Interview: Matt Pawlik and Alex Wong of Weekend Sherpa on making hiking videos

Ever wanted to make a great video about the outdoors? Wonder about the behind the scenes process? In this interview, we visit with Alex Wong and Matt Pawlik of Weekend Sherpa, two creators known for their engaging video content.

How did you get interested in doing hiking videos?

We love hiking and we love sharing. In our busy Los Angeles lives, we can all feel overwhelmed and cooped up. Hiking is an escape from the urban jungle and from the everyday stress and struggles of life. We want to encourage our fellow Tinseltowners to realize just how many options there are for local adventures. With the growth of social media, we hope even those who may not share our same yearnings will watch our videos (and others’ work) and find their own personal inspirations to explore the natural diversity we have surrounding us.

Do you have a specific audience you are targeting?

Everyone. Locals, visitors, nature-lovers, couch potatoes – the works! In particular, as we mentioned above, we truly hope we can connect to the audience who normally doesn’t have a specific desire to hit the trails. In the current age of social media, there often exists a stronger bond with our screens than our backyard. We hope to catch the attention of those that normally just want that perfect Instagram shot and give it to them, but we also hope they experience an exciting, beautiful, meaningful adventure along the way.

What filming gear do you use and does it vary depending on the location and difficulty of the hike?

At first, we utilized the most basic of equipment – we’re talking an iPhone on a stabilizer. Why? We first wanted to prove that we could make an entertaining hiking video without using our best gear, and focus on telling a story. Next, we wanted to challenge ourselves to make it look more cinematic and eye-catching. We experimented with other DSLR and mirrorless cameras, most recently sticking with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K with a stabilizer and some other necessities. See if you can spot the differences in our YouTube Channel!

Gear decisions depend on the intensity of the hike – it’s a heavy haul. Though we have learned to trim the cargo, Alex’s role as production packhorse is certainly not ideal on a 2000 foot gain trek. On flatter terrain, we have the luxury of using a cart; other times we have had (very awesome and generous) friends help share the load.

How has your process (content, technical, etc) changed since you started?

We have been evolving since the beginning, from the base production quality (our aforementioned gear upgrade) to our preparation methods. Because our initial mindset in terms of direction was a venture into the unknown, we were simple in our coverage. Although we were often spontaneous (mainly due to a lack of planning) in terms of shots, we stuck to a formula. Thus, our next challenge was in the storytelling – we  started developing specific narratives for each hike. We asked ourselves questions about the message we wanted to share, the feelings, the angles, and, in many cases, the relationships (a group of friends, mother and son, a solo adventurer, etc) and interactions between the subjects and the natural wonder around them. We wanted an authentic, relatable experience for the viewer. We wanted them to feel the hiker(s) genuinely having fun, pushing each other to conquer that summit, sharing the awe of a panoramic vista, inspecting a wasp gall on a coast live oak or even enjoying a well-deserved beer after rock scrambling under the desert heat. For us, variety has become important not just in the trail, but in the tale.

After finishing the shooting, how much editing is involved? How long does it take to convert the raw footage into a finished product?

Over the years, we have developed an extensive shot list – something that is necessary in building our narratives. We have refined our planning and executing skills in terms of anticipating what to showcase and what story to tell (with the inevitable spontaneity). In the end we always have more footage than we need for a 30-second or even 1-minute video. The editing process – an important part of the film process that is not often talked about – takes much longer than the hike/shoot. How much longer is dependent on many things: number of subjects, special effects, transitions, or even a looming deadline. The many creative decisions of the editor determine the flow of the video and ultimately, whether or not people stick around and watch it.

What are some unexpected challenges that have come up and how have you handled them?

Getting up in the morning! But seriously, we always try to hit the early golden hour – preferably a weekday sunrise due to lack of crowds. Obviously, rain can affect the hike, but actually, we had one unexpected downpour that ended up looking great on film. If we want to shoot a waterfall, dry weather hurts our cause. Fires can turn our recently edited videos completely invalid, because, well, the trail may no longer be safe to hike or even there anymore (or at least looks drastically different). Even though at least one of us has completed every hike we film, our memory doesn’t always serve us well. Some hikes might not have spectacular features that generate an instant response, and that’s where our improvisation comes in. For those, we put our heads together to create a story that shows that less famous hikes are still worthy destinations.

How do you decide what locales would make for a good video?

Two of our favorites are Joshua Tree and the San Gabriels, but we believe every hike we do deserves a video. Some hikes are worth knowing about because they are a utilitarian option from work, the right length for a leisurely sunset hike with your family, the toughest workout on the East Side, or the home to some obscure LA history. There’s something for everyone and their fitness level, interest and schedules. We are proud of the videos we’ve made of Whittier Narrows and the L.A. River State Historic Park, destinations that might not seem that exciting at first but have hidden rewards just the same and are easily accessible to many people who don’t have time for an all-day trek.

Where is the most unusual location you’ve filmed?

One in particular we enjoyed was a jaunt through the Arts District, gazing at murals old and new – the sheer variety was mesmerizing and, just like view into an Angeles National Forest canyon, you could stare at them for hours. This was a new challenge for us and, though different, we enjoyed it as much as our natural adventures.  Recently, we started focusing on both the hike and a post-hike reward: beer, a donut or a mangoneada. Including these creates a different narrative than the typical hiking video and we personally enjoy the coupling idea of Trek and Treat, hence our name!

What’s the oddest comment or response you’ve ever gotten on a video?

We did a hike with a group of friends (and even Matt’s mom) in Anza Borrego State Park – Hellhole Canyon and a clever viewer commented, “any place with a bunch of hipsters walking around sounds like a hellhole.” We loved that one. We actually appreciate any and all comments, including the jokes, but most importantly, the ones that add something helpful for other viewers. One comment on a walk we did along the LA River in Frogtown noted that the hike may not be safe for solo night hikers – we were grateful for that as we weren’t aware of the danger. We hope the hiking community interacts with our videos, because different perspectives can add value to what we do.

What suggestions would you give someone who wants to get into making hiking videos?

Prepare A LOT – not just in terms of creating a big shot list, getting the right gear and knowing your limitations, but having a specific direction and intention. Ask yourself why are you creating this and who you want to reach. This may sound obvious, but we believe in sincerely loving hiking and loving filming – be authentic to yourself in a creative sense but also just make sure you are having fun. Making hiking videos is usually not financially rewarding, but if you are genuinely enjoying it with an awesome, in-sync partner (we’re best friends, communicate well and are generally on the same wavelength), it can be a meaningful experience and something you look forward to every weekend.

What’s next for you?

We will continue to create and upload videos to our newly created Trek and Treat Youtube channel as well as where it all started a few years ago – Weekend Sherpa. We both have other jobs and commitments, but like anyone who is passionate about what they do, we will keep making videos and getting our message out there. Keep hiking everyone and we hope to see you out on the trails! 

Matt Pawlik and Alex Wong are lifelong friends and nature lovers. Currently, they hike and work for Weekend Sherpa – Matt is a writer/photographer and Alex is a videographer/editor. Check out their new youtube channel that showcases some of their videos – Trek and Treat.

Matt also works in LA as a world history teacher, helps run a university study abroad program called Come On Out – Japan and has just started with Urban Hiker, coming soon to Los Angeles! Alex currently works at Hi5 Studios, editing video content for YouTube.

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