The Claudio von Planta Interview

Over at the AV Club it was Second Opinion Week, which is why you won't find my American Idol recap but you will find me reviewing Parks and Recreation. Also, for fun, we talked about our ear-wormiest songs.

A few months ago my husband I rented the travel series "Long Way Round," about actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's journey around the world on motorcycles. Part of the story was simply the preparation and execution of the journey itself, which included finding a motorcycle-riding cameraman, who is today's interviewee. Steve and I became obsessed with LWR and moved onto the guys' African journey, "Long Way Down." Claudio became a part of both stories in addition to just documenting them, which I think was good because if we didn't know the guy behind the camera, we wouldn't have paused to consider the work that went into all the beautiful shots throughout the documentary. After we finished the series, I looked Claudio up and learned that in addition to riding across and down the planet on a motorcycle with a camera on his shoulder, he's an award-winning editor and director who specializes in shooting in situations much more dangerous than what we already saw.

If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be?
I would love to be back in West Papua, the Western side of New Guinea where I filmed Rebels of the forgotten World in 1989/90. Unfortunately the West Papuan independence struggle against Indonesia is still as obscure as 20 years ago because the whole world is turning a blind eye towards the Indonesian atrocities against the West Papuans. Effectively the Indonesians commit genocide to colonize West Papua and exploit the vast natural resources like copper, gold, oil, timber etc. The slaughter of West Papuans is motivated by the same forces as the killing of Indians in North and South America or the elimination of Aborigines in Australia 250 years ago but the West Papuan genocide is happening today in the 21st Century. It's a prime example of global hypocrisy when it comes to the exploitation of natural resources, greed and power. In my view, countries who ignore the genocide in West Papua and do business with Indonesia are inevitably complicit in these crimes. As often, the champions of double standards are the USA. On one hand they proclaim to propagate democracy and human rights but on the other hand in a place like West Papua they play a key role in the crimes committed against the Papuans. The 1963 Indonesian military invasion was encouraged by the US government under John F. Kennedy to ensure that General Suharto and the Indonesian Army didn't drift into the communist camp - a nightmare scenario in times of the cold war where America started to faced a loosing battle in Vietnam. To make the West Papuan invasion worthwhile the US administration also set up a joint venture between the Indonesian government and Freeport McMoRan, one of the biggest US mining companies. Since 1964 they exploit vast copper and gold reserves at the Tembagapura mine in West Papua and McMoRan became one of the biggest tax payers in Indonesia. There is a very obvious US complicity in the West Papuan genocide. No wonder we don't hear much about it.

How did you get the Long Way Round/Down gigs?
It's the first and only job I got out of the blue with no personal recommendations. Ewan and Charley were looking for a documentary filmmaker with the skills to operate alone and the ability to ride a motorcycle. I was happy to do both - even though I didn't have the right motorcycle license at the beginning.

It seems like there were a lot of shots in the series where you'd stop and let the others ride on so you could get footage of them in the distance. Was this as time-consuming as it looked or did you have a system to streamline the shoot-and-catch-up process?

There is no miraculous tick. Capturing good scenery shots is always time consuming. Fortunately Ewan and Charley fully understood the importance of these 'drive by shots' and always waited for me to race ahead or catch up.

Did you know ahead of time how much you'd be on camera for both series? I don't think if you weren't a "character" in it, we wouldn't necessarily think about how much work must have gone into shooting them?
We didn't know upfront how much the filming/producing team will feature in the LWR and LWD series but we decided to include everybody in case something dramatic happens along the way and the story of a team member suddenly becomes relevant - for example Russ crashing his car or me having to replace the GS1150 BMW with the Russian 125cc Red Devil etc.

From a technical perspective, which shoots that you've worked have been the most difficult?
No doubt Rebels of the Forgotten World. In 1989 I didn't have the technology of today and I assembled 120 kg of equipment in water proof boxes to survive this 6 month long expedition. As my main camera I used a 13 kg heavy Beta-SP video camera and for charging the Nickel-Cadmium batteries I built a solar charging system. I also needed a short-wave radio transmitter to communicate with the outside world and I used one of the first satellite navigation systems, which was crucial to organize a helicopter rescue mission at the end of my trip.

If you did another project with Ewan and Charley, would you do anything differently?
I always try to evolve. First of all, the camera technology is getting better and better. We would have better on-board biking camera shots. I would use a lot of High Definition GoPro cameras. They are available since 2010. On the editorial front I would lobby to keep Ewan and Charley as much on their own as possible. Touching base with the production team can be fun and reassuring but it takes the edge of the adventure. Seeing Ewan and Charley solving problems on their own would always be more interesting than relying on the production backup team.

A lot of the work you do involves very serious subject matter: was LWR/D a departure for you?
Yes, the adventure entertainment angle of LWR&D was new to me. Traditionally I produced current affairs films focusing on serious issues like human rights violations, refugee crisis, illegal immigration, AIDS, sex slavery etc. The adventure aspect of my job was incidental. With LWR & D the experience of the adventure became the backbone of the story. I feel it has less purpose than many current affairs films but interestingly you can reach much larger audiences and most people only heard my name because of LWR&D. It's an interesting lesson and I'm trying to apply this for my new projects. With my 2010 BBC series RACING GREEN I used the adventure of six young engineers driving the first electric car from Alaska to Argentina to highlight the necessity to cut our dependency on fossil fuel based transport. Praising the advantages of electric cars on it's own would be boring but combined with an exiting record breaking adventure across 14 countries I managed to add great entertainment value. It's a useful LWR&D lesson and I'm very keen to develop more adventure based stories promoting sustainable technologies - a major challenge in the 21st century!

Do you read/watch/do anything to lighten your mood or clear your mind after working on an especially serious project?
I play piano or go running, kayaking or skiing.

Of all the shoots you've ever worked, which felt the most threatening to your safety?
My first attempts to film some news features in Afghanistan in 1985/86 during the Russian occupation was the most dangerous time. I was embedded with various groups of Afghan Mujahedin and was out of touch with the rest of the world for several months - we didn't have satellite or mobile phones at the time! The risk of catching a nasty disease or suffering injuries was huge and you never knew whether and when you will make your way back. Walking through a mine field was the most frightening moment. Ending up in a Pakistani prison for illegal border crossing was a jolly in comparison.

As a viewer, what are your favorite things to watch? Feature films? Documentaries? Short films? TV?
I'm always most impressed with documentaries because capturing compelling reality is far more difficult and risky than creating fiction. Good examples are Taxi to the Dark Side and Afghan Star.

What led you to the first film you sold in 1985?
I was interested in journalism but didn't feel competent enough with writing and decided to try my luck with filming. I was looking for a serious current affairs story where I won't face much competition and in 1985 Afghanistan was at the top of my list. The Russian military invasion in 1979 led to an exodus of over a million refugees into Pakistan and another million into Iran but on TV screens we hardly ever saw reports. Most media organizations found it too difficult to cover the Afghan guerrilla war. It was therefore the perfect environment for a freelance cameraman. I wasn't totally naive. I had over 2.5 years military training as a Swiss Mountain Grenadier and I felt relatively well prepared to face the challenge. However, the reality of Afghan warfare was of course much crazier than what I ever imagined. Fortunately I survived and managed to sell some footage for a news feature in France. My plan worked. I got my foot into the door of the TV industry and continued to work as a freelance ever since.

If you were just filming something informal like your dog doing something funny or a funny moment at a family party, what kind of camera would you grab?
An iPhone.

What's the first thing you remember ever filming?
A wedding video for friends of my parents.

What are some key motorcycle safety tips you've passed on to your kids?

Always anticipate people walking into the street without looking and be slow enough to avoid hitting them.

If you were to become fluent in yet another language, which would it be?
Spanish - during RACING GREEN I fell in love with Latin and South America and one day I would like to spend some time in Colombia to learn Spanish.

How does it feel to be the 281st person interviewed for
Very impressed to be that famous.