footage, so to keep it interesting, I’d make these little vignettes of ‘life on the road’, whether it was Wayne & Lucas struggling to put up a pop-tent, or Conan losing his hat in the wind, or Adam ‘breaking’ his ankle after tripping over some roadkill, who’d then hop his way to the support vehicle, & cruise away in the detachable passenger seat!
With this sort of stuff going on almost every day, the camera truly became an extension to my hand. Rarely, was I not recording. I would never have found those moments of Wayne kneeling before a campfire wailing & making smoke rings, or Lucas pretending to be an animal as he held some kindling above his head like antlers, if I wasn’t constantly recording. Because it’s those moments that vanish in a flash. So keep it rolling as long as you can! In my opinion, it was this stuff that gave the story its true character & charm. If it were bog-standard coverage of us rolling into each town, it would have played like a run-o-the-mill news report.
There are times to plan & compose your shots, for me, those came mostly in the afternoon after we’d finished rolling for the day, & we’d scouted out our campsite. Shots of the burnished landscape, the salt plains, the skulls… But with a project like this, for the majority, you just gotta jump into the ring, & roll with the punches. I also found that the more I observed my characters, the more I could anticipate potential scenes. For me, I could see Conan & Lucas (the youngest & eldest) had a lot of banter between them, & Lucas has a very maniacal laugh. So I’d keep an eye on them, & when they got to talking, I’d be a fly on the wall, & get some great grabs. It was this ‘spur-of-the-moment’ kind of energy I was after.
On the Nullarbor Plain; a flat, almost treeless stretch of arid land, lies a place called Balladonia; a truck stop roadhouse made famous by the Skylab Space Station’s crash landing spot in the late 70’s. It was here I got my first inkling that The Big Roll was going to be a small part of a very big picture… Perhaps Chris, inspired by the surrounding history, was thinking about bigger things. Things BIGGER than Australia. Because he simply put it to me; “There’s a whole world out there… Whaddya say we roll that?”.
Simultaneously, my yearning for adventure & the great outdoors had just stepped up a notch, along with Chris’ expectation I was going to deliver something of a high standard. But one roll at a time! I needed to focus on the task at hand without daydreaming too much, & though flattered by Chris’ offer, it occurred to me; what if I didn’t succeed? I told myself I could NOT let that happen, & would even put my own body on the line to prevent anything from raining in on my parade.
Such was the case just south of the Nullarbor Plain, on the Great Australian Bight; a giant open bay with 60 metre cliff faces off the western parts of the southern coastline of mainland Australia. First off, from my experience, camping on the G.A.B is not ideal. The land is very flat & treeless. There’s just this endless patch of 1 foot scrub which offers ZERO wind protection.
So they say ‘when it rains it pours’, well, I’d learn this literally, mid transfer of the day’s footage, as I was strewn bang smack in the middle of a storm…
Gale force winds loosened my tent pegs & I ended up on all fours scrambling to stop myself from blowing away like a runaway tumbleweed! The rain was so torrential, it would seep through my tent & onto my back. I was using my sleeping bag to shield my laptop, but even that was a hairy situation, as the HD cable was prone to coming loose. It was a back-breaking, sleepless night, & luckily nothing was damaged or lost. From that point on, I only ever transferred data in safe, secure, DRY locales, & of course, kept my eye on the sky.
Across 4 states, The Rolling Bones presented over 1000 medals & certificates to the carers of those with a disability. They rolled with the Army & local police escorts all the way back to Sydney, to the Cenotaph in Martin Place on August 15 to celebrate the end of World War II. The Bones then hot-footed it to Victoria Barracks for a final salute before strolling into Parliament House where Trooper Donaldson VC & a host of government officials welcomed them home.
At the time, the gargantuan amount of footage overwhelmed me. I had never acquired so much material on any project prior to The Big Roll; only ever dabbling in short films. The sheer magnitude intimidated me, & I was even doubting if I was up to the task. Editing on Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5 on a consumer level laptop was hell. I didn’t have access to anything more powerful, so every time I wanted to import more footage, it would crash. I couldn’t see any other way around this issue than editing a small scene, exporting it as a raw file, then importing that into a ‘master project file’, with all my other exported scenes. So the final film would end up being a ‘2nd generation’ copy. I have no regrets for doing it that way, as I acted on what I felt was my only option at the time. If I had my time again, I probably should have reached out to my film school & edited on their machines…
In the end, The Big Roll doco evolved as a short visual poem. Chris; inspired by the spectacular landscape & weird & wonderful characters of these tinpot towns we rolled through, scribed somewhat of an ode, & even got his mate, the balladeering Jack Thompson to narrate it! Our epic adventure got TV exposure, was featured in radio & in local newspapers all across Australia.
As The Big Roll concluded, Chris got me in touch with some charities he knew, most notably Bill Moss AM’s FSHD Global Research Foundation (an organization dedicated to finding a cure for the muscle wasting disease FacioScapuloHumeral muscular Dystrophy) & that’s when I started freelancing. Filming their annual fundraising event; the Lindt sponsored ‘Chocolate Ball’ & various other fundraising events. I spent my savings on the Panasonic HPX250 which had all the professional features I was looking for in a camera. 22x zoom, great to punch in for a tight close even from 30, 40 metres away, the ND filter wheel; a saviour on those bright days, focus assist & the AVC-Intra codec with 4:2:2 colour sampling, which helped produce some stunning images in my opinion. My only cons with the HPX250 would be that the P2 cards are expensive & the performance of the zoom rocker; which has a prominent lag issue. But I’ve found the Varizoom DVX rocker solved that. Though a step-up from the little Canon Legria HFS10, I hadn’t really encountered anything as exciting (subject material-wise) as The Big Roll since getting the HPX250. But that was about to change…
Stay tuned for Part 2 as the rest of the world comes calling for James and his team to make his story a global one….