Over the past year, I’ve been directing and shooting a feature documentary that takes place in a remote area of Cambodia. The film, titled Current Sea explores the complex issues surrounding illegal fishing and the corruption that allows the illegal fishing to persist. The story primarily takes place along the coast of Cambodia and on a tiny remote island in the Gulf of Thailand. Thus, I had to prepare to shoot for long stretches of time in a remote, and sometimes harsh, environment.
Below are ten tips and tricks that I gathered along the way. They should be especially useful if you’re looking to shoot documentary-style projects remotely with a small crew and on a tight budget. This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list, just some thoughts to get you started on your own adventure.
On these trips, risk is everywhere, so you ought to mitigate that risk as much as possible.
1. Do your homework
Before embarking on any shoot in a remote environment, it’s absolutely crucial to do as much research and prep work as possible. This prep work should begin as far as possible in advance of your shoot so that you have time to cover your bases and anticipate any issues. After all, it’s not like you can run out to the local Best Buy to get your hands on a new SD card if you need one. Preparation is the best way to overcome the lack of resources that often comes when filming in distant lands.
Make sure you thoroughly research where you are going. Find out about the local communities and what they have to offer. Learn about the geography, the climate and whether, cultural norms, and other natural threats. This may seem obvious, but this step is crucial to getting your expedition off on the right foot. This research will help inform all your other decisions.
A cham trawler prepares to fish in the Gulf of Thailand.Credit: Christopher Smith
2. Insure yourself and your production
There is a certain amount of risk that comes with filming in any far off place. The distance alone increases risk, as do the threats that are found in any natural environment if you happen to be filming outdoors. Add to that the risk of working on potentially dangerous stories, like filming on the open seas to tracking illegal fisherman who don’t want to be caught, or even taking a bus on a sketchy road up the side of a canyon. On these trips, risk is everywhere, so you ought to mitigate that risk as much as possible. That’s right, I’m talking about insurance.
I recommend that you are fully covered by personal health insurance, production insurance, and/or travel insurance. This may seem like overkill, but insurance companies aren’t really your friend, and will look for any excuse to deny you coverage should something unfortunate happen. It’s best to have all your bases covered, so if the incident doesn’t fall under one policy, it should be covered under another.
I know, you likely don’t have a big budget. But both production insurance and travel insurance can be bought for just the duration of your shoot. Production insurance can also be bought to cover your film by the year. Consider your options carefully and err on the side of caution.
Find out: Where are the hospitals? Is there electricity and where can you get it? What about fresh water and shelter?
3. Know your place
When you arrive on location, I recommend gathering information and doing a quick scout or walkthrough. Compile data regarding safety issues as well as production logistics and possible roadblocks. Where are the hospitals? Is there electricity and where can you get it? What about fresh water and shelter? What is your exit route in case you have to get out in a hurry?
That last question was most important for us while filming on the remote island off the coast of Cambodia. I was doing many inherently risky things, from SCUBA diving to chasing down violent poachers. If something were to happen, I needed to know how I was going to be evacuated or get help. In remote countries, you usually can’t just dial 911 for help. After all, many countries don’t have emergency services readily available, and there isn’t often cell phone reception in such remote regions.
Work out all issues on arrival so when production begins, snags are less likely to become major problems.
Christopher Smith during the 'Current Sea' production in Cambodia.Credit: Matt Blomberg
4. Bring the right tools
You often hear the advice that one should use the right tool (or camera) for the job. This is particularly true when filming in extreme or remote environments. I won’t even attempt to wade into the camera debate, but instead I’ll just suggest some things to considering when choosing the gear for your project.
This is where all that research you did in tip #1 comes in. Based on your research, put together an equipment package of all the gear that you might need to sustain prolonged filming wherever you are going. Some considerations to take into account might be climate, weather, access to electricity, geography, light, length of time between city visits, and weight.
In my case, from doing my homework, I knew that I would be based on a remote island and filming and around water. I knew I would have limited access to power via a generator for part of the night. I also knew that, at times, I would be dealing with monsoon rains, hot sun, and salty air. Knowing this helped me put together the right package of cameras, audio gear, support, and accessories.
Even though you need specific tools in these environments, but you’ll also want to minimize the amount of gear you bring, and to simplify your process as much as possible. For example, rather than use DSLRs, which are often lighter, I prefer to use cameras with integrated XLR audio inputs instead of bringing an external sound recorder. This makes my shooting workflow more streamlined, reduces weight in some cases, and eliminates one potential point of failure (the recorder).
In addition to my camera (which was a Canon C300), my basic kit for Cambodia contained:
- Plenty of memory cards
- Medium sized tripod with fluid head
- Zoom lenses (Canon 24-105 f4-5.6L IS, Sigma 18-35 f1.8 Art)
- Two bi-color battery powered LED lights
- Dinkum Systems Pro-Pack
- Sennheiser shotgun mic
- 1 Sennheiser G3 wireless lav
- 1 Tascam DL-10 lav recorder (??)
- Canon 7D (for stills and video backup)
- GoPro with accessories
- 2 1.5 TB Lacie Rugged drives
- Rain hood for the C300
- Hoodman for the C300 monitor
Also, since you can’t send anything out for repairs or easily get replacements, try to bring durable equipment with you. Keep in mind that you will likely be filming in harsh natural environments so it’s good to keep cleaning products (like lens wipes) and tools for maintenance on hand.
The small Island where much of 'Current Sea' was shot.Credit: Speak Thunder Films
5. Prepare to stay charged and powered
Energy and electricity is crucial to our work, and a lot of logistics revolve around making sure you have enough charged batteries to shoot everything that you need. Think about what gear you have and its energy requirements and plan accordingly.
It’s a good idea to bring enough batteries to film for a full day without having to recharge. In our case, by doing our homework we knew we would only have access to electricity a few hours each night. So we brought enough batteries to shoot for about 8 hours without having to recharge. When it is time to recharge, think about how long you might have access to energy for. Bring at least two chargers for each type of battery and a surge protector with many outlets. Since we knew we would only have energy for a few ours a night, we brought several chargers for each type of battery so we could charge many batteries at the same time.
Don’t forget to bring plenty of spare AAs, AAs, 9 volts, and any other disposable batteries you might need. While you can get these in other countries, you might night be able to get quality ones and they might not be available while out in the field.
If you don’t have access to electricity at all, there are several products on the market that offer solar charging solutions. Check out how long such devices take to recharge your batteries and, again, plan accordingly.
Lastly, make sure you have the right international adapters for your location.
Think about what gear you have and its energy requirements and plan accordingly.
6. Back up everything mission critical
Filming in remote locations is expensive, so obviously you want to do whatever you can to get the shot and prevent anything from going wrong. This means backing everything up. I don’t just mean your footage, though this is obviously included, but I mean backing up everything that is mission critical.
I bring more than one of anything I can’t live without. This might seem overkill, but it has saved me in the past. Items that I bring backups of include (but are not limited to):
- Cameras (I bring a DSLR for stills and backup as well as a CoPro)
- Cables of all types
- Hard drives (I bring three!)
- Power adapters
Cham fisherman in the Gulf of Thailand.Credit: Matt Blomberg
7. Take advantage of natural light
As a cinematographer, I want to make my images as beautiful as possible. In the states, I always light interviews, and prefer to have lights on hand in case they are necessary. In a remote location, especially when traveling by myself or with a small crew, I like to utilize as much natural light as possible. The lighting elements I do bring are usually small and augment the natural light.
Here's what I usually bring to remote shots:
- Two small battery powered bi-color LED lights (with accessories)
- Blow up soft box for the LED lights
- Dinkum Systems to rig the lights via clamps (instead of stands)
- Large LED flash light
- LED Headlamp
If you have more need of lighting, you might also consider a couple larger LED panels packed into a single case. Light ribbon can also work wonders. Per tip #5, for any lightning gear you bring, make sure you have a way to power it in the field.
Nothing screams “expensive gear” like a Pelican case.
8. Protect yourself from theft
In tip #2, I discussed the importance of insurance, but another way you’ll need to protect yourself in any country is from potential crime. You will likely have thousands of dollars of gear on you, and in many developing countries that can be more than an average person makes in a year. Therefore, it’s prudent to have systems in place to protect your gear and yourself.
When it comes to securing my gear, I opt to forgo traveling with hard cases. Nothing screams “expensive gear” like a Pelican case. Instead, I opt for bringing my cameras in a soft, backpack style, carry-on camera bag. For checked gear, I use two large REI roll-bags. These bags are big enough for gear such as my tripod, and they look inconspicuous. I further secure these bags with TSA-approved bag locks.
When traveling in urban areas, I either pay extra for a taxi or, when riding in a tuk-tuk, I will keep my bags to the center of the vehicle and remain vigilant. It’s a common practice for thieves to ride up on a motorcycle, reach into an unsuspecting tuk-tuk, grab a bag, and then zoom off before the victim even notices. Which brings up the number one safety piece of advice: remain aware of your surroundings at all times.
Lastly, while booking lodging, I always consider security for my gear. In remote locations, secure accommodations might be harder to come by. In that case, I try to avoid leaving my gear unaccompanied for too long, or advertising that I have it with me.
9. Bring the essentials beyond gear
In addition to the more obvious gear needed to shoot, I never leave these essential items behind:
- Gaff tape
- Ziplock bags (for protecting small gear from water)
- Garabge bags (for protecting large gear and clothes from water)
- Small tools for repairs
- Travel pillow
- Travel towel
- Travel guides and maps
Christopher Smith filming on location for 'Current Sea'.Credit: Matt Blomberg
10. Take care of yourself
Personal safety and well-being is not only critical to you as a human, but it’s also necessary to getting your film in the can. After all, if you aren’t healthy enough to shoot, you aren’t going to get anything good.
Before you leave, make sure your vaccines are up to date. See a travel nurse about your shots and about any other medical precautions you will need depending on the part of the world you are filming in. For Cambodia, I often brought anti-malarial drugs and antibiotics in case I developed stomach issues (that’s all I’ll say about that).
I also bring with me some basic drugstore items that aren’t readily available elsewhere:
- First aid kit
- Over-the-counter pain relievers
- Blister care
- Personal hygiene products
- Wet wipes/face wipes (trust me, they are a godsend)
- Ear plugs
This list of tips is by no means exhaustive, but it ought to get you started thinking about how to prep for your own expedition to the ends of the Earth. I invite anyone with additional tips and tricks for remote filming to leave them in the comments below. What do you consider necessary to bring with you into the wilderness?