A Little Bit About Me… 

I’m a photographer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, CA. I got interested in photography through 35mm film in college, but went on to work in finance in San Francisco for 5 years. I loved my job, but I also loved to travel — 3 weeks of vacation a year never felt like enough to satisfy this desire to see and capture the world. As a full-time creator now, I wanted to take the time to share some of my favorite travel experiences from recent years and provide everyone reading with videography tips. 

In 2010, I quit my job and bought a one way ticket to London to start a year of travels. I returned and put together my first real short film, a timelapse of my journey across the globe. It captured the attention of the media and the short film went viral with 5 million views.

My story and the exposure opened up new opportunities, and some 70 countries later, I realized that I had accidentally become more of a filmmaker as the demand for this medium grew. I’ve since had the privilege of shooting for Michelin-starred restaurants, Coca-Cola, and Mercedes while also working with tourism boards and companies around the world. 

My last trip lasted 4 months and ended on March 2nd when I returned to Los Angeles, where I’ve stayed put since. While staying healthy and keeping my parents safe remains the priority, the downtime has left me with the chance to look through my archives and put together projects that have been on the backburner for a while. It was one of my ways of staying connected to my life on the road, while trying to be productive. 

The world’s on a kind of time out, with me in it, but I’m very grateful for the last decade and being able to do what I love and checking things off my bucket list. I rarely need a reminder to make the most of my time on this earth, but recent events have only reassured me that the present moment is always the best time to start something. That’s one of those great tips that applies to videography and so much more. 

There’s a quote that I’ve always liked from the last page in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”. 

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The melancholic tone of trying to move forward while still being pulled by parts of the past really resonated with me — it’s a common human condition to find change a little difficult at times. 

plane flying upside down with man wing walking

There’s hope in the quote, but also an acknowledgement that our efforts might ultimately be futile or fruitless. Still, we have no choice but to try to move forward.

It’s especially appropriate during this time because there is so much uncertainty in the future. For creatives, the landscape is dense with fog. When I turn to my travel archives, I look back with fondness and gratefulness for what I’ve been to experience, while lamenting that it may be some time before I can be out there again — and I have no idea what to expect of the world when that time comes. 

Personally, I feel like the game will change. Whether we talk about influencers, content creators, or just people sharing their holiday photos, it would be tone deaf to assume that we can write, post, and share as we did before all this. The time of “look at me and what I’m doing” will be, and should be, forgotten for at least a short while. 

waterfall surrounded by clouded forest
Tumpak Sewu waterfall, Java.

Making “Earth”

I will admit that It took some time for me to be creative and productive again since beginning my quarantine. While sorting out the immediate priorities, I found many excuses for not getting to my editing. Making “Earth” was a mentally easier task because I looked to my past for inspiration. I looked at that first short film I made and wanted to do somewhat of a throwback to it: to show the beauty of the world, a few seconds at a time. 

With a familiar concept in mind, it took the mental burden off my shoulders. For the next two days of editing, I could zone out to the process of fitting footage to music and form the film a few seconds at a time. It was great exercise for my mind and warmed me up for the other projects that I had started to work out in my head. 

Locations

The most satisfying part in all this was revisiting these locations in my head. I would take short breaks and call friends who joined me one some of these trips. We could reminisce for a while and remind each other of stories that one of us might have forgotten. 

Though Mongolia only made one small appearance (I tended to favor clips from the Mavic 2 Pro over the original Mavic Pro), it was enough to take me back to this incredible adventure. For nearly a month, I slept in nomadic yurts, rode for long stretches of the day in a beat up Soviet-era van, drank vodka on sand dunes, milked the reindeers of a wandering tribe, and shared it with an incredible group of strangers that have become close friends. Somehow, we even enjoyed each other’s company despite not showering for weeks at a time. 

red shacks on rocky shore
Lofoten Islands, Norway.

Aside from 2 shots (one from a hot air balloon and the other from a high vantage point), the entire short film was shot with a drone, which provided an incredible new perspective. Shooting in the Lofoten Islands of Norway was especially breathtaking because of the natural formations that the Norwegians built their towns and villages on. It could only truly be appreciated from the air.  

I was there shooting during the summer months, so we had light well into 3 am. Golden hour lasted for hours and I found myself taking the same shot multiple times into the evening as the light kept getting better.

During the footage selection process, I tried to fit as many places as I could in 3 minutes, which ended up with a lot of places getting left on the editing floor, or for another film. I made the choices based on how grand the place and shot was, but I also wanted to include places that were not as popular or well-visited. 

Though I ended up using just a misty shot revealing the side of a mountain, the hike to get to Monte Grona in Lake Como, Italy was even more enjoyable than getting the shot. In Gran Canaria, I was driving to the top of Pico De Las Nieves for the view, but ended up getting the beautiful sunset shot by stopping on the side of a windy road part way up. Traveling has always been about exploring with your own eyes. 

lone mountain peak rising into clouds
Gran Canaria

Social media has made it easier to find the location of places others have shot, but most of the fun is when you discover places by happenstance or through talking to locals. Most of the really nice locations in Bali, Indonesia are well known by now, but there’s so much left to explore if you just head to the island of Java, for example. I could spend months there and still discover places that few people venture to. I had seen photos of the Tumpak Sewu waterfall there, but that paled in comparison to the crazy hike down to the base, descending bamboo stairs precariously held together and holding onto waterworn ropes that keep you from slipping to your death. 

And that’s what I miss most at this moment — adventure and discovery. 

man's legs standing in waterfall
Don’t look down!
descending rope bridge on cliffside
The infamous rope bridge.

Working in Isolation

Last year, I spent a month on Gran Canaria in Spain to take a break from traveling. While there was much to explore there, I used this time to “lock” myself down to do some editing and organizing. Near the end, I had the itch to shoot again, but I wanted to do something new. I ended up collaborating with a Portugese dancer, Sofia, who was living there and we did a half day shoot that resulted in one of the favorite things I’ve ever created

We also mostly winged it during the shoot when our initial shooting locations were not available,  and for the next two days, I listened to a large number of tracks until I felt inspired by one: “Akuma” by Macaroom.

Part of the film’s narrative was the idea of shedding one’s identity and seeing through, so I wanted to create somewhat of an x-ray effect geometrically separating parts of the shot. After a bit of Googling, I learned to mask a shot to create shapes and then applied a negative effect to give the feel of an x-ray. 

Both of these effects were new to me and something that came from just imagining what my end result could look like and playing around in Final Cut Pro X to see if I could get something close. 

Shed // Contemporary Dance ft. Sofia Mar from Kien Lam on Vimeo.

During this time of self-isolation, I created a road map of 15 different projects to work on, with each being something different from the last and from what I have done before. I hope that I will learn a few things along the way or perhaps branch into a new area of filmmaking when the world is a little less topsy turvy. 

Videography Tips From Making “Earth”

Whenever I edit a new film, I always try to add something new, as a way to learn and grow. Most of this film is straightforward, but I really worked hard on two things: sound and color. 

Shooting with a drone means shooting without audio. In my travels, it’s the smell, feel, and sound of a place that completes the visual. For each shot, I needed to find or create sounds that would match. I wanted it to be there, but not draw the audience to it. These ambient sound effects should feel natural and seamless. 

By making the sound clip longer than the footage on both ends, and controlling the fade in and out while layering it over another sound effect, it’s a simple way to create smoother transitions. 

Color grading video footage is usually the last step and much more time consuming and harder for me to do than while editing the colors in a photograph. I use each project as a way to play with different panels and plug-ins. Currently, I use the Color Finale, Cinema Grade, and the built in Color Boards from Final Cut Pro X. 

I’m a bit of a creature of habit, so I’ve resisted using the color wheels that most colorists work with. Instead, these plug-ins along with the Color and Hue/Saturation Curves in FCPX allow me to get the colors and tones I want using curves and sliders like in Lightroom. 

One of these days, I’ll finally tackle those color wheels.

Using My Time During the “Great Pause”

For now, I’m splitting my time between editing old work and creating spec work for brands to add to my portfolio and show companies that I’m capable of doing what they need. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel and for anyone trying to get better at making films. Be it travel related or otherwise, one of the videography tips that I follow myself is to watch more stuff. 

If you want to make travel films, watch as many as you can. Then figure out what it is that draws you in and try to reverse engineer how it’s done. While content is the most important thing, was it the music that kept you watching? Did you like the colors? The editing effects? The length of the clips? The ordering of the clips? 

Figure it out and replicate it — for now. As you learn and grow your own toolset, you can develop your own style. Though it may make my collective work look a little more scattered, I like the idea of creating different looks and feels across each film. Ultimately, for me, this is a never ending learning process and you’ll have to continue to improve and innovate to keep up with this ever changing world. 

So push forward, however hard or boring or slow or uncertain things may be right now. It’s a luxury and privilege to have time in general, but even more so nowadays. Use it wisely.

Have you been working on any creative projects during lockdown? Let us know in the comments or link them on our Twitter

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Kien Lam is a photographer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His works on his site Where and Wander to inspire and introduce people to unique places, experiences and adventures around the world. Since quitting his job in finance in 2010, he has traveled to over 50 countries to check off items on his never ending Bucket List.