Troubleshoot Your Shoot: Production Tips for Filming in Challenging Locations

We had just finished our interview with a lovely family on their back patio. Finishing our tea, we took one last look at the rusted tank now used to dry laundry. I felt content, and had a much better understanding of what life is like in post-war Somaliland. My colleague and I broke down the gear, and I called the driver to have him pick us up—we had too much gear to go find him. The phone rang and rang—no answer. A little annoyed, we set out across a huge grassy field carrying the load. The white 4×4 came into view when we were halfway across the field. I called again…no answer. We trudged onwards. As we walked up to the car, I demanded, “why wouldn’t you answer your phone? You saw us walking and carrying all of this stuff!” He calmly informed us that neighbors said the field had old land mines, and the weight of the car could set them off. The shock rattled through my entire system, and we all took our seats in silence.
– Stephanie Foerster, Director, Ensemble Media

How would you navigate this situation? Filming for development projects comes with its share of risky, unexpected, and extreme circumstances. Collecting stories in a location where you may not speak the language, in harsh weather, near regional conflict and with limited resources can present a new set of obstacles. Planning for the unpredictable may be impossible, but many tricky situations are avoidable with a little research, a safety plan and the right gear.

filming in Somaliland
Stephanie and her crew were accompanied by security police throughout Somaliland. They were very kind and helped to organize crowds that gathered and in one case, helped change a tire that exploded because the road was so hot.

Safety requires good planning and communication. The dangerous landmine field incident could have been avoided if there was better communication between driver and crew. Clear communication lines with crew, drivers, fixers, and locals can be the difference between capturing a good story and being able to make it back in one piece to actually share it. Matthew Heineman, filmmaker of the documentary, Cartel Land, talks about the value of local connections:

“They knew the land, they knew what roads were safe to drive on, what places were safe to stay at. And Daniel already had strong connections with El Doctor and some of the other Autodefensas. Together, over the next nine months, they help me develop an intimate relationship with our subjects. They were indispensable in helping me get access to a story that otherwise would have been hard to tap into.”[i]

Filmmaker Bill Kleinert talks about his experiences filming Project ICE, a documentary about ice and the Great Lakes. He and his crew were constantly working on the ice, often in two crews shooting simultaneously miles apart. “We created two large, bright orange Safety Bags emblazoned with the medical caduceus and reflective strips…Because we were constantly working on ice, frozen lakes and rivers, often very deep bodies of water, we required our entire crew to wear emergency ice picks, retractable spikes on handles that can enable you to successfully extract yourself from a hole in the ice. This little device could be the difference between life and death when working on the icy surface of a frozen body of water. Everyone wore a safety whistle.”

Safety Tips

  • Know as much as you can about your set location before you go.
  • Make key local contacts.
  • Always strive for open communication lines.
  • Get country-specific vaccinations and bring first-aid kits appropriate for the location.
  • Have an emergency phone or contact method, like a whistle.

Filming in Harsh Conditions
Another obstacle to outdoor and remote filming is nature. Mother Nature’s perfect blue sky can quickly turn ugly, and your camera (and you) can suffer the consequences! You may face extreme heat, cold, dust, moisture, or a combination of these. Creepy crawlers and critters likes mosquitos, ants, crazy monkeys or birds, or more dangerous predators do not respond to “Quiet on Set!”. It’s critical to consult extended weather forecasts and radar—these tools are indispensable when packing your suitcase and planning each shoot day.

In very hot conditions, you and your equipment can overheat. Cooling down your camera or stopping to take breaks is necessary.

Chris Winter, a frequent Ensemble shooter, recently shot in the Amazon jungle. He advised that it’s critical to “…carry a poncho or rain covering since it pours with little warning…As far as cameras, the very last type that should be used is the DSLR.  It overheats and is unreliable in the jungle. As far as must haves in the Amazon, I’d definitely suggest…100% DEET spray and suntan lotion for the face. The equator sun is deceiving.”

filming in amazon jungle
Chris with his audio technician, Favio Claure in the Amazonian jungle.

The cold can also pose challenges. Anthoney Powell, a documentary filmmaker of Antarctica: A Year On Ice, says the wind coupled with the cold was intense. “The wind is harder to get used to than the cold”.[ii]

“You can dress for the cold easily enough, but when you add the wind, any slightest gap in your clothing becomes painfully apparent very fast…I failed to tuck my glove in properly one time, and in the time it took me to walk between buildings, I had frozen a patch of skin on my wrist that came up in a row of blisters.”[iii]

Bill Kleinert suggests investing in the appropriate weatherproof clothing: “Your clothing goal should always be to start and stay warm and dry. An investment in proper outdoor clothing can last you for many years. Don’t skimp.”

Moving from areas of hot to cold or vice versa quickly can create pesky condensation on lenses as well. Deidra Wilson, a Las Vegas-based photographer says, “Most professionals like to seal the camera in a bag with the cold outside air to gradually bring the gear back to room temperature. You can then use a Silica Packet or two inside your camera bag to ensure that any remaining moisture does not become a problem.”[iv] She also suggests using your pocket or even a hand warmer to heat up nonfunctioning batteries to get a few extra exposures.[v]

Extreme Weather Tips

  • Bring the right clothing
  • Wet circumstances: ponchos, water proof bags, and rain gear.
  • Cold circumstances: heat pouches, fire starters, warm layers, emergency blankets.
  • Dust and sand: UV filters, covers, and spare lenses.
  • Heat: plenty of water, water filters, hats, coverings for yourself and equipment, SPF lotion and lip balm.
  • Critters: bug spray, face nets, long sleeves and slacks.

Filming in Remote and Rugged Terrain
Remote areas mean little to no electricity, less access to supplies and fewer modes of transportation. You may be reliant on a driver, a bus or even a camel to get from location to location or where you are staying. Having crew to help with setup or to get a backup piece of equipment might not exist. Create an equipment list in advance and eliminate excess. You never know when you may be stuck carrying everything yourself.

Doc filmmaker Chandler Griffin recounts his experience in rural Zimbabwe:

“We filmed a documentary about the HIV/AIDS epidemic there. It was my first documentary in the field, and I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to take…I realized quickly that you really have to know your gear, and you have to show up with the appropriate tools. When you’re in northern Zimbabwe at an orphanage out in the middle of nowhere and you don’t have a vital piece of equipment, you can’t FedEx it overnight.”[vi]

Even after just carrying the bare minimum supplies, long hours of shooting and traveling can take its toll. Jacob Simkin, an Australian photographer and filmmaker with experience in development work and conflict work now covering the Syrian & ISIS conflict recommends “Good boots…a well-stocked first aid kit with pain killers when your feet and body have gone well beyond comfortable—‘cause it will happen.”[vii]

filming in desert
Cameraman trekking through the Namib Desert, Namibia. Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons.

Bill Kleinert also stresses the importance of backup power sources and transport options for moving gear in the cold and snow: “Batteries should be recent (not old), fully charged and have multiple back-ups. Likewise, cell phones should have redundant batteries and/or multiple charging capabilities (vehicle cables, wall warts, solar chargers, portable back-up chargers)…Gaffers tape, as always, may save the day. Plastic sleds or toboggans can become your alternative to production carts.”

Remote Filming Tips

  • Pack light. Bring important gear for remote locations that you can carry yourself.
  • Pack extra batteries, power adapters, generators, and memory cards.
  • Bring flashlights, solar powered devices, and compatible country chargers.
  • Pay attention to physical limits and needs. Take breaks, wear comfortable shoes, bring painkillers and plenty of fluids.
  • Water purification tablets give you options if you run out of water.

The Unexpected, and Run and Gunning
Filming situations can quickly change when shooting in developing countries, remote regions, or conflict zones. Your subject may not show up, your equipment or vehicle may fail or get lost, you may get injured, the sun may set early leaving you without light, or your battery or phones may die. Circumstances might be challenging, but you must be able to course correct and adjust to conditions in order to get that money shot or interview.

Brandon Li, videographer, travels around the world for comedic web shorts, travel and reality TV. He says that spontaneous conversations, quick changes from exterior to interior lighting and dialogue scenes in noisy locations are particularly tricky.[viii] For the shoot that changes into a run and gun situation, Brandon makes his body into a tripod, or uses a monopod:

“If you’re really gunning it, you probably won’t have time for a tripod or maybe even a monopod. Hold the camera close to your breastplate, hold your breath, support the lens ring with a hand, reduce your focal length. Pull against your shoulder strap for tension. If you’re using a monopod, wedge the base into anything you can – a corner of a building, a spot of soft dirt, the waistline of your own jeans. A collapsed monopod can also steady out your walking shots a bit by adding weight to your camera.”[ix]

Of course, if conditions make it absolutely impossible to film, reschedule or change locations. If all else fails, create another story. Make the most of the unexpected circumstances by capturing a new angle to incorporate into your existing film or look for an entirely new storyline. As Matthew Heineman points out, “The story is supposed to change, it’s supposed to evolve. In making Cartel Land I ended up with a much, much different story than I started with.”[x]

Tips to Prepare for the Unexpected

  • Bring maps, a compass, a GPS or knowledge of the location/area to notify others of your whereabouts when lost or in last minute shoot location changes. Be ready to postpone, cancel or adjust your shoot.
  • Don’t assume defeat and leave; consider new story angles or ideas to capture.

Preparation and planning also means more time and brain space to enjoy the experience. Field production is exhilarating, challenging, and totally worth it!