The departures terminal at the Tel Aviv airport

Filmmaking Essentials: The Fixer Upper, Part II

When last we met…
The idea of engaging in the services of a fixer immediately conjures up images of dark alleys, shady men in overcoats and whispers of “Psst, hey buddy.” Or at least, what for me is the definitive shady character of my youth:

It all seams a little on the seamy side. I mean, what, after all, is so tricky for a filmmaker that it requires a professional to grease wheels, palms and anything else that is on first inspection, more than a little squeaky?
Turns out, there are Continue reading “Filmmaking Essentials: The Fixer Upper, Part II”

Entering Israel

Filmmaking Essentials: The Fixer Upper, Part 1

So many filmmaking essentials have to do with what it takes to make a shoot go smoothly. I want to talk to you about how much better your filming experience can be when you work with locals, and a fixer is basically a local on steroids.

Fixers are filming essentials when shooting overseas
You aren’t required to have a fixer when you work on a film in Israel… but it helps

I’ve just returned from filming the Yellow segment of The Palette Project (which I encourage you to follow or even help crowdfund here), and do I have stories to share. Stories of woe involving bitter olives, recommendations on the best way to see Jerusalem on a Saturday when everything is shut down for the day in observance of the Jewish Sabbath, and of course, the reason for the trip itself – the exploration of the yellow sands of the desert.

However, I want to start this story with the bookends of the trip, because I truly don’t know how I, as a professional filmmaker, would have gotten out of Israel as seamlessly as I did without the services of a fixer. Yes, I had filming essentials like a FlexFill bounce board and every possible kind of adapter for everything from computers to my Lowel kit, but as far as personnel filmmaking essentials go, this was the biggie.

I live in that strange middle world of filmmaking. It’s a world where I don’t travel with a large crew (or sometimes any crew at all), but I definitely don’t pass as a tourist. For this leg of production, I met my photographer, a BBC pro who knows the lay of the land, on the ground in Jerusalem (a side note: it’s not really fair to be in a position to share war stories from production travails when one of you has actual war stories, but I’m getting ahead of myself). Rather than rent gear from one of the local production houses (this may not have been one of my wisest decisions), I had decided to travel solo with my gear from the United States to Tel Aviv. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I’m going to write more about the pros and cons of traveling with gear versus renting it in a future post. The nuts and bolts of the decision, though – handing off my own equipment to a photographer shooting with me wearing my director’s hat seemed to be the best option. My gear is already cleared by the BBC for use on broadcast shoots, so I knew he would know how to us it, and if anything went wrong with it, I would know how to troubleshoot. By the way, working with gear you know backwards and forwards seems to be another filming essential.

I sure seem to be using the word “seem” a lot, aren’t I?

Let me say that the workflow for traveling with production gear in the United States just goes out the window when traveling overseas. Traveling overseas when the final destination is Israel changes everything yet again, and since we’re talking about fixers, let me tell you something I learned from my fixer… something that I think will come to haunt me later because I didn’t learn it until later. My fixer advises film crews entering Israel to ask for their passports not to be stamped, but rather to have a removable entry visa inserted into the pages which can be removed later. The reason for this is that having an Israeli passport stamp can cause real problems in other Middle East countries that do not yet recognize Israel’s right to exist. That means I now expect to have problems in the future for any shoots in places like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, etc.

Security is a filming essential

Fixers help you navigate tricky security situations. Israel is a country that is, to put it mildly, a little ootsy when it comes to security, and with good reason. When I asked my photog what the conditions were likely to be on the ground in Jerusalem from a safety perspective, his exact response was “mostly cloudy with a slight chance of terror.”

OK, then.

So yes, when it came to my equipment, I had all the filmmaking essentials, everything from polarizing filters to a backup hardwired microphone to pocket white balance cards and other assorted gewgaws. What I didn’t have yet was a fixer. This flaw in the planning became apparent almost immediately.

My arrival in Israel was more than a bit marred by the loss of one of my crucial pieces of checked baggage. The piece in question had all my clothes and my stripped down lighting kit. You see, in the name of getting both my cameras into my carry on bags, I violated my own cardinal rule – one of the critical rules – of traveling for business or pleasure – to have one change of clothes with you. It of course stands to reason that this would be the flight where my baggage with the clothes would be lost.

To cut to the chase on this segment of the story, the bag was eventually found. I harbor a suspicion that the reason for the delay  in arrival was that security, on first glance at this particular piece, had no idea what to make of a piece of conventional luggage with t-shirts, hiking boots and a polycarbonite case with pro lighting and thick cabling inside, not to mention various production doodads and wingdings. One of the reasons you work with a fixer is because they know people, including airpot people. Since I have a strong suspicion that airport security at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Yafo airport wanted to go over every inch of my baggage at their leisure, a fixer who knows these people helps speed the process up by vouching for you.It was certainly obvious by the time I got my piece back the next day that everything inside had been searched and rearranged. Hell, I was just glad to have clean underwear.

But entering the country was nothing, nothing, compared to leaving it a week later.

Fixers are filming essentials when it comes to personnel for a desert shoot
I was in the desert, but having fixer kept me from being deserted

Three hours before the flight, my photog and I were celebrating a successful shoot, as well as the fact that the major crisis of the week, a misplaced hard drive with crucial footage that hadn’t been backed up yet, had been found in the boot of the car next to the spare tire well (and yes, I’m calling the trunk a boot. My theory is to use local terms when writing about foreign places. Rest assured that when I write about the U.S. based segments of the film, we’ll be back to trunks, elevators and flashlights instead of boots, lifts and torches). Heart attack successfully avoided.

“So,” he said, as we enjoyed our Tubol beers and a whipped fish something. “What’s your plan for getting to the plane?”

This had come up a few times over the week, and my own plans… that I was just going to go through security after arriving via a shared taxi service… would be fine.

“Are you sure about that?” my photog said.

Let me just say at this point that after a week of shooting with a photographer who knows exactly what to do and, more importantly, where to go when the sirens go off in a war zone regardless of what his reporter is doing, a photog who has his own flak jacket, I realized this is code for ‘You have no idea what you’re about to encounter.”

“Well, what do you suggest?” I said.

“You have a carnet, right?”

I did. This is a filming essential I’ve written about before, and I’ve talked about the value of a carnet for filmmakers traveling internationally, and the headaches this invaluable document can prevent, but this is just the first step when it comes to getting out of Israel.

“Do you know where to go to get your carnet stamped before passport control, security, check-in…” he started, and added a whole mess of other steps that only led me to the inevitable conclusion that once again, I really didn’t have the crucial piece of safety equipment I needed… a clue.

“I thought I just went to customs at the same place I went to when I landed,” I said, my brow starting to furrow in a way that any producer who has ever worked with me would recognize as my tell that I was bluffing my way through a crisis. This is why I don’t compete in the World Series of Poker.

‘Welllll…” he said, “drawing it out quite a while, “You might, but it might not be. It might not be on the grounds where you get let off from the shared taxi. And even if it is, security will never let you go from the departures concourse to the arrivals concourse with all your gear.”

“Wellll…”I said, also drawing the word out, “What do I do?”

“You need that fixer.”

I caved. Remember that up to this point, it never occurred to me that there were troubles I couldn’t fix on my own in a westernized country. I had heard tales of such folk, but not in Israel. Fixers are… well, they’re people who fix things. Journalists hire them in places like Iraq and the Russian Federation. Israel is, by and large, a westernized country, and my benchmarks for such things was always roughly as follows, “if a hipster from Brooklyn can get in and out, you don’t need a fixer.

I needed a fixer. Boy howdy, did I need a fixer.

Next up, what a fixer fixes for you when you’re a pro on the go.

News: The Palette Project And The Creative Magic Network Podcast

I am so thrilled to have been a guest on a brand new podcast created and hosted by two of my colleagues who are really making a difference in the world. As pre-production for the Yellow segment of The Palette Project continues, it’s so exciting to get the word out by appearing on podcasts, blogs and at events around the world.

The “What’s Your Excuse?” podcast is Maxwell Ivey’s newest creation. Max is, quite simply, a real adventurer. He’s one of the 2016 winners of the Amtrak “Riders in Residence” award. Recipients of the award take the experience of immersing themselves in the wonders and beauty of America as seen from the train to communicate their own creative visions to others. Max is taking his perspective as a blind traveler in order to share stories of adventure with his audience. He’ll be setting out this holiday season, and I’m looking forward to sharing his journey here. His podcast starts with the idea that anyone can lay claim to accomplishment and achievement. We had a great conversation about the stories I’m finding through each color of the painter’s palette.

Here’s the link

The podcast is produced by Frederic Bye, and his website is going to be a touchstone for me as this story continues. The Creative magic Network is all about this fantastic idea that when upbeat and optimistic people get together with the common understanding that there are no boundaries to making a difference, anything is possible. I’ll be writing a lot more about Frederick soon, but make sure to check out his website.

I hope that as The Palette Project gets more publicity over the next few months before setting out for the next adventure, we can all enjoy the network of remarkable people I’m meeting along the way and as always…


Counterintuitive Travel Tips

Counterintuitive Travel Tips

Counterintuitive travel tips can save your trip.

I love travel advice that goes against conventional wisdom. Going against the grain is, after all, part and parcel of the travel gig… At least, it is if you’re doing it right. Yes, see the sights that are the hallmark of a city or region, but if you’re not making room for the unknown or the counterintuitive, what’s the point of leaving home?

Counterintuitive Travel tips
Check these tips before you jet off to your next adventure

I call this the RendezvousSyndrome, and it comes from the time when I worked in Memphis. Everyone visiting Continue reading “Counterintuitive Travel Tips”

Blindness 101: Essential Reading

I have to admit I’ve never felt much buy-in when it comes to the idea of inspiration, or at least the inspiration business. What was the phrase Eisenhower coined? The military-industrial complex? Call this the inspiration-motivational complex. There is, really, a large industry built upon motivating one group of people to be inspired by another. This has real and often unfortunate consequences and one of them is an unintended victimization. This TED talk illustrates exactly what I’m talking about.

That video was one of the reasons why, when I was invited to deliver a TED talk of my own, I went to great lengths to make sure that it was not an “inspirational” speech. I invite you to Continue reading “Blindness 101: Essential Reading”