"Climbing a mountain isn’t enough for me," says Elia Saikaly. One of the peaks of his life was an interactive soccer game he organized between youth in Canada and street kids in Kenya. The entire soccer tournament was streamed live on an $8 USB internet key. As for shooting video on altitude, Elia says he thrives on the challenge due to his background in powerlifting (world record in dead-lift, 525lbs at the age of 17).
Image by Elia Saikaly courtesy Elia Saikaly, SOURCE
In 2007 Canadian Sean Egan (right) died of a heart attack at age 63 when climbing Everest with Elia. The late doctor's wish to inspire others catapulted his young film-maker, "into the world of adventure and climbing as I dedicated my life to honoring his." Image by Elia Saikaly courtesy Elia Saikaly, SOURCE
Time-lapsing cameras under the stars Elia Saikaly captured this image September 29, 2011 11:49 PM of climbers in their 3d attempt to summit Cho Oyu. Image by Elia Saikaly courtesy Elia Saikaly/findinglife.ca, SOURCE
Retracing Sean Egan's footsteps, in 2010 Elia and Finding Life summited Everest and broadcast a real-time web-series for 20 000 Canadian students. "The real-time concept creates a great deal of momentum," he says. Image by Elia Saikaly courtesy Elia Saikaly, SOURCE
In terms of viewership the biggest adventure video event this year took place online, outside the usual distribution channels. "It used to be an MTV generation, now it’s a YOUTUBE generation and competition is fierce," Elia says, to beat the "farting cat." courtesy Google YouTube, SOURCE
"In my personal experience, failure, disappointment, vulnerability and honesty throughout my expedition content has always led to good connections with the viewer. People need to be able to relate." (Image unrelated to Elia).
It’s all about story, Elia says, "this is where I think adventure filmmakers need to focus."
As for beating video games, "I’d like to think we can engage kids, yes," Elias said. "We don’t have the millions of dollars to develop our ideas, but we have the advantage of emotions and realism."
The future of adventure film and television: Elia Saikaly - real time, short and fast
Posted: Dec 20, 2012 04:39 pm EST (Tina Sjogren) Trekking reports from the Khumbu valley are changing. Forget bearded men silently lugging up ghost-pregnant backpacks on paramount missions.
Fitted right into their camera kit, laser-mapping routes on the way, the new guys wing-glide to set - thought controlled tripod arms poking out here and there.
"This morning I rode shotgun in a helicopter and flew through the Himalayas [...] captured the day’s events with an arsenal of cameras, a steadicam, a track and a trip-pod," says his website. "I’m currently time-lapsing 3 cameras under the stars while typing away in a tea house in the warmth of my sleeping bag. For me, this is heaven. For me, this is my ultimate dream."
Meet Canadian film-adventurist Elia Saikaly.
ExplorersWeb: You are an upcoming adventure film maker. What set you on this path?
Elia: I have been shooting since the age of 15-years-old. My early career led me down a path ranging from a news cameraman, to entertainment videographer, music video director of photography, short film, corporate videos etc. After 10 years of trying to figure out where I wanted to be I found myself working towards a career in the feature film industry as a director and cinematographer.
A ‘chance’ phone call from a man named Dr. Sean Egan in 2005 presented me with an opportunity to travel to Nepal to the base of Everest as a cameraman/director.
At the time, I had never even slept in a tent! I had the opportunity to tell an incredible story through the lens about a man’s dream to inspire others to get fit, healthy and active. Sean was aiming to become the oldest Canadian to summit Mt. Everest, he was 63 at the time. Sadly, he died before he could fulfill his mission of heart failure and never summited.
This catapulted me into the world of adventure and climbing as I dedicated my life to honoring his.
ExplorersWeb: You want to use new tech, film making and adventure to inspire kids to "find life." How is that going?
Elia: It took years for people to understand the vision of what I was trying to create. It also took me years to build a ‘climbing CV’ so the educational system and funders would take me seriously and buy into the vision.
FindingLife is a free educational platform which focuses on empowering youth through the platform of adventure. I create real-time, meaningful educational experiences for youth. I shoot, cut, broadcast and communicate with students and link the expeditions into learning. Students not only watch from their classrooms, but participate in the expeditions.
There is also a strong charitable component which facilitates fundraising initiatives where kids are helping kids. One example of this was a campaign in Kenya last year where we built 2 classrooms for a community named Solio. The money was raised by kids, for kids.
The students, aged 6-17 left a legacy behind and had the opportunity, through technology, to see their hard work unfold before their eyes in the classroom. How is it going? AMAZING! The results are outstanding.
We have seen entire schools unite, teachers, parents, students all working together, online and offline in the classrooms and at home. It is however incredibly challenging because it’s a free service and it’s very difficult to find funding year after year. It’s my calling and my mission in life so I am relentless in my pursuit to keep it operating year after year.
ExplorersWeb: Old media routinely created heroes, now regular people make their own fame. They want to relate, is that why your documentaries are more participatory?
Elia: There is a quote I love that sums this question up;
I undertake these FindingLife expeditions because I am interested in making a difference in the lives of others. Climbing a mountain isn’t enough for me.
There needs to be a story that matters and a campaign that matters. Through that story, I am able to involve the students that are following along. The expeditions then become relevant to the students, where they invest in the story and characters and and are thus able to make connections and apply what they learn to their own lives.
To persevere, to be determined, to be empathetic, to be leaders, to have optimism, to work together, to contribute etc. These are all themes that we explore and our programs facilitate opportunities for those following to get involved and take action, offline.
ExplorersWeb: Where the industry still sets apart traditional production from real time web updates you merge both formats. Why do you do that, and how has it worked out?
Elia: I wanted to create a niche. Something that was different. I also had to innovate and consider what young people in schools wanted to see and take part in.
The real-time concept creates a great deal of momentum, particularly when you’ve got a skilled production team who can translate the emotion of the expedition and illustrate the challenges the team is facing. I happen to be an editor, director, cameraman as well so often I end up doing it all.
As many of the readers here know, climbing Everest is severely taxing physically and most are unable to shoot video (let alone good quality) because of the nature of the environment. I thrive on this challenge. My background in powerlifting (I have a world record in dead-lift. 525lbs at the age of 17) and my commitment has given me a physical and mental edge and I am able to pull this off consistently at high altitude.
It has been tremendously successful and I think the best example was our expedition in 2010 where we summited Everest and broadcast a real-time web-series where 20 000 Canadian students followed throughout the 60 day expedition.
ExplorersWeb: Why do you work with the Web TV format ?
Elia: I have focused on the short form webisode model for the past 7 years because it makes sense for my audience.
Students can have short attention spans a 2-3 minutes per episode seems to really work. If it’s cut well, has a good story and has good direction, it easily leaves the viewer craving more.
The real-time nature of my work in remote locations lends itself to shorter episodes. We try to output a high quality webisode at least 2-3 times a week while on location. When you’re on an expedition, that can be quite a bit of work!
ExplorersWeb: Your adventure documentaries are actually faster than normal. Do we need a change of pace?
Elia: I think it all depends on your audience. It used to be an MTV generation, now it’s a YOUTUBE generation and the competition is fierce. You need to know your audience.
The advantage that filmmakers have who have industry experience is that they can identify what style, concept, story, etc. will suite the audience and make the most impact.
Adventurers who use technology to document and share their adventures forget (or are not aware) that there is a psychology behind filmmaking. Some forget that the tools and techniques are methods of telling a story and engaging an audience. That being said, I am a critic of my own work and constantly evaluate what’s working and what isn’t.
I am planning on implementing some different story telling techniques to further engage an audience. Why does Devan Supertramp average millions of hits per video on Youtube? Clearly he knows his audience and knows what style of shooting, music, editing engages them at the highest level.
ExplorersWeb: The first video posted on YouTube was apparently a 19-second clip called "Me at the Zoo." People's attention span is shrinking. Has Youtube made an impact on adventure film making?
Elia: Yes, it’s killing it! Honestly, it’s disheartening at times. The farting cat will always get millions of hits and the inspiring adventure video will remain hidden in the shadows. A reflection of the status quo? I hope not. I have more faith in humanity than that.
ExplorersWeb: It's a fact though that really cool videos posted by expeditions on YouTube and Vimeo often have very few viewers.
Elia: I think people want to shut down, tune out and don’t want to work or think too much. Of course, this isn’t everyone, but I’d say it’s a large portion of the Youtube demographic. Each ‘cool video’ is a unique case of course, but sometimes the problem is in the packaging, the story-telling, the message or the treatment.
Not everyone can relate to an extreme adventurer, and that’s fair. So as content creators, perhaps we need to ask ourselves how we can connect better with the audience?
In my personal experience, failure, disappointment, vulnerability and honesty throughout my expedition content has always led to good connections with the viewer. People need to be able to relate. I have yet to have any of my videos viral.
I do believe there is something to be learned though about the videos that do go viral. When you study them, they’re often either visually stunning, shocking, unplanned or tremendously honest. I’m always watching Ted Talks and trying to learn as much as I can about viral marketing.
ExplorersWeb: Even quality Web TV productions are difficult to monetize. Any ideas what could be done?
Elia: I think Vimeo are on to something with the donation jar and the new ‘pay-as-you-go’ feature which they are currently implementing.
As far as monetizing it enough to fund productions and pay industry standard salaries, I’m not sure it’s possible. We are expected to do more with less due to the lower cost of technology.
It’s incredible what a DSLR with a prime lens can output these days. This little camera revolution is giving filmmakers access to tools at a price that has changed the industry.
ExplorersWeb: Product placement?
Elia: Sponsorship and product placement will only work if you have a guaranteed distribution platform.
A sponsor wants to know how many people will see their logo or brand or equipment. Without concrete numbers, it’s a difficult sell. I’ve put all of my energy in the past year into building relationships with distributors for the content I create through FindingLife. I hope to announce a new partnership soon which will help our cause and answer this very question.
ExplorersWeb: One of your episodes in Africa showed locals playing soccer and chatting on computers with folks in Canada. What was that about? And why would Canucks want to watch NGOs and locals play soccer?
Elia: This was part of an expedition I put together through FindingLife. We paired up 6 high school students from Canada with 6 high schools students (former street kids) from Kenya, climbed Mt. Kenya and build classrooms for a disadvantaged community in Kenya.
The children of this community were going to school in UNICEF tents, sitting in the mud, trying to learn. I partnered with a charity called The Moving Mountains Trust, and together we helped make a difference in the lives of these Kenyans in a socially responsible manner.
To further complicate our lives (which I am very good at) we came up with an idea to involve Canadian students in an interactive international soccer tournament that took place during the expedition in the village we were working in.
Honestly, it was one of the most beautiful days of my life. We left an increidble footprint in that community. 500 kids in Ottawa, Canada were in a soccer dome playing a soccer tournament while we were playing our in Kenya.
It was streamed live on the internet from the remote village, we set up 8 Skype stations and kids on both continents were able to connect and learn about one another’s cultures. Most of these children had never even seen computers! There was also no power in the village and we had very little money to pull this off. It was all about education, sharing, learning about one another and of course, having fun! It was day 5 of our 21 day itinerary.
ExplorersWeb: Africa is really forward when it comes to mobile. Did you notice and did you see any cool tech there?
What blew my mind in Kenya was that we were able to buy 8 internet jump keys at very affordable prices and use them to set up conferencing and live streaming options while in Kenya.
I purchased thousands of dollars of airtime on my BGAN and never even used it. Of course, it’s intermittent and doesn’t work everywhere, but the 3G technology facilitated all of our technological endeavors. The entire soccer tournament was streamed live on an $8 USB internet key. I wish it worked like there on Everest!
ExplorersWeb: Most kids don't watch adventure video (or play soccer) but stay indoors to play computer games. Can we create adventure cinema that is as exiting as computer games?
Elia: I’d like to think we can engage kids, yes. We don’t have the millions of dollars to develop our ideas, but we have the advantage of emotions and realism.
Once again, it’s about understanding the viewer. I’ve had the most success with kids and schools when I’m able to make a personal connection and bring a meaningful story to life. I try to ensure that young people can identify with my team as people. Not as super heroes on adventures, but as people who have weaknesses and who have the potential to fail.
I got into mountaineering through my filmmaking, so I’m not your average climber. What I’ve tried to do is remain connected to the audience that isn’t an extreme athlete.
I try to always keep the mainstream viewer in mind, rather than the adventurers. There are far better athletes than me out there and I don’t even put myself near the category of professional climber. Rather, I trust and depend on other leaders who compliment my work.
I try to always create content that resonates with the masses. And of course, the more people connect with what you’re creating, the easier (in theory) it will be to finance future expeditions.
ExplorersWeb: Can real adventure films beat Men in Black and Harry Potter?
Elia: They can’t. ‘127 hours’ is a good example of how an adventure film can be successful. It’s all about story. This is where I think adventure filmmakers need to focus.
You can have the most amazing images and insane cinematography, but if your story is weak and your characters aren’t interesting, what do you really have? Content is king. And pretty pictures are a compliment to further the story.
ExplorersWeb: Adventure reality shows - do you see a future for that?
Elia: I don’t see a future in traditional expedition type reality shows. Certainly not with professional athletes and adventurers. The sad truth of broadcast television is that 10 novices with over-the-top personalities from all walks of life with outrageous character traits will be far more successful on television with an audience than that of a team of sponsored adventure athletes. I wish it were different.
I have been working on pitching several projects with a team of veteran producers and directors and it’s crucial to understand the needs of the broadcaster and the audience before pitching your idea. There are trends and they can be identified. All broadcasters have their content mandate and usually tell you exactly what they’re looking for directly on their website.
ExplorersWeb: What about truly live adventure video (Space Jump) does that format have a future?
Elia: Definitely. The tools are out there. GoPro, Android, etc. I love the idea of being able to stream live from exciting locations. In the past, my live feeds been static or on a tri-pod. With some of the new technology, we’re now able to create a POV experience at little to no cost beyond the purchase of the equipment and the bandwidth.
For me, that is tremendously exciting and yields infinite potential. This is an area that I could see become monetized. Basejumping, skydiving, mountaineering, dropping down a waterfall, etc. All very cool events that an audience will want to experience live.
ExplorersWeb: New kind of tools are emerging: drones, contour cams, various robotics with built in cams for extreme shots - what cool gear do you know of out there?
Elia: I definitely want a 4K camera and and a drone for Xmas!
Elia Saikaly,33, has broadcast webisodes to networks such as CTV, NBC, CBC and RDS from some of the most inhospitable environments on the planet including Mt. Everest. His award film “FindingLife” earned him awards at the Montreal International Adventure Film Festival.
Elia's background spans acting, music and journalism. He was recently featured as the adventurer in a new television adventure series featuring Canada’s 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites called La part du monde. He can be seen on the Non-Profit Webchannel called WIGUP (While I grow Up), the Media Mentor for Kids as well as on www.findinglife.ca