(By Gary Isaacson for WorldClips)
Who am I to give advice? Well, I’m like Bernard Hopkins who can still win championships in the ring at 48; an old guy in a young guy’s game. What I’ve lost in speed and strength, I’ve compensated with what I’ve learned, first as a local broadcast copywriter, then as an advertising agent, then a corporate marketing video producer, I’ve thrown in a few documentaries, a local comedy show and a series for “The Today Show” (for the awards and street cred, certainly not for the money) and for the last 12 years, I’ve traveled the world as a stock footage producer. I’ve always been a free-lancer with my own company since I received my MBA at age 23. I like producing and assembling an ensemble for a project, but my wife and I are basically loners.
We’re on the road about one week of every two months, so obviously I have a wife who shares my wanderlust. When we’re not on the road, we live on a mountain plateau on a ranch near Tubac, AZ, a charming artist’s colony south of Tucson. She paints, I edit.
Wind Sculpture at Tubac
So here’s some of what I’ve learned…
Shooting on the road is both exhilarating and terrifying. You can make careful plans and fate can still have its way with you. The simple axiom is: bring along two of everything.
95% of the time my equipment has held up including my aging back. If you break a lens in Rio or up the Amazon, your smartphone is as useless as a paperweight (I feel that way about my iPhone anyway).
Know the right people
When traveling abroad as a filmmaker, don’t stay at a roach motel; stay at the best place you can afford. It’s not just about comfort (though as one ages, that counts for a lot), it’s about getting connected with the right people. Who’s going to find you the guy to fly you over to Victoria for some aerial shooting from Vancouver, the concierge at the Four Seasons or the night man at the Motel 6?
When you arrive at your upscale digs, the front desk people will tell you to befriend the right guy that will get you the driver who knows where to get the shots you want; he knows the guy with the shop in the urban sprawl or upriver that has the replacement for your broken tripod and with his help, you can pretty much get away with murder on premises and not get scammed off-premises. You need your Tenzing Norgay.
The head bellman at the Connaught in London still sends us Christmas cards and asks if he can pick us up some stuff at Harrod’s. Evidently, he had never met a Connaught guest who actually works for a living, or who joked with him or tipped better than the vice-fisted Brits. We would finish our shooting about teatime and he would let us know when the coast was clear so we could race through the lobby to the lift undetected in our jeans and t-shirts. It looks like a Victorian wedding reception after 4 every afternoon at the Connaught. I had forgotten to pack my white-tie and tails.
Never think you can read something on the Internet and know anything. Get a guy who knows what’s what. He’s usually the guy who gets treated like an unappreciated servant all day; treat him like a fellow human being and his world and all he knows is yours for the price of a few pints and a shared smile.
Learn to adapt
The other tip I’d suggest should be obvious: be flexible. You can’t control the weather so don’t stick to a shooting schedule, adjust it to fit conditions.
Every shot you’ve seen of Rio is a lie. It’s always sunny over Ipanema, right? Wrong. It rains all year, all the time in Rio. So, rather than lose a day or shoot a grey empty beach, we shot the botanical gardens which actually looked better in the wet and overcast conditions. The same thing happened in Victoria. Bad weather? We shot the orcas at sea. It looked better a little rough. The beauty shots of the harbor we got the next day.
I understand when you go to a special place; there are a few “must have” shots. Sometimes you just don’t get them. We were in Athens for three days and could not get the Parthenon because the park workers were on strike (so were the taxi drivers and the garbage collectors). We were in Paris and some official dude told me I could not use a tripod. As it turns out, the Louvre and Notre Dame look pretty cool using the ground as my shooting platform (of course I looked ridiculous sprawled on the ground, but anything for the shot). The bottom line is you will not always be able to get the shot you envisioned when you planned your trip. The good news is that if you have local help and you are flexible, you will often get something much better than you imagined.