Film is an international language. However, "monopod" or "gaffer's tape" are not international vocabulary (yet). If you're planning an international shoot, here's a slew of preparations from DP, editor, and all-around filmmaker Sean Gillane to avoid breaking your camera, losing your footage, or ending up in the clink.
As a filmmaker in the independent San Francisco film scene, Sean Gillane has taken various roles that have landed him anywhere from the West Bank (Corner Store) to Amsterdam (Tulip Mania) to Guatemala (Parque Central). Parque Central, Sean's current project, follows a group of kids that work in Antigua, Guatemala using a variety of shooting styles as they sell ice cream, shine shoes, and otherwise get by. In addition to the tips below, Sean just added a perk on the ongoing Parque Central Kickstarter specifically for No Film School-types for a more in-depth consultation on an upcoming international shoot. (That's win-win to me!) From explaining monopods to Israeli security forces to the words you need to know in any language to communicate on set, Sean sat down with No Film School to break down the essentials of filming in a foreign country.
NFS: When it comes to gear, what sort of stuff would you say is indispensable? Obviously every project is different, but is there any barebones kit you'd recommend for an international doc shoot?
Sean Gillane: Probably the smartest thing you can do is have at least two cameras and a ridiculous amount of batteries for them. There are so many things that can go wrong with a camera, and if it dies on you in the middle of two weeks in a foreign country, you better have a backup because that A camera is not likely to get fixed. As for batteries, you don't really know how long your days are going to be or if you'll have access to electricity to charge batteries at reasonable intervals, so being prepared to keep things powered for long stretches is a must. Having gear that can share the same batteries helps too. Most monitors have multiple mounts available to keep them powered up and matching that mount with whatever your camera is running off of makes things a lot easier.
For Parque Central, we're actually working with 3 different cameras: Blackmagic Pocket, Canon 7D, and a couple GoPros. There's a different look to each of them and we're using that to our advantage to help support different experiences in the film. The BMPCC ended up being our primary camera for shooting mostly locked off, considered compositions. The 7D I'd usually throw onto a shoulder mount and be in constant motion, tracking the kid's movement through the streets and park. Shooting handheld on cobblestone streets is no joke by the way; I came back to the US without the shoes I was wearing because they were so beat to hell by the end of the shoot. The GoPro is being used for more experimental or visceral moments. Sometimes we shoot with all three up, but for the most part we are focusing on one camera at a time.
Hopefully you're not working off of the camera's display anyway, but finding a lightweight monitor with a nice picture is essential. I've been using SmallHD's DP7-Pro for pretty much everything lately and have been really happy with the results. It's very light and perfect for running around with in an unfamiliar country. Tough too! A couple times I thought for sure the screen would be cracked by some physical trauma, but it was fine every time!
Check out some of Parque Central in this Kickstarter video:
NFS: How do you prepare your gear ahead of time for a shoot in a foreign place? What about waterproofing, sand proofing, etc?
SG: You want to be portable, so figure out how much gear you can physically handle moving around before you throw everything in your bags. It does end up being an impossible situation of needing to be prepared for anything but then also needing to be light as possible. What always seems to happen is you show up with more than you need and then have a lighter and lighter bag every day as you fall into a groove. Having the extra gear is frustrating when you're in transit, but it does feel smarter than showing up with not enough. If you have the ability to do a scouting trip that could probably help minimize overdoing it. I know for the second trip down to Antigua I'll be altering my list quite a bit based on the first part of production. I brought along a weird variety of grip gear with big ideas but it all ended up just being extra weight.
Try to get at least one prep day in before you board the plane. Try pushing the equipment in ways you might expect to use it once you arrive at your destination. Have backups of anything that will easily break. I go through several cables running to the monitor a week, so I grab a handful of cheap ones off Amazon and keep at least one extra on me at all times.
Again, I'll stress this: test your gear before you leave. It's hard enough to find a shop that will fix your gear on a moment's notice in large cities let alone tiny towns in a country with a language you aren't fluent in. While in Guatemala, I had a lens adapter start to fall apart on me several days into the shoot. It had been a part of our primary camera setup and we needed it for our footage to match. After investigating I discovered it was shedding these tiny screws. We spent most of a morning that we should have been shooting racing around Antigua looking for the exact size screw we needed. It did not go well. We found some that were close enough and made the call to ruin the threads on the adapter with the replacement screws with some superglue on top. Fortunately it held up for the rest of the shoot, but it could have been disastrous.
Other random bits... Remember your power adapters in case the country you are shooting in doesn't use Edison plugs and have at least a few power strips to charge everything. If you have a phone that is jailbroken you can usually get a temporary account with a local cell phone company. If you don't you can also grab a burner for pretty cheap. Having a local number simplifies communication.
NFS: How do you deal with getting your film gear through customs?
SG: We're not legally responsible for anything we say here, right?
In my experience, when it comes to customs, the best way to go is to suggest you are a tourist with a bunch of video equipment as opposed to a filmmaker. Debatable difference anyway. You run into documents that ask if you are bringing in equipment related to your profession and it's very easy to check that "No" box is all I'm saying.
Meanwhile, knowing the names of your equipment in the language of the country you are visiting can be very helpful. I've run into issues with camera support twice now. In the West Bank, you have to go through Israeli customs to get in, even if you are coming from Jordan (which we were in the case of Corner Store). We brought a monopod along and had it packed away in one of our large suitcases. After getting through the first stage of the process, we got pulled aside to the luggage inspection area. They had X-Ray'd our bags and seen the monopod which appeared very suspicious to them. Pointing at the bag, one of them asked, "You have a weapon?" We explained it was a "monopod," which was not an English word they were familiar with and our Hebrew skills were at a complete zero. Playing charades to convince someone you aren't importing weapons into Palestine is not a fun game to play when the receiving party is holding a gun.
NFS: Do you start rolling as soon as you get off the plane/bus/jeepney? How do you go about asking people to be in your film, or do you not ask?
SG: How quickly the camera comes out has been mostly dependent on story and the shooting style. With Parque Central, we're mostly planning ahead for specific shots and then adding to the shot list once we are on location, but for the most part there isn't a rush to get the camera out unexpectedly. It's not really about chasing what we see out of the corner of our eyes because it seems interesting. Ricky and producer Matt Henderson made a trip down to Antigua a little before the full production shoot to meet people and figure out what we would be doing. There are definitely some quickdraw moments when there is only 10 seconds to get ready to capture something amazing too. Those are fun.
On the other side of that, during the Corner Store shoot, Katherine felt capturing the journey from the US to the West Bank in "real time" was essential to communicating the ordeal that a Palestinian citizen has to go through to get home. Since Katherine and I have American passports, the trip to Bethlehem could have been an entire day shorter if we had flown in to Tel Aviv. But because our subject Yousef Elhaj has a Palestinian passport, he's actually not allowed to fly in to an Israeli airport. So we traveled with him to Amman, Jordan and had a camera around pretty much the whole time. We shot in taxis, airports, planes, buses, pretty much anywhere the trip took us.
Generally I like to confirm that the person I'm pointing the camera at is comfortable with the situation. Ricky wrote a piece for Filmmaker Magazine that talks about our focus on treating the people we're working with as actual human beings and I think it's a pretty good basis to operate from. Sometimes it's just a matter of pointing at your camera and asking if it's OK; sometimes it's a much more involved conversation. If you're polite and patient you'll get a yes almost every time. The only time anyone told us to put the camera away was when we pointed it towards an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank. They were not pleased.
NFS: How about releases? Do you need to know rules about this in foreign countries?
SG: Get as many releases as possible, regardless of the local laws. When we started getting distribution for Corner Store, we found that distributors wanted their backs covered, no matter where the footage was shot. So even if the local laws allow you to film people without their permission, that might not be a good enough answer for your distributor
We have our local producer Santiago on top of this down in Guatemala. He'll march up to anyone in the area the camera is pointing and try to get a signature. Most people agree to it after a question or two.
As far as "rules," of course knowing when you're breaking the law is important if you want to be able to go home at the end of the shoot instead of waiting for your trial in a foreign jail cell. More important maybe is getting familiar with local customs. How do people greet each other? What's considered impolite? Will those cars zooming by stop if you are crossing the street or is it up to you to move your ass out of their way?
NFS: Having gear stolen on set is a possibility anywhere, whether your home turf or across the world. But especially when you're not familiar with your surroundings, how do you safeguard your stuff? SD cards in money belt?
SG: It's definitely always on my mind that someone could easily steal our gear if they wanted to. Just like shooting anywhere, keeping someone near your camera bags at all times is best. It's not very hard for someone to run by and grab one. Hopefully you're working with someone local as a producer or fixer. They can tell you the areas you should avoid and at what hours. You can keep yourself out of the wrong place at the wrong time if you ask the right questions.
Saving the footage in the event of a robbery is a priority of course. I usually keep the cards on me somewhere, probably in the bag I'm wearing. I've hid them in shoes or mini pockets in pants before while in sketchy areas. A few times at the end of the day while dumping footage I've been unable to quickly find the cards, which is annoying in that moment, but an indicator of successfully hiding them at least!
NFS: How important is it for you to brush up on some of the language of the country you're filming in? What would be the most important words in regards to your film set that you ought to learn?
SG: I think knowing at least enough of the language to get around and buy food is essential in terms of functioning in a country that doesn't speak your primary language. Beyond functioning though, the locals are going to appreciate your efforts and be more open to helping you in all the random ways a film shoot requires. It's a sign of respect and understanding that you are a visitor there when you at least make an effort to communicate.
Down in Antigua I thought I was doing pretty well with my Spanish until a 5-year-old asked me if I was drunk. Even when speaking English some of my syntax is kind of awkward, so putting that through the filter of another language has that effect I guess. I'd kind of romanticized it and imagined that the way I spoke Spanish was poetic, but she put me in my place.
On set, language associated with physical space helps a lot. Closer, further, left, right, up, down, turn, sit, stand, run, walk, slower, faster- being able to pull out these words smooths the interaction and gets you to your results quicker.
NFS: If you were going to pick one, what's the most important piece of advice you can offer a filmmaker who is planning an international shoot?
SG: Get a local to work with you! Whether they're the more traditional fixer type, or actually a producer, they're going to get you through doors that would have been closed otherwise and keep you safe from your own ignorance. You might have to pull some money together to pay this person, but it's worth it. In Palestine, we didn't officially have anyone there outside of Yousef's family, but we were very lucky that we found several extremely kind people along the way that wanted to help us.
Also reach out to filmmakers that have shot in the region you are planning on going! Before we went to Palestine for Corner Store, Katherine reached out to several filmmakers that had shot there and gotten their personal stories of obstacles and challenges. It was incredibly useful and I'm sure we would have ran into way more problems if we didn't have that information before we arrived.
NFS: You have a kickstarter going on right now for a project. What's the project and what can we get if we back it?
SG: We're currently working on getting the second leg of production and post-production funded for Parque Central. We're offering up all kinds of local goods from Guatemala in the rewards as well as things like getting on a one-on-one call to help you get your head organized around your own shoot. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to work on films in such amazing places and I believe we are delivering a film here that works hard to recognize that.
Thank you, Sean!
Again, if you want to be a part of making Parque Central while getting a pre-production breakdown for your international shoot, check out the Kickstarter project here.
Do you have any tips or experiences to add about shooting in new places? Or, if you think you could be a resource for filmmakers coming to your home country to shoot, do share!