May 31, 2004

Lost in Translation? Don't Get Disoriented Shooting in the Orient

Cameraman François Bisson (left) and soundman Phil Jones on location in Papua New Guinea. Courtesy of François Bisson

You've got a big shoot coming up in Asia, and potential disasters start popping up in your mind. What if your equipment gets tied up in customs indefinitely? What if the soundperson the crewing agency stuck you with can't hear the low hum that's so clear to you on playback? What if you can't film at the temple so crucial to your story until you pay the abbot a $10,000 "location fee?" You can rest assured that all these things have happened and will happen to those who come to Asia unprepared. 

On the other hand, if you do your homework and choose the right people with whom to work, the chances of these things happening to you are very slim. What do you need to know before you head west to get to the East––like Columbus––with everything on the line?

First, let's dispel a few popular misconceptions about filming in Asia:

Misconception #1: It's hard to find reliable crews and equipment in Asia, so you'd better bring your own. 

To insist on working with the crew you know and trust and with which you have already worked for such a long time certainly makes a lot of sense. If you have the budget, then it might be the best way to go. The disadvantage, of course, is that you'll be under pressure to shoot in such a hurry (knowing how much it's costing you in hotels per day), that you might regret it later in the editing room. Also, if no one on your crew has spent much time in the country where you're filming, you'll find yourself not just one fish out of water, but three or four. At minimum, you'll need a good local production manager.

The good news is that from Tokyo to Manila, Hong Kong to Singapore and Bangkok to Delhi, there are a wide variety of highly professional English-speaking film crews and state-of-the art equipment and facilities at your disposal.

Misconception #2: Everything is cheaper in Asia.

If you're talking about hotel rooms in Cambodia or a bowl of beef noodles in China, that's certainly true. But cities such as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore are more expensive to live and work in than most places in the US. When it comes to filming––whether in the Third World or not—most things will cost about what you'd expect to pay anywhere else in the world. Sony is the Great Equalizer: A Betacam costs the same in Jakarta as it does in London or New York. And crews that are competent enough to work on international productions are likely to charge international rates. However, you can save money by hiring a local non-English-speaking crew, as long as either you or at least one of your crew speaks both the local language and English. For key crew members, the advantages of communicating with those who are fluent in your own language are obvious. 

Misconception #3: There is an "Asian mentality" that, once you understand it, will open many doors.

Not true. Asia is a diverse continent with lots of different cultures and political systems and ways of doing things. The way you go about filming in, say, Japan, with all its rigid procedures and honoring of agreements, is entirely different from filming in China, where everything is negotiable and continues to be even after you thought you had a deal. It would be impossible in the limited space here to elaborate on all the cultural differences among Asian countries. The important thing to remember is to make sure you work with  people who understand these cultural differences and know how to get things done in the country where you'll be filming.        

Misconception #4: Better stay away from Asia this year, at least until that deadly virus thing is over.

Hogwash. The SARS scare is over, health officials are on top of the situation, and anyone who sneezes the wrong way gets pounced upon by the media. The truth is, as long as you take the normal precautions, your chances of coming down with mad chicken's disease is next to nil. You can travel and film all over Asia as healthily as you can anywhere else in the world.

If by now you're convinced that it's okay to go ahead with your shoot in Asia, and you're willing to consider using what you might have spent on crew airfare and excess baggage toward more shooting days, then how do you go about setting up a shoot so far from home? Here are some answers to a few of the most common questions:

How do I find equipment and crew?

Start with the old-fashioned way, which is still the best way—ask everybody you know, especially those who have shot in that country before. If you don't know anyone who's shot there, then watch some documentaries that were filmed in the country where you're going, note the credits and get in contact with the producer or others who took part in the actual filming. Most people will tell you like it is.

You can also contact the nearest consulate or embassy of the country where you'll be filming. The representatives there will provide you with all the official information, such as, "It is not permitted to film in our national parks." Don't believe it. Use the consulate or embassy to get your visa(s) and put you in touch with the Film Services Office in the home country. Most of these organizations are very helpful and will provide you with lots of useful information, including a directory of all film and video companies in their country. But they won't manage your production for you.

For instant gratification, make good use of the Internet. There are several good websites, such as Mandy.com, which list film crewing and equipment companies, as well as freelancers, all over the world. Most have their own websites, or at least post a résumé. This is only a starting point.

Should I go through a crewing agency?  Or deal directly with freelancers?

It depends upon the nature of your film. If what you're shooting is fairly standard, and you want the convenience and security of a full-service production company, there are quite a few reliable ones that can provide you with crew and equipment, and who understand the needs of international productions. But bigger is not necessarily better. For some companies, the need for profit takes priority over the passion for filmmaking. They may be located in prestigious office spaces with lots of people on the payroll-and guess who's paying for all that? They might be juggling so many jobs at once that yours gets the same assembly-line approach as all the rest.

On the other hand, if you'd rather work with a fellow film professional on your one-of-a-kind documentary, then you'd probably do better to deal with freelancers directly. Whether cameraperson, soundperson or production manager, he or she can also plug you into the same resources while giving your film the personal attention it deserves. 

How can I tell who's really good, and who's not?

Be as wary of the boastful résumé as you are of the slick company website. It seems like everybody touts themselves as "the one-stop shop for all your filming needs in Asia."  They present you with a long list of blue-chip clients and films that they've been associated with. Although it would be rare to find someone actually making false claims, if it all reads a bit too vague, there's probably a reason for it. It's not uncommon for people to allow you to think they were instrumental in the production of a particular film when their only involvement was providing the van, or they just happened to be in the same town when the film was being shot. You shouldn't consider hiring anyone based solely on a résumé or website, any more than you'd consider accepting a mail-order bride.

If you're seriously thinking of hiring a particular person, pick up the phone and call. Ask lots of questions, not only about their experience and equipment and what things will cost, but also about their working method and style. Remember, one of the reasons you're hiring people who are already living in the country is to be able to tap into their local knowledge. Does he or she have good contacts for what you'll be filming? Do they speak the local language?  Do they understand the film that you want to make? The answers you get to these and other questions should give you a sense of whether or not this is a person who can do the job and with whom you can communicate and, just as important, with whom you'd like to spend several weeks in the jungle.

Also, remember to get recommendations. Contact people on their client list. Find out with whom they actually worked and how those filmmakers enjoyed those weeks in the jungle, and if they got the footage they wanted.

"Send me your reel"

It's a common request, yet a phrase that gets thrown around too carelessly. Now, I have an admission to make: I don't have a showreel. Before you think I'm an amateur, arrogant or just plain foolish, let me tell you why. I know that lots of cameramen and production facilities have showreels. You know the kind I mean: a compilation of all the best macho shots set to some canned rock music that has just as good a chance of turning the producer off as on—and what's that got to do with your film anyway? 

Still, at some point you'll want to see samples of work. It's a must. However, may I suggest that, unless you own stock in Federal Express, don't ask everybody in the book to send you their reels. Wait until you've narrowed it down to two or three strong candidates, then ask for samples related to what you'll be shooting. Why waste your valuable time looking at half an hour of action shots when your film will be mostly well-lighted intimate interviews (or the other way around)? You can also send them scenes that best exemplify your own preferred style. Then discuss it. This way you can begin to get a sense of that person's real capabilities, and whether or not this is someone with whom you can communicate and with whom you really want to work.

What about visas and bringing equipment?

If you have your own equipment, definitely carry your Betacam or film camera onto the plane. For the heavy stuff, compare the cost of excess baggage to the cost of renting on location. Then consider the hassle of using NTSC equipment in a PAL country (or the reverse). And the problem of getting your gear through customs. At some airports, such as Hong Kong, it's easy-in, easy-out. In other countries, whipping out your carnet is like hanging a sign around your neck that says, "Extort me." Each country is different. 

Ditto for immigration. If you apply for a "journalist" visa, some countries will roll out the red carpet; others will treat you like Enemy Agent Number One. You can always buy a loud Hawaiian shirt and arrive as a tourist. The best way—the only way—to really know is to ask somebody who's already had extensive experience filming in that particular country.

A treatise could be written on the pitfalls and joys of filming in every Asian country. Having lived and filmed in this part of the world for many years, I can assure you that filming in most Asian countries can not only be safer and more hassle-free than shooting in Los Angeles or Washington, DC, but it can also be a very rewarding experience. It's an excellent opportunity to expand your creative partnerships.

 

Producer/cameraman Len McClure is the owner of FILMASIA in Hong Kong. He can be reached at filmasialen@hotmail.com or + 852-2566-9953.

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