James Reynolds didn’t set out to be a professional storm chaser relied on by everyone from CNN to the Weather Channel, but by following his instincts, that’s exactly where he ended up. As the founder of Earth Uncut TV, Reynolds is now a go-to source for footage of volcanoes, hurricanes, typhoons, and other natural phenomena throughout Asia that often leave trails of destruction in their wake. He’s been contributing his amazing footage to Pond5 since 2008, and now he captures it all in vivid 4K.
We caught up with Reynolds to take a closer look at his fascinating — and often dangerous — work, and to get the story on how he got started, his most terrifying moment, and to find out what advice he has for other videographers hoping to get into the storm-chasing game. Watch our video spotlight on Reynolds above, then read on for a more in-depth Q&A with the adventurous artist.
You’ve been capturing footage of nature at its fiercest since your teens. How far back does this fascination go? What’s your earliest memory of the forces of nature?
Extreme weather and natural events are pretty rare events in the UK, where I grew up, so whenever there was a big thunderstorm or snowfall, it would really peak my curiosity. I was also always a big fan of TV documentaries on hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, etc — geography was definitely one of my favorite subjects at school. I started going after extreme weather seriously in 2005, and haven’t looked back since.
What made you choose to study Chinese as a student? Were you always drawn to that part of the world? Is your fascination primarily geographic, or cultural as well?
I was extremely lucky as a kid to be able to do a lot of world travel. My father was a retired pilot, so we got cheap/free tickets and were able to travel extensively. Asia captured my soul and fascinated me — amazing cultures, people, and food — and I got hooked. I was originally a biochemistry undergraduate at university, but switched to Chinese in my first year, since I knew I wanted to be in Asia, and it seemed like my best ticket out there. What exactly I was going to do work-wise, I had no idea. It was only after visiting Asia regularly for 4 or 5 years that I realized what a volatile and unstable part of the world this was, geologically and weather-wise, so I started exploring those aspects.
A lot of your shoots are extremely dangerous. What precautions do you take to ensure your safety and that of those you work with?
A lot of the shoots do involve risk, but I’m convinced the biggest threat to my safety is the large amount of road travel I do in developing countries. I’ve been terrified far more often sitting in a car with a lunatic driver than I ever have been by the forces of nature I’ve filmed. I take plenty of precautions to try and keep myself safe, though. The most important, I believe, is to have a very intimate understanding of the forces of nature I film. For example, filming a volcanic eruption, there are different types of threats depending on the type of eruption – is it an explosive eruption, where the threat of flying lava bombs or pyroclastic flows exist? In which case, I keep a good distance from the crater.
If we’re dealing with lava lakes or flows, then explosions are less of a threat, as opposed to toxic gases, etc. If I’m traveling to remote or disaster-prone areas, I’ll always carry a satellite phone so I can keep in touch with people back home. When I’m filming severe weather events, I’ll also always try and scope out an area prior to the storm hitting to find solid, safe shelter that keeps us protected from violent winds and flying debris, and is high enough above sea level to keep us safe from storm surge. And, of course, wearing a helmet gives you better odds of surviving if something falls on your head!
What was the most terrifying and/or memorable shoot you’ve ever been on, and why? Did you ever think there was a chance you wouldn’t make it out?
Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines was extremely unpleasant. For my partner and me, things were actually going to plan during the height of the storm — the building we were in was holding up, and I was able to shoot the chaos without having to worry about my own safety. However, when the storm surge hit our hotel, the ground floor was completely submerged in seawater, and my partner ripped his leg open on a sheet of metal while trying to assist people trapped in a flooded room. Suddenly having one of the team become a victim of the storm was a worst-case scenario.
We’re supposed to be there to document events and lend any assistance, if possible — not become part of the story, so to speak. The wound was extremely serious, and once we realized Tacloban city was a disaster zone, cut off from the outside world with no medical facilities, we knew it was a race against time to get out of the city before infection set in. I really questioned why was I doing what I do. Was it really worth it? We were extremely fortunate to get out of the city within 36 hours of the storm hitting. Doctors told my partner if he’d been away from hospital for another 24 hours, he’d have lost his leg – it was a really close call.
What kind of gear do you generally use? What are the biggest pros and cons of your setup?
I use the XDCAM range of Sony camera — at first the EX1, and now I shoot in 4K on the PXW Z100. The biggest challenge is keeping the camera dry – the EX1 was completely wrecked in Haiyan and I’ve already had to spend $2,000 on repairs for water damage to the Z100! A DSLR rig would be much much easier to keep dry, but I’m still waiting for Canon to bring out a decent and affordable DSLR that shoots 4K. I also have 2 GoPro Hero 4 Black-edition action cams – these are an essential part of the kit. Sometimes just running off with the GoPro into the raging wind and rain can yield some really interesting and unique shots. I also have a DJI Phantom 2 drone, which I love, and am just waiting for the perfect opportunity to put to use in an extreme or unusual environment (primarily volcano related). I also like to do video diaries of my trips for YouTube, so I always carry a small Sony Handycam for shooting in airports — and if all my “pro” cameras break, at least I can fall back on that!
How do you decide where to travel to, and what kind of issues do you face in terms of logistics? Do you usually work with locals, or your own crew?
There are many sources on the internet I keep an eye on to determine whether or not I’ll head off on an expedition. Volcanoes are difficult to predict, but if I see scientists stating there are signs of unrest, I’ll take note. Many volcanoes these days have webcams pointed at them too, which is fantastic — so now I can keep a close eye on the type of activity taking place, and decide to head off if things are looking like going boom. With the typhoons/hurricanes, science has progressed so much over the decades that I usually get a week or so heads up that a significant storm might be crossing the coast somewhere in Asia. My aim is to get on location 36-48 hours prior to landfall, by which point the area of impact is usually narrowed down to a much smaller area (150 to 200 miles).
My gear is compact enough that I can travel as a one-man band if need be. I rarely have any issues with customs and most countries where I work are conveniently visa-free (Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines, and Indonesia). In Japan and Taiwan, I rent my own car and love the freedom of exploring the country and getting to places I would have no other reason to be in were it not for my work – they’re often stunning and off the regular international tourist circuit. In the Philippines and Indonesia, the roads are so chaotic that I dare not self-drive, so a local driver is essential. For some of the more difficult-to-access volcanoes in Indonesia, I have a fantastic guide, Aris — he’s probably seen more volcanic eruptions than anyone else on the planet!
What advice would you give to someone starting out who wants to try to capture the kind of footage you do? What advice do you wish someone gave you when you started out?
Research your subjects and get a really good understanding of them and the hazards and challenges they pose. There are many different factors that go into not only getting through a storm safely, but also shooting it well. And prepare to be disappointed — this is nature “photography” after all. I usually have a 30% hit rate, so one in three trips, I’ll come back with new shots I’m really happy with. Plenty of times I’ve been sitting on a tropical island waiting for a storm, only for it to deviate and miss, or waiting under a volcano for days on end, only for it not to erupt. And, most importantly, no shot is worth risking your life for – I have to constantly remind myself of that!
Is there anything you’re trying to capture that you haven’t managed to get yet?
The drone is a real game changer. There are countless expeditions I’ve undertaken in the past where if I had the drone, the footage would have been absolutely mind-blowing. We’re talking about looking into the throat of exploding volcanoes, lava flows entering the sea, giant boulders crashing down mountains — I’m itching to get the chance to really put it into action. There are so many awesome drone videos out there now, but I’m convinced there’s still stuff I can film that will be original and blow people away.
What attracted you to the world of stock media? What do you like about being a Pond5 artist in particular?
Stock media was the natural evolution for me. I originally uploaded my videos to YouTube and that was it, but then the footage started getting the attention of producers making documentaries on extreme weather and storms, and I realized I could make some money from it. That’s when I discovered stock footage websites and it made sense for me to upload my clips. The single most important feature about Pond5 for me is the ability to set my own prices. Many of my clips are rare and extremely difficult to obtain, and next-to-impossible to replicate, so they have high value. My most profitable price point is $299 per clip — consequently, none of the other mainstream stock footage websites host my material, since their prices are too cheap. I also love the daily sales notifications — nothing beats when you’re slogging it away on the road on a shoot and receiving a “You’ve made a sale at Pond5” email!
If you weren’t doing what you do, where do you think you would be?
An unhappy place! I’m extremely fortunate — I have a young son, not yet 2, whom I get to spend a huge amount of time with since I’m not tied down to a 9-to-5 job. At no point in my life have I ever had a strong drive for a particular career or job; what I do now was totally unplanned, and is basically an organic amalgamation of my main passions in life – travel and witnessing nature. So, to be honest, I have no idea where I’d be, but I know I’m extremely lucky to be where I am now.