The documentary genre is often referred to as a ‘window on the world,’ as it can provide tantalizing glimpses into the most exotic of cultures and geographic locales. With the advent of the docu-drama and reality television, those far-flung places are also increasingly the backdrop for primetime viewing as well. While budgets, more often than not, can be challenging for most if not all filmed projects, the appetite for stories emanating from around the world remains strong. Thus, we contacted several service companies working in popular locations on various continents to provide updates on ‘the lay of the land’ when it comes to producing non-fiction content on foreign soil.
LATIN AMERICA (BRAZIL, ARGENTINA)
Gideon Boulting, owner of Red Earth Films in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, says that just as the landscape of television programming has changed, so too has his company, established in 1998, had to adapt.
‘Television has changed its face over the last seven years,’ he says. ‘Traditional documentary with a narrative voice and several days of filming has been replaced largely by docu-dramas or reality shows. The formula for reality is getting as much screen time out of a small amount of shooting days.’
Having provided production support for a host of independent features and factual programming, Boulting says international projects come with new demands for Brazilian crews. ‘It’s taken about seven years to get it right, because Brazil has traditionally been servicing the higher-end commercials and features, and the crews tend to have a departmental attitude,’ he says. ‘But now that’s being adapted – sometimes a technician will be doing two or three roles.’
Bunim/Murray Productions and Tiger Aspect are among the prodcos with which they’ve worked, and the BBC, Channel 4, Discovery and Animal Planet have used Red Earth to prep shoots. Boulting says a recent stint with London’s Raw TV for an episode of Locked Up Abroad made the most of both his company’s expertise and the adaptive nature of Brazilian crews. ‘As long as our client has a very hands-on type attitude, and we take these decisions on a mutually committed basis from the beginning, then it works out fine.’
Boulting says that with Brazil enjoying the fruits of an emerging economy over the last few years, ‘The currency has remained, from an American or European point of view, less competitive than it was three years ago. But even so, as things are generally cheaper anyway, you can still put together a competitive shoot in Brazil.’ Not only does Brazil boast considerable racial diversity, but its geography allows for a wide range of possibilities on a shoot. An upcoming project will require recreating landscapes of France, Germany, Bolivia and Uruguay, all within the urban areas of Rio, says Boulting.
From a gear perspective, Boulting admits that the rental of cameras can be more expensive than in major markets such as New York or London. For those who opt to bring their own gear into the country, with Brazil not being a member of the international ATA Carnet system, an import/export license will need to be procured from Brazil’s Customs and Excise. That comes after receiving authorization to shoot from Brazil’s Ministry of Culture for Audio-Visual Affairs (ANCINE), and obtaining the necessary work visas. ‘As long as you have your dates fairly clear and your passports up to date, it’s about a two-week process,’ says Boulting.
Argentina may be enjoying an edge over Brazil in terms of the attractiveness of its currency to foreign producers, but according to Carola Iujvidin, a producer/fixer based in Buenos Aires, the economic meltdown suffered by the ‘First World’ brought service work to a standstill for the production hotbed.
‘We had a horrible start of the year – from November to January it was a black hole.’ Thankfully, the clients began calling again. Iujvidin’s services as a production co-ordinator/producer/fixer have been used by Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, Pilgrim Films & Television’s Ghost Hunters International, Creative Differences for a Nat Geo Channel project and a pilot for CNN’s Tony Harris.
Iujvidin also reiterates that Argentina isn’t part of the international ATA Carnet agreement, so producers should allow ample time for Customs arrangements. As for other vital info, she says foreign productions should be cognizant of two cultural differences. First, ‘We don’t have a culture of plastic and for some foreign clients, it’s hard for them to understand that sometimes if you rent a van, they won’t take credit cards,’ she explains.
And lastly, let the crew have a decent lunch. ‘A crew can work a full day and they take it very seriously, but for them, going to a restaurant and being able to relax for an hour is very important,’ she says. ‘I’ve had problems with some clients before, where they’d say, ‘I’m not coming here to eat, I’m coming to work.’ But it’s something that happens in Argentina.’
CURRENCY: US$1 = 1.97 reais (Brazil); US$1 = 3.80 pesos (Argentina)
TIME ZONES: UTC/GMT -3 hours
CURRENT: 110V or 220V (Brazil); 220V or 240V (Argentina)
Kenyan-based film servicing and production company Ginger Ink operates out of Nairobi but covers a sizable portion of the continent, providing licensing, location reccy, equipment clearance, local expertise on the ground and negotiations with community leaders. Director/producer Guy Wilson says that traditional documentary and feature work and an increasing number of reality-driven projects, science programs and docu-dramas have been alighting on their shores, from clients including National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and Virgin Media TV.
‘Nairobi is a kind of East African production base,’ explains Wilson. Filmstudios Kenya, a major lighting company, is headquartered there, as is an animation studio established by Tiger Aspect in the UK and Homeboyz Entertainment. For cameras, Wilson says ‘quite a number’ of HD cams are available in Kenya, and RED cameras are also making appearances. While that equipment can also service Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Berundi, Rwanda and Southern Sudan, Wilson warns that other countries, particularly in West and East Africa, have less access to high-grade equipment. ‘I was in Gabon last year working on a project for Channel 4 and we had a camera break when we arrived,’ he recalls. ‘It was difficult to get an appropriate replacement there.’
Wilson says that for anyone coming into Kenya as crew on a production, with the exception of a couple of countries, most visas can be issued on arrival if it’s more convenient. ‘Then we get a special pass, which is a temporary work permit that allows those crew members to work on a project legally while they’re in Kenya,’ he says. As for incentives, foreign production companies are fully exempt from the VAT tax (currently at 16%) when shooting in Kenya, if their productions are granted Export Processing Zone (EPZ) status through a local production company. ‘On a million-dollar production that’s $160,000 you don’t have to fork out,’ says Wilson.
CURRENCY: US$1 = 77.5 shillings
TIME ZONES: UTC/GMT +3 hours
Los Angeles native Michael Moffett was drawn to Spain by the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Opting to stick around and with a background in factual production, it didn’t take long to establish a foothold in production services. Today, Madrid-based Camino Media services a client base that skews heavily towards UK clients including the BBC and Brook Lapping, but also features North American media companies such as National Geographic and reality producers AND Syndicated.
‘Language and local knowledge are pillars of what we do,’ says Moffett. ‘It’s been a solid decade in which we’ve been working with a mix of different DPs who speak English and have the right criteria.’
When it comes to shooting in Spain, the challenges can be kept to a minimum, Moffett says, provided that there’s time to do things by the book. ‘Ninety percent of our clients want to put a camera on a tripod, pop around town and get a quick shot of this and that,’ he says. ‘We have that route well established – I call it the Postcard Tour. But you’re risking it – a policeman could walk up and say, ‘Where’s your permit?’ If you don’t have one, they’ll ask you to move along.’
Although Spain is part of the ATA Carnet system, Moffett advises clients to build enough time into getting the preliminary paperwork, and the necessary stamps of approval. ‘Spanish lunch is from two to five p.m.,’ he says. ‘I know of cases where people have spent a couple of hours at the airport with their gear to get their Carnet stamped and it turns out the official is on his lunch. You can’t go in thinking it’s a matter of a rubber stamp and you’re done.’
‘The administrative work, especially the work done for permits, isn’t always done in the most convenient hours for clients,’ he says with a laugh. ‘Ultimately, it all comes down to planning and the more people plan ahead, the more helpful we can be.’
CURRENCY: US$1 = 0.72 Euro
TIME ZONES: UTC/GMT +1 hour
CURRENT: 110V or 220V
While some saw last year’s Olympics mania as opening the door wider to foreign production crews, Michael McDermott, executive producer at Gung-Ho Films, says shooting in China is a relatively painless process. He should know, as he’s been working in China for 15 years.
The company helped Rob Riggle feel at home while he was in Beijing for The Daily Show, and also worked on BBC’s Jet Set. Among the factual projects Gung-Ho has been involved with are An Inconvenient Truth, History’s Human Weapon and six episodes of The Amazing Race, spread across three seasons. Work on the Race entailed everything from location scouting and permit wrangling to putting together crews, transport and other logistical concerns.
McDermott cites the work ethic, efficiency and cost of Chinese crews (they’re non-union) as selling points, and equipment is plentiful in centers like Beijing and Shanghai. But he cautions that ample time is needed for visa applications, and while ‘it’s not as hard as you might think to shoot in China,’ some locations, like the Forbidden City and inside the pit of the Terra Cotta Warriors, can take time to access. Hence, efforts should be made to find a ‘straightforward’ production service partner.
‘The local way is to hold back bad news, often times until it’s too late. I’ve trained my crews to work using Western methods, where bad news is communicated from the beginning, giving everyone enough time to solve a problem.’
CURRENCY: US$1 = 6.83 Chinese yuan
TIME ZONES: UTC/GMT +8 hours
A FEW MORE TIPS…
While each nook and cranny of the globe has its own unique requirements when it comes to welcoming foreign film production, there are a few rules of thumb that are universal. According to Jay Schlossberg, president/founder of global crewing, production and post-production broker/agent Media Central, they’re practically common sense.
‘You can’t go to another country and believe that everyone thinks like you do,’ he says. ‘You’re the foreigner, and you have to make sure you change your mindset to be sure you’re working within the confines of the culture.’
Media Central sources and lines up local production and post-production outfits from over 90 countries outside of the U.S. and Canada, and its client list includes HBO, Lucasfilm, Food Network, PBS, A&E, BBC & BBC America, and Discovery Channel among others. And while shooting abroad can provide the odd bit of stress, much of it can be mitigated early on by simply knowing what you need gear and post-wise, especially if you’re shooting in HD, and by going with partners that will guarantee results.
‘Having this level of clientele has forced me to elevate the level of the people I’m bringing to the party,’ says Schlossberg, who has been operating Media Central since 1993. ‘On any given shoot I can’t have a kid six months out of college shooting.
‘I use road-tested people that I’ve been using for years. It provides a little insurance that these people can do what they say they can do, and if something goes wrong there’s somebody who can help them try to fix it.’