If you search for travel documentaries on youtube, the chances are that soon you will come across Karl Watson. The British film maker has built up quite a following over the last few years and can currently boast over 16,000 youtube subscribers. His documentaries tell the story of his trips backpacking around the world as well as showcasing many of the most beautiful and interesting parts of the world. I caught up with him for an interview on his travels, film-making process and future plans.
So first off, where in the world are you now, and what are you up to?
Right now, I’m in between trips, so I’m home in London working. Next trip is on May 7th, flying back to Nepal to do the Everest base camp trek with my flat mate Chris. We travelled through Tibet & Nepal in October 2014, but missed out on Everest because Chris got severe altitude sickness. The film of that trip became the series ‘The Quest for Everest’, so we’re basically going back to complete our quest!
What did you do before you started travelling and making documentaries? did you have a background in film?
I’ve always done lots of travelling growing up, then my first proper backpacking trip was for 6 months in 2006, most of which was a working holiday in New Zealand. When I got back from that trip I did a post-graduate course in video editing, and that’s when I started making films of my trip. But my YouTube channel only really took off with the release of the HK2NY series at the end of 2014.
What equipment do you use to make your documentaries?
The HK2NY series was just filmed on a Sony Handycam as that’s all I could afford. It’s a great little camera, very ease to use and perfect for travelling. Last summer I upgraded to a Sony A7s, with a Rode Go microphone, plus a Go Pro Hero 4 for action stuff, and I have a Canon Powershot D30 for backup.
Editing wise I’ve got a Macbook Pro, I keep everything backed up on 2 separate hard drives in case one gets lost or damaged. I edit using Final Cut X and do the graphics in After Effects.
Your first big series followed your trip from Hong Kong to New York, and since then you have just kept travelling. When you set off on that first trip did you think it was a one off? or did you realise that you we’re about to take up a new lifestyle?
Since it wasn’t my first time travelling, I knew I would do more trips after it, just maybe not as a big. I didn’t realise I would be travelling this often though.
When I returned from the HK2NY trip I went back into my full time video editing job, and quickly realised that annual leave (25 days holiday a year) just wasn’t enough for what I wanted to do.
Fortunately I was at the point in my career where I could move to freelance, which I did at the start of 2015. That’s allowed me to not just develop my career, working for a wider variety of clients and develop new skills, but also gives me the freedom to do a lot more travelling. As long as the work and money is coming in whilst I’m at home in the UK, I can go off and do as many trips as I want. It roughly works out at working 9 months a year, travelling for 3.
Many people would love to travel like you do, and a whole industry has grown up around making money online to fund a nomadic lifestyle. Do your documentaries support you financially while on the road?
No all of my trips have been self funded, until recently. Off the back of the success of my YouTube channel I’ve been freelancing with STA Travel the last few months, editing their videos. Last month they sent me to Cancun, Mexico for a week to film a promo of Spring Break, which was incredible! But that wasn’t filming my usual style of documentary, was just creating a 2 minute promo for them. So things are starting to pick up, but the Caribbean trip last summer, my India trip in January, the Everest trip coming up, that’s all out of my pocket.
You have been to many places on your travels, which are your favourites? and what experiences stick out as the strangest?
New Zealand is probably my favourite country, but I enjoy different places for different reasons. And it’s always the people that make the place.
For example in India, I went to Vagator Beach in North Goa and Palolem Beach in South Goa. Now Palolem was by far the better beach, just beautiful, and I had a really good group of people there that I had a great time with. Vagator Beach is relatively shit actually! But through the hostel, I made the best group of friends on my entire trip, so Vagator became one of the highlights of my trip.
As for strangest experiences, I’d say Varanasi in India. That place is just insane. I loved it and hated it all at the same time. Every man, woman and child is constantly hassling you trying to sell you something. You’ve got the bodies being cremated on the river banks, the religious ceremonies going on. Rowing on the river at sunrise and sunset was so beautiful, but at the same time the river is just disgusting. So that place really is everything all at once!
You seem to have been everywhere in the world with the exception of Africa. Do you have any plans to travel there? and if so where?
Funny you should ask because I’m flying out to Cape Town on July 10th! Doing a 5 week trip: 1 week in Cape Town, a 3 week tour with G Adventures up through Namibia, Botswana and finishing at Victoria Falls. Then I’ll have an extra week there to do all of the crazy activities on offer! Should be a fantastic introduction to a continent I want to explore so much of.
You have just released the first part of a new documentary ‘Backpackers of the Caribbean’ where you travel through Panama, Colombia and Venezuela. Venezuela is a country that is famous for its socialist government and unstable economic situation, and in the trailer you show the huge bundles of money needed in the country. What was your impression of the political situation in Venezuela and did it effect your ability to film in any way?
I do a brief intro in the Venezuela episode to give a rough overview of what’s going on in that country, why we couldn’t just cross the border from Colombia overland etc. But ultimately we were pretty sheltered from any of the problems because we were doing a tour through the national parks and were looked after really well. So there was no way we’d get a deep understanding of what was going on there.
We could see the massive queues at supermarkets and petrol stations, the food shortages affected what they cooked for us on the trips. On the bus journeys we would be stopped and searched by the military, and there were cities we were told that we just shouldn’t go to, or shouldn’t go out at night. We spoke to people who’d been travelling for months there with no problems, and others who hadn’t been as fortunate. Most of the hotels we were at were empty because tourists have been put off from coming to the country.
But from our short time there we had a fantastic experience, all the locals we met were incredibly friendly and welcoming, and I’d love to go back and explore more of the country.
In terms of filming, it wasn’t like Tibet where we were told not to film certain things, Venezuela had none of that. I just used my common sense. If I a military guy with a big gun is checking your passport and searching your bag, maybe its not a good idea to be filming 😉
In the documentary you do a boat trip through the San Blas islands, hike to the lost city in Colombia, and visit the highest waterfall on earth – all pretty amazing experiences. What was your favourite part of the trip?
It’s hard to pick a favourite, there was some pretty magical moments in the San Blas Islands. The trek to the lost city was tough but incredibly rewarding, and exploring Angel Falls and Roraima is somewhere I’ve wanted to go ever since I saw Up! Overall it was just great going on another adventure with my mate James, felt like no time had passed since we finished HK2NY and just picked up where we left off.
Which countries do you most want to visit? and what can expect to see from you in the near future?
In terms of films, next up will be my 6 week trip from India, “A Taste of India”, that’ll be a 2 part series. Then there’s the final episode of Quest for Everest we’re just about to film. In the summer I’m doing my Africa trip and at the end of the year I’m flying back to New Zealand for NYE and spending 6-8 weeks out there.
After that, there’s SO many countries I still want to see, and others I want to revisit and explore more of. But out of the ones I haven’t been to, the first that come to mind are Philippines, Bolivia, Iceland, Japan, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, really want to go to Patagonia and then do a trip down to Antarctica. The list is endless, but I’ll get there eventually 🙂
Photo by Gavin Rough via https://www.flickr.com/photos/30069309@N00/595452516/