In this short article I wish to give travelers and filmmakers, four tips on how to get fantastic video footage in public places, and how to avoid unpleasant situations like robbery. To do this I will use video examples I have filmed at various locations around the world.
Tip One – Look like a Boss!
Have you noticed at weddings, how the professional camera people, get in the most obtrusive positions and get away with it! Part of this is due to the way they carry themselves. They look professional, they act professional, everyone accepts that they will poke that damn camera wherever the hell they want!
If you want to get amazing shots in public when traveling, you have to carry yourself with that same ‘boss attitude!’ You have to look as though you are supposed to be there. When you have this look about you, you will be surprised at the access you can get to outstanding real life footage.
When I was in Miami I set myself the goal of only filming young beautiful men and women on the iconic Beachfront. I also wanted to try a new shot I envisaged called, ‘Cameraman stepping over you, kicking sand, standing on your towel and scanning your part-naked body!’ It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but not one person refused my request to film them. In fact, you will notice part way through, an old man features amongst the young firm tanned flesh! People actually started asking me if I could film them! I said I would only film him if he could surround himself with beautiful women, and like a boss, he managed to do it! How could I refuse!
How did I manage to get these shots? I approached people and told them I was filming a tv promo for Australian tv. I had business cards that linked to my website and I was wearing a cowboy hat. I also told them I had specially selected them, as I was informed by my producer, only to film beautiful people!
Tip Two – Watch your back!
While I was traveling in the Philippines I was made aware of a spate of robberies in the southern city of Cebu, where thieves would follow tourists and get close enough to place a blade against their liver. In such a situation, you pretty much do whatever they want! This example I think is a good representation of most street crime, opportunistic and cowardly!
You can save yourself a lot of trouble if, while out filming, you keep a good look out for possible problem areas or people. Sometimes it’s worthwhile testing the waters a little in a new country to see what reaction people have to you filming them.
In Belize City, there are some very dangerous gang-run neighbourhoods. For my overview of the city I choose to film in a crowded place, and in a place I was aware to be gang neutral. That doesn’t mean I didn’t attract attention with the local drug dealers wanting to know what I was up to. On talking to them it was no surprise to me, that they had been monitoring my every move that entire morning!
Tip Three – Find Allies
Finding local people who can give you advice or even walk with you as you film is probably the most important tip I can give you! Especially if you don’t have a good grasp of the language or if you are trying to film in a place that is known for street crime!
Vancouver has corralled all it’s homelessness, drug users and prostitution into a couple of street blocks known as Downtown Eastside. When I happened to wander into it by mistake one night, I just knew I had to find a way to film it.
To do this I used two techniques. First I found local people willing to help me with my project, that is let me interview them, and then I found out who the head drug dealers were. That was easy! They are the well-dressed guys with the gold chains, bossing everyone else around!
To film on the street market, where I’d been told a tv reporter had previously had a bottle smashed over his head, I needed one good contact to watch my back. Rick, a tall native Canadian, liked what I was trying to do and backed me up when I asked permission from the drug dealers of what I could and couldn’t film.
Tip Four – Smile!
It’s amazing what you can get away with when you have a cheeky grin on your face! Bourbon Street in New Orleans is a nightly festivity of music, bars, strip clubs and wandering crowds. I wanted to capture that energy, the drunkeness, the public nudity, the wildness! At around the two minute mark in this video you will see a hen’s party approach me (female wedding party) When they first see me filming you will notice they all look a bit angry as though to say, ‘Why are you filming us’ Then they see my cheeky smile and smile back!
A smile can disarm even aggressive people! A drunk black man tried to hassle me for money in a bad part of Detroit. I was keeping it all cool and light but he was getting more and more aggressive. Another black man approached and seeing my cowboy hat said, ‘What are you hassling Crocodile Dundee for!’ We both smiled and it diffused the whole situation.
Don’t stitch people up – Ethics
To have been born in a country which offers me a passport that gives me access to most of the world is a huge privilege. And I never forget that I’m just a visitor and that inadvertently, what I film, or who I interview, could lead to repercussions for those left behind.
I wanted to film in North Korea in 2012. To visit North Korea one must go with a tour company. When I approached tour companies they said filming would be difficult, as journalists are not permitted to visit. One company found a solution, they talked to their contacts in the tourism department and organised for me to film a tourism promo! When we went to cross the border, my guide told me I should still hide my gear, which kind of made me wonder whether I did actually have permission or could possibly be sent off to a prison camp! Luckily once we arrived in Pyongyang, there was no problem. They had assigned me an ex-military guide to follow my every move!
Now I won’t go into too much detail but will say this. If you say you are there to film one thing, and you do a completely different story, the people you were involved with could well suffer because of your actions. In most cases, locals know what they can get away with, but it is always good to keep this in the back of your mind. This is why in the Downtown Eastside video above I blurred the drug dealer because I said I would. And if I didn’t some of the people I interviewed may well have suffered repercussions.
So I have taken travel videos to the extreme, filming in slums, red light districts and countries under totalitarian regimes. But through this experience, you can gain confidence in your own filming endeavours. Look the part, watch your back, meet local allies and smile, enjoy your adventure!
Mark Shea is a Travel Video Producer with 20 years experience, producing some of the first online documentaries for the ABC. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and traveling two years full time as one of youtube’s first travel vloggers. He is currently setting up two courses relating to travel and business profile video production. For more information visit http://www.overlander.tv/courses/