Filming in any extreme environment is always challenging, and conducting a shoot at high altitude is no exception. There are many health and safety factors to contend with, so proper knowledge and planning is vital.
The kind of precautions you need to take will be dependent upon where and what you are filming – different locations and shooting schedules will pose varying levels of risk.
Here are just a few of the issues you may need to take into account when filming in locations at high altitude such as on mountains and volcanoes :
Beware altitude sickness
One of the most obvious things to think about when filming at high altitude is acclimatisation. If you do not plan your trip properly, with regular rest stops to help your crew adjust to the changing altitude, then your team’s progress could well be scuppered by altitude sickness.
In order to avoid altitude sickness it is best to make your ascent slowly whenever possible, this way your body will be able to adjust naturally and there will be less chance of developing altitude related sickness. It is recommended to climb no more than 300m per day. You may wish to consider taking anti sickness medication with you such as acetazolamide (Diamox) and dexamethasone. Coca leaves also are commonly used to make tea or are chewed directly by many high altitude workers and travellers in Central and South America.
If a member of your team is suffering with altitude sickness for more than 2-3 days or if symptoms are severe then action should be taken. If a team member is taken ill then they may have to descend, and may need assistance from another individual. Taking the possibility of such events into account will be crucial when planning how many crew you will need on your shoot.
Do try to be in reasonable shape
Being physically fit may not protect you from the effects of altitude sickness however, it will help you to deal with the physical exertion of walking and carrying kit bags in the thin air.
If any of your team have medical issues such as asthma or sleeping problems then this should be taken into account before including them on your trip. Conditions that may not seem problematic in normal conditions could pose significant threats in extreme environments.
Don’t expect ‘normal’ weather conditions
The weather at high altitude can change extremely quickly and can even be life threatening if your crew is not prepared properly.
High altitude areas in some locations can be extremely hot during the day and freezing at night, for example in Africa or South America. In such circumstances each team member should be equipped with adequate clothing and kit to keep them protected from these fluctuating temperatures.
If you are filming in extremely high altitude locations, such as on Everest, then you and your team will face temperatures of between -20 and -60 degrees centigrade. Such conditions obviously require very specialised kit and assistance from professional guides.
When you are filming on location it will be crucial to keep a close eye on weather reports. Depending on your situation, weather changes can occur quickly and drastically and could pose challenges from changing the look and character of your shoot to actually threatening the lives of your cast and crew.
Equipment, and using professional or local guides
There will always be a tension between the need to travel light and the need to shoot quality material, which requires more kit.
As on any shoot, the larger your budget, the higher your production values will be. If you can afford it then it is advisable to employ local porters or guides who are used to operating in the regional conditions. They will be in a much better position to carry heavy gear such as generators and cameras on difficult ascents than any of your crew. Employing such help will also help reduce the likelihood of your crew suffering from exhaustion or illness.
Indeed, local knowledge can be invaluable in helping to plan a shooting schedule. Heed warnings from guides, their advice could be crucial to maintaining your crew’s safety and comfort.
In some situations where shoots prove to be very complex or situated in very difficult terrain it may also be necessary to employ specialist safety teams and team leaders to assist with tough climbs and treacherous conditions. It is important to make proper risk assessments before your shoot to ensure crew are kept safe.
Generators, Camera Batteries and Lenses
Camera and electronic equipment can be adversely affected by high altitude.
In the extreme cold lenses can freeze over, cables can become brittle and any extreme temperatures (be they hot or cold) can cause batteries to drain much faster than in normal conditions.
Similarly, other equipment such as generators, mobile or satellite phones or radios may not run at peak capacity and this should be taken into account before you set off.
Taking spares of any essential equipment is very important. If a camera were to fail and there were no back up to use then an entire shoot could be ruined.
It could be an option to split into two teams when filming at altitude, so that one group remains a few thousand feet below the other. This means that the team at lower altitude can more easily keep equipment charged and protected from the extreme conditions overnight, and can then supply the second team with properly maintained kit during the day.
If budget does not allow for two teams, then batteries should be kept as warm as possible. When not being used, some filmmakers have suggested keeping them inside sleeping bags at night.
As mentioned above, it is important to undertake a thorough risk assessment when planning your shoot. This will be needed in order to adequately insure your crew and equipment – a fundamental necessity when filming at high altitude.
Your location scout or manager should have a solid knowledge of the risks involved in filming in their chosen area. This includes access and evacuation routes, where medical facilities are located and how to access them. Larger productions should have their own medic with them on location and it would also be useful to ensure other members of crew are trained in basic first aid. All crew should be briefed on how to keep themselves safe and healthy during filming.
It is better to be prepared for every possible eventuality when filming at high altitude. Productions rarely always go to schedule at the best of times, so in extreme conditions it is paramount that extra care is taken. Then if something were to go wrong your team will know how to take effective and immediate action in order to put things right and keep people safe.