Shooting Abroad: Confessions from a Monolingual Filmmaker

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A terrific guest post from my former assistant and incredibly talented filmmaker! Check out the film “Confluence” we made together shot on the 5DmkII and 7D, now available for free to watch on Vimeo

By Preston Kanak

Excellence is earned… And I imagine that to get to this point you have worked hard as a freelancer, collaborator, and/or intern. But with all this training, what everything boils down to is the need to rely on others for support in your creative endeavours. On a recent project I produced in Cuba with Brent Foster, we ran into a lot of obstacles and in turn, learned a lot in the process. What I want to do in this post is talk about what we learned as well as discuss the stages of learning and how these stages relate to our current outlook as filmmakers.

The Monolingual Filmmaker

noun. [mon-uh-ling-gwuh l film-mey-ker] 1. Storytellers pushing themselves and their creative outlets. 2. Risk-takers and go getters who have a lot to learn. 3. Filmmakers who speak one language.

Since I started my journey as a filmmaker, I have been about pushing myself and my skill set to learn and take risks. I know I have a lot to learn and a long ways to go to get to where I want to be with my abilities as a storyteller. As for the film above, A Place to Call Home, I learned a lot during the project and although happy with the outcome, know that it is just a stepping stone. During the production of this film, I learned:

1. Importance of Fixers

2. Strategies for Packing

3. Strategies for Story Development

4. Social Release Strategies

For each of these elements, we came in with a game plan but were forced to adapt to our surroundings. We feel we took a lot of risks with this project and although we learned a lot during the process, we also made a lot of mistakes. To help put context on where we feel we are at as storytellers, I want to first breakdown the stages of learning.

Unconscious incompetence

You do not understand or know how to do something and do not necessarily know what skills you are lacking. You might also not quite understand the usefulness of the skills you lack.

Conscious incompetence

You do not understand or know how to do something, but know the steps to take to learn the skill set and also understand the value of learning the asset. 

Conscious competence

You understand how to perform the skill set but it required concentration to perform the task.

Unconscious competence

You have so much practice that the task has become ‘second nature’.

1. Fixers – Conscious Incompetence

Going into the project, I didn’t completely understand the role of a fixer but still coordinated to have one with us on the shoot as I knew there would be valuable to have one, especially with us not speaking Spanish. I have’t had the opportunity to travel much outside of North America so haven’t been on a project that I thought I needed one for. However, after this project, I will rarely travel without one.

As for Brent, he has worked as a photojournalist for most of his career, and has relied on fixers to keep him safe in conflict zones and volatile areas around the world. He considers a fixer instrumental in any international situation.

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For this project, our fixer played an integral role. If it wasn’t for our fixer, we would not have been able to produce what we did.

What is a fixer?

Fixers are individuals who make arrangements for another person. Fixers have a thorough knowledge of local customs and procedures and use this knowledge to help make things happen. The duties of a fixer may include translation services, making arrangements for transportation, hotel accommodations and more.

For the film we produced in Cuba, our fixer acted as our translator, driver and friend by the end of the trip. He helped us coordinate with our Casa and made any arrangements we needed during the shoot.

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Why do you need a fixer?

Fixers fill many roles when they are assisting you. The main thing is keeping you safe and out of danger – or acting as people who will help diffuse the situation if one was to arise.

Brent stated that, ‘they know when to push the limits, and they know when it’s time to leave. In many areas in the world, you truly put your life in their hands’.

What was great about our fixer is that he went above and beyond what we could have ever expected. We definitely feel like this story would not have come together the way it did without meeting Yadir. He taught us so much about the culture and landscape of Cuba, and really lead us into the heart of our story.

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How to Find a Fixer

When I asked Brent the best way to find a fixer, he stated that, ‘there are a few different ways to find a fixer. The first way is to reach out to others who have worked in Cuba before. This is a great strategy to find someone who is reliable and is able to get things done for you. Another way is to use the platform, Lightstalkers. This resource was developed for photo journalists as a way to simplify the process and make it easier to look for support. The bonus to reaching out in advance on lightstalkers is that you can see others that have worked with the fixer in the past, and reach out to them to see how their experience was’.

For this project, our initial fixer was a no show so we were forced to find a fixer while we were in Cuba. Initially, I thought this would be a challenge but it ended up being much easier than expected. We simply headed out into the streets and on one of the days, we happened to run into a taxi driver who spoke great english so we asked if he had any interest in hanging out with us for the rest of the week.

Brent also mentioned that using our approach and taking the risk we did with our fixer, although it worked fine in Cuba where it’s a little easier to travel, is definitely something you do not want to do in a volatile area.

I asked Brent to talk about an experience he had where a fixer kept him safe and here is what he had to say:

There have been a couple times where working with a fixer has kept me out of some serious trouble, but the first time I ever worked with a fixer will be an experience I’ll never forget.

About a decade ago, I travelled to Palestine. This was my first trip to a volatile area, and I had very little travel experience at the time. I had a lot of passion, and a diploma in photojournalism, but was lacking the real world experience.

During that trip, my travels led me to Rafah, a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

One morning while there, Khalil (an incredible photographer who was also doubling as a fixer) and I woke up to a phone call. Homes were being torn down by giant bulldozers in Rafah, and people were fleeing their homes as they were crumbling to the ground.

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Photo by Brent Foster

Khalil and I arrived to the sound of homes falling and guns firing in what seemed like every direction. People were running with blankets, pictures, televisions, and other personal items in their hands. We continued to make our way towards the bulldozers.

It was so hard to tell whether bullets were flying right at us, or in the air. We crouched low, and Khalil told me when to run from house to house as we were exposed each time we crossed an open path, or an alley.

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Photo by Brent Foster

Khalil went out of his way to make sure I was safe that day. This was one of my first experiences working with a “fixer” but certainly not the last.

What makes a good fixer?

Finding a fixer is much easier that you would expect. Finding a GOOD fixer is the challenge. Good fixers are problem solvers and are people that make your life easier. They also have a good understanding of filmmaking and photography, and what you need to do to get the job done. You will usually have to pay more money for professional fixers but you will also usually get better results. For the short film, A Place to Call Home, we got lucky and were able to find someone that was very reasonably priced. We wanted to have a driver for a portion of the trip so by simply paying a bit more than we would have paid for a normal taxi, we were able to secure someone who was able to fill multiple roles for us. On one of the days, we needed to find a local band to play for us in the streets. We asked our fixer and he was able to find a band to play for us for the next day of shooting. He didn’t ask for extra money. He just made it happen.

Fixers should have a mastery of the local languages including knowledge of the various dialects and slang. It is especially critical that the fixer is able to communicate in English if that is the language you speak. For us, this was critical. I would definitely say that I border unconscious incompetence when it comes to languages. I do know that value of having another language and have spent a lot of time trying to learn a second language but always seem to fall short. Because I haven’t spent a lot of time in areas that require a second language, I never truly valued its strength. After this trip, I’ve definitely moved to Conscious incompetence and clearly know the value of another language. You are lost without it.

Another skill your fixer should have is thorough knowledge of the local customs, geography of the terrain, means of transportation and the ability to foresee the nature of events. A good fixer should also have hands-on experience of the subjects to be covered in the project you are producing. It is critical to do your due diligence when finding your fixer as it could be very difficult to find a good one once you arrive at the location in conflict zones.

Brent also states that, ‘you should also be sure that they have a clear understanding of their roles in the project, and what you are setting out to achieve. Will they be acting as a translator for interviews? Will they also drive and offer transportation services? These are all things that you need to have written in stone before you begin your project and professional relationship’.

For us, we are so glad our initial fixer was a no show as things could not have worked out better than with Yadir. He not only made our lives easier but allowed us to produce a better project than we would have without him. For that, we are forever grateful!

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2. Strategies for Packing – Conscious Incompetence

Packing for trips is extremely challenging and takes years of experience to perfect. I am continually learning with every trip I take and always trying to make the process easier for myself. Although I have traveled a lot the last few years, I have yet to master the process because each project requires a unique kit and posses it’s own challenges. It is my least favourite part about traveling.

There are a few things you will want to also make sure to do before you travel:

  1. Check Your Gear: Before traveling with your gear, make sure it is in perfect working order, the lenses/sensors are clean and that you have all the accessories you need to operate the camera as a carry on (if possible).
  2. Document all the Contents: Ensure that you have documented everything that you are taking with you. Typically, I keep sheets in all cases including a list of the contents and a master list as well. By doing this, you are able to keep kits together. They are also great references for when you go through customs.
  3. Proof of Purchase: When you are traveling between countries, make sure that all equipment that looks new has proof of purchase documents. Another option is to get a Carnet. This is important for when you enter a country and when you come home from a trip. It makes the process much simpler if the security officers know you are prepared and are not trying to hide anything from them.
  4. Prepare for Back-ups: When I am out shooting away from home, I find myself changing out cards on a more regular basis. You never know if you will either lose your camera, damage it or have it stolen. Make sure to switch cards on a regular basis. Further to this, you will want to make sure to create back-ups of all your work. Depending on the job, sometimes I find myself mailing drives home and carrying the back-up with me on the plane. I will also keep at least three copies of everything I shoot.
  5. Gear List / Insurance: The most important thing you will want to do is get insurance. When looking for policy packages, look for ones that cover accidental damages and theft. It’s not IF, it’s WHEN.

No matter how prepared you are, there is still a chance that your luggage will get lost and I am sure that this has happened to virtually everyone that has traveled with luggage/gear. It is the nature of the beast and when this does happen to you, you learn quick what gear you SHOULD have had with you.

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Photo by Brent Foster

Our strategy for this shoot was to bring only the gear that was essential for our the shoot. We also wanted to make the gear as inconspicuous as possible so we had little trouble with traveling. We wrapped all our gear in our clothes and took standard suitcases with us. We made sure to document what was in each kit and that each kit was separated into it’s own cases in the chance that one of the bags was not to show up. Brent visited the Cuban Embassy in Toronto before traveling down to make sure we would have no troubles at the border but still know we would probably have issues with the amount of gear we were bringing with us and our inability to speak very good Spanish.

We decided to keep the kit small and shoot DSLR’s. Gear-wise, we took a hybrid approach and shot both Nikon and Canon. I shot with the Nikon D800 and Brent shot with the 5D Mark III. It was interesting to see in post how we were able to push each of the images and it was easy to see how much easier it was to push the images that came out of the D800. For support gear, we had the Kessler Pocket Jib Traveler, Kessler Stealth, HD4000 Glidecam and a monopod.

Case 1 weighed 68 lbs 

In the main compartment, I had the HD4000 Glidecam, the Kessler Stealth Mini with flat mount adapter, a Manfrotto 190CXPRO tripod, the Lowell Blender light and Kessler Ion Battery, 2 pairs of jeans, 2 pairs of shorts, the Lenskirt, Audio Kit #1 (1 x Rode Lapel & Tascam DR100) and the Manfrotto 128RC tripod head. 

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In the middle compartment, I had the Bose portable speaker, FSTOP traveler bag, the ThinkTank Retrospective 30 and the mili backpack.

In the top pocket I had clothes and in the bottom pocket I had extra shoes, sandals, a multi-tool and hex key set.

Case 2 weighed 50 lbs 

In the main compartment of bag two, we had the Kessler Pocket Jib Traveler, the Manfrotto 190XPROB, Audio Kit #2 (1 x Rode Lapel & Zoom H4N), Manfrotto lightstand, 5 pairs of shorts, 5 t-shirts, Kessler All Terrain Outrigger feel, a pair of jeans, sweater, and a polo.

In the middle compartment we had the bounce, 3 Kessler short plates, 3 low profile ball heads, 2 pairs of jeans, and 4 shirts.

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In the top compartment we had 20 Clif Bars and a bunch of lifesavers. We brought Clif bars as a backup in case the food wasn’t that great or we were unable to find food while shooting. As for the lifesavers, they were great to hand out to kids on the streets. In the bottom pouch we had gaff tape, short sash, small zip ties, and the extra duffel bag.

Case 3 – Camera Backpack 

The last bag I took with me was my carry on. In the carry on I had a Nikon D800E, Nikon D4, Nikon 24-70mm 2.8, Nikon 70-200mm 2.8, Nikon 24mm 1.4, Rode Videomic Pro, 6 x 32gb CF cards, 4 x 64gb CF cards, 3 x 1 TB Western Digital Drives, filter kit, 15″ Macbook Pro, IPAD, lens and sensor cleaning kit, 2 intervalometers, money clip, zip ties, gaff tape, Guerilla-pod and batteries / chargers.

When it comes to Brent’s kit, he believes that, ‘less is more… at least in terms of the clothes I bring. I would much prefer to sacrifice shirts and jeans to fit extra gear when need be. I always pack my carry-on with everything I know I need to get the job done. Cameras, disks, lenses, drives, and my laptop. I will holler and fight to keep my carry-on with me at all times. No way will I check it. Plain and simple.

My checked gear most often contains half to three quarters equipment and the rest clothes. I pack mostly support gear into the checked bag, and wrap items with the clothes I’m bringing for adding protection. I like to think that this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgDizh4DMno will happen every time I travel, and try to pack with that in mind’.carbon_ad_728x250-670x230-2

3. Strategies for Story Development – Conscious Competence

Story plays an integral role in any film. For this section, I am just going to give a few pointers as well as talk about the process we used when we were developing a story.

A Place Called Home / Mi Tierra, Mi Hogar documents the journey of one man who, at 8 years old, moved with his mother to America to start a new life. Our lead character, who has longed for a place to call ‘home’, revisits his past memories and childhood hangout spots in Cuba after having spent 15 years in the United States.

For this project, the biggest thing I was hoping to accomplish was to produce something that transcended my normal style of storytelling but still having a similar vibe to the piece. For the last few months, my focus has been on developing and refining this voice and finding a way that I can use it in a way to help others tell their stories.

I am learning and I am growing with each project I work on. With all of my work, the focus has always been on making films that make me happy and I will continue to push for this in the work I produce.

For the film itself, our goal was to address some of the elements we observed about the culture and craft a story around what we learned on our trip. We are extremely happy how it came out and hope you enjoy the story we are trying to share.

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Photo by Brent Foster

Our approach for the project was very observational. We didn’t come in with a set shot list or storyline but knew our general focus for the project and knew a few key sequences we wanted to capture. It was great as we were able to film at a nice pace and capture things as they happened. We also wanted to make sure to balance our time and keep the pace a bit slower so we were able to also enjoy the trip and use it as a time to recharge.

When approaching the story, we wanted to make sure it was as authentic as possible. We took everything we had heard and observed about the culture and crafted a story around that. We then partnered with Beau Stephenson who then took our script and translated it into spanish with the help of others more closely linked to the culture.

One thing we did for the project to try take it beyond just a travel film was the way in which we approached filming each of the segments. We first secured a Casa in downtown Havana to immerse ourselves in the landscape. We also had one stipulation for filming. Our one stipulation was that the second we saw a tourist, we would turn and walk the opposite direction. I feel by doing this, we were able to find some areas that most people would not see.

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This trip really taught us the power of teamwork and working together to take advantage of each other’s strengths. It was truly refreshing to come together as a team for this story.

Time and time again during the editing process, when wishing that one of us would have had that one extra shot, sure enough the other had thought to shoot it, in a completely unexpected way. Our visions and ways of seeing the world are so different, but compliment each other wonderfully.

Inspiration during the edit came from the film, ‘Una Noche’ which documents three teenagers journey as they try to leave Cuba. It’s a really well done film and is currently available for viewing on Canadian Netflix. At about the one minute mark of this film, there was a great segment that inspired the direction of the story and we used this as motivation for the story.

Story Comprehension

Constructive criticism and feedback is critical to any project if anyone is hoping to grow as an artist and filmmaker. It is key to listen to what people have to say and try adapt to your project if what is brought up is valid and helps to better tell your story. This feedback is also critical to get for any future projects you produce. Both Brent and I thrive off of feedback from viewers.

The biggest comments we have gotten so far is that people feel we took a tourist approach and didn’t totally capture what Cuba is about. This is an absolutely fair point as we were only there for eight days. However, what we tried to do was get as close as possible to this storyline by immersing ourselves in the environment by staying at a local Casa in the heart of Havana and by also talking with our fixer to find out more about the culture and landscape. It was great that we were able to approach the taxi driver / fixer and do it on our terms rather than being approached by someone who was ‘trying to help’. There were a few times people approached us to try and help but felt like pushy salesmen.

Another thing we did was stay away from any tourist area. We said to each other that the second we saw a tourist, we had to turn around and walk the opposite direction. By doing this, we were able to avoid all the standard hotspots for tourists and we were able to meet a lot of great people who make up the fabric of what we feel Cuba is about from our short time there.

Character Development

When approaching the VO, we weren’t sure the exact approach we wanted to take. With our lead character leaving Cuba at a young age and having been gone for 15 years, we knew we had some creative liberties regarding the translation and voiceover. We realized that the person speaking didn’t necessarily have to sound like they were a native Spanish speaker with a Cuban accent. Especially in children and young adults, if you move to another country, you quickly lose your accent and take on the speaking patterns of your new home.

We did some research to see the best way to approach this based on content online, personal case studies and other films and found that for this project, it was key that it didn’t sound like he had a thick Cuban accent. We wanted the lead character to still have a good understanding of the language because of this connection to it but also wanted to show that the character may have been speaking their 2nd language more than their mother tongue.

Our best example of this is with Craig Ferguson — although a bit different than this case, if you watch his show on CBS from 10 years ago, his Scottish accent is very thick. Now, although he still has some of this accent, it has thinned WAY out — so much so that when he goes back to Scotland, he gets made fun of because of how his accent has changed.

While we were hoping that the language wouldn’t be the sticking point, we totally get how it changes the way in which you view the project and a few people have pointed this out to us since the launch.

Regarding the translation itself, Beau used some of the structure that Cubans use, but he also made it a tad more formal. The main reason he did this was because the lead character moves to the United States, goes to college and studies his own mother language, but is still influenced by the international standard and it’s slight variances from his home language. The dialect is distinctly different and we knew that.

Finding himself in a new place, he naturally gravitates towards others that are latino or speak Spanish. Especially in a place like a University, there are going to be Spanish speakers from all over the world. This, too, will have an influence on him.

It’s really interesting to hear how this happens to people who grow up talking a certain way, go to college, then come home speaking a different way. This implied “sophistication” is something that the character acknowledges, at least internally. Especially at the line, “But as I return, I realize this conceived notion of a place and a culture that I thought I knew was simply a memory of a better time.” Culture being the key word. He lingers on that thought for a moment, realizing that even he cannot completely return to that same exact culture he remembered as a child, because he now belongs to a new one.

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4. Social Release Strategies – Conscious Incompetence

Social strategies are a key element of any video release. With the insane amount of videos that are released and shared online, it is difficult to standout from the crowd without having a plan. Quality content is always king and finding ways to get this content seen is what is imperative.

Leading up to the release of this film, we planned an extensive social campaign across all platforms. We planned to tease content out starting a week before the release and had each days content broken down beforehand. We planned to release the content as follow:

APRIL 24TH – RELEASE MUSIC TEASER FILM
APRIL 25TH – LAUNCH FIRST TEASER CLIP
APRIL 26TH – LAUNCH SECOND TEASER CLIP
APRIL 27TH – LAUNCH WEBSITE
APRIL 28TH – LAUNCH OUR STORIES OF HOME
APRIL 29TH – SHARE A STORY OF HOME
APRIL 30TH – LAUNCH FOURTH TEASER CLIP
MAY 1ST – RELEASE OF FILM, SHARE POSTS ON FSTOPPERS, DIY PHOTOGRAPHY & KESSLER UNIVERSITY
MAY 2ND AND ON – CONTINUE TO REACH OUT TO SOCIAL PLATFORMS

We also developed a website for the film, launched a community based system for people to share their stories of home and developed blog posts for both our personal and business websites talking about a different aspect of the project. Outside of our own personal channels, we also reached out to gear manufacturers and content sharing sites to share our story as well.

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Photo by Brent Foster

What we wanted to do with this campaign was get the concept in front of people’s eyes in a variety of formats. Being that the idea of home was so universal, we thought that it was imperative to share in as many different formats as possible to attract more people to the project and in turn, drive more views to the films.

With any campaign, it is key that you develop a plan and coordinate with the people involved as well as family, friends and collaborators. It only takes a few people to help a video get seen by a large audience but it is key to have a team of people who are dedicated to the concept and willing to put the time in to promote the project.

The key is that you don’t ask this of your network too often and are giving more than you are taking / asking. I think the ratio I heard is 70/30 but I am trying to work towards a 90/10 so when I share work, it has an audience that wants to watch it. It is a lot of work and sometimes goes unthanked but in the long run, I think it will lead to more opportunities – at least that is my hope ;). I am far from 90/10 but that is my goal.

Below I have included a list of actionable items for your next campaign

Strategy: Share your content with relevant blogs, sites, and online communities. Spend time on this networks and channels building and refining these relationships.

Variety of Materials: Develop content in a variety of formats using a variety of platforms. Content is ingested in a variety of ways and each project is different so experiment to see what works with your audience.

Research: Do your research to see what works and what doesn’t work. Chances have it that there is a project like yours that has been released. Find out what they did and see if there are any strategies you can implement in your campaign.

What I Learned

This project was an amazing learning experience and showed me the importance of fixers, helped me refine my strategies when packing, helped me refine my abilities as a storyteller and also showed me how much work is involved in social release strategies.

We did all the social content for this campaign and although it was a lot of fun, it was also a lot of work and it is a full time job. Although I learned a lot from the process, I think that the next time I will hire someone to take care of the campaign.

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Photo by Brent Foster

As mentioned, the creative process is always a learning experience and I would be surprised if any artist would ever say they have reached Unconscious Competence, no matter how much experience they have. However, that is just my opinion ;). My hope is that there were a few tips that you found helpful. Happy travels!

 

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