Elia Saikaly finds life and purpose in adventure filmmaking

Adventure filmmaker Elia Saikaly is inside his tent typing his blog into a Macbook Pro. Outside, violent icy winds tear at the yellow fabric of his flimsy mountainside shelter. He’s reporting from Camp 4, which sits on a plateau that looks like the surface of the moon. At 24,000 feet, this is called the Death Zone. The summit of the highest peak on the planet is less than a mile straight up, but at this altitude the body can no longer adapt: It just wants to die.

“For the first time in my life, I am terrified to fall asleep. Weeks of operating at 100% while shooting video for the reality TV series on Mt. Everest has finally caught up to me.” writes Saikaly. It’s 2013 and this is his fourth Everest expedition.

“That’s the science of Everest, if you make one mistake at any point along the way, you lose everything,”

The 38-year-old Canadian cinematographer would lose almost everything two years later at basecamp. Saikaly was on Everest in 2015 shooting  the ‘six summits challenge.’ The philanthropic series of climbs was sponsored by sports apparel giant Under Armour to raise awareness and funds to combat human trafficking. Saikaly and another climber were having tea outside their tent when the Nepal earthquake struck. “We were surfing on the rock,” says Saikaly. “I knew exactly what was going on. I’d experienced one in Nepal the year before.” And then the avalanche hit. “We didn’t see it coming and the minute it came through the cloud, a 2000 foot tidal wave of snow coming straight at our faces. We had about eight seconds to react.” They dove into their tent. “Not the advisable thing to do,” says Saikaly. “But we had nowhere to run.” What saved them was a hundred-foot tall mound of rocks next to their tent. The wall of snow bounced off the rock pile, and over their campsite.

Photo credit Elia Saikaly

Saikaly’s instinct was to grab a camera and start shooting. “None of us had any idea how bad it was until we saw bodies being carried in towards our camp.” Base camp was a war zone: shredded tents, blood in the snow. Nineteen climbers died, making April 25, 2015 the deadliest day in Everest history. Saikaly knew the world wanted pictures: “I tried to be the best journalist I could be,” he said, but he spent much of the day looking for friends to make sure they were okay. One of them didn’t make it.

“It was tough and it was overwhelming because I had everybody in my inbox,” says Saikaly. “CNN to Reuters, Washington Post, every major news outlet in the world was trying to get an interview or trying to get footage. So I became the guy that was feeding the world in real time. It was a way to deal with the situation.”

How did a troubled teen from a sleepy government town in Canada come to point a video camera at the most hostile mountain in the world and feed the world’s media with exclusive images? For Elia Saikaly, the journey has been one crazy adventure after another.

Keeping Out of Trouble

“I was a rebel delinquent. I didn’t have a lot going for me,” says Saikaly whose father was a video enthusiast who ran a small wedding video company in Ottawa. His dad was heartened when he saw him making skateboarding videos with his buddies and keeping out of trouble.

“There were a couple of things that turned my life around,” says Saikaly. “One was powerlifting” — he set a world lifting record when he was 17 — “and the other one was video.” Ever since he picked up a video camera, he says, “the camera has been an extension of my body.”

He went to college for TV Broadcasting and his dream was to someday land in Hollywood and make feature films. In school, he immersed himself in his shooting and editing assignments, pulling all-nighters and lending his shooting skills to as many projects he had time for. He skipped business and production management classes. “I really wasn’t interested in anything but shooting at that time.” In his second year, instructors were so impressed with his crisp and professional looking camera work they told him they had nothing more to teach him and excused him from class so he could freelance at local TV stations. By the time he graduated, Saikaly was a seasoned news shooter and his gift as a storyteller propelled him in front of the camera as a VJ.

His on-camera work was noticed by MTV and he soon found himself in another world as a model and playing the lead in MTV’s teen drama “Live Through This” (2000-2001). But, he says, “I wasn’t really true to my stuff, I wasn’t true to my passion, which is to be behind the lens as a creator, as a storyteller.”

Changing Gears

Not wanting to live somebody else’s dream living in Toronto and Los Angeles, he went back to Ottawa, opened a small video production company and practiced what he learned in broadcasting school. He wished he’d attended those production management classes, but quickly learned on the job, running a store-front video business with a crew of employees, production facilities and clients to manage.

His shop delivered script-to-screen production services for government and corporate clients and, like his father, he became very good at producing wedding videos. He credits his experience in the wedding industry with expanding his toolkit of production skills. Saikaly says the main takeaway was “Not ever lowering the standard of the production just because you can’t control the situation — and making it as cinematic as possible.”

National Geographic, Discovery, ESPN, all the major networks and a host of international broadcasters come knocking when a program segment needs that touch of cinema magic Saikaly brings to reality-based storytelling.

Cinematic mastery under extreme conditions would become Saikaly’s brand. He is one of the most sought after shooters by broadcasters and commercial clients when the mission is to come back from challenging terrain with outstanding video. National Geographic, Discovery, ESPN, all the major networks and a host of international broadcasters come knocking when a program segment needs that touch of cinema magic Saikaly brings to reality-based storytelling. His irrepressible work ethic, carried over from his student days, is what enables him to capture the exquisite video footage that has padded an impressive demo reel over the years.

Climbing Mountains

“In a world where the rule is to never exceed 60% of your capacity, I’m revving at 120% continuously for eight to 10 hours at a time.”

In his Everest blog entry, Saikaly explains how he has to manage his energy so that he can run ahead of 14 other climbers, clipping and unclipping from the safety line as he goes, in order to get the shots he needs to tell his story. He’s trained one of the Sherpas, Pasang Kaji, to be his camera assistant. Kaji, who has become a close friend, handles lenses, backs up footage, does sound and sometimes handles the camera. Without Kaji, Saikaly would not have been able to capture his iconic low angle shots of climbers crossing deadly crevasses over an extension ladder. First Kaji is lowered into the crevasse to build an anchor and clip Saikaly’s harness to it. “Then I would slowly lower myself in,” says Saikaly. “I’d put in the ice screw so I would be secure and then people would cross over the crevasse on the ladder and we would have a pretty outstanding angle.”

Photo credit Elia Saikaly

These dramatic camera angles and a variety of other unique perspectives make for stunning visual storytelling. The 2013 expedition is the story of the first Arab climbers to summit Everest, told as a 12-part reality series produced for Qatar television. The series, “On The Top,” won a CINE Golden Eagle award that honors creators of exceptional media content. Ken Burns, Barbara Kopple, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are notable alumni.

But the story that hooked Saikaly’s career into unforeseeable and sometimes unimaginable directions was the story of a larger than life Irishman, fitness guru Sean Egan.

Saikaly’s video business couldn’t have been busier making industrials, commercials and wedding videos. But at 27, he was longing for meaning in his work and he was asking, “Is this it, or is there something more? I was ready for a change.”

Change came with a phone call in 2005 from Dr. Egan, human kinetics professor, philosopher, endurance athlete and mountaineer. Egan was famous for doing extreme things for good causes such as a 200 mile charity walk for children’s rights without taking any food. He’d been to Everest before for research, but had never attempted to summit. At 63 he wanted to be the oldest Canadian ever to get to the top. And he wanted somebody to make a film about it. Saikaly, with his reputation as both strongman and first-rate cinematographer, seemed the perfect fit.

“Sean made me a job offer to go to Everest with about two weeks’ notice, and at that point I’d never even slept in a tent,” says Saikaly who promptly had his secretary book some climbing lessons.

“The filmmaker in me really came out because I started to see how important his story was,” says Saikaly. “For Sean, climbing Everest was a platform to inspire people to get fit and to live healthy, meaningful lives. His was the most real, the most meaningful story I was ever a part of.”

Saikaly and Egan bonded on the expedition. The filmmaker was hired to shoot the expedition for the 14-day trek up to base camp. To cover Egan’s story the rest of the way he trained a Sherpa to handle the camera above base camp. The plan was that Saikaly would build the story in post-production and fold in any additional video that needed to be shot when Egan got back. But Sean Egan never came home. He made it to Everest Camp 1, past the most dangerous portion of the climb, the notorious Ice Fall where, if the network of open crevices don’t get you, house-sized chunks of glacier breaking off the mountain might. Egan caught a lung infection. He was on his way back down for medical help when he suffered a cardiac arrest.

Filmmaking with a Purpose

Saikaly was devastated. But Egan’s lessons about living a meaningful life had sunk in: The adventure bug had bitten hard and motivation for filmmaking would never be the same.

“In one hand I hold my Canon T3i, a lighter choice for the evening portion of the climb, and in my left a portable LED light that illuminates the faces of my comrades. The frigid camera body instantly robs all the heat from my right hand. I attempt to compensate with four hand warmers, but the sub-zero temperatures of the world above 8,000 metres prevail.”

Saikaly says that if you want to be a filmmaker in extreme environments, you have to train yourself to automate your responses. “Part of your brain has to pre-program itself that it’s going to be painful. It’s going to hurt,” he says. “I just deal with it and I focus 100 percent on that camera and on the story.”

After his first Everest expedition with Sean Egan, Saikaly knew that adventure filmmaking was what he wanted to do — filmmaking with a purpose. “This was a world I didn’t know existed and I wanted to be a part of it,” says Saikaly. “This was the meaning in my life I was looking for.”

Saikaly started to pile up his adventure mileage points shooting in the Sahara desert on an indy film about a lost nomadic tribe, then sailing with 65 students from Iceland, to Greenland to the Canadian Arctic, to make a sponsored film about climate change — all the while financing his travels with profits from his lucrative corporate and wedding video business. While shooting in the Sahara, Saikaly had a crazy idea.

“I realized I needed to go back to Everest,” he says, “I wanted to finish the work that Sean and I started together, to honor his life.” Saikaly decided to lock the doors of his production company. He let his staff go and sold everything, his car, his condo and put everything he had into his second Everest expedition. But it wasn’t meant to be.

With everything on the line and less than 500 feet from the summit Saikaly and his expedition were forced to turn back by dangerous weather conditions. “We were there on the wrong day. It was absolutely devastating,” says Saikaly. The plan had been to take Sean Egan’s ashes to the summit and to film the completion of his mentor’s unfinished story. Saikaly said he hadn’t realized that, in the mountains, you don’t always succeed. “Ironically it’s the same point in the Everest film where they didn’t turn back,” he says. “We made the right decision.” Everest, the 2015 survival thriller was based on real events that took place in 1996. The movie’s visual effects producer Reykjavik Visual Effects (RVX) had intended to send a crew up the mountain in 2014 to shoot footage for the film’s vfx plates, but an avalanche forced them to cancel the shoot. Looking for other options, RVX researchers came across Saikaly’s footage. Everest visual effects supervisor Daði Einarsson writes in an e-mail that Saikaly was incredibly helpful finding images from the two hard drives of material he provided, “So we could study and reproduce the backgrounds needed to tell our story. His photography is truly stunning. It provided us with valuable reference in order for us to understand and create our locations as well as inspiration for composition and mood.”

After coming home from his failed summit attempt, Saikaly was invited to speak at schools to share his adventures with students. “These kids didn’t see all of this as a failure. I had sponsors that erased me completely,” says Saikaly. “But here were these hundreds of kids that helped lift me back up and encouraged me to find a way to involve them.”

Finding Life

Inspired by the students’ engagement and curiosity Saikaly started a non-profit foundation. He called it Finding Life and set it up as an interactive online platform where students could follow his global expeditions via social media and become active participants. Finding Life is a learning portal that combines education, adventure, technology and charitable initiatives.

Although he’d sold off all his assets, his trademark cinematic output was still very much in demand by broadcasters and commercial clients. He ploughed the profits back into Finding Life.

His new venture started with a well in Nepal. Saikaly organized school kids back in Ottawa to raise funds to build a well for orphaned kids in Nepal who had no access to clean drinking water. With the help of teachers, through video blogs, photos and e-mails he was able to connect kids living on opposite sides of the world. After that came a whirlwind of three summits: the highest mountains in North America (Denali), Europe (Mt. Elbrus) and South America (Aconcagua).  For Saikaly, it wasn’t about the adrenaline rush to get to the top. “It wasn’t just about the climbing,” he says. “I’m more interested in the human stories.” Through blogs and live dispatches from the mountains, school kids back home followed closely as their teachers designed and guided them through curriculum inspired by Saikaly’s adventures.

“These were the early stages of figuring out how to shoot, cut, broadcast and share adventures online in real time from these remote locations.”

In 2010 Saikaly was ready to try again. “That was the Return to Everest expedition, completing the journey for Sean.”

This time he had over 20,000 kids in 130 schools across Canada following his every move and cheering him on in real time when they weren’t busy fundraising to build an orphanage in India. “We essentially created a 13-part web series that started the day we arrived. The last episode was uploaded the day we left,” says Saikaly.

To get new footage out as quickly as possible, Saikaly teamed up with Garry Tutte, seen here at his computer, where he sometimes worked all night to complete an edit.

Garry Tutte, an alumnus from the same broadcasting school as Saikaly and a seasoned post-production wizard, was a collaborator. “This was a truly immersive production experience,” says Tutte who co-ordinated the workflow from a production tent at base camp. “You’re generating and creating content while you’re effectively on the set, the real live set of the adventure.” Tutte was also responsible for running the generator and voltage regulator to keep dozens of batteries charged. Saikaly would be gone for days at a time while Tutte managed the satellite technology so that school kids 7,000 miles on the other side of the world could communicate with Saikaly and the expedition.

“We had the tape run down the mountain on the back of a Sherpa, got that tape down to Garry and within three hours we had fresh content up,” says Saikaly.

Saikaly remembers his first summit: “It was quite unbelievable: 25 people on the summit. I pulled out the radio and Garry was facilitating a live conference with kids back in Canada. I triggered the radio and said we’re 25 feet from the top of the world and that went down to Garry and his radio through Skype up to a satellite back to Ottawa. I could hear the kids cheering. It was pretty amazing.”

Tutte caught this image of Saikaly on a Skype call with some of the students following his adventures. He’s speaking to them from Everest’s Base Camp.

Todd Saunders was one of the Ottawa school teachers who helped coordinate the education piece of the expedition. “All of the teachers involved had never seen their students so engaged and motivated,” says Saunders. “We saw improved attendance as students were so engrossed in what was happening at school, they did not want to miss a day.” Students performed curriculum-based tasks in geography, cartography, science — measuring Saikaly’s blood oxygen levels —  cultural studies and history, satellite technology and more. Teachers raved about the expedition’s impact on character education — empathy, optimism and teamwork. “All of this filmmaking suddenly became an incredible tool to teach and to engage on a meaningful level,” says Saikaly. “Kids were empowered to help create change in the countries where we were visiting.”

Finding Life has become a social media juggernaut. Saikaly is planning to expand the platform so that followers can enter, via virtual reality apps, into one of several adventures unfolding in different expeditions, in different parts of the world at the same time. Finding Life 3.0 will be available free to schools in the fall.

From VJ to making films with a purpose, it looks like Elia Saikaly has indeed found life.

Saikaly was last seen in Kenya in January on a philanthropic adventure documenting the harrowing and inspiring tales of those born with albinism.

SIDEBAR #1 – Career Advice:

“No dream is to big, no dream is unattainable, follow your heart do what you love but don’t forget about the business side. Be current with how people do business, put attention on your brand, put attention on your relationships, always be a professional. Don’t get lost in the artistry, we all want to be artists, we all want to create, but don’t forget that this is a business. It took me a long time to learn that. Just because I’m the creator doesn’t mean it’s about me, it’s about the output, it’s about the client, it’s about the story, so remove your ego from the creative process and serve the story at the end of the day. Don’t get too lost in technology, you can have all the greatest shots in the world but it’s the story that matters. And get out and do it. If you can’t get the job that you want to get do what I did, go out and get the footage, go out and build a reel go out and show that you can do it.” Elia Saikaly, adventure filmmaker, Finding Life

SIDEBAR #2 – Time-Lapse

During the making of “On the Top” the award-winning reality series Saikaly released a time-lapse video that went viral. “That thing just keeps being licensed over and over, it’s really helped my career,” says Saikaly. Canon Canada has been providing gear and lenses with which he does his photographic magic. “I’ve got four Canon DSLRs two of them are 4K, the EOS 1D Cs and the 5D Mark IIIs.” He’s tried and tested all kinds of gear and he knows these Canons will work in minus 40 Celsius and at 8000 meters altitude. “I’ve woken up on some mornings after running cameras all night shooting time-lapse,” he says, “and these cameras are literally frozen under a caked layer of snow, you brush it all off and they’re good to go.”

“If I was to give advice for time-lapse the main thing would be if you want the best results you need to shoot manual. You need to also become a master of the software which processes these thousands of images. There’s a great piece of software that I use called Lightroom and then there’s a genius piece of software called LR Timelapse which is Lightroom time-lapse. It’s a separate piece of software that enables you to create transitions between your still photos over time. If you’re doing a day to night transition over time, you can ramp the exposure over time to compensate for flicker. Flicker in time-lapses is most likely caused so by using an automatic setting. So the main thing is full manual settings, as fast a lens as you can afford, a 2.8 is great, an F/4 works, depending on the camera you’re using, and obviously a wide angle lens is best; you don’t want to shoot time lapses using telephoto lenses. For me I get 14mm lenses, 16mm lenses, 10mm lenses and generally they do the trick. And a lot of the movement can be created in post-production, so you don’t need motorized time-lapse heads or sliders in post production because your image is so big you can pan across it, zoom into it as in a Ken Burns effect.”

Learn more about Elia Saikaly and his work by visiting www.eliasaikaly.com.

Peter Biesterfeld is a seasoned script-to-screen television and video producer and trainer. 

Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeldhttp://docupeter@gmail.com
Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.

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