Media Production

When You Need to Shoot Video In Countries That Aren’t Friendly to Filmmaking

During my career so far, I’ve produced films or TV programming in about 70 countries around the world. In many cases, it’s not a difficult challenge – even when shooting without permits. But what about shooting in countries that aren’t so friendly to video production – especially when for schedule or budget reasons you can’t get permission or permits for all the locations, or a business visa for the country?

Certainly if it’s a major production with lots of equipment and a large crew, permits and permission is absolutely required. In those cases you may also need to hire police officers, fire department safety officer, and go in under a business visa. But most of my projects have been produced documentary style with a crew of just a few people. In those situations, there are some ways around all the trouble and expense if you play it smart.

We just finished a pretty grueling documentary schedule filming in India, Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan. So I asked our Director of Photography Brad Knull for his suggestions on how to get top quality video in the fly. As you’ll see below, Brad’s first recommendation is to look, act, and think like a tourist. We’re not attorneys and I always recommend you get good local and legal advice, but based on Brad’s experience, here’s his great advice:

Brad Knull:  My first tip would be to actually BE a tourist. By that I mean truly embrace a curiosity and respect for the places you travel. Remember, you are a guest in these countries, and while you’re there to tell a story, it shouldn’t be about taking all the time.

Recently we were in Calcutta and wanted to get some street market shots for a documentary film. So we wandered into a very busy market area. At first we felt like aliens that had landed on another planet. People were looking at us strangely and it even felt a bit hostile. Then we began asking people permission to take their portraits and showing them the shots on the back of our cameras. Soon, everyone wanted us to take shots of them. After an hour, they were taking selfies with us and inviting us to come home and have dinner! I’ve had this experience all around the world, including being invited into mosques in the Middle East, temples in Thailand and coffee around an open fire in Ethiopia. So tip #1 has little to do with gear and more to do with your attitude. Be curious, be respectful and be a tourist in the sense that you are truly exploring the places and cultures you encounter.

Beyond that here are some nuts and bolds techniques we’ve used successfully in places like China, Vietnam, Cuba, India and other countries that may be less than thrilled you are filming:

1. Have a simple truthful statement. Lies are hard to remember, so come up with a reason why you are taking pictures that is as truthful and simple as possible without spilling all the details. Memorize that simple statement and have everyone on your team give that version of the truth when questioned.

2. Use DSLR or mirrorless cameras that shoot high quality video. In the last few years camera technology has advanced so rapidly that there are a huge range of cameras capable of taking UHD, 4K or HD quality video that is nearly equal to professional video cameras. These small cameras which were originally designed for still photography don’t raise nearly the questions that professional video cameras raise and can usually be taken even into locations where filming is strictly forbidden.

3. When necessary, shoot without a tripod! If there is one piece of gear that will get you singled out, it’s a tripod. I was traveling in Egypt shortly after the Arab Spring uprising a few years ago and when the customs official found my tripod it set off the alarm bells. He asked me repeatedly, “Where is your professional video camera? Where is your professional video camera!” Fortunately, I was traveling with a DSLR camera (see tip #1) and so after he looked thru every single pocket of every single bag he let me go with the warning: “If we had found professional camera there would have been big problem.”

4. Try to use a monopod. (Sometimes you can get away with this.) Steady shots are the hallmark of a professional production and the monopod is the best stand-in for a tripod. This piece of gear usually won’t get the attention of a customs official, as it is often used in still photography, but some places (like museums, temples and other public places) simply won’t let you use any device that supports the camera because they’ve become wise to the fact that professionals like these kinds of tricks. On our last trip, between shots, Phil even carried the monopod like a high-tech walking cane and he was never once stopped!

5. No monopods allowed, now what? As mentioned in tip #1, modern camera technology has made amazing advancements. One of those is internal image stabilization both in the camera and in the lenses. Most of the time these setting can help you steady a handheld shot. Experiment with these and see how to get the best results. Do some testing first because I’ve occasionally had negative results under certain conditions so make sure you know your gear and how best to utilize these setting.

6. Using camera straps, 3 points of contact and wide lenses. Here are three very practical ways to get steady shots under most challenging circumstances:
1. Use your camera strap as a sling for the camera by pushing the camera into the strap.
2. Three points of contact are better than two. Use your face, eye socket or forehead in addition to your hands for a third point to hold the camera.
3. Wide lenses are more forgiving. When in doubt, go wide. No one can hold a 200mm rock-solid handheld. A 16mm lens on the other hand is pretty forgiving.

7. Slow motion is your friend. Let’s face it, no matter how steady your hand may be, shooting with a lightweight camera designed for photos makes it impossible to hold it perfectly steady. Slow motion shots can smooth out some of those sins and it also can make for some pretty epic imagery.

8. Ask forgiveness not permission. This sounds worse than it really is, but in most cases you can grab a shot before you get shut down and in most places the bureaucracy of asking will take up most of your day. I once set up a timelapse shot overlooking a major international city. When authorities saw my tripod (see tip #2) they told me it would require permission. I sent the producer off to get the permission as I walked away from the camera. Two hours later when he returned to tell me we’d been denied, I took the camera down and returned to the car. Fortunately, the camera had been shooting the locked off timelapse the entire time and we left with the shot we wanted. But be careful on this one, because in some places this might land you in jail.

9. Don’t film military personnel or government buildings without permission. I was once filming on the border of Syria and a young intern stuck his camera out the window to get a picture of a UN compound. The security guards pulled our van over, took our passports, and detained us for a few hours. Luckily, no jail time was necessary. Speaking of jail, a good way to end up there is to point a camera at one of the above mentioned military or police buildings or personnel.

10. Don’t speak too openly in public about why you have cameras. Just be sensible. Some governments have “minders” who might be posing as your taxi driver, translator, or guide. You just never know.

11. I even recommend you actually look like a tourist. This might seem like a silly one, but leave your Easy-Rig at home and don’t be afraid to look like a dorky tourist. You’d be amazed how many shots you can get when you just sling a camera around your neck, don your Hoka running shoes and have that wide-eyed-deer-in-the-headlights look on your face.

Happy shooting!

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8 Comments

  1. This is great content from two guys I respect so much. Funny, I have been with Brad Knull on several of the productions with stories used in his tips. It’s interesting because over the years I have learned that, as mentioned above, love and respect for the people you are interacting with in country is always an appropriate posture to have. When you go into the situation acting like everybody is out to get you, they will often respond in kind. So, give people the benefit of the doubt in a smart and wise way. And, remember that with low level officials, in particular, they are just trying to do a job in a country that often times doesn’t either pay them enough or doesn’t pay them regularly. And, those officials are almost always working in high risk situations. I can usually talk my way out of most problematic events if I am respectful and apologetic. As is everywhere, including here in the US, there are some bad apples who do want to shake you down and you have to be ready for them. In the Arab world, you might hear the word “baksheesh” that means “money for tea” which is code for “bribe.” In South Asia, the word with the same meaning is “chai pani.” As soon as you hear those words, you have a decision to make in your mind. Will you pay a bribe to get out of potential high risk situations? I can’t answer that for you, but you should be ready with that decision in advance. With those bad apples you need to always remember, respectfully, that you have come into the country legally and have legal right to be there. Obey the laws, but also be firm and stand your ground as much as possible. Two last things; an example and a list. When getting permission to film in a temple or mosque remember what the reverse scenario might be like here in the US if you don’t get permission. Imagine an Arab man in a dishdasha (Arab dress) walks into a Southern Baptist church in the south with a big camera and starts filming. How many deacons do you think would jump up and tackle the guy? Finally, it is very difficult to film government buildings and police and military officials. It’s super high risk but it can be done. In addition, just know that added to that list is; bridges in sensitive areas, communication facilities and airports. Most westerners filming those areas with any kind of camera or drone will immediately be pegged as a spy and suffer the consequences. Again, do it with extreme caution while evaluating if you really need to do it at all.

  2. Having shot all over the world as well, often in non-permissive environments and war zones, I agree with all of Brad’s insights.

    There are now some excellent professional cinema cameras which look like mirrorless/DSLRs but aren’t, namely the new Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K which uses EF mount (Canon) lenses. One can easily capture cinema-quality footage and look like a tourist. Highly recommended.

    And make sure your tally light is OFF.

    If you see some authority-looking person watching what you’re shooting, be sure to let him see you shoot something innocuous, like a pretty flower or something lame. They might assume you’re definitely a tourist and probably not a professional photographer, because what professional would shoot that?

    I’ve also had luck shooting something while looking the opposite direction or having a “conversation” looking the other way, making it look like I wasn’t rolling. Or shooting from waist-high, looking all around like a sightseer without looking at the camera to make it appear I’m just standing there.

    Also, smiling a lot seems to help.

    Finally, depending on the project, a U.S. Senator can reach out to the ambassador from a foreign nation you’re traveling to and see if they can write a letter for you (on official stationery and in their language, as well as one in English) stating you are a guest of that nation and should be treated as such. (That saved my neck in China, Bulgaria, and even Israel.) Such a letter can put terror in the hearts of underlings…

    (OK, one last tip: I always bring my network news credentials in case I am accused of being a spy. I used them once in Cambodia to great effect… the regional police chief did NOT want publicity!)

  3. I’ve done almost all of the above. Every one is true! One thing to add, is the importance to have someone to be your “fixer” in the country you’re working in. I was sent to a South American country to shoot on mission work there and we had a wonderful employee from our client who met us at the airport, made arrangements with local officials, police and the like. He did all the talking and actually saved us several hundred dollars of “fees” at customs when we came in.

  4. There is another side to this … we were shooting a story in South Africa on the ministry of a Pastor to inmates in South African prisons. He was going to conduct a service followed by baptisms in a children’s wading pool inside the prison. We had permission to film, but at the last minute was this was revoked because the previous week a US film crew had filmed inside the prison without permission. When their story was broadcast, the government banned any future filming. Remember – other film crews will invariably come after you to film in the same place. As Christians we have a responsibility to make sure we don’t ruin it for future crews.

  5. Phil, I was just bragging on you to another speaker client about how you and Kathleen bring rich and real content to us through your blogs and You Tube videos from a true “boots on the ground” angle. Thank you for sharing to all of us!

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