“By failing to prepare… you are preparing to fail” — Benjamin Franklin
Shooting out on location can be one of the most exciting, rewarding but testing aspects of filmmaking. Working outside the comfortable studio environment inevitably brings with it many challenges – juggling time pressures and permissions of locations, working with the available light and around the changing weather all while lugging your gear from here to there.
But thankfully, the very nature of this high stress environment breeds highly capable and efficiency filmmakers. You learn how to control what seems uncontrollable, how to make the most of the time available and how to creatively solve the never-ending challenges.
One man and his camera
The most extreme form of this filmmaking is found in the world of documentaries, where you’re tasked with capturing real life as it happens, no rehearsals, no retakes, no second chances!
I can personally vouch that for the budding filmmakers, there is NO better training in the world than working on documentaries. And even if you’re planning a career in shooting drama, I’d recommend a ‘stint’ on docs to put you ahead of the crowd in no time.
So, here are our Top 5 Documentary Tips for Filming on Location…
# 1 – TRAVEL LIGHT:
It’s not always possible to travel light but when it is, streamline your kit! Decide what’s absolutely necessary and what you can survive without.
Yes, you might just need that spare panning handle and it of course always pays to be prepared, but when your director is pulling you from pillar to post because you’re running out of time, you’ll be thankful you chose to travel light.
Your core Camera kit should include:
Camera + Lenses
Camera Kit Bag (more on that later)
Batteries + Charger
Storage Cards (Tapes)
A small lighting kit (perhaps two Dedos or LED LitePanels)
Your core Sound kit should include:
Audio Recorder + Spare Batteries
2 Radio Mics / Receivers + Spare Batteries
XLR Cable + Backup XLR
As you can see, even when traveling with core kit there’s a lot to lug around! So to make things easy for yourself, be selective. You won’t regret it.
If you absolutely need lots of gear, a good tip is to allocate a (secure) “kit base” where you can hold your extra gear and return for it as and when you need it – this “base” could be anything from the boot (trunk) of the crew car to a lockable storeroom. But make sure it’s somewhere safe or you may return to find your expensive equipment has gone for a walk.
# 2 – DITCH THE TRIPOD:
Zander wishing he’d listened to Tip #2
If you’re ‘runnin-and-gunnin’ leave that bulky tripod behind and go handheld.
In 2011 we enjoyed an incredibly liberating ‘tripod-free’ 10 day documentary shoot in Africa. Sometimes you just have to make the call, ditch the sticks and get on with the job. But it doesn’t mean your shots have to be shaky!
So what are the best ways to get good, steady, handheld?
Stability – Get a solid footing, firmly spread your feet apart and stand your ground. It’s especially important when your attention is tunnel-visioned down a lens and not where your feet are planted. A solid base will result in a solid shot.
Shoulder it – Get that camera up on your shoulder! That is where it is designed to be. Just like when the camera is locked onto the tripod, the camera’s centre of balance will be distributed down through your body. With your shoulder shouldering the majority of its weight, the camera will become an extension of your body, allowing operating and framing with a lighter and more precise touch.
Don’t Go Long – Avoid long lens shots. They accentuate even the slightest movement and result in a wobbly experience for the audience. This might be the style of your film or doco, in which case go for it. But if rock steady is what you’re after, you can’t go wrong with wide angles.
For more advice read our more in depth blog specifically about Steady Handheld or check out this video of Zander out in Africa showing you how it’s done!
# 3 – HAVE A GOOD KIT BAG:
When there’s water on the lens, when the battery goes dead, when the card runs out or it begins to rain… where do you turn? To your old-faithful Camera Kit Bag. This is your field survival kit, it will keep you “fully operational” (just like the Death Star!). But only fill it with the essentials – remember you’re trying to travel light!
Trusty kitbag also serving as a tripod!
Kit Bag essentials include:
Lens Cleaning Fluid
Dust Off / Compressed Air
Spare Camera Batteries
A Camera Rain Cover
A Small Umbrella
Kit bags depend on the job, but just make sure you have what you need to overcome any on-set challenges that will stand between you and that red carpet!
#4 – WORK WITH THE LIGHT:
If you’re indoors you can control the light (most of the time) – switching off practicals, closing curtains and setting up lights of your own, but when you’re outside it’s a whole different ball game. You have to make the best of the situation and this is where you need to work with the light – NOT against it.
Whenever possible avoid shooting into the sun – i.e. with the sun behind the object you’re filming. The camera is not as versatile as the human eye and cannot handle the extreme contrast levels that hard backlight from the sunlight produces.
Reflectors are worth their weight in shiny gold foil!
Therefore filming a tree, or building, or car (or whatever) against the light will generally result in a severely underexposed or overexposed image (this might be what you’re looking for, particularly on Drama, choosing to shoot into the Sun results in more interesting shadows and shaping… but that’s all irrelevant if you’re trying to interview someone and the sky looks blown out!)
So grab a reflector – A reflector is a spring loaded fabric disc used to bounce light. Reflectors allow you to make the most of the biggest HMI of them all… the Sun! And with a reflector you can bounce that light onto your subject. What’s more, the light will be soft and flattering. Beautiful.
#5 – GET PERMISSION TO SHOOT:
The very first lesson I was taught as a Camera Assistant was to “Never Assume Anything!” EVER! And when it comes to Filming Permits not a truer word was spoken.
Filming Permits not only protect onscreen talent/contributors and property owners but the Film Production as well (and without the correct Release Forms a project may not secure distribution).
Zander with the Permits (at last!)
When we were filming in Ethiopia, despite going through all the correct channels to get our Visa and Permits to film in the country, we were stopped at customs and had our camera impounded at the airport! Even after doing everything correctly, we still hit problems – so it always pays to be extra careful when filming abroad.
(It took us a whole day to convince the airport officials that we had the correct paper work before we were allowed to continue making our film!)
You can read more in our blog post on Top 5 Filming Permits for everything you need to know about permissions.
So there you have it. Our Top 5 Tips for Location Filming:
Ditch the Tripod
Have a Good Kit Bag
Work with the Light (not against it!)
Get Permission to Shoot
Good luck and get out there!
About the Authors:
Elliot & Zander on location in Ethiopia
Elliot and Zander Weaver run The Reel Deal Film School – an online resources for filmmakers of all skill levels.
Having worked as freelance camera operators in TV for many years and produced/directed several TV documentaries of their own, they want to share the tips and tricks they have picked up along the way.
They are currently in pre-production on their first feature film, COSMOS and are charting the process “from script to screen” on their blog.