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The Perils and Pitfalls of International Video Production

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Jessica and Bill Kizorek are partners in a video production company, Two Parrot Productions, and have made a niche for themselves in working remote international assignments. They share with DV Magazine the perils of taking on an assignment where a passport is part of the equipment.

By: Jessica and Bill Kizorek

In the past year alone we have worked in Burma, Brazil, Cambodia, West Africa, China, Thailand, Chile and Singapore. Each international location brings its inspirations, but also its irritations.  In the end we have to bring home “the goods,” however, so it is critical to understand the challenges.  Lack of preparation for international assignments is a harbinger of professional disaster.

Rather than create a general list of perils, it might be more memorable to recount the obstacles and landmines of the last job we worked on—in Ghana, West Africa—to illustrate the kind if difficulties intrinsic to “third-world” international assignments.

Peril # 1: Sickness. Travel guidebooks on Ghana left us with the impression that this was a pretty cosmopolitan place, a sort of “pearl of Africa” destination.  We proceeded to get the recommended vaccinations—typhoid, meningitis, hepatitis A&B, DPT, Yellow Fever, even though the country seemed so civilized.  We were slightly averse to buying anti-malaria pills because of the side effects.  Between the two of us we had spent over $1,500 even before we stocked up on stomach, pain meds, and malaria drugs.  The final packing list contained ten kinds of medicines.

Soon after arriving in Accra we met a graduate student from Boston who told us that she got malaria the day she arrived in Ghana.  That night mosquitoes filled the air around the Shangri-La hotel, even in the upscale Chinese restaurant, and we heard more stories of malaria throughout the country.  We decided it was a good idea to follow all the advice of the travel-med specialists.

Peril # 2: No Power, Weird Wall Sockets. On day four we woke up to the sound of silence.  No air conditioner running, no lights.  No phone service in the hotel. Ghana was experiencing “rolling blackouts,” and every four days the power was turned off for twelve hours—for the entire city of a million people.  This week the outage would be from dawn to dusk.  In four days the outage would be from sunset to sunrise, our prime battery recharging times.

Another power issue was the adaptors for the sockets.  Before leaving for Ghana we checked the currency voltage and plug configurations.  The specs for this country showed three different kinds of plugs.  The problem was licked by packing a couple of “all-in-one” conversion plugs, but our hotel rooms in Kumasi Ghana had only one outlet;  recharging computers and batteries was a nightly strategy.

Peril # 3:  Crowd Control, Ambient Noise. Although we had a production team of only four, you would have thought that Steven Spielberg had brought a Hollywood film crew to town.  It didn’t make any difference where we set up:  if there were three subjects pumping water for us at a well, that number swelled to forty within four minutes. It was if we had brought the circus to town. Twenty giggles, five coughs, three cryings.  At least fifteen also wanted to be in front of the camera. On one set we had over a hundred bystanders as a tropical rainstorm battered the tin roof over the interviewees.  Without professional sound equipment finely tuned to eliminate the extraneous sounds one entire day would have resulted in nothing but B-roll.

Peril # 4:  Transportation. It was easy enough to look at a map and see a big red line of a road connecting the two biggest cities in Ghana, Accra and Kumasi.  Although it looked like a two-hour drive our local advisors said the drive was horrendous—six hours. ‘Take Antrak airlines,” was the directive.  Never mind that you had to check in three hours early, hang around a sweltering airport, and expose yourself to what the Wall Street Journal had just cited, in a cover story, was a “twenty-seven times greater death rate” per mile on African airlines.

Even driving around from location to location was a challenge.  Broken down trucks littered the roadways, most of the roads were either riddled with equipment-jarring potholes or choking in dust.   On the second to the last day of shooting a semi came barreling into our traffic jam at 35 miles an hour with no brakes.  It hit our taxi first and launched it into a drainage canal and then obliterated another three cars.  It was the closest to death that Bill Kizorek had ever come.  This is one peril that is hard to escape when you have to get around in a country where government funds don’t quite stretch far enough to cover vehicle and airplane maintenance USA-style.

Peril # 5:  Beasts and Bugs. Ghana, is, in some ways,  charming and enchanting. Danger, however, is an issue here, as it is in many third world nations.  Kumasi, according to the Guardian Paper, had experienced seven armed robbery murders in the week before we arrived. This confluence of our arrival and the local crime wave restricted our usual night exercise walks.

We were led, one day, through a half-mile trek through a cocoa bean orchard, shuffling through a four-inch deep blanket of leaves the entire way.  Noticing that the local farmers were wearing knee high thick rubber boots, we asked about things like the deadly black mamba snakes—the serpents that had killed more than a few explorers.  “Just make noise when you walk along.  Snakes will run away,” the guide exhorted.  We stopped in dismay and looked down just as a nine inch biting centipede undulated by our feet.

We had our share of smaller creatures.  One rain day in central Ghana turned the streets to into a slimy clay bug hatchery.  In the middle of the shoot we were inundated by thousands of mud colored, moth-like creatures coming up from the puddles.  To complicate the scene mosquitoes mistook the dark overcast skies for an early dusk and joined the bug melee.  We were grateful to be dressed in ExOfficio’s Buzz-Off® clothing.  The material in our shirts, pants, socks and baseball caps was impregnated with a bug repellant that kept the bugs at bay.  The bugs did not actually detract from the quality of the video, just added a little African flavor.

Peril # 6:  Government Red Tape. Historically, Americans have had the run of the world.  Rarely have we paid much attention about the rules of entry to a country.  With the kind of entry restrictions the USA is now placing on other countries, even the friendliest countries like Brazil and Chile are retaliating with Visa requirements and excessive “entry fees.”  African countries have always been quirky.  One respected travel guidebook said that Ghana issues visas to US citizens upon landing at the Accra airport.  A call to the Ghana embassy in Washington was contradictory, so we had to shell out $150.00 to a visa service to secure rush visas.  The visas arrived the day before departure, a real peril since Delta flew to Ghana only a couple of days a week.

Peril # 7:  Environmental Issues. We beat the rain and crowd sound issues by having the proper microphones and audio equipment.  A tougher issue was a problem we have encountered more and more the last few years:  hazy, smoky air.  Usually from local crop burn-offs, but sometimes from air pollution, the haze effects not so much the equipment but the operators.  Besides watery eyes, the air seemed to be lacking in the oxygen department and contributed to an energy sap. Another daily issue was the transition of the cameras from air conditioning to intense humidity.  By 6:00am each morning the Accra air the air was so drenched in humidity that camera lenses contracted an instant case of glaucoma.

Peril # 8:  Equipment Replacement. Not. You might be able to find a jittery tripod, but forget about finding a Sony or Panasonic battery charger.  We brought to Ghana a new generic “six-hour” Panasonic knock-off battery to test.  After one charge it was kaput.  That is the last non-OEM battery that will ever travel abroad with us.

Solution Department. Many of us are used to getting 48 hours notice to head out on an assignment.  Forget it. The vaccinations need time to take hold and often need to be taken in a series.  Yellow Fever vaccination is now mandatory in scores of countries, especially if you have visited a part of the world where the disease exists.  Start taking malaria meds before you leave for a country where it is prevalent but be aware that there are side effects.  (We took the “best” drug, Malerone, but both got mouth sores and felt lethargic).

When it comes to power you can’t expect that a third world hotel will have a plug converter for you.  It may not even have electricity for a day.  (The Precise Lodge in Kumasi did not even have hot water for four days).  Most camera equipment nowadays will take whatever voltage is thrown at it but you must bring with you at least a couple of adaptors to access that juice.  We also add a thin multiple plug extension strip to the bag because of the paucity of sockets in one star hotel rooms.  Pack three times as much battery power as you would for a Florida shoot.

As for the crowds and the noise, you go with the flow.  It is critical to have a boom or put a remote microphone on a subject, then adjust the sound to isolate the audio as needed. We have been using crowds as backgrounds for some shots, but also have had to do a lot of putting our fingers to our mouths in the universal “quiet down!”  request.

Transportation is often the matter over which there is the least control.    Arrange it in advance when you can, try for air conditioning in the vans.  At the very least it will save you from choking on the dust and sales assaults from roadside vendors.  We generally try to avoid airlines whose name we have not heard of and try to fly direct from the US or Europe to as close as we can get to the final destination, then drive.

Take the medical precautions suggested by travel medicine specialists.  See your personal doctor and get sleeping pills (we prefer Ambien 10mg and break them in half), some Vicodin (which were indispensable after the truck crash bruising), and back plenty of stomach remedies such as Lomotil and Pepto Bismol.  Go to the ExOfficio website and outfit yourself with a couple of shirts, pants, socks and hat in their Buzz-Off® brand.  We had one shoot in a forest with a model who was not wearing Buzz-Off® and got nine wood ticks on her.  We had none.

Get visas as soon as you know where you are going.  The best bets are business visas with multiple entry provisions.  Be wary of putting on your application the kind of occupation that might insinuate you are their to document some corrupt activities (“investigative journalist”) and be cautious about listing the “value” of your equipment.  One colleague was stunned at the “customs’ security deposit” that was demanded when she listed her camera value at $75,000.

Pack allergy medicine for polluted air.  Sudaphed worked for us in Ghana.  Put camera bags on the windowsills in the morning between the curtains and the air-conditioned air.  The heat from the window will accelerate the acclimation of the camera.  Some use a plastic bag to wrap the camera to take the brunt of the condensation.

Take the equipment with you or be prepared to do without.  Checklists are imperative, not only for equipment, but also for the meds.  Check off the item on the list as you put it in the suitcase, and make sure you bring bag locks so some of those essentials are not pilfered while you are out on location.

Preparation will not protect you from all the perils, but going out “half-cocked” will expose you unnecessary risks jeopardizing not only your health but also the success of the assignment.

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