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Scouting in China: A Guide to Documentary Planning

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I’ve spent the last two weeks in China’s hinterland, deep in the Hubei province, prepping a documentary about a remote cave we’ve dubbed “The Source.” The cave is set to be tapped for commercial water production in early 2017 ; we came out ahead of time to explore it for ourselves, chat with the locals, and hopefully find the kernel of our story. Along the way, we’re shooting plenty of stock and b-roll for later use, some of which will hopefully make its way here to Pond5.

When it comes to documentary film and television, sometimes we don’t know what story we’re going to tell before we undertake a project. The best way to tackle situations like these is to prepare as thoroughly as you can. Below, I’ll tell you a little bit about what it takes to plan your own documentary so you can avoid some of the most common pitfalls.

The Mountains of Azeroth
The Mountains of Azeroth
 

Travel

To get to our location, we took an overnight flight from Los Angeles to Shanghai. The next morning, we took a domestic flight to a city called Enshi, then embarked on a three-hour car ride that took us deep into the mountains. From there, we transferred into 4X4s that took us another two hours over narrow, unpaved roads. The Source lies beyond a small agricultural village at the end of this road. The last obstacle between us and the cave was an arduous hike through dense Amazon-like foliage — a local man cut the way with a machete. The village is rumored to be among the healthiest in China, due in part to the mysterious healing powers of the Source.

Hiking to the Source.
Hiking to the Source

Our location, it turns out, is near the famous Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, known for being one of Avatar‘s main filming locations (though, ask any of the locals here and they’ll swear that their own Hefeng mountains are much more beautiful). Given the remoteness of some of our locations as of late, we’ve gotten in the habit of keeping the US Department of State informed about our whereabouts through the STEP Program — you know, just in case.

An overturned delivery truck.
An overturned delivery truck

Our journey into the mist-laden mountains wasn’t without peril; the drivers there take slightly bigger risks than we’re accustomed to in the States. We stopped to provide assistance to this overturned vehicle — fortunately everyone was all right and help was already on the way. Suffice it to say, there were some heart-stopping moments along the way. It’s a good great idea to obtain both medical and equipment insurance. Traffic accidents are relatively pedestrian when compared to freak events, like the strongest storm on the planet, which forced us to shut down our production prematurely and return to the US.
 

Planning the Shoot

An old adage in film production is to “plan your shoot and shoot your plan.” One of the hallmarks of a successful producer is someone who successfully anticipates unexpected circumstances by creating a thorough production plan. For this particular trip, there were a lot of things to consider. We’d be crossing between metropolitan and rural areas, hiking in the rain, extremely limited on packing space, and working in a country where none of us could speak the language. Here are some of the questions we asked ourselves about our trip in pre-production meetings to make sure we would be on top of things on the ground:

“What’s the story we’re trying to tell?”
In this case, this informed the gear we’d be bringing, in addition to planning the filming itself. We knew we didn’t have to do interviews, so we’d be leaving the audio package behind, but we would be filming in a deep cave, among other places, so we would need extensive lighting and support gear. This question also dictated who we’d need to request meetings with ahead of time, and which rules and regulations we’d need to look into — like the use of drones.

Shining light on the Source
Shining light on the Source

“Who are the primary characters?”
Identify your key players early to save confusion down the line. Sometimes starting very early with a character on camera can help you avoid a wild goose chase for archival material. Your characters may also alert you to pieces of the story you didn’t know were there.

“What’s the weather going to be like?”
Turns out we’d need raincoats, waterproof cases, and rain slicks and housings for our cameras. We’d also be in both tropical and wintry climates, so we had to pack our clothing accordingly.

Heading to the trailhead
Heading to the trailhead

“How are we going to get around?”
Maybe this is somewhat obvious, but no one wants to end up on the ground in a foreign country with a few hundred pounds of gear in tow and no ride. A driver or car service (we weren’t about to try to drive ourselves), as well as what’s known as a “fixer” — a local who can help facilitate logistics and communication — are crucial to a successful production.

Google Translate for the win
Google Translate for the win

One day technology will overcome some of the localization issues, but for now, even Google can’t help us.

“What are the most important takeaways from this journey?”
Put another way, what can’t we leave without? We knew we needed “tape” of a handful of locations, some establishing shots of the area (in this case, with a drone), and a future production schedule, even if it’s just a loose outline. As an aside, some friends of mine were recently scheduled to shoot an important construction project, which was part of a bigger story; due to a communication issue, they showed up when the project was already halfway complete. It pays to keep on top of scheduling and communication, especially when communication issues go beyond language.
 

Telling the Story

Going in, we had only a few sparse details about where we were headed, what we would find, and who would be involved. At the most basic level, our job is to find a compelling way to tell the story of a cave that’s buried deep in the mountains of China. Generally, it helps to tell stories through a human lens, though, so I was particularly interested in finding someone close to the project who could help us get into the story. As it turned out, one of the most interesting people we encountered was a man who lived in a remote hut near the cave — but the story really turned into one about the community around the Source. You never know where your best characters might come from.

POV from the Source.
POV from the Source
 

Tools of the Trade

Friends often ask what I use — which camera, lens, tripod, light, drone, and so on. Every situation dictates different gear, but we’ve gotten pretty good at packing and traveling light with a few different setups. Here’s a quick rundown of what we took on this trip:

For imaging, we had two Samsung NX1 bodies with the 24-70mm, 70-105mm, and 10mm lenses, a couple of GoPro Hero 4s, a DJI Phantom 4, and our iPhones, because the best camera is the most available one — in fact, most of the photos in this post are from an iPhone 6 (apologies, technophiles). We also had a few Light & Motion lights on us for lighting the cave, as well as a bevy of camera support gear, including the no-name tripod you see pictured below, which our fixer arranged for us because ours got left in Shanghai.

Shooting the Source.
Shooting the Source

We carried everything in a pair of Mountainsmith Borealis packs, except for the Phantom 4, which always goes in the CasePro carry on. We also had MacBook Pros and a pair of 1TB Samsung T3s for footage storage.

Stopping over at a lovely waterfall
Stopping over at a lovely waterfall

For a deeper dive on field operations, check out this post on 7 Ways to Survive in the Field. Don’t forget to remove important (but dangerous) items like multi-tools from your carry-on — I lost my second Leatherman to a satisfied-looking airport security guard on this trip.
 

The End!

Before we depart a location, we check to make sure that any media we acquired is secure (and backed up, if possible), that we haven’t left anything behind, and that all of our crew is accounted for. We go back over our shot lists and double check to make sure we’ve gotten everything we wanted to get. It’s helpful to keep detailed notes of what you’ve shot where (sometimes called shooting logs, or camera reports), so you can quickly find and reference it in the future.

The next steps for us will be to review the footage we’ve acquired so far, work with our fixer to lock down our characters, and develop our story as best as we can. If we’re able to come to a satisfactory story before our next journey to the Source, we’ll begin to outline what we want the film to look like, with the goal being that, by time we’re on the ground, we’re essentially painting by numbers — we just need the right media to fill the slots.

Phantom 4s hold up to rain pretty well
Phantom 4s hold up to rain pretty well!