October 14, 2016
ONWARD - Behind The Scene
First, thank you to everyone who made ONWARD happen. It was impossible without you.
Thank you to anyone who watched, shared, called, emailed, text, commented...I couldn't be more grateful.
All of you make a difference.
This is a behind the scenes look into making ONWARD.
This blog covers some of the challenges from the film and ends with a short story on how ONWARD almost disappeared completely.
In 2015 I freelanced with a VR company out of Venice, CA called RYOT. A job had come up in China that I was going to do with my buddy Cory Tran. If I'm doing a project abroad and have an open schedule after, I always look at the map and find a place to go. The job was finishing in Beijing and I noticed Mongolia was only a short flight away. It had been a dream of mine for many years to live with the Eagle Hunters. I didn't hesitate to start planning a trip. The difficult part was I had to leave for China in a week and a half, so that left a very small window to plan Mongolia. Cory had planned to leave China and go to Vietnam, but it was very easy to talk him into Mongolia. The plan was, 10 days in China, 10 days in Mongolia, then I'd go with him to Vietnam for 10 days. We had less than 2 weeks to plan it all.
I’m most often asked, How did you find them? How did you get ahold of the them?
The first thing I did was contact expedition companies in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and searched hashtags on Twitter and Instagram. I searched things like #goldeneagle #Ulgii #altai #Deluun etc...
I found this Instagram post and immediately reached out to Jagaa.
What I look for in a fixer is how well they communicate and how well they know the area I'm wanting to visit. Jagaa was the clear winner. I sent several questions to him about the subject matter I was looking for and he responded with the basics of Konki's story. I immediately told him YES!
To reach Jagaa (http://www.explorealtai.com/)
Fast forward 3 weeks and we are wrapping up in China. We went to The Great Wall, to film some VR, two days before heading to Mongolia. We explored two sections of The Great Wall from sun up to sun down. I'm struggling right now to remember the 2nd section, but we walked it for several hours and only ran into 6 people. The Great Wall is something that I've always wanted to see and having it to yourself is a pretty incredible gift. But THIS is where the story takes a turn. A series of unfortunate events happened that made me believe China was trying to keep me from Mongolia, continuing to fulfill it's purpose dating back 200 BC.
1. About half an hour into the walk, Cory and I decided to do a handstand.
So far so good...
...and as I came back down my iPhone slid out of my pocket, landing perfectly on the corner and smashing glass first onto the brick. It completely destroying my screen and was inoperable. I've never broken a phone before. Yes it sucked, but hey, I AM ON THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA WITH MY FRIENDS AND WE HAVE IT TO OURSELVES!
2. A few hours later we arrived at an opening and I thought it was a great photo op for the group. I didn’t have a tripod so I put my backpack down and balanced my Canon Mark III on top. I set my timer and ran into the scene, attempted the "jumping pose."
Alright, first try, no biggie.
Ok, let's get it together! Third time's a charm!
“We got this!” I yelled, as I pressed the shutter and ran into frame. I'm almost to Cory when he starts running towards me screaming and holding his arms out. I know what you're thinking and no, he wasn't running to hug me. I turn around just in time to watch the wind blow my bag over. My camera tumbled off and hit the ground at the perfect angle, splitting my lens in two. It took the picture, the black frame above. Now my main lens, the one I'd be using for ONWARD in 2 days, was now destroyed. I've never broken a phone or a lens and now I've achieved both in a few hours. I should be upset right? Hell no!
Nothing was going to get me down! We tried it again with Maria's camera and this photo was the best take, though my eyes aren't even open. That's how bad the other attempts were.
Now I have a real problem. I am flying to Mongolia in less than days and I only have a 70-200 and 100mm macro. I got back to our hotel and immediately messaged my buddy Sasha. Sasha was flying from LA to meet Cory and I in Mongolia and luckily I reached him before he flew out. He ran to Samy’s and got me a replacement lens!
Cory and I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on Nov 1st, and Sasha arrived the 2nd. We based in the capital and prepped our gear, repacked our bags with essentials and left unecessary items at the hotel.
Bright and early on Nov 3rd, we flew to Bayan-Ulgii to meet Jagaa.
If you want to see the inredible photo series Sasha shot in Mongolia, CLICK HERE
They only operate 3 flights per week to Bayan-Ulgii due to the small amout of people traveling there. My eyes were suction cupped to the glass for the duration.
We met Jagaa at the Ulgii airport and proceeded to our hotel to drop off our stuff. We wouldn't be leaving for Delüün til the next day, Nov 4. We spent the day getting extra supplies and gifts for our host families. That consisted of Vodka, toys, markers, coloring books…but mainly Vodka.
I rarely get sick, but I had a sickness building from my day on The Great Wall. C'mon China!!! My throat was on fire and my fever chills were starting to take a toll. I tried to stay positive and power through. I tried beating it with some fresh frigid air. I got some food and went to check out the local markets and museum. It didn't work. I made it back to the hotel and my fever was much worse and my throat was swollen. Going out had angered whatever illness I was coming down with.
I laid on the most uncomfortable mattress in the most cinematic room staring at the ceiling. I told myself over and over this is the worst it will get. I had flashbacks of being extremely sick with a fever and stomach bug in The Mentawai. I drank cup after cup of lemon honey tea. Jagaa brought me some traditional (boiling hot) Mongolian mutton stew. He instructed me to eat and drink every bit of it and I would be fine in the morning. Yeah, sure thing Jagaa, I thought to myself. That night was torutre trying to fall asleep. I had a gnarly case of fever sweats, wanting to get up to re-dampen a cold rag, but afraid to leave the warmth of your covers. I had the shakes into the night but woke up feeling much better. I wasn't 100% by any means, but my spirits were high and I could tell I had turned a corner. One could argue it was the stew, I know Jagaa does, but maybe it was part excitement knowing I'd meet the hunters that day. I was just happy to be feeling better!
The next morning we packed this van to the brim. This little van was the engine that could and did. I didn't consider it to be off-road capable but it proved me very wrong.
The pavement abruptly stops about an hour into our drive to Deüün, meaning the next 5 hours will be off-road. Do you remember the driving scene in "Ace-Venture When Nature Calls" when Ace is bouncing his head around like crazy because of a "bumpy road." Yeah, you know the scene. This trip was actually that bumpy.
We stopped multiple times to have tea, play on a frozen lake, chase some animals, and soak in the surroundings. There's not much I can say.
Cory nailing the shot!
My heart started beating faster as we passed Delüün and saw Onei's house. There was a Golden Eagle outside perched on a log and slowly my smile went ear to ear. The best way I can describe my current internal state is a dog in a car that knows he's going to the park. Now we're in the parking lot but my owner won't open the damn door. I've never been more ready to burst out and sprint to every new site, every new smell, every new taste, every new experience. That is my pure joy and love for traveling and culture. There are few things that make me more happy than being completely immersed in a foreign place educating myself and my senses. I find myself often saying to myself, I'd rather explore a world unknown than live a life known.
Mongolia had the brightest night sky i've ever seen in my life. I remember laying on the frozen ground and watching shooting star after shooting star. I could easily view the milky way with the naked eye. I was hooked. Mongolia is a dreamer's paradise.
Telling stories like Konki's are very personal to me. It's important to create trust and make sure everyone is respected. If I can't bond with my subjects, I am not going to make a good film. Period.
Konki had a real sadness in his eyes and it was heavy on him. He loved his father and he is still grieving his loss. I often caught him staring off in his own world. Being aware of his vulnerability, I knew I had to be careful with him. One of the ways I did this was by asking him for his permission to film during different times. This showed him I respected his space and that he still had control to say no if he felt uncomfortable. I asked him if I could film his children. I asked him if I could film interacting with his children. I asked him if I could film photos of his father, his obituary, etc... Konki knew I was coming to cover this story but it still shows respect to ask permission. The more comfortable and respected your subjects feel, the closer they'll allow you to get. This isn't a stradegy, this is me telling you to be a human first.
MACRO : Getting the 100mm macro shots was not an easy task. The Golden Eagles are hyper aware of their surroundings. They are constantly scanning, turning, tilting, etc... I shot the highest FPS I could and luckily had enough to make a cut.
Getting the Eagle to look directly into the lens with Konki was a shot I had been dreaming up before even getting to Mongolia. As I said before, the eagles have a very short attention span.
I just got the eagle to look into the lens when Sasha took a photo, forgetting to turn his flash off. It flash immediately distracted the eagle and I never got him to look into the camera lens again. COME ON SASHA!!
Since Sasha was a last minute add to the trip, they weren't able to secure another saddle. I went to Mongolia with bare essentials. I didn't have a tripod, movi, slider, drone….nothing. I had my red epic kit w/ 3 lenses, matte box, filters, cards and batteries. It was all handheld. Three days in a row we went hunting in the mountains on foot. The mountains are steep and have a top layer of shell rock, so your feet are often sliding. Add a back-pack full of gear, cradling a Red Epic kit, the cold (a water bottle turned to ice in my backpack), all the layers, the altitude. I'm in great physical shape but I often had to stop and catch my breath. We walked several miles every day, ridge to ridge, trying to keep up with the eagle hunters.
Even if all you have is a camera, GO MAKE FILMS. There is no excuse.
There are always some hilairous and humbling stories that happen on these adventures. Sometimes they are "defining" moments that stick out most when I think about the trip. I'm going to share a few starting with the last shot of the film.
The ending shot to the film is particularly funny. I knew I wanted to get a low shot with the eagle flying directly over my head. The wranglers are down at the bottom of the mountain pulling a rabbit fur as they do when they train the eagles. I asked Jagaa, "is it safe to be in front of Konki?" The eagles not going to attack me is it?" Jagaa says, "No. It will fly over you because it sees the rabbit." I put my trust in Jagaa. I looked up at Konki, who was staring at me. I asked Konki through hand gestures if the eagle was going to take my head off. I pointed to his eagle, then buzzed me head with my hand, then pointed to the ground where I was kneeling and gave him a questionable thumbs up. He gives me the green light with a nod.
The film shows the eagle flying over the camera, but you don't realize how close it got to my head. The strings dangling from the Eagle's feet hang around 12 inches. The eagle flew so close to my head that the strings hit my left shoulder...meaning the eagle flew a few inches over my head. The reason I tiltied up is because the eagle threw me off balance (I got scared) and almonst knocked me on my ass. I faded the film to black half a second before Konki sticks his tongue out at me and smiles. The thing about Konki is he's extremely shy and reserved. I can count on one hand the times I saw him smile, however he thought his eagle almost taking my head off was hilarious! You can see the raw clip below.
BECOMING THE VILLAGE IDIOT
One day we went to a frozen river to do a little shooting and there were a couple of horses getting some water. Being the animal lover I am, I walked up to one of the horses and give her a smooch. Little did I know this horse was planning revenge!
A few days later we are outside of Onei's home hanging out. One of the guys asked if I'd like to ride a horse. "OF COURSE!" I proclaimed. What I didn't realize was they were basically pulling a practical joke on me and everyone was in on. It was probably the horse's idea from that kiss. Keep in mind I haven't ridden a horse in a decade and I've never been on a horse without a saddle.
This is me getting on the horse. This is the face you make when you know it's not a good idea. Of course the following events were captured by everyone because, like I said, they knew what was going to happen.
"Piece of cake," I said. "It's just a lil' pony."
I start getting a little cocky as I strut around the field. Jagaa and the whole house has gathered outside to watch. This gives me false confidence. He yells out to me to kick the horse and make her trot. "SURE!" I yell.
"Haha just kidding everyone, I got this!"
"Oh shit, no I don't!"
"Oh shit! Stop! Oh shit!"
"I'm going to die!"
"This is how my life ends..." (notice when I fell off, my left leg is getting caught under the rope)
"Run it out Cale!" (leg still dragging over the rope)
"Tuck n Roll!"
I crash to the ground hard on my left knee. The rocky terrain ripped a hole through my 4 layers of clothes and bloodied up my knee. The rope had tied up my left boot and the horse was about to drag me like a cowboy in the movies. This is when the camera stopped shooting. People stopped laughing. Jagaa rushed to my aide. Even in that moment, I realized the danger in the situation. I quickly pulled myself up by the rope and unhooked my boot as the horse quickly tried to run off. That's when the photos resumed. This all took place in maybe 3-4 seconds but seemed like an eternity.
"Did you guys see that?" I made up for it by never letting go of the rope. Once I stood up and smiled to everyone, they laughed about it for the next couple hours. They requested to see the sequence of photos over and over and over. They told their friends when they came to visit and asked me to show them the photos. Sometime's life happens and you have to roll with the punches. I know that night was the best night I had there and felt like our bonds were cemented in. I like to think that they will reminisc about this story from time to time.
That night we celebrated hard. They sang songs, played traditional music, drank unknown amounts of vodka, we told jokes and enjoying each other's company.
All of our differences don't matter because at our core, we were humans treating each other as humans.
I don't know if this means he liked it or hated it.
The Film ONWARD almost never happened.
We left the Eagle Hunters and got back to Ulaanbaatar on Nov 9th. We were absolutely exhausted. We got a cab at the airport but the small cars couldn't fit our luggage in the trunk. Cory and Sasha sat in the back seat holding their bags. I had no room in the front for both of mine so I put one between them in the back seat. The drive to the hotel is about 30 minutes and all we can think about is showering, getting food, and relaxing. We pull over on the side of the road, across from our hotel and get out of the cab. Sasha and Cory grab the bags and walk across the street while I settle the payment with the driver. I pay him at the trunk of the car, he hands me change and a receipt. I fumble with the change for a second trying to get it into my pockets and the receipt into my wallet. I walk half way across the street and look up at Sasha and Cory who are rolling their bags into the hotel. I don't see the bag that I set between them. "Hey guys?! Do you have my bag?!?" I yell from 30 yards away. They both look at each other and say, "What bag?" I turn back to the cab. The cab is GONE. From the time I paid him, to when I turned back around and noticed he was gone was less than 60 seconds.
My red epic kit is in the bag! Also....BOTH OF MY EXTERNAL HARD-DRIVES CONTAINING ALL OF MY FOOTAGE. ALL OF IT!
I screamed "FUCK!" at the top of my lungs, dropping my other bag and immediately started springing down the middle of the road. I ran about 50 yards to an intersection and decided to hook a right. Our hotel was next to the city square and it's morning rush hour. There are cars everywhere. I sprinted past cab after cab looking into the back seats, slapping windows, screaming obscenities, into the air, as my mind went into sheer panic and horror. How could this happen?!? I slow down to catch my breath, defeated, and then I looked over to see Cory fly by me, running down the middle of the busy road, in between cars, doing the same. It made me smile just for a second because I knew all the locals were looking at us like we were insane.
I ran back to the hotel and immediately told the front desk. They tried their best to understand me but I was frantic and speaking way too fast. I noticed they had cameras outside and so I pleaded and begged for them to check immediately. Time is so important. Fifteen minutes went by and I was almost in tears feeling so helpless. I started getting angry that they refused to let me see the security tapes. I begged and begged and finally made them put me on with the manager. I explained what was in my bag and how important it was that they let me help. They escorted us to the security room where they had already pulled up the tapes. One of them was totally useless and because the car pulled across the street, it would be impossible to see a cab number or license plate. We watched the whole thing go on tape. There I was in the road trying to put my receipt into my wallet while the driver got into his car and drove off. I turn around and notice he's gone. There I go sprinting out of frame.
They pulled up one more angle and scrubbed through the tape until we saw the car pull parallel. Though it was blurry, they immediately recognized the LOGO of the cab company from the door and called their headquarters. I have no translator and have no idea what's being said. All I know is i'm still fearing the absolute worse. Thirty minutes have passed. I tell them, three white tourist from the airport got dropped off from the city square. The person on the phone says, "we only had two cabs leave the airport this morning." Ten more minutes go by. They call back and speak for less than a minute. The hotel manager looks at me, "They found him. He's coming back." We rush outside and sit there for what seems like an eternity. He pulls up and I sprint across the street. There is my bag sitting in the exact same position. The driver had no idea. I hugged him, gave him a huge tip, hugged the hotel manager, hugged Cory, hugged Sasha...
The lesson here is don't get lazy. I always take city cabs, even though they are more expensive than private cabs, and I always take photos of the cab numbers and their phone numbers. I simply didn't take a picture this time because I was tired and I had Cory and Sasha with me. What could go wrong?!?
I didn't give a shit if my camera and lenses disappeared, all I cared about was that footage on those hard-drives.
If it weren't for that crappy security camera then ONWARD wouldn't exist.