July 1, 2007

Avoiding a Beijing Surprise: The Tao of Filming in China

From Discovery Atlas: China Revelead, a project on which Mark Roberts worked as a sound recordist. Courtesy of Discovery Communications, Inc.

Next year, China will take center stage as it hosts the Olympic Games in Beijing. For many filmmakers this is already proving a challenge, as production companies clamber over each other in search of that golden nugget of a story that doesn't include the Great Wall, the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square. For others, the actual thought of filming in a country that until recently had been off-limits presents a huge set of headaches. But it needn't be. After 15 years as a Hong Kong-based sound recordist and production coordinator, I've learned a thing or two about the dos and don'ts involved in making documentaries in China.

I first started going to China in the early 1990s, as tech manager of a weekly sports program for Trans World International. Each week for four months, I flew to a different Chinese city to cover a basketball game, using a local OB company to provide facilities. I'd arrive the day of the game and wait for the OB truck to arrive. The game started around 7:00 p.m., and normally the truck would arrive around 5:00 p.m. This left very little time to rig, and try as I might to get the truck to arrive earlier, it never did. The crew always preferred to leave things to the very last minute, trusting that the equipment would always work and that everything would be up and running by game-time. Oh, and did I mention that part of the two-hour set-up time included a 45-minute meal break? The first few weeks were very nerve-wracking, but by the second month I actually started to relax and trust that things would just happen--and nine times out of 10, they did.

OK, so that story might sound a bit daunting for anyone planning to shoot in China, but it actually taught me a great deal about having the correct attitude while on the Mainland. Attitude is everything when it comes to filming in China.

While permit applications and government approvals are both important, what is really going to make your production run smoothly is having plenty of what the Chinese call guan-xi. This isn't some kind of martial art or herbal tea. Put simply, guan-xi is rapport, or getting to know your Chinese colleagues. The Chinese are extremely sociable people and love to wine and dine at every opportunity--before, during and after shooting, if possible. Nothing can be achieved before a meal has cemented the relationship. Refuse a meal in your honor and you might as well pack your bags and get the next flight home; you certainly won't get your permits.

A couple of years ago, I worked on Discovery Atlas: China Revealed, a huge HD project looking at the incredible transformation the country is currently experiencing. Some of the places we visited had never seen a Western TV crew before. The only way in was by employing a government-affiliated media-liaison company to negotiate for us, usually over a huge banquet. On one occasion, we had to endure a seven-hour dinner before permissions were granted. This involved drinking copious amounts of rice-wine, bai-jou, which might not seem the most appropriate way of getting permission to film, but in China, that's what it takes.

This brings me to another point. You can't set up a production in China from 6,000 miles away. Either get on a plane, or employ a good, local bilingual fixer to sort things out for you. Good fixers are more than just translators. They need to understand the Western mentality towards filmmaking just as much as the Chinese approach. Many of the fixers I've used have been educated overseas or have previously worked with Chinese TV stations, meaning their attitude is more open and they're more flexible in their thinking.

Giving your fixer ample time to set up is also important. China's a huge country and cannot be dealt with as one single entity. Each province will have its own cultural and foreign affairs bureaus, so each one will have to be contacted individually. A typical lead time of one to two months is needed when applying for permissions, although this may vary depending on where you plan to film and what the subject matter is. TV stations such as CCTV (China Central Television) can help open doors more quickly but can be expensive. I'm currently working on a BBC natural history series in China (Wild China), with the collaboration of CCTV. It's proving to be a rapid learning curve for both sides, as the Brits have to learn about cultural differences while the Chinese have to learn about natural history filmmaking. The good thing is, CCTV is keen to support BBC as much as possible.

One thing I often get asked about working in China is, "What's the food and accommodation like?" There seems to be a misconception that China doesn't have any decent hotels or restaurants. On the contrary, some of the best hotels I've ever stayed in have been in China, and although the staff might not always speak fluent English, they have a willingness to help that puts Western hotel staffs to shame. Similarly, food is becoming more diverse now, and ubiquitous Western franchises such as Starbucks and McDonald's are commonplace in the big cities. But if you've never had real Chinese food before, then do yourself a favor and dive into the myriad of delicious treats China has waiting for you.

While we're on the subject of food, another important point to mention is meal breaks. If you want to keep your Chinese crew happy, make sure you stop for lunch and dinner. Nothing is more important to the Chinese than missing a meal, so figure out a way of scheduling a decent sit-down hot meal break.

Another query I often get is about equipment. Many production companies now prefer to rent equipment locally, which saves on excess baggage costs. But what does China have in terms of the latest gear? More than 90 percent of my work in China is shot on either HD or Super-16mm and, of that figure, more than 50 percent is using locally rented equipment. Again, having a rapport with a local rental company will help enormously, and I've built up a well-established relationship with a Beijing-based company that can get me anything from HD cameras to lighting equipment. Bear in mind that it's normal for the rental company to send a camera assistant out with the gear (at an extra minimal cost). He might not speak English but he'll usually be very eager to help.

Inevitably, at some stage during the production you'll encounter a problem with access to a particular location. Normally when this happens in the West, the producer will ask to speak to the guy in charge and after some negotiations access will be granted. In China, however, there is a definite pecking order of who can approach whom, and just because you're top of the production food chain doesn't mean you can go directly to the head man. You first need to know the hierarchy on the Chinese side and then give that relevant person face, or respect.

I was recently working on a documentary in Hong Kong for the British Channel Four TV, where we planned to shoot a sequence in a restaurant. We arrived early and had to wait for the restaurant manager to come before we could arrange the tables and chairs for our benefit. Unfortunately the young, brash assistant producer started ordering the restaurant staff to move the furniture before the manager arrived. This caused all sorts of problems as the staff were only used to taking orders from their boss, not some young upstart. By the time the manager arrived, one of his staff had already explained what had happened and understandably he was very angry. It took all of my and my Chinese production assistant's powers of persuasion to convince him to let us continue filming. Patience and giving face will get you much more than screaming and shouting.

In the Far East, Taoist philosophy encourages people to go with the flow, like a river running its course, accepting the way ahead even if it might not be easy. It's an attitude that I've learned to embrace when working in China--tolerance, respect and politeness. Even though you may never think you'll come back to China, it's worth leaving with honor and gratitude both safely secured in place. It will make coming back the next time far easier and more enjoyable.


Mark Roberts is one of Asia's leading location sound recordists, working regularly on documentaries for BBC, NBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic TV. He also provides a full range of production services for overseas crews visiting Hong Kong and China. For more information, contact him at mark@tvandfilmsound.com.