A visit with Clay Croft, Creator of Expedition Overland

A visit with Clay Croft, Creator of Expedition Overland

Expedition Overland | Clay CroftThere are firsts in every industry and genre, and the overland niche of the off-road world is no different. Adventure riders know of Horizons Unlimited and ADV Rider while in the overland world, Turtle Expedition is usually at the top of any list of ‘pioneers’. Scott Brady with Expedition Portal and Overland Journal is also considered a pioneer in this space, and after a couple of cold days in Bozeman, Montana, I believe the term pioneer should be bestowed upon Clay Croft.

At a young 30 years old, Clay has done something many of us dream of: he’s made Overland adventure his way of life. Clay combined his skill as a cinematographer and artist with his love of the outdoors to create what most agree is the most compelling professional series in the overland community. Clay not only lives the overland dream, he’s launched himself and his series to the forefront of this niche of off road enthusiasts. Within 12 months of launching his first episode, Clay has served as cinematographer on the illustrious Expeditions 7 project and has rubbed elbows with the who’s who of Overlanding in general.

After meeting Clay at SEMA 2011 (literally hours after watching the premier webisode of Expedition Overland), I offered to help the ‘new guy’ by placing promotions in our magazines and helping their new Facebook page get going. A little over a year later, and I’m in Bozeman wondering how I can convince Clay to introduce me to some of the influential people he’s gotten to know. Expedition Overland (XO) is truly a phenomenon, so when the invitation came and we had the opportunity to visit Bozeman for the premier, Angie & I packed Brenden up and headed for the airport.

My first question when Clay and I started talking about XO was how the heck he became a world-class cinematographer and how that turned into such an inspiring show. Well, about eight years ago (just after he married his high school sweetheart Rachelle in 2004), Clay founded Hiline Productions, the company that produces Expedition Overland. Thanks to thousands of ‘learning experiences’ along the way, and amazing support from his wife, Clay was able to build Hiline into a successful freelance production company. He and his company have worked in Uganda, Croatia, Canada, Alaska for three years, and throughout the US. This experience was vital in forming the ideas that have gone into XO.

In 2009 upon returning from working in Africa, Clay was excited to have several months of solid work lined up, which would support his growing family very well for a while. As the economy was still in shambles at the time, all of that work fell through. Like many during the recession, Clay found himself out of work for five months and struggled with the best way to pay the bills.

One day he walked into his garage and it hit him. He loved the outdoors and exploring Montana in his built up 2001 Tacoma, and he had a stock 2000 100 Series Land Cruiser in the driveway (the family truckster). Why not combine his production company with his love of exploration into a hit web show?

Luckily Clay had a group of friends that were very interested in the project, so building a team was relatively easy. He’d also worked with several off road companies previously, so he had connections to the ‘industry’ for partnerships and possible sponsors. Like many amazing projects, the first meeting for Expedition Overland took place in Clays garage. Jordan, Jeff, Scott, and Ryan were on board from the beginning. Jeff Gazy joined after the first trip, and the rest of the gang got on board by the end of the first season. Expedition Overland was born!

Many of us that have fancy smartphones, Contour and GoPro video recorders may be under the impression that composing, shooting, editing, and distributing an amazing web series would be a dream job. While it may be a dream job, it’s still a job, and it’s definitely not as easy as 1-2-3. There are literally thousands of moving parts that all have to work properly (and in the correct sequence) before an episode of Expedition Overland can even be filmed, much less produced and distributed.

A quick tour around the XO shop in Belgrade, MT (just outside of Bozeman) was all I needed to know what a complex operation this is. The shelves are labeled with –roughly- what belongs there for relatively easy loading for the next trip (the Land Cruiser is the daily-driver and lead kid-hauler and serves as a ‘star’ of the show). There are more tripods, lights, and production accessories than your local Best Buy or Fry’s would even know what to do with. The chalk boards and meeting areas contain dozens of notes, lists, and ideas that must be dealt with sooner rather than later. And finally, there’s a brand new 2013 Tacoma in –very– stock form that must be completely built up before the next adventure starts.

So what does it take to produce a world class web series? I’ll do my best to give you a taste of what is involved. Unlike Top Gear, American Chopper, and other high-dollar productions, XO doesn’t come with dozens of crew members to fix, tweak, light, and shoot scenes. This series is produced by those that are in it, everyone has a job not only on the trail, but in the shop before a mile is added to the odometer. The team includes two cinematographers, Clay and Scott Cahill, and the other members work on trucks, plan meals, help decide on routes and areas that will be covered on the show, and shoot a little footage from time to time.

Imagine organizing six men with full-time jobs, family, and personal commitments. Just getting the schedule for a trip figured out takes days of effort. Once a trip is planned, weeks of preparation work has everyone at the shop working on trucks, planning, and deciding what the next step should be. Now take those people to hundreds (or thousands) of miles from home, film them doing cool things, and get them back to Montana in one piece – and not burned out – just so you can plan another trip in a month or two. And that’s the easy part.

The EASY part?
Believe it or not, the adventure/overland/expedition is the easiest part of creating a web series. Clay and Scott (and the team) film about 1-2 hours of footage every day of the trip, all of which is backed up to a Macbook Pro and an external hard drive to the tune of about 120GB per day. Out of that footage, only about 10 minutes or so will ever make it into the episode.  Also keep in mind that each minute of footage can take hours to setup depending on the type of shot.

Great, we have footage – so let’s publish an episode!
When Clay first told me that he usually spends 2-3 weeks editing each episode, I had no idea of everything that is involved. Once the trip is over and the trucks are cleaned, Clay retreats to his editing suite (which also doubles as XO’s world HQ and a storage room) to prepare the footage for editing. The two Canon 7D DSLR cameras that Clay and Scott use output giant video files that can only be handled by the Hiline Productions heavy duty Mac Pro desktop, so  all the data has to be moved over (and backed up yet again) before editing can begin.

The editing process takes by far the most time of the entire production. Clay is hesitant to keep exact track of the time he spends in the editing chair (no doubt from fear of depression), but estimates that cutting footage down to a 30(ish) minute episode takes him 80 hours or more. I did ask Clay if he’s considered hiring an intern editor from nearby Montana State University, the reply to which was “I’ve already burned out three of them”. During that 80+ hours of editing, Clay is ‘roughing’ in music that matches the feel he’s going for with each scene. In the last phases of the editing process, the entire film is sent to woodrowgerber in Los Angeles for scoring. That’s right, EACH episode of XO is published with custom music. On average, there are about 13 custom songs per episode, which means Season 1 of Expedition Overland includes over 60 custom songs. Once the music is done, Clay adds it back into the film in the appropriate places, adding another 10 or so hours to the workload.

You may think that finally, after all this cutting, editing, and scoring the film would be ready to go, right? Almost ;) There are still sponsor shots to deal with, film releases for anyone that’s not part of the XO team to secure, and exporting to deal with. Wow, exporting! When we arrived Thursday night for the Saturday night premier, Clay was preparing once again for the 10 minute drive to his shop to start another export/upload process that takes 6-10 hours. High quality HD video that’s 30+ minutes long takes more than a few hours to export from the editing suite (Clay uses Final Cut 7) before it can be uploaded to the web. Once the export is complete, the entire movie (which is well over 1GB in size) is then uploaded to the Vimeo servers, which then encode it to meet their specifications, and that takes another 4-6 hours.

Finally, the time has arrived: the Season Finale Premier. Angie, Brenden, and I arrive at the venue (the Croft’s Church), a little early so I could grab a few shots of the new Tacoma all lit up. Even in its virtually stock form, this truck is a beauty. There is no doubt it will turn out gorgeous – and we can’t wait to cover it. About 80-90 people came out on a cold, snowy Bozeman Saturday to see the Season Finale first hand. Expedition Overland’s sponsors were very generous for this premier so almost everyone went home with a gift. << Grand Prize Maxtrax Winner.jpg>>

At about 38 minutes this episode is longer than most of the others, but for good reason. In addition to the team’s journey through Idaho sand dunes and fly fishing adventure, Clay included footage he filmed for Expeditions 7 while in Russia, as well as a bit of their Tread Lightly training with the infamous Justin Lilly. The final episode of Season 1 was full of the things we love most about XO: outdoor adventure, great friends, having fun with Toyota Trucks.

2013 is going to be another epic year for Expedition Overland. Instead of short trips around Montana and the southwest, the team is planning a full expedition to Alaska. Their goal? To reach the Arctic Circle and explore as much as possible. While Season 2 will not air for a while (they’ll produce the entire season before releasing the first episode), we will see plenty of great footage during the Tacoma build up. Also, Clay is going to focus more on the friendships that make XO possible, as well as the amazing people encountered along the journey in 2013. We know it’s going to be amazing!

Like the legendary Warren Miller (the father of modern Ski Films), I have no doubt that Clay Croft is a pioneer in the overland film genre. I expect great things from Expedition Overland in the years ahead, and can’t wait to see how the 2013 Alaskan Expedition turns out. We’ll be covering aspects of the new XO Tacoma Build in the months ahead. We may even have to take another trip or two to Bozeman, you know, for the articles. ;)


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