Shooting in a Foreign Country: Tips, Tricks and Things That May Make Your Life Easier
In January of this last year, I spent eight days with Brent Foster in Cuba shooting a personal short film featuring the culture and people. Going into the project, we didn’t completely know the story we wanted to tell but after returning from the trip, I thought that a previous project I had wanted to produce might be the perfect fit for this film. The story I wanted to tell was the one about ‘home’. I had previously shot a project dealing with the idea of ‘home’ during the Kessler Shuttlepod Mini project but wasn’t happy with it so never released it. When Brent, mentioned that he wanted to check out Cuba, I was extremely excited and thought that this may be a good opportunity to revisit this concept.
During this trip, we didn’t have any MAJOR obstacles to overcome and I think the main reason for this was because we were flexible with our approach to the project. However, even with how smooth things went, we still had a few obstacles to overcome which included a language barrier, issues with customs, coordinating with a fixer, local customs, lack of internet and cell reception, size of crew and research.
Now before you read any further, I must admit that I am NOT a seasoned traveler outside of North America. Everything in this post is simply a guide that I will use for the next trip I take. Take what you can from it and ignore anything that is completely off base.
Behind the Scenes
We’ve also produced a behind the scenes film talking about how we approached the project, a breakdown of some of the scenes and also an introduction to the concept of home.
When I approached the story of home, my goal was to make people think about what home means to them. All I was hoping to accomplish was simply get people talking. After getting the content from Beau with him talking about home, he not only inspired me but made the whole project worth it for me. I don’t care what happens with the campaign as his response made the whole project worth it for me.
The third video we produced was a teaser video to help promote the project. One thing we learned on the trip was how musicians were treated. We expected to find a lot of street performers but were surprised by the lack of performers. We found out that most musicians are actually playing in clubs and restaurants verses on the streets.
There were a few things I learned along the way and things that I believe would have made my trip easier if I would have known how to deal with them beforehand. What I hope to do with this post is give you a little bit of insight into the production and help you on your trips to a foreign country.
The first obstacle that we had to overcome was language. It was a challenge a few times on the trip. Going into the trip, I knew virtually no spanish and should have spent some time before leaving trying to learn at least the basics. This is critical. I struggle with learning other languages but after my time in Cuba, it made me understand that no matter how terrible you are at learning a second, third or fourth language, don’t give up. Even if that just means listening to audiobooks or conversations in the language you are learning, it is key to surround yourself with it. It is one of the most important skills a person can learn. Once I got to Cuba, I quickly learned the basics such as how to order ‘dos cervezas bucanero’ :).
Our next obstacle was at customs. Because they didn’t have a great understanding of English and we had an even worse understanding of Spanish, we struggled to explain what the gear we had with us was for. We ended up describing all of our support gear as tripods. We were stuck in customs for about two hours just trying to sort everything out. We visited the Cuban embassy in Toronto before the trip but still knew we were going to have issues.
Going into the next trip, I will make to sure to arrange a working visa even if the work I am doing is not for work. It takes more lead time and is a bit more work on the front end but will make the time in customs much easier.
Our third challenge was with our fixer. Our initial fixer was a no show so we were forced to find another one while in Cuba. We had arranged to meet one before we headed to Cuba but had no guarantee that they would show up. We had been in touch once we landed but for whatever reason, we just weren’t able to connect.
One our second day in Cuba, we started exploring the streets by ourselves with the need to find a replacement in the back of our mind. We didn’t allow it to affect our filming but were actively seeking out someone who we thought would be able to fit the bill. We stumbled upon someone who spoke both english and spanish and he helped us find a Casa, found us some low priced cigars and also enjoyed a few beers and a meal with us. However, he seemed to abrasive and not the right fit for us so we parted ways after a few hours. The next day we ventured out again and found our fixer with luck. We knew we wanted to film an old taxi so approached one that had the perfect vibe. He ended up speaking great english and was fun to hang around with so we asked if he had any interest in hanging out with us for the week. It couldn’t have worked out better!
Another challenge was the local customs and shop schedule. On most days, the shops didn’t open until around 11am and most of the street were empty until then as well. What really surprised me is how late people stay up at night – most days into the early hours of the morning. This didn’t affect our shooting schedule too much but it was something that forced us to go with the flow.
Internet and Cell Service
The largest obstacle of the lot was the lack of internet and cell service. It forced us to step outside what we were used to and find other means of coordinating our shoots. It wasn’t extremely difficult but did force us to take a step back and disconnect. It was both refreshing and much needed! I highly recommend this for others as it was a great time to think about the bigger picture and what is important to me.
Size of Crew
There were a couple times I wish I would have had another person to help carry gear. Although I was able to carry most of the gear myself and was able to keep the kit small enough to be able to carry a slider, tripod, jib and steadicam myself, there were times that I wished I would have been able to pass off the gear and have a camera ready to fire at a moments notice. It was nice once we got the fixer and his vehicle as we were able to strip down our kits and prep them for a variety of shooting environments.
The last major element I wish I would have spent more time doing was research before the trip. Although I did a decent amount of research beforehand, I really didn’t do as much as I should have. I think I would have had a better lay of the land and might have found more hidden gems in the process. There is something to be said about rolling with the flow but feel that I have yet to even touch a portion of what Cuba has to offer.
When we approached the story for this film, we really wanted to make people think about what home means to them. We wanted to make people question what is important in their lives and really help them define the environment that they want to grow and foster in. We also wanted to show the importance of developing an environment where you are able to take risks and grow with your family and friends. With the short film, we were really trying to make people question what life’s about. I have always been focused on collaboration and I feel that with the help of both Brent and Beau that we were able to accomplish this and they managed to bring to project to a place I could never imagined. For that I am forever grateful!
This project would not be a fraction of what it is if it wasn’t for the passion and dedication of everyone involved. I’ve been motivated and inspired to continue to do what I love and continue to grow as an artist. This trip has truly inspired me to want to travel more and has left me with a love for Cuba and a desire to return very soon.