Chris O’Donnell

Assistant Producer

As Assistant Producer my first task was to find 8 specialists foolhardy enough to join Dan on the expedition. Modern safety concerns meant that unlike on the 1869 expedition we would have to find 3 guides experienced enough to pilot the unsuitable boats through the ever-changing rapids of the Grand Canyon. We also needed to find 4 specialists to undertake the scientific, photographic and navigational tasks undertaken by Major Powell’s original crew. Once we’d realised how difficult it was going to be to get the replica Whitehall boats down the river in one piece even with expert pilots the last position had to go to the man who had built them: Ben Kahn.

During the 18 days of the expedition, my job as one of the shooting assistant producers was to embed myself with the 9 guys tackling the journey and to film all aspects of life on the expedition. As well as the big set pieces of taking on the rapids and discovering Powell’s scientific work we wanted to capture what life was really like in camp and record how the modern day boatmen were really coping with challenge of surviving a self-sufficient expedition in one of the world’s most unforgiving environments.

This meant working on a shift system to be there with a camera when they arrived in camp each evening and with them as they woke up and prepared for the day. During the days we had to keep an eye out ready to record incidents like broken oars, wildlife discoveries or the numerous injuries. We were really keen to find out their thoughts on their 19th century forebears who’d been through the same problems and dangers with the added disadvantage of not knowing what was up ahead. Everyone one the trip realised the scale of achievement of those first explorers pretty quickly and I think it helped the team cope with their sufferings.

It can’t have been easy for the team to cope with keeping the boats in one piece, looking after their supplies, setting their camp and feeding themselves in the wilderness while having a camera shoved in their face during almost every waking hour. But almost immediately they began to treat us as part of the expedition team, enjoy the experience and forget that the cameras were there. However, I’m still not sure whether the numerous faked rattlesnake sounds, exposed body parts and swigs of gut rotting moonshine whiskey while we were trying to film were meant to make us welcome or as revenge for our more direct questions.

During the 18 days of the expedition, I was constantly surprised by how different the environment was at each stage along the canyon. I’d thought it would all start to look very similar after a week but because Powell had wanted to discover the canyon as well as make it through meant that our experts and guides wanted to stop and film as much of the variety as we had time for. Some of the most enjoyable moments were finding a high point over the river up to capture dawn or dusk and going ahead of the main unit to rig cameras on the big rapids when I’d really get the chance to appreciate the scale and beauty of the environment. Even the discomfort of sleeping on the sand after another long day in the heat and dust was more than made up for by the stunning starscape we were treated to on most nights.

The dangers of the desert environment really came into sharp focus when the Powell team needed to get any distance away from the river. The fast flowing river is cold enough that regular 30 second dunks throughout the day are enough to combat the fierce desert heat. Most of the side canyons are filled with cool streams and waterfalls to wash or collect fresh drinking water for filtering. As soon as you get any distance away from the river you’re reminded that you’re in a desert The long steep hikes out of the canyon had to be filmed on small cameras as you need to carry enough water to drink about a litre per hour when climbing the steep canyon trails in the sun. Even after several hours of walking and filming the massive canyon walls still towered above which gave me a real appreciation of why Powell and his men decided to stick with the known dangers of the river.

Working so closely with the historical team for so much of the journey really gave me an appreciation for what they were going through with very little complaint. There were many times when I would have loved to have given the Whitehall boats a try down the major rapids but there was always a part of me that was grateful for being able to take on the big water on our inflatable boats with the film kit. I was especially thankful for our motor power at the end of long days when I would easily pass the exhausted rowers – filming their aching bodies. Also despite the enthusiastic noises which greeted miraculous meals conjured from expedition supplies, stowed in soggy boat hatches I was always quite pleased to know I was going back to the production camp where the fantastic chefs in the support crew would have saved a large portion from that night’s menu.