Have you ever wanted to follow your passion by traveling the world as a digital content creator? Modern filmmaking methods and distribution outlets have made that possible.
One of those adventurers is Alexander Fedorov - photographer, filmmaker, and creator of the Bad Planet YouTube channel. Traveling lightly and equipped with his camera, M1 MacBook Pro, and Final Cut Pro, he has been able to explore interesting cultures around the globe. I recently connected with Fedorov in Vladivostok through Zoom as he prepares for his next expedition.
How did you start on this life’s journey?
I was raised in Moscow, studied to be a mechanical engineer, and earned a Master's Degree specializing in jet airplane turbines. But I’m not a city person, so after I finished the university I hitchhiked into Mongolia and stayed with wonderful Mongolian families along the way. I had a small camera, taking pictures of the Mongolians, but didn’t really have any plans in my life. I just knew that I didn't want to be a mechanical engineer anymore.
I traveled through China, Tibet, and Thailand and thought, maybe I could be a photographer for Nat Geo for my whole life. I started approaching the magazines to sell my photos. Although I received a lot of rejections, I found one editor who was willing to publish them. Soon I was working for magazines like Nat Geo Russia and Discover Russia, as well as an Italian Photography Agency.
Magazines started having a harder time financially, in part because they were competing with bloggers for advertising revenue. So I decided that I can work for myself, have my blog and use my equipment, like a camera and a computer. I don't need a home and could live as a freelance nomad.
You’ve been able to travel to some out-of-the-way places around the world, including deep into the Amazon rain forest. Tell us a bit about Amazones, a multimedia exhibition you put together in Moscow.
I was in Bogota, Colombia. Friends gave me a book by Wade Davis, called One River - a wonderful book about the Amazon. He's a biologist and was living with the tribes. My girlfriend, who is a good journalist, and I thought, why not just follow his route?
We met our first tribe, the Yanomami, who live a wonderful way of life in the middle of the jungle. Unfortunately, it was illegal to go there and we were arrested by the military and imprisoned for about a month until the embassy took us out of there. Once we were released we continued in Ecuador - going from tribe to tribe, taking the photos, plus I was filming some interviews. I also recorded the sounds of feasts, celebration songs, and general village atmosphere with a Zoom H1N recorder.
We visited five tribes in five countries where the Amazon is. For me, they all had to be different from each other. One is more traditional, one is more contemporary with motor boats and TVs, and so on. I had worked with Panasonic before and they had sponsored me with a Lumix camera. So, I wrote to them about sponsoring a multimedia exhibition in Moscow. We found an empty space to use, but had to create the gallery inside, which wasn’t really in the budget. In the end, we found volunteers to help design and build the space.
Panasonic covered the rent and provided us with all the equipment for the projection, the sound, and the televisions, which enabled us to design a very immersive experience. The anthropologists gave us artifacts from the tribes. So we had a small museum with the photography, with videos of the interviews, and the immersive sound. We also created a small lecture area and different scientists specializing in nature, from anthropology to biology, came and spoke each weekend. It was a wonderful exhibition.
How and why did you make the shift from photography to filmmaking?
I felt that making films was easier than taking photos, organizing an exhibition, and earning money from that. You film the story, you spend one month editing, but then you have a lot of places to distribute. You can go to the theaters, streaming platforms, YouTube, or maybe do a commercial partnership. I actually released my first movie for the big screen just a year ago. It was about women in Dagestan. I just wrote to the theaters and asked them, will you screen it? Little by little, I found a lot of theaters that would screen it and we earned a lot of money from that.
Moving into filming came naturally, because the Lumix camera makes more sense for filmmakers than for photographers. I have to blame the camera [laugh]. Anyway, the first short film for YouTube was about Iranian nomads. That movie is very bad, but it has two million views on YouTube and I'm very sad about that [laugh]. I want another one to have two million on YouTube. I don't know why that one has it, but it was the first short film that I made in 2015.
You edit your video using Apple Final Cut Pro. Had you used other editing applications? How easy was it to get started, since you didn’t have a video editing background?
I’ve used both Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro. I haven’t use DaVinci [Resolve], because when it went mainstream, I was so in love with Final Cut. Even though I’ve spent years in photography, when I open a new program it’s like being a newbie. Final Cut was very wonderful and so smooth. The interface is so responsive and friendly.
But, storytelling is the main idea behind Final Cut Pro’s magnetic timeline. You don't need to watch the clips to see them. You can just browse with your mouse and then put them on the storyline. Then add another and it gets there magnetically. I thought, this is not so hard.
My first Final Cut Pro edit was a short video for YouTube about a guy traveling around Pakistan with a samovar - a Russian tea pot. I shot it on a Canon 5D MkII, so that was around 2013 or 2014. I had a ten hour wait for a 5AM flight out of Karachi. The airport has the terminal and a McDonald’s. I went to McDonald's and used Final Cut Pro for the first time. I completely finished the edit and could have published that. It wasn’t fancy - no effects - but it was a very solid clip.
Then one day I decided, why not try Premiere Pro? People were pushing me into using Premiere as more professional, because it’s bundled with After Effects. According to them, if you do movies, you have to understand After Effects and if you use After Effects you have to use Premiere. This made sense, so I decided to edit the trailer for the movie about Iranian nomads. That was a nightmare, because it was very hard to figure out how it worked. It isn't magnetic and that was a pain in the ass. I really thought, why am I so stupid? Why does it take me a week to get into how to make this trailer?
Maybe it was because of the software or the interface. For instance, in Premiere the timeline clips only show colors, not a filmstrip. If I put one clip on the timeline it deletes the other clip. Or maybe just the sound of the new clip overwrites the sound of the first one. It overlaps a lot. So I went back to Final Cut. I started reading about how to do the stuff and learned more from YouTube tutorials. The MacBook and Final Cut Pro work perfectly together. Premiere crashed about every hour or so. When I went back to Final Cut, everything was normal again.
If you need the story to be the first thing, then Final Cut Pro is just wonderful. A clip has a certain action, so you place it in the storyline. You add a second and a third. Because it's magnetic, you can quickly rearrange the order. That’s so simple just to do that and the whole story is different. I don't have to move clips to the side and then move them back together. It just automatically works.
I don't like fancy transitions or crazy camera moves. I just like the traditional way. I like when one shot creates a story and the other shots make the story move forward. Final Cut is the best for that. I'm not into the mechanics of the process. I’m more into the philosophy of the process. Its philosophy is the most important thing behind Final Cut Pro.
Do you also handle your own color correction and finishing in Final Cut Pro?
Yes, I do the color correction. I shoot in v-log with the Lumix S1H and right now I’m trying to shoot in ProRes RAW, as long as I have the Atomos Ninja V recorder.
How do you like working with ProRes RAW?
ProRes RAW is wonderful. It's so easy to work with colors. I always thought that the professional colorists must be so talented, because I wasn’t getting the colors I needed out of my footage. Then I moved to ProRes RAW and I understood that the professionals just work with professional codecs and it's so much easier for them. If you take 8-bit video and then try to push colors it doesn't work well.
I finished a small video about some friends who were windsurfing in Egypt. That was so easy in terms of color. I was expecting that I can shoot whatever I want and preserve the highlights and the darks in the edit. But the colors were surprising. Even if I add a crazy LUT it looks good, which it never did before.
The only problem is the file size. I haven't found how best to work with such big files in my process. I have a 4TB SSD, which is about four hours of ProRes RAW. This means I can only shoot up to four hours in a day. But a lot happens and you always have to stay on. So I haven't found how to work with that, because I can't afford to consume 4TB in a single day.
I wish there was a version of the ProRes RAW with more compression, like how Blackmagic does it. On another project I started filming in ProRes RAW, but had to move back to the ProRes 422. The files are smaller and I can record longer. At least it’s 10-bit, v-log.
Let’s hear about your latest expedition into the waters between Alaska and Russia.
The story traces back to last year during the corona crisis. I was looking for a large project to do and just love staying in nature and going into the wild. The more I learned about climate change, the more it worried me. I started filming the first project in the Arctic. There is a group of scientists who study the the melting of the permafrost, which is full of ancient carbon. When all the mammoths and other ancient creatures died there they did not decompose. They just stayed frozen. Now they're decomposing, because the permafrost is melting and so are emitting a lot of CO2 and methane.
I went there to document the life of these scientists. They are wonderful people who love this country and nature. They had the crazy idea of bringing large animals back into the tundra, which is full of swamps. By bringing the animals there, they hope to change the ecosystem from swamp to the grassland as it was in the first place. They believe that if they bring it back the melting of permafrost will stop and there is some science to back them up.
So they're trying to create the ecosystem with the millions of square kilometers of space. It looks crazy and I don't think they can finish it. But from my perspective, what was so important to document, is the type of people who are living the dream to do good and to inspire all the other folks who would like to do that, too.
The filming went quickly and we published that. We had a lot of screenings and a lot of famous people saw it and donated to this scientific effort. I felt fulfilled by that, because my making movies helped these guys get donations. That makes it possible for them to carry on their work.
This year, I found another kind of crazy world saver [laugh]. This researcher is a Russian marine biologist who is a professor in marine biology at a university in Seattle. In the summer, he goes back to Russia to do research in the Kuril Islands on the diminishing sea lion population. The Bering Strait is one of the richest ecosystem. If it disappears, that would have a great influence. I saw this guy as super in love with nature and he's a very open person, which is rare in Russia. He's a very good protagonist and an excellent main character for the documentary - just wonderfully inspired.
You mentioned that he’s good protagonist in the story. This brings to mind a question. How do you use Final Cut Pro to organize the topics and characters in your pieces?
I edit along the way, which is kind of important. If I do a big expedition I don’t film for two weeks and then come back. I try to stay as long as I want. Modern equipment allows me to do that - just one 13” M1 MacBook Pro and the camera gear. This wasn’t possible with the previous MacBook Pro that I had. The M1 is a game changer in my workflow.
I can start with an introductory interview, which becomes the talking head. I’ll put it on the storyline in Final Cut Pro and review it. Is it good? Is it suitable? I’ll start to pick and mark the topics. Then I go filming again. For example, he speaks about how they count the sea lions or check the monitoring cameras. Now we have to film how the team wakes up, goes there, takes the camera files, and so on. That same evening I’ll edit that to the storyline and see how it connects with what he has said. Do I need to film more or get different shots? Or is it actually good, as is? Is it interesting to watch?
Or you can just start by filming their tasks without first recording an interview. Like he goes checking cameras and you just put that into the storyline. And when you film the interview, you can talk more about that, because you know the coverage that you have. The interview A-Roll goes together to explain the B-Roll clips.
All of these stories are combined and I do this once every two or three days, editing along the way. So when the time comes to refine the edit, I already have everything prepared and I don't need to procrastinate.
Right. So it's a very interactive process, because you're shooting and editing along the way.
Yes, but you need a bit of discipline to do that. You have to always think about what the story is. I find editing is a big issue for people who film a lot of material. The director comes back home and he's devastated. There is so much material. What is the first thing? What is the last thing? It can be hundreds, even thousands of hours of material.
When I made the first movie it took me two weeks just to start doing something, because of the fear of the amount of footage. But for the last one about the permafrost, I was editing along the way. When I came back home, it took me just two or three weeks to finish. There was nothing to procrastinate about. The story is already made. Everything is there on the storyline. You just have to do some manual labor and find the best shots to polish the story.
That's kind of a benefit of being solo or working in a small team. I think the [production] world is moving into small teams with these crazy modern cameras. They don't need big productions anymore. Even small guys can do that easily and put it in the movies. No viewer will ever realize that it's made that way. I think that the movie Nomadland showed that to everyone. I believe that's why they got an Oscar in the end, which is kind of cool.
For me, editing along the way is the best workflow and something made really easy with Final Cut Pro. You never miss the story. We just have the summer for filming here in Vladivostok. If I lose something, I can’t go back in the winter. I would have to wait for another expedition. So it’s better not to lose anything. And it's easier in the end. Everything is there and you remember everything, because it gets organized in your head.
Special thanks to Simon Says for assistance in transcribing this interview.