We got the gig in Guatemala and landed the job in Johannesburg; so now what? There are many elements to think about before shooting video in a foreign country. Of course, there are the basic travel essentials: passport, wallet, plane tickets, and potentially a visa to enter the country. But as a video producer, there is a whole other world of things to think about before boarding the plane…and obstacles to overcome once there.
Having learned a few lessons from years of producing international videos, I would like to share some of the basics to know before you go. Think of it as your pocket guide to international video production.
Assessing The Risk Level In The Country
Learn to say "Don't shoot!" in the local language: Safety and security are critical for my crew and me, and we can become more of a target when traveling with expensive production gear. That's why I always do a thorough background check on the area where I'll be shooting, and if it is an extremely dangerous part of the country, I hire a "fixer”—this person knows who to contact if you find yourself in a sticky situation, how much and who to pay when "facilitation fees" are necessary, and what areas to stay away from. The fixer's job is to make sure that you and your production crew are not endangered. In some countries, it is also necessary to hire a security team; be sure to do your research to make sure that it's a reputable, established, insured, and bonded security organization. For instance, in Haiti, you may find yourself traveling with armed security escorts in their armored vehicles. In terms of the pricey production equipment, that brings me to my next point about how much gear you should take versus rent when you arrive.
Getting Video Gear In And Out Of The Country
The fun of "facilitation fees”: My preference is to bring as little equipment as possible and then rent everything else locally when I arrive. It saves a bunch of money in excess baggage fees, not to mention my back. I do, however, always try to bring the camera; it's small enough to carry at all times, and since it's mine, I am guaranteed that it will work. With less equipment, I'm not as hindered when I need to move quickly, and there aren't as many "facilitation fees" to get in and out of customs. In some countries, your gear wil be held up by agents looking to make a quick buck. Typically, the best way to handle the situation is to ask what the fine is (don't say bribe unless you want to spend days instead of hours waiting for your equipment to be cleared), and be sure to have cash on hand to pay it quickly. Don't keep all your cash in one pocket, though, or you'll end up handing it all over to your friendly customs agent. I typically stash US$50 per pocket.
Renting Gear When You Get There
Is this thing on?: If you choose to rent gear at your destination, be sure to get it from the closest major city as the equipment is going to be newer and will typically work better. Whenever possible, I go to the gear rental house myself and check to make sure everything works before heading out into the field. It's definitely not fun being stuck with a nonworking monitor in Austria or a broken tripod in Trinidad. Another consideration of renting locally is that the native video standard might be different than what you'll be finishing in back home. In the United States, the video standard is NTSC, while most European countries are PAL. And make sure to watch for tricky nuances, such as in the UK where the electrical system runs at a different frequency, 50 hertz, than in the United States, which operates at 60 hertz. The camera operator and gaffer need to be aware of whatever frequency the lights are on, or you will come back and have a flicker effect in your video that you cannot see when you are shooting. We call it the "The Princess Leia" effect, as your subject will flicker much like Leia did in her message to Obi-Wan.
Health Care Concerns When Traveling Abroad
Parasites, malaria, and more: Be sure to visit an international health care specialist before traveling to a foreign country to find out what vaccinations or preventative medications are needed. In some cases, you won't be allowed into certain areas of a country without proof of vaccination. For example, I had to prove I'd been vaccinated for yellow fever before I could get into Porto Alegre, Brazil. If you're headed to a country where malaria is an issue, be sure to take extra precautions and take your malaria pills. You can also drink a lot of gin and tonics (for the quinine), but that's not guaranteed to work and has a tendency to make it difficult to do your job! I highly recommend travel insurance in case of emergency. When I was shooting in Mozambique, I hired a South African crew who demanded insurance that they'd be flown back to South Africa if they were sick or injured. I took their lead and did the same. And finally, hand sanitizer and Cipro; I don't leave home without them.
It is a rare thing to get to travel the world for your job and visit countries near and far. Sample the local food. Visit a market. Check out the local music scene. Strike up a conversation with the locals. Be adventurous! My experiences around the globe have been enlightening, amazing, and inspiring. The people I get to meet and the places I get to see are the best parts of being an international video producer. Remember, always be respectful of the local customs of the country in which you are traveling, and be sure to take a moment to enjoy the unique experience of seeing a foreign land through the lens of your video camera.
About Our Guest Expert: Kathy Minnis
Kathy Minnis is the Senior Producer and Writer for The Garrigan Lyman Group (www.glg.com), an award winning digital marketing and advertising agency headquartered in Seattle with offices in New York and San Francisco. She is responsible for driving creative concepts, developing scripts, and managing all aspects of video production. Kathy has been traveling the world developing videos for television networks and Fortune 500 companies for over 13 years.