How To Make An Award-Winning Paddling Film

Every year, Rapid Media’s Reel Paddling Film Festival receives stacks of entries from pro and amateur filmmakers all over the world. Short-listed films have some basic elements in common. Follow these tips and your paddling film could be the next festival favorite.

1. Tell a story

A film that’s all flashy pictures and no storyline is just kayak porn. It’s great when it comes to browsing YouTube, looking for inspiration, but the best festival movies have both action anda story. Make sure the story is fresh and relevant—having a human element really helps. Consider telling a new story, or tell an old story in a different way. Just avoid telling the same old “my trip” story.

2. Plan

Pros know that every shot should serve a purpose. Make a storyboard first and you’ll almost certainly produce a cleaner film with a clearer message. Lots of videos out there are just compilations of footage people shot and then decided to make a movie out of later on. Plan before you shoot.

3. Gear

You don’t need a helicopter and thousands of dollars worth of equip­ment to make a winning film. Some of the best festival performers are shot entirely on a single entry-level camera. That being said, video-capable digital SLR cameras are very accessible, allowing filmmakers to change lenses for different effects. Point of view (P.O.V.) cameras like the GoPro provide a different perspective. A sturdy tripod and basic lighting also go a long way when it comes to the quality of the finished product.

4. Get the Shot

Don’t be lazy. If capturing the best lighting and vantage point means getting up at 4:30 a.m., make the effort. Scope out the site before filming, consider your surroundings and what different angles you can shoot from. Use a mix of tight and wide shots and remember that panning is more visually pleasing for viewers than using only static shots. P.O.V. footage can be excellent. Overuse it and risk boring your audience, not to mention inflicting Blair Witch-style movie motion sickness.

5. Soundtrack

People are more tolerant of low quality video than they are of low quality sound. Be mindful of wind and other background noise, like rushing water. Post processing can also affect sound quality. Set the mood with music. Be careful not to wear your audience out with too much manic music, or put them to sleep by having your entire soundtrack too mellow.

6. Edit

Most importantly, remember longer isn’t better. Shorts are often festival favorites. Only so many films can be shown on a one-night tour stop. As for the cutting room floor, your editing doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to flow. Abrupt cuts are distracting, as are scenes that linger. Oh, and save the cheesy PowerPoint slide­show effects for the boardroom.


When your photo gear costs more than your shuttle rig, whitewater photography can become risky. For great on-the-water camera gear options, click here. 

For more pro tips on making whitewater films,click here. 

Whitewater photographer Darin McQuoid shoots some of the wildest rivers on earth, click here to see what gear he takes on every trip.


For information on how to submit your paddling film and to see listings of more than 100 cities where you can catch the Reel Paddling Film Festival World Tour, visit 

This skills article originally appeared in the 2013 Paddling Buyer’s Guide. Download our free iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it on your desktop here. 





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