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.

Crowdfunding for Filmmakers

Crowdfunding For Filmmakers: Is Patreon The Answer?

Crowdfunding for filmmakers. It’s a crowded space, and in the continuing quest for the best crowdfundign site for filmmakers, I can now report that I’ve landed on Patreon. Although I’m still early on in the process of evaluating how Patreon will fit in when it comes to my long term strategy, I want to tell you why I can give a tentative thumbs up to this site. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to crowdfunding for filmmakers who have numerous funding strategies working for them, it’s a good idea to choose Patreon.

Crowdfunding for filmmakers
I wasn’t thinking about crowdfunding for filmmakers while filmmaking in a crowd, but the two go hand in hand. Click the picture to see the results of the crowdfunding efforts.

Patreon bills itself as the world’s fastest growing crowdfunding site for creative artists and who are also creative professionals. As one of those creative types, I can tell you the site passes the smell test. It handles professionals’ needs in an efficient Continue reading “Crowdfunding For Filmmakers: Is Patreon The Answer?”

Essential Filmmaking Equipment You Didn’t Know You Needed

Essential filmmaking equipment involves a lot more than the usual suspects
Essential filmmaking equipment involves a lot more than the usual suspects. Professional film work includes some important backup.

Is there essential filmmaking equipment you may be forgetting before you set out on your shoot? Not only is small crew (or sometimes no crew) filmmaking becoming the lay of the land for many creative professionals producing content in the United States, it’s becoming standard operating procedure for international shoots as well. While shooting The Palette Project, my crew (such as it was) consisted of myself and my colleague, sharing roles of photographer, interviewer, production coordinator and all-around problem solver in chief. Even though a third person in the role of production assistant would have seemed like an unimaginable luxury, the fact of the matter is this: it’s not going to get any easier. Doing more with less is just how it works now. May I refer you to Casey Neistat’s Nike video? Two people going around the world until the money ran out. That’s the template.

Essential filmmaking equipment doesn’t always mean your gear

Working from that baseline, there are actions you must take that will help you make sure the hardest obstacles are at least lower to the ground. We need to talk about he fact that your shoot involves international travel, and that means you have to think globally. What follows from this is that your camera, your production package and most f your gear is secondary when it comes to how you think about “equipment.” Aside from your gear, the essential filmmaking equipment you must have on-hand can, by and large, fit in your pocket. These are items that have very little to do with the actual shooting. These are the things that make travel just part of the background noise for your production.

An extra, unlocked international cell phone

After our cameras, lights and audio equipment, essential filmmaking equipment includes something you may take for granted: your phone. Our phones and tablets may be the most essential pieces of gear we carry overseas. And like Ruffles potato chips, you can’t have just one. However many phones you are taking, add one that isn’t assigned to anyone.
My phone of choice happens to be an iPhone, and Android phones are certainly just as capable for the tasks we use our smartphones for on an international shoot. Whichever phone you use, though, whether it be for record keeping, data entry, field logging, navigation or even as an emergency backup camera, your phone also has a nice additional function in: you can use it to call someone.
Deep in my run bag is an unlocked, quad-band emergency “dumb phone.” It doesn’t have a SIM card, it doesn’t have any apps on it. It’s sole purpose is to be able to make calls anywhere in the world should something happen to my… let’s call it my A-Phone.
And this little guy is worth its weight in gold. Shooting on the Cook Strait as well as the Australian outback and the Pacific Ocean west of Auckland Harbour in 2015, I was more than happy that my ability to contact the outside world was safe and sound should our phones go overboard, overheat or become clogged with dust. A local SIM card is only one drug store away, and while you may never need it, this is an essential pieces of filmmaker equipment the best money you’ll ever spend.

A notarized copy of your passport

Okay, I’m using the word “equipment” loosely here, but essential filmmaking equipment has to include your passport, because you need it wherever you go. The nightmare scenario for any international filmmaker is a lost passport. Getting new identification from the nearest embassy, the lost travel time, the frantic rescheduling. I can’t promise you that none of this will happen if you lose your original passport book or card. However, this is the critical piece of the puzzle to have on hand in order to quickly prove who you are and what’s on file with the Department of State. It taks fifteen minutes to go to a UPS store in the United Staes, or any place that can copy and notarize an official document.
As an aside, this is also a handy piece of paper to have if you find yourself having to file last minute for a work visa in the country where you intend to shoot. Many countries want that notarized copy of your passport, along with loose copies of your passport sized photos, as part of the application process. As far as essential filmmaking equipment goes, It never hurts to have this on hand and, of course, in a very safe place.

A carnet

This it. The big magillah. I am telling you from personal experience that a carnet is the absolute must-have piece of documentation you need when traveling to most countries as part of your international production. If essential filmmaking equipment includes items like voltage converters, extra media cards and bulbs to match the voltage of the country you’re shooting in, it has to include the carnet which proves you bought these items before you left home. you should never plan or shoot a professional film without budgeting for a cornet.
A carnet is an official manifest and seal of every piece of filmmaking equipment you are taking into and out of the country or countries where you’re shooting, from your heaviest camera to the battery that powers it, and everything (and I do mean everything) in between,along with every piece of computer equipment lighting, sound gear and so forth. The $500-$1000 (or more, it depends on the total value of what you’re carrying – ours cost around $700 USD) you will spend for a carnet is more than made up for in both the thousands of dollars of import and export fees/tariffs you won’t pay, because you have official proof that you didn’t buy any of these items in the country where you’re filming, not to mention the hours and hours it would take while customs officials go through every inch of your filmmaking equipment, to itemize your gear and ask you where and when you bought it.
A carnet manifest and seal of approval contains all this information already. When you purchase your carnet and submit your paperwork to get it, you have to fill out an exhaustive list of questions about where and when you bought your filmmaking equipment as well as its m manufacturing country of origin. Yes, it’s time consuming. Trust me when I tell you that it’s worth it.

By the way, if you’re thinking you probably won’t have to deal with customs because the gear you’re using is so minimal or touristy looking, you need to know that when you enter the country or leave the country with a lot of it (like, more than one) customs officials will assume you bought it in their country in order to pay a lower price and don’t want to pay the duty fees. If you’re traveling under a work visa, their eyebrow will perk up even more.You can be subject to duty fees and export taxes that can run into the thousand of dollars, even with that minimal amount of filmmaking equipment.
The above list is hardly an itemization of the most often considered pieces of essential filmmaking equipment, but if you are dedicated to a smooth shoot, it’s a list that can definitely grease the wheels. Travel is exhilarating, yes, but the actual nuts and bolts of travel should be as seamless as possible… or at least solve a few headaches. These items can help you focus on the show itself, not the headaches.


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Successful Crowdfunding Campaigns

Successful Crowdfunding Campaign Keys: Creating Buzz

Successful crowdfunding campaign keys and crowdfunding strategies
A successful crowdfunding campaign depends on Specific crowdfunding strategies and steps you take well before the campaign itself launches

In an earlier post on creating a successful crowdfunding campaign, I wrote about the differences between some of the major crowdfunding platforms, and what we as filmmakers should keep in mind when choosing which site may be the best crowdfunding platform to use. I wrote about Kickstarter as the main example of a platform that relies on the all or nothing approach, Indiegogo as a platform that opens the door to what is often called the flexible funding model (where you as a filmmaker get to keep whatever you raise, regardless of whether or not you reach your funding goal) and Tubestart, a smaller startup that offers both of these options as well as a recurring payments option. as well as an interesting “pledge” model which allows backers to opt for a system that charges them each time new content appears on your YouTube channel. As we dig deeper into the weeds, though, there is a much bigger issue for anyone who is choosing to incorporate crowdfunding into their strategy, because choosing a platform is hardly a guarantee of success. It doesn’t even get you to Continue reading “Successful Crowdfunding Campaign Keys: Creating Buzz”