Travel Video: In Search of Peace and Chaos in Thailand

Justin Heaney is a New Zealand based creative director at Influx digital, a production company specialising in tourism based films and web projects. He recently ventured to Thailand with a very specific goal in mind: to make a raw and visceral travel film that shows the rampant chaos and peaceful serenity of being in Thailand…side by side. We think he achieved his goal.

How long were you in Thailand for and what was your itinerary?
I was in Thailand for a total of 3 weeks. I arrived in Bangkok and spent 3 days in and around various parts of the city, mainly wandering around on foot shooting. I then jumped on an overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai in the north. From there I travelled further north to Pai, a relaxing stop in a lush mountainous valley. I carried on by motorbike over the mountains to Mae Hong Son, the main town on the Burmese border. It was July, rainy, and practically no other tourists around, so I had a longtail boat to myself going up the river to meet some Kayan folk near the border of Burma and visiting some mind blowing caves along the way. Great food everywhere, and a refreshingly cooler climate up there too. I then flew back to Bangkok and onto Europe.

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What were some of the highlights of your trip?
It would have to be the Kayan village up river from Mae Hong Son near the Burmese border, but Pai was a very nice place too, as was Chiang Mai. I think I prefer the north. Such friendly locals and lush nature in these northern mountainous regions.

Tham Lot cave was vast and amazing. The hilltop views when motorcycling from Pai through the northern hills into Mae Hong Son were spectacular, and easily the most awe inspiring scenery. And the long tail boat up river to the Kayan village along the Burmese border was a great ride.

One of my favorite moments I managed to capture on film was sitting with a very elderly Kayan Grandmother on her village porch. She had a cheeky sense of humour. Sadly she has since passed away at the ripe old age of 100. (7:15 Timestamp)

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Did did you run into any major challenges along the way?
The challenges were mainly personal really. A severe bout of food poisoning early in the trip kept me pretty low on energy and my camera suddenly felt as heavy as a tank. I also had a fairly scary moment on a motorbike passing over the mountains in Northern Thailand during the rain. My front tire was blown and I slid across the center line and fell off into the path of a truck. After a scraped knee and some help from the driver, I was on my way again. But overall I was able to shoot without any major challenges. A relaxed and friendly disposition goes along way when travelling through South East Asia.

What was it like interacting with locals while you were there?
I had a fun time with some Tuk Tuk drivers in Bangkok when I was asking them if I could attach my Gopro camera to the front of a Tuk Tuk for a timelapse sequence through the night streets. They all got involved . Suddenly some gaffer tape appeared from somewhere and they set about helping me tape the Gopro to the front of one of the Tuk Tuks. We lined up the framing of the shot with my phone and did some tests. It was a lot of fun. Then spent about an hour racing around Bangkok wildly, filming the street-lapse sequence.

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Visiting the Kayan village near the Burmese border in the north was a highlight. I had mixed feelings about filming these villagers as they are technically refugees, but I think because I was the only tourist there they dropped their guard a bit. I was careful not to impose too much so I filmed them from a respectful distance. Very gentle people.

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What type of gear did you use to capture your video?
A Canon C300 fitted with a Deity Mira viewfinder. The lenses were: Canon 70-200 F2.8 zoom & the Canon 24-105 F4 zoom, along with a Go Pro Hero3 Black Edition. A Zoom H4N audio recorder was also used to capture some dialogue.

Do you have any tips for getting the type of footage you got shooting locals, landscapes, timelapses?
Bangkok is a busy place to shoot. Photographic opportunities are everywhere. In places like this you need to be tuned in, and not shy away from the inevitable attention that results from wielding a camera in a foreign land. I prefer shooting handheld with long lenses in these busy urban environments. The results of tend to be quite probing with a kind of tension to them you can’t easily achieve with wider lenses. If you are 10 meters away from a subject using a long lens (e.g 200mm on a Super 35mm sensor) then you are going to get a naturally candid result. This is just far enough away not to encroach someone’s personal space. I think this separation becomes instinctual after a while. I generally use a tripod for static landscapes and time lapse footage though.

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Do you have a specific narrative in mind when shooting or do you just go with the flow?
In terms of the subject matter, I definitely just go with the flow. However I am always mindful of what’s unfolding, and sometimes little sequences can be constructed on the fly which is the traditional approach really: a wide establishing shot followed by various tighter angles. Creating a full flowing narrative on such fleeting trips would be a daunting task. Maybe one day!

Your video has a very gritty and cinematic feel, would you say that this is your shooting style?
Yes, absolutely. I shot 16mm as a film student, and have always tried to emulate that look with video. Be it depth of field, colour, or grain reproduction. I just finished shooting a travel film in Burma which Kickstarter funded with a Digital Bolex raw format camera which has a lovely and very filmic color reproduction on a Super 16mm sized Kodak sensor.

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Your audio design really gave additional layers of complexity and depth to the video, what did you use to capture the audio with and how do you think about adding it in post?
I had no microphone on the camera while in Thailand, only muted video, apart from the dialogue from the men drinking beer by the train tracks (I used a Zoom H4N to capture this). The sound design, and street sounds were done entirely in post, and mostly via online sound libraries and some experimental sound effects recorded on my phone. Certain scenes just jumped out at me as candidates for sound design. For example, the night time Bangkok and Kayan village sequences had a fair amount of foley added.

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How did you choose the music that went along with the footage?
Music selection on this one was fairly painstaking. I wasn’t concerned by copyright as it was a non-commercial project, so I spent a good amount of time wading through tons of existing movie soundtrack material for appropriate snippets. Music that complemented and underpinned the visuals. Music selection is so subjective, but certain music just eventually felt right and made cutting so much easier.

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After coming back from a trip with tons of footage, what’s your process for piecing it all together and telling a story?
Pure distillation process. Chipping away and chopping down the footage. 10 hours eventually becomes 5 hours…. Then eventually 1 hour. Then I try and get this down to 30 minutes. Finally music comes into play, and the pace of the music starts to dictate things. From there, it’s a tedious process of fine cutting things into sequences that somehow flow. It really is a mixture between conscious and subconscious shot placement for me. Finally I have about 6-8 minutes! For editing, I use a Macbook Pro running Adobe Premiere & Adobe Photoshop.

How did you achieve the coloring in your footage? It has almost a cross processed feel to it.
I wanted to reproduce the feeling you get when walking through Bangkok at night. For me that feeling is somehow blue, and also quite tense and unnerving. Before I left for the trip, I dialed some custom color values into the camera cooling the blue color channel a touch. The Bangkok night time scenes were all shot intentionally using the wrong white balance. Daylight balance at night. This avoided the nasty reds from the tungsten sources. Some slight ND filtering and a higher than par ISO with lenses wide open too. This produced a softish, clinical, blue grainy look out of the camera for these night scenes that I was able to dial back and warm up a touch in post. I used Adobe Photoshop to correct everything using the built in color balance sliders as well.

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What makes a good travel video in your opinion?
That’s a difficult question to answer, especially nowadays. My own tastes are quite traditional and I tend to avoid travel videos that depict the filmmaker in the story, favoring the more observational approach. A good travel video holds its pitch too, and the viewers attention right to the end. Italian travel filmmaker Leonardo Dalessandri opened up a whole new fluid style with his “Watchtower of Turkey” travel film, which a lot of people are emulating. He really elevated things to a new level with that one. Some clever technical wizardry and a mesmerizing stream of consciousness style never hurts as well. Hyper – lapses and drone footage have become staples too of course, but for me it’s less about the technique and more about the impact achieved in the editing.

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