03/07/2013 08:12 EST | Updated 05/07/2013 05:12 EDT

How to Become an Adventure Filmmaker

Elia Saikaly

Imagine being dressed in a down parka, ski goggles, down mitts, plastic boots, crampons and barely being able to stand on your own two feet because 90km/hr winds are attempting to blow you off the side of a 17,000 ft ridge. In that moment, you feel as though life is unfolding at 120 frames per second. Your teammates, who are unrecognizable other than by the colour of their jackets, are simply trying to survive and make it to the summit. As a filmmaker, you have half the level of oxygen that you would at sea level which hinders your ability to think and move.

In the midst of the chaos of trying to determine whether to carry on or turn back, all of a sudden your Canon 24-70mm lens hood goes flying off the side of the mountain and disappears somewhere beneath the clouds. You freeze and think, "this is insane!" Then you quickly make a decision and point your camera in the direction of the next dramatic moment. "Think 'story' Saikaly, and make sure you get all the pieces you need for the final edit. And don't die in the process!" That is the dialogue I often have with myself at high altitude. This is the nature of my job as a high altitude filmmaker.


Adventure Photos from Elia Saikaly

So how did I do it? And how can you become an adventure filmmaker? I've taken what I've learned over the past eight years and outlined a series of steps for you to take to land your dream job of becoming a globe-trotting adventure filmmaker.

1) Create a demo reel. Prospective clients NEED to see how good you are. It's the number one thing that matters in the industry. Your CV means nothing if you don't have a good demo reel. It's also important to know that having a killer wedding videos demo reel isn't going to help you. If you don't have any footage, then create opportunities. Get out in a storm and shoot, volunteer to shoot an adventure race, team up with an athlete and create a profile video. Do whatever it takes to showcase your skills.

2) Brand yourself. It's amazing how many people are incredibly skilled that do not have a website, twitter account or online presence. YOU are the brand and your skill-set is what prospective clients are seeking. Build it and they will come.

3) Volunteer with a travel organization. The Internet is an amazing way to reach out to people whether by email, twitter or other social media platforms. Ultimately, you need quality imagery from diverse locations to build your portfolio. Work with an NGO, partner on a charity climb while offering up your services for free to build your CV and portfolio.

4) Invest in yourself. What served my career at the highest level was taking the financial risk of traveling extensively on my own dollar and shooting as much as I could every step of the way. It's amazing how much money we waste. Simplify your life and you'll be amazed at how much extra travel money you discover in your back pocket.

5) Mirror the success of others. What's consistent amongst all the adventure filmmakers out there is that they've done the work and paid their dues. It takes time. Draw from the lessons of those you aspire to emulate, learn from their mistakes.

6) Invest in quality gear. The DSLR revolution has changed the industry. We all have access to equipment that has the potential to create world-class images on a very modest budget. Good glass and a full frame body, combined with a few key accessories like an intervalometer and Glidetrack goes a long way.

7) Learn to tell a story. Filmmaking is about telling great stories. Beautiful images alone do not make a story great. Young filmmakers forget that nothing beats a great story with strong characters complimented by beautiful images. Balance out your time between the technical/creative aspects of filmmaking and great storytelling.

8) Be creative. There are numerous ways to sustain yourself during this process of building your adventure filmmaker brand and portfolio. Create a stock video library, shoot stock photos, activate tip jars on online websites like Vimeo, set up a donation page and have friends and family invest in you. Possibilities are endless.

9) Check your ego at the door. Be wise and don't turn down other work. I spent years shooting corporate and wedding videos to finance and fuel my dream of becoming an adventure filmmaker. Check your ego at the door and never convince yourself that you're above all else. It's a tough industry and it's a privilege to be paid to work. A means to a dream is how I choose to see this complimentary work.

10) Be patient. It is a very competitive industry out there. Understand that it takes time, commitment, dedication and determination to succeed. You need talent, but you also need to get your name and work out there. If you can persevere through the initial stages of setting yourself up and acquiring the experience, network and portfolio required to become successful you'll eventually find yourself living a dream and a life you never imagined was possible.

Elia Saikaly is an adventure filmmaker based in Ottawa, Canada. He is the founder of -- an organization that inspires, empowers and educates youth through the platform of adventure. Learn more about his work at