Adventure Film Festival host Ellie Mackay recently spoke to James Dann, filmmaker and Director of ‘Out on a Limb’, a powerful adaptive ski documentary that follows Geoff, Dan and Isaac (three wheelchair users). They embark on a mission to conquer the Swiss Alps to prove that having a disability doesn’t tame their sense of adventure.
James entered our 2020 film festival and was selected as one of the best films in the Impact Award category. It was intriguing for us to dive deeper into his motivations, how he finds his characters, and his diligent and honest approach to filmmaking.
Ellie: So James, we've just watched Out on a Limb and it’s so powerful and inspiring, I want to talk about the film's impact and the messaging in it. What brought you to these characters in the story, and what made you decide you're going to make Out on a Limb?
James: I discovered one of the main guys, Isaac when I was in London about two years ago on the tube. I picked up the Metro and saw a tiny column in the back of the paper that caught my attention: 'video editor edits using only one foot'. And I was like, ‘that's amazing'! So I saw this article on Isaac and I cut out the picture of him and put it in the back of my wallet thinking one day it would be great to meet this guy.
A year later, I'm changing my wallets. And that piece of paper falls out. I'm like, Oh my god, I completely forgot to meet this guy. I should go and hang out with him and see if he's a real person. So I found him on Facebook and chatted to him, and the next week I went to film a one-minute video about him, it was fantastic! We got on really well and spent the whole day hanging out together. I said to him, ‘if you're ever doing anything or going anywhere, let me know because I'd love to make a documentary on you out and about on your travels’ because he goes everywhere around the world, is extremely active, and a vlogger. He replied: ‘Well, in about six, seven months, I'm going skiing.’ So I was like, alright, got to get in on that! I found the company he was going skiing with, messaged them and rang them about 9,000 times. They said, 'Okay, fine, you can come along and film with us.' You can film us a promo video in exchange for covering you filming for the entire week. So I filmed a promo video, and then I kept my camera rolling. It was just me there, so I kept my camera rolling for seven days straight.
On the first day, I just found people that I bonded with quite well, Jeff, Dan and Isaac. There were around twelve people on the trip, maybe more. But I was like, I'll stick to just three people because that'll help the narrative flow, and I'll just interview them as much as I can. And just like keep talking with them the entire week and just followed them on their journey, because they've all will come from different points in life, they've all come from different experiences skiing and doing outdoor sports in wheelchairs, so I figured it'd be a nice sort of variation to get three completely separate people on the film. And so that's how I found the characters, and that's how I filmed it.
Ellie: I love that story. I like the fact that you were really proactive and you went out and got in touch with somebody and said, 'Hey, I'd love to make a film and get your help', so would you just send emails and phone calls?
James: Yes, don't stop emailing, don't stop making phone calls. I'm making another film at the moment which is out in a month's time, the same sort of thing. It's a film about a group that goes to Poland every year with the last surviving members of the Holocaust, visiting all the death camps. I only found out about this trip because two people were talking about it in a bar. I found the trio online, they'd not had a documentary, they had lots of people filming and lots of media coverage, so I rang and I messaged and I rang and I messaged and eventually they paid for my flights and got me over there. If you're freelance like me, and you don't have family intrinsically entrenched in the film and media world, you just have to be relentless with it.
Ellie: I think that's really important for people to realise as well. As a freelance filmmakers, only 20% of our time is spent actually filming - making films, contacting people, emailing, meetings, proposals and discussions, and trying to figure out a budget and get funding and so on - is the rest. So it could be that if you know a character that you go wild swimming with or that one of your friends who's really inspired you because they were the first person to climb the highest peak in the UK or whatever, you could always start by reaching out to them?
James: Yeah completely, because at the end of the day, nobody is going to easily give you money for your film. I've been doing this for a while and made a bit of cash from my own stuff, but in terms of securing funding, getting grants, that's never happened for me still. By the end of this year, fingers crossed I'll have four short docs under my belt. But getting money for films is so difficult, it's a second job. So when you finish your job you then go on the application form. It is definitely a very cool job, but I think you have to treat it like your passion to do it. It is so much dedication and so much screen time, and so much typing and so many forms. Having a great idea is wicked, go out there, film it, see what you can do. But I'm at the stage now where I don't want to be just putting stuff online. I love that idea, it's a great idea, I wouldn't have got any jobs if people hadn't seen my stuff. But now I'm trying to get just a bit of funding to get it on a platform because I think that's important unless you're lucky enough to have a large reach on your social media.
It's important to know where you want to go with your film before you do it. I'd say the most important thing is to apply for cash and fill in every single form you see. I spend too long (two hours on Facebook a day) just looking for forms and things to apply for. A lot of them come off, not much on the finance side of things, but a lot of them like odd jobs come up. A lot of freelance jobs come up. Every job I've ever had has been through Facebook in fact. Every job!
Ellie: That's a really good tip, very useful and maybe something that people wouldn't have necessarily thought of.
Ellie: You've got some brilliant tracks in Out on a Limb. I love the opening few shots, and during the opening scenes, there's this really immersive audio. You've got this crisp kind of crunching of the snow and the howling wind, you kind of get a real sense that we're somewhere in the Alps, somewhere with fresh, cold mountain air. And that really brings us into the film we're about to watch and then throughout the film we have this beautiful sound, it's even referred to by one of the contributors as well, who talked about the sound of the skis. Did you have loads of professional expensive cameras and microphones? Did you shoot on a GoPro or on a smartphone? What was the kind of setup that you used?
James: Glad you asked. I shot all the sound on my little Rode mic, which I screwed on top of my Lumix GH5. That’s the entire kit. I waited at the bottom of the ski slope for people to come down, and interviewed them. All the other stuff and everything that you saw was a bunch of GoPros that I gave to people that just happened to be on the mountain, and said: ‘please just follow these guys.’ And then at the end of the day, they gave me the footage and I transferred it onto my computer. That's what gets the rolling shots at the start. I've used my same Lumix GH5 for the last 4-5 years.
Ellie: It’s a great camera. We get entries in our film festival that were shot on a smartphone - does a filmmaker need to have an expensive camera? How important are your tools compared to the story?
James: The camera is obviously important to get your nice crisp shots and everything you want to try and achieve for the vision that you're going for. The edit of Out on a Limb was done by a guy called Paul Jones who literally made the entire film. I'm not an editor. I can piece it together, I can produce and direct, but I needed an amazing editor. A friend recommended Paul Jones to me. And then I messaged him on Facebook two days before I was leaving Switzerland. He said 'okay, bring over the hard drive and everything and I'll have a look at the footage'.' So straight after the plane landed, I got out of the airport, jumped straight into a taxi to his house with the hard drive. Luckily he's an incredible editor and I owe him all the credit for the sound effects and everything like that. He just stitched it all up, an absolute magician, terrifyingly good!
Ellie: And that's a really good working relationship going forwards that you've got, people say you should always be friends with a lawyer and a doctor. Yeah, I always say you should always be friends with a good film editor too!
James: Yeah, always have a friend with a good editor and someone that doesn't mind doing spreadsheets!
Camera-wise, I am the biggest technophobe in the entire world. I try and stay away as much as I can from the physical, technical aspects and the pressing of buttons, I just know what I want the vision to be. I know what the story is, I know how to find the people. I love talking to the people and being on the ground and then piecing it together afterwards. But if you know what you're doing with tech, and you can get yourself a nice smartphone and everything and you can shoot it on that and it looks great, then that's fine. But 100% it's all about the story. I've seen so many films, which are beautifully shot and incredibly done with amazing sound. But it doesn't leave you thinking.
Ellie: Yes, some of those grandiose cinematic shots can actually detract away from the message, especially in the style of a film like yours. I think it's really good that you're not going to let that get in the way of the story. The storytelling.
James: Exactly. It's all about the story, it's all about following and chatting to people. It's all about asking the right questions and everything which you know.
'100% it's all about the story. It's all about following and chatting to people, about asking the right questions.'
Ellie: So, moving on to the kind of impact this particular film has had. You mentioned that you went out and got this footage, and then you gave it all to the editor to create just the structure of the film. But presumably, when you went out there you had a clear idea of exactly what the messaging was? Were you going out there to say, well, I'll follow these three characters around and see what their life is like with their skiing, or did you go out there knowing you wanted this particular message or this particular kind of framework of ideas to be represented in the film?
James: When I went out there, I went out not knowing anything about adaptive sports, not knowing anything about spinal injuries and recovery time. All the characters come from very different points in their lives. Isaac was born with his disability. Jeff and Dan acquired their disability later in life. So, it's three people approaching a journey from very different areas and I just wanted to go there and find out about their stories. I wanted to find out how people tackle coming out of an injury and then going on to doing something so positive like skiing. I wanted to find out how it physically happened and how people do it, what the methods are for doing it, and who trains them, and I genuinely went out there from a point of view of just curiosity and amazement. The whole driving force of it was just not having a clue.
Ellie: And that's such a brilliant message as well for you know, to anybody who's thinking of making a film, you don't need to be an expert on the subject to go and make a film about it?
James: No, I know nothing about anything I've ever done! Haha.
Ellie: In fact, the less you know the better because you can go out there and see everything through childlike eyes, you can see that kind of wonder and ask the right questions, almost unfiltered. There's no such thing as a stupid question because you're saying, well, I don't know anything. So, therefore, I'm in the same position as my audience. So I'm going to try and answer those questions. So I think that's a really great piece of advice.
James: That's always genuinely the way that I've approached these sort of things. I don't know what it is, but everything that I've worked on is because I don't know about it. I don't know about disabled skiers, I don't know about the last three members of the Holocaust and why they keep going back.
Ellie: And ultimately that's what we're doing as filmmakers. We're storytellers. We're trying to share knowledge so that people can find out, ourselves included through that journey.
James: Yeah, and the whole reason I got into documentary filmmaking was because I wanted to meet people that I wouldn't normally meet, and I wanted to go and travel and see places, new cultures, and then make some things along the way. So if you can meet people that are totally different from you, you can explore little subcultures of stuff.
Ellie: I like it because what you're showing is diligence and candour in seeking the stories, not just the act of filmmaking, but the act of seeking out the answers and being curious and exploring, is very much an adventure on its own. It's a form of adventure in itself?
James: It is, and I think another thing to think about (not to put a darkener or a dampener on it), is the realistic element of what this life is. It’s a great industry to get into and is great fun, but you have to be resilient. You just have to know what you like, and you have to be fine with not making much cash. I'm not saying I don't make any money whatsoever. I've got a full-time job for the next four weeks or so, but you can't be surprised if one month you haven't made a single penny because you've been working solidly from eight in the morning till midnight on your own documentary. It's very competitive. But you can’t beat yourself up, you just keep going.
Ellie: Be prepared to go with the ebbs and flows, and just go with the current?
James: Yeah. If you want to make something and no one's getting back to you about your thing, just make it. If your dream documentary is about a Peruvian warrior in the middle of nowhere in the jungle, you got to go get it, it’s gonna be slightly harder without a budget. Or if you're thinking about making a documentary about a friend, or someone that inspires you that's close by, just go and shoot them on the weekend.
Ellie: Let's get back to these characters because you obviously chose these three. You already knew Isaac and you knew he had a very special kind of strength of character. And then you met these extra couple of characters that you decided to focus on. Obviously all three of them have phenomenal strengths of character and are incredibly inspiring, even though, of course, you ask them about that and they all are too modest and they say they don't think they're inspirational. But, you know, that's for us to decide.
They all have slightly different messages, they all have this kind of overwhelming rhetoric of, you've got one life, live it, get out there and experience it, you don't know how long you've got left, or you don't know what's coming around the corner. So you've really got to grab life by the horns and really get out there and live your life and be adventurous. And this idea of throwing yourself into life is something obviously that is part of the Adventure Uncovered ethos.
But specifically, I just thought maybe we could talk about the lessons that we can learn from contributors and characters that have such strength of character as the three that we meet in Out on a Limb. There's a quote in the film about having to continually exercise and continually stretch. And the quote "If he doesn't do his exercises, within three days, he's really badly cramped up." And then a lot worse for the next two weeks.
I just see that as a real transferable message for all of us physically, but what about in terms of mental health? And what about in terms of our kind of flexibility of our use of our emotions? I just feel that that's a really strong message of "if you don't use it, you're gonna lose it." Do you see that as applying elsewhere in life other than with physical disability?
James: That's a really great question. I think that's a great message for anybody because if you don't use it, you lose it for sure. I think you got to get the balance. I think momentum is key, I think not stopping doing what you want to do is key. I think it's really good if you keep the passion going whilst you've still got it, however, I think that you've got to be realistic with yourself and not let things consume your entire life because at the end of the day you might be huge, things might really work out in your favour, but if you've not hung out with your best mates, then something isn’t right?
Ellie: Yeah, I think it's important that when we come out of lockdown we say, I am still here, I'm still sane, I'm still fit and healthy. And that's enough. I didn't make an Oscar-winning film, but I survived it. And that is something that we need to tell ourselves is enough.
But for me, I hated the word ‘routine’ for many many years. Because I thought that was the opposite of adventure. You know, adventure is chaotic and crazy and fun and wild and routine is boring and mundane and monotonous and repetitive. And to me, that's a Venn diagram with just two circles, and yet watching Out on a Limb I started to see the idea of putting in the time and making sure that you do those exercises physically and like we said, keeping your skills lubricated and keeping your hand in and building in an element of adventure to become routine, so why can't adventure become your routine? You could have that balance between your work and every Saturday morning, you'd go kayaking, or every two weeks you'd go with a friend, and you have a big walk. So I like that idea, this film for me showed that you can have your routine and your regularity, a more rhythmic part of your life. I think that the characters put themselves through this amazing adventure, and they manage to find the time to do that in amongst what's obviously a very difficult physical routine for them and maintaining their flexibility. I thought that it really nice the way that you've captured that in the film.
James: Thank you, and you're right, for me as well, the word routine is the most mortifying prospect, but if you can get it to a nice grounding, then maybe you can have even more fun on the adventures because you've got that base level sorted, and the rest is just fun.
Ellie: Exactly. Perfect. So we'll just decide here that we replace the word 'routine' with 'rhythm'.
James: That sounds like a plan!
'If you don't use it, you're gonna lose it.'
Ellie: And it's not just them, but a whole team working around them. There is a very strong message throughout the film that they all say I'm not an inspiration, there's a whole team around me that makes this possible. And you said the same yourself earlier in this conversation, where you have the vision, but you rely on the editors and the graphics and the music and accessing all the collaborative environments of filmmaking. And that's also really important for us at Adventure Uncovered, the idea of reaching out and communicating and asking for help, rather than sometimes thinking of an adventure as a solo mission like I'm the first man to climb Everest, or I'm solo rowing across the Atlantic. There seems to be more of a reward and more respect for somebody who does something on their own. I'm personally quite keen to shift that rhetoric, and what we've seen with a lot of the films and the stories through Adventure Uncovered (yours included), is that asking for help, having a team, having a group, working together is really, much more powerful.
James: I couldn't agree more. It's a thing which is definitely overlooked. The amount of stress that you put on yourself to do everything, to be the director, the producer of the film, the editor, the guy who does it all, well - it's mad. It's unreasonable to think you are going to be a master unless you're Donald Glover (a creative genius), or someone like that! Unless you're someone like him, you're not going to be an editor and the director, you're not going to be a producer and the sound operator or whatever, let everyone who does their job really well do that bit for you.
Ellie: Put your best players up for the penalties.
James: 100%. I've always shared my projects out with people, from day one. I do not believe that I can do everything. There's no way. If I was to edit Out on a Limb, it would have looked horrendous. I wouldn't be sitting with you right now. You'd have been like, what is this weird muffled footage, 40 minutes long grainy rubbish! I'm not an editor, I don't have that intrinsic knowledge to put that sound of the crunching ice and the sound of the howling wind starting out like that. I wouldn't necessarily think that way, maybe after a year of editing I could do some stuff, but you know what I mean, you should always utilise people, always get a team around you.
Ellie: It ultimately generates a better product. Just do it. Forget the ego. Just go for it, ask anyone questions, and you'll meet a good team.
James: Yeah, it's a weird one, you have to have a surprisingly little amount of ego in the most egotistical industry!
'There seems to be more of a reward and more respect for somebody who does something on their own. I'm personally quite keen to shift that rhetoric.'
Ellie: So just to finish off I wanted to focus just a little bit on adaptive sports. Because you said you went into this not having a clue about it, which is really great. And now you've learnt a fair amount, I wanted to see what your thoughts were with regards to the adventure industry, in terms of its positioning ability to absorb adaptive sports, to be a place of knowledge and community?
I'm just thinking in terms of one of your characters who talked about his local pub, and that he had access issues, yet he can get onto the Alps. In terms of accessibility and in terms of provision, would you say that the adventure world (whether that's skiing or scuba diving) is more accessible for people with disabilities than other industries, perhaps than regular tourism or travel?
James: I'm no expert on it outside of that one trip and from speaking to people that do outdoor activities, but in terms of sports and outdoors, all I know is that now, there's more than ever, because of technology, and just because of the way that the world is going regarding inclusivity. There are more things that people with disabilities can do now more than they ever could in history. You can adapt your equipment to a lot of activities, so that's also what I wanted the film to show, that was the whole idea for the film as well, it was to show that no matter what your situation and no matter what your physical ability and state, you can get out there and do things like these guys can.
Ellie: I just love the phrase he says, 'we are just the same as everybody else.' And I would argue I understand the meaning behind it re: inclusivity, as you know they are no less able than the other people we see on the slopes, but I do still think that there is something really special about the three characters that you've chosen. And like you say that they're a lot better at skiing than you or I, so they're not the same as us, they're significantly better than we are.
James: Yes significantly better, they're incredible. They're amazing and so motivating, so inspiring. And they don't see themselves like that, which makes them even more so.
Ellie: Well, I think that's a lovely point to finish up, leaving that sort of message of inspiration and thanks to the characters, and thank you so much for making Out on a Limb and bringing their message and their voice to us, and helping us understand adaptive sports more, and how accessible and immersive it can be to our screens.
Have you got anything coming up that we can watch, or any links that you want to do a shout out for?
James: Check out all of my work at www.jamesjoeldann.com, Facebook, and Twitter. I'm working on one at the moment about the last three members of the Holocaust going back to Auschwitz, and another one another about the rise of firearms in Texas, plus the world's first deaf-blind archer. All of these were discovered from just me searching the internet and meeting people in bars and pubs and nights out with somebody that knows somebody that knows somebody.
Go and talk to the world, the most important thing is to go out there and meet people who will tell you strange things about their lives, or tell you something weird that their brother in law once did, who knows this weird person in Texas, and that's how it all starts. So just do that!