Media Production

The Secrets to Producing Successful Media Projects Overseas

Shooting internationally can be an incredible experience. Over the years, our team at Cooke Media Group has produced programming in more than 60 countries around the world, and we’ve only experienced a handful of bad incidents. That’s not to say things haven’t been difficult – like when we did an interview with a Brazilian drug dealer while his gang held a gun on our cameraman, or when my crew was arrested at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, or when we got caught up in a military coup.

There’s been more, but you get the picture. During it all, we’ve learned a few things about how to keep those incidents to a minimum, so the next time you produce an overseas project, maybe this list will help:

1) Be infinitely flexible.  The only thing you can depend on internationally is that you can’t depend on anything. Don’t get frustrated or angry. Assume things will go wrong, and you’ll be ready. (That’s a good rule for any location.)

2) Be respectful of local cultures.  Shooting in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem recently, we connected with a friend who arranged for us to shoot from his grandmother’s roof. The shot was amazing, but afterwards his grandmother asked us to stay for tea. Even though we were on a tight schedule, of course we did it. To refuse would have been impolite, especially after she opened her roof to us. Now, we have a long term relationship with a new friend.

3) Don’t bring your country’s sensibilities into a international situation.  I’m impatient, hate to wait, and want to move. But in at least one country, it’s customary to buy the film crew a full breakfast before you start shooting. Trust me – waiting until they’ve eaten is worth it. By respecting their rules and customs, they’ll work much harder.

4) There’s your time and international time.  Know how punctual people are wherever you shoot, and then plan with that in mind. They’re not going to change cultural habits that have been in place thousands of years for your documentary schedule.

5) Have an in-country insider who can help you navigate.  I won’t shoot in Israel without Eitan Alon, our long time Israeli producer. He knows the ropes, knows who to talk to, when we need permits, where to get good deals, where the hospitals are, how (and if) we need the police, etc. I have someone similar in other countries as well. If at all possible, know someone on the inside of the country you can trust with your life. Sure you should do your own homework, but you’ll never know a country like someone who lives there.

6) Don’t assume because someone doesn’t speak your language that they’re not intelligent.  That shouldn’t need explaining.

7) Become local.  When you’re working in-country, eat the food, drink the local drinks, adapt to their schedule, and become one of them. Don’t be a tourist. You’ll be amazed at how much more you’ll learn when you experience it first hand.

8) If you’re ever in a volatile situation or a situation that could become volatile, keep a cool head.  Losing control doesn’t help – ever.

9) Do your homework.  Learn as much as you can about the local culture. Learn to say thank you in the local language. Knowing simple things like the fact that it’s not appropriate for a man to shake hands with a devout Muslim woman can save you a lot of grief.

10) Money matters.  Know exchange rates, and where to get the best prices. In most places, ATM’s have the best exchange rate. If you’re going to be there a long time with a big budget, develop a relationship with a bank.

11) Know the differences between respect and offense.  For instance, in some cultures, tipping is a public matter, and others, a private one. Without knowing the difference, your “tip” may be considered a bribe. In one Middle Eastern country, we tipped a gentleman for helping us get permission to film by quietly slipping the money in his pocket.

12) When you land in a foreign country, go to the official taxi stand, and not one of the more aggressive guys offering you a ride.  (That’s good advice anywhere.)

13) Security matters.  Use the in-room safe if you have one. Put on the do not disturb sign when you’re not in the room. Make duplicate hard drive copies of your work and give to people traveling differently. If you’re in a sketchy place – tape over expensive looking equipment logos, don’t flash money, watch out for crew members. Beware of pickpockets and scam artists. When someone asks for help, chances are they don’t need it – they’re a scam artist. Learn to ignore crazy people. The less distracted you are, the more you can focus on your safety and security.

I could go on, but this is a good start. For those of you who spend a lot of time shooting internationally, do you have any other important suggestions to add?

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  1. All great comments, especially about time. Americans are very exacting when it comes to keeping time and a schedule. Doesn’t work that way overseas. Many other countries are on what is referred to as “relational time.” IE, it’s not the time of a meeting that’s important. It’s the relationship that the time points to. So if they say they will be there by 2pm and show up at 4pm, take it in stride. It’s honoring that they show up at all.

  2. Also, create an equipment checklist well in advance. Tinker with it as you get closer to your leave date. Then as you’re packing: checklist, checklist, checklist. Triple check that bad boy. Because there’s nothing worse than arriving in Manila and realizing you’re missing all of your camera batteries… then trying to find them before filming begins.

    Also, what is the appliance voltage in the country you’re visiting? American is 110 volts and European is 220. You can buy adapters for charging all of your gear before you leave.

    1. Talking of batteries, Lithium Ion batteries must be in your carry on for most airlines now as they are considered a fire risk. TSA are likely to to just remove them from your check on and throw them away. Also put paper of gaffer tape over the batteries contacts as it shows any TSA inspector that you have taken steps to prevent the possibility of shorting out the battery.

      Also double check your carry on for things like Leathermans as that needs to go check on. Use TSA approved locks on all cases to keep the sticky fingers away from your valuable stuff.

  3. Travel and experiencing first hand international cultures is one of the reasons I got into this business. I’ve been all over the world. I love solving problems and working overseas certainly provides many opportunities to be a problem solver.

    Your rule #2 brought up a funny incident that happened. (I could tell stories all day about weird stuff that I’ve encountered whilst working around the world) I was the sound mixer on a documentary shooting on the Ukraine / Belarus Border near to where the Chernobyl incident happened. Our doc was about a hospital school that was treating the very sick children of the parents that survived the nuclear meltdown incident. We arrived at the hospital and were greeted by the director of the hospital.

    Before we could shoot we learned that it was customary to have a formal meeting with Hospital director. It would be rude to even take cameras and equipment out of the cases until after the meeting and so as not to offend anyone we all went into the boardroom. We sit down at the table where we are served cold cuts and snacks and then the hospital director pulls out a huge bottle of vodka and our crew of three people were were all given shot glasses. The director gave a welcome speech to us and every time the hospital director downed a shot, then the custom is everyone else in the room has to down a shot. The speech didn’t end until the bottle was almost empty. Only when the welcome meeting ended was it considered ok to start work. Needless to say the DP had a challenging day keeping shots in focus, the doc producer struggled to keep his thoughts together when doing his interviews via a local translator who’s third language was English, and as for me trying to run around with a 20 pounds of ENG sound equipment and boom mic half drunk, well that was not an experience I’d like to repeat.

    All in a days work I guess!

  4. One of the things I learned traveling to 65 countries is that patience at any border crossing or with customs agents is imperative. Your heart is screaming, “C’mon get this over with!” but you need to show calm and that you are in no hurry. Make sure any paperwork you may need is complete and current and carry lots of copies to leave with your friendly customs agent. No matter how they pull out all of your gear and screw up your perfect packing job just stay the course, calmly pack it back up, leave with a smile and be on your way. I’ve been encouraged over the years by remembering one important thing, “It’s only tv”.

  5. All your points, Phil, are good, solid ones. I’ve been incredibly privileged to shoot, crew or direct over 200+ overseas assignments in 108 countries. 2 extras?

    1. Dial down the ARROGANCE. So you have lots of trophies. Your leaders think you walk on water. Great. But you are a foreigner in someone else’s country. Little 4 yr olds speak the local language better than you do. LISTEN a lot, LAUGH often, be willing to make FUN of yourself when you make a mistake. Say THANK YOU whenever possible. Even better…learn it in the local language. SMILE.

    2. Know your STORY before you get on the plane. I wandered around upcountry Senegal years ago with leaders who were unprepared & clueless, all looking for the story. They never found it. The footage amounted to nothing. Money, time & energy wasted. Know, before you leave, that your story will change once you get there. Count on it. That’s where Phil’s BE INFINITELY FLEXIBLE become important. Don’t have a script? Create a shot list, most important items at the top.

  6. It’s entertaining that we work together, as my job seems so…. much less threatening.

    My list would probably include, “Avoid paper cuts when handing out materials,” “Use permanent markers with care when writing on flip charts stuck to walls,” or “Bringing candy to meetings make people happy”

    Newfound level of respect for what you do, Mr. Cooke. (again)

  7. This is a great post Phil and really things to remember for international filming. Here’s a couple additional ones I thought of from my travels filming around the globe.

    1. Be careful of who you film footage of and know when to ask permission to get a shot of someone.
    I once was filming some B-roll of people in Colombia. I was walking on the street and thought a shot of these 7 guys looked good. As soon as I turned the camera on them, they started yelling at me intensely ready to pick a fight. I quickly picked up my camera and got out of there. Later, in the footage I saw them holding a large bag with a white substance in it. It appeared to be a cocaine deal.

    2. Value crew above the project
    Even though its expected that you’ll be tired the whole time from jetlag and long hours, and that there are a lot of unknown variables; its still important not to push your crew too far. Even if the video is incredibly important, your crew is more important. And giving them an opportunity to rest adequately, with adequate water and good meals, will make the project that much better. This is true for all production.

    3. Don’t put to much weight on your back
    I’m still learning this one.

  8. Great tips all around. We’re looking at shooting a short in Israel and appreciate the knowledge of “those who have gone before.”

  9. Great list, Phil. This one thought, however, I’d somewhat push back against: “Beware of pickpockets and scam artists. When someone asks for help, chances are they don’t need it – they’re a scam artist.”

    It comes across as a bit cynical toward the rest of the world, and is almost a cliche of how Americans are taught to act in foreign countries. As an American living abroad I’ve had to teach myself to calm down and to do the exact opposite – remember that almost nobody, very very few people, are pickpockets and scammers, particularly when you follow your own advice of trying to be local rather than act like a tourist.

    (It is possible though, that when you’ve got cameras and lighting gear, the scammers can find you a little more…)


    1. Your last line in parentheses says it all… 🙂 Yes, as a tourist you’re correct (Although I’m careful everywhere). But once you show up with a camera crew and gear, you do become a target.

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