What does it mean to survive in the world of filmmaking? For content creators working on location, in addition to keeping ourselves alive, we have to be creative, innovative, and able to perform under pressure — to do whatever it takes to get the shot. Whether we’re shooting extreme sports, adventures in the outback, or episodic television, once we hit “record” (or release the shutter, or roll the film, or tap the screen), the pressure is on and we need to be equipped to handle it. These collected nuggets of (somewhat unorthodox) knowledge from my travels around the world shooting content for broadcast television, documentaries, and feature films should help you out the next time you’re headed into the danger zone.
1. Always Bring a Towel
In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, one of my all-time favorite books, Douglas Adams writes, “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” From survival to comfort, towels play an important role in both that narrative and my life. Now that I have over a decade of experience in the field both with and without towels by my side, I can conclusively say that towels are awesome. In addition to getting you past the awkward, “Oh, I was supposed to bring a towel?” conversation that can strike anywhere, towels can also be great production tools.
From acting as makeshift cine-saddles to protecting your camera from unscheduled rainfall, having a towel you can depend on is critical. One time I was filming in a remote Costa Rican rainforest and we had left the camera covers far away — my towel happened to be in my Go-Bag, which I’ll talk about next, and helped save the day. I personally like the quick-dry microfiber camping variety, as they are lightweight and can also clean a lens in a pinch, but you know what they say: the best towel is the one you have on you. It may sound silly, but I absolutely cannot overstate the benefits of having a dependable towel around. I won’t go into all the uses here, as I’m sure you can imagine them on your own, but suffice to say, towels are the original multitool.
2. Build a Bug-Out Bag
If you Google “bug-out bag” or search #geardump you’ll get hundreds (thousands?) of lists and pictures that all offer their take on this quintessential piece of gear. A “Bug-Out Bag,” in survivalist or military terms, is something you grab in an emergency: it contains food, water, and other tools for survival, and it’s an extremely serious tool that can save your life in extreme circumstances. If I were a clandestine agent, mine would probably contain multiple currencies and a few fake identities. For my life, I like to think of it more like a set bag — it contains the essential tools that I’ll never arrive on set or travel without. The contents of these bags are highly personal and there is no one-size-fits-all. Regardless, I’ll tell you what I’ve got in mine to give you an idea of what I’ve come to find useful. The main items are: a Leatherman Wave; a Buck 110 folding hunter knife ; a Goal Zero Flip 10 battery; two carabiners; paracord; assorted Apple, USB, and HDMI cables; Sennheiser sports headphones with a splitter; a MagSafe 2 adapter; a small roll of gaff tape; a Soto Pocket Torch; a Black Diamond Storm headlamp (with red light for preserving night vision); a small med kit; roll-on sunscreen; hand sanitizer; dental floss; cash; Bic 4-Color ballpoint pens; and two meal bars.
The actual bag I keep everything in changes — sometimes it’s a tactical bag, other times it’s a messenger. Recently, it’s been my Mountainsmith Borealis AT pack, which I also carry camera gear in. I like the backpack approach best because it keeps your hands free and allows you to carry a lot more weight than a messenger or sling can handle; backpacks are also a lot easier to run or hike with.
3. Make a Checklist
I’m one of those people who obsesses over minutia. I can’t help it (I’ve tried). This means I’ll lay awake late into the night trying to remember if I rotated all the AA batteries through the charger, turned off the oven, and sent scans of my passport to all parties that could possibly come to my aid in the event of some disaster. I’ve found that the simple act of writing out the things I’m worried about in checklist form can be a surefire way to ease stress and make sure nothing is forgotten. From paperwork to gear, everything can use a checklist. I especially like them for packing clothing, as I’ve found myself on one too many trips with some crucial items missing. This may seem like stating the obvious, but like towels, checklists are an absolute essential.
4. Download Essential Apps
Arming yourself with knowledge ahead of your next trip into the field is a sure way to save money and time. I like to download apps that may help me on my journey while I’m still home on my reliable and fast internet connection. The actual apps you use may vary, but the key information you’re going to be in need of — like exchange rates, common phrases, and maps — never changes. Before I travel anywhere, I check the weather where I’m headed and the place I’ll be staying. This knowledge informs my packing of personal items and gear, and may help address some safety issues, like Malaria warnings, by bringing them to my attention early. The first time I went to Antarctica to film Whale Wars, I didn’t realize that there were no heaters on the ship. I ended up sleeping in my snow gear every night. Had I known ahead of time (or thought to ask), I would have packed a sleeping bag. I like to check the currency exchange rates if I’m leaving the country, and I familiarize myself with the basic geography of wherever I’m going, using my hotel or basecamp as a point of reference. There’s nothing worse than getting totally turned around somewhere with a dead phone and a language barrier. One time I ended up on the wrong side of Bucharest and it took me the better half of a day to get back to my hotel. Bug-out bags can help you stay prepared for situations like these.
5. Pack a Snack
At one point in my life, a five-year stretch of heavy experimentation, I considered myself a gluten-free vegan. I was that guy you couldn’t take anywhere. Fortunately, skinny jeans were in. Unfortunately, I was starving all of the time. The silver lining, however, was that the whole ordeal taught me a lot about food. I made a habit out of carrying food with me, and no, it wasn’t ziplock bags with Cheerios. Now that I’ve relaxed a bit and broadened my culinary horizons, I’ve found a good selection of meal bars (and fruit bars and oat bars) that I like to keep on me, just in case. You never know when you’re going to get stuck in the back of a passenger van for eight hours with nothing to eat. I’ve also found that food can be a nice reminder of home. When you’re away for long stretches and feeling a bit homesick, something familiar, like your favorite candy bar, can help put a little pep back in your step.
6. Keep Your Cards Close
At one point, I got in the terrible habit of swapping cards in cameras and temporarily stowing the exposed card in a zipper pocket. This habit didn’t last too long. I recommend treating your exposed media like the gold it is: don’t check it in your baggage, and keep it in something safe that snaps shut, like a tiny Pelican case. Keeping memory cards in those little semi-translucent holders that they come in is a sure way to lose them forever. And don’t forget, make backups of your backups! Having your stomach lodge itself in your throat when you realize that a day of media is gone is no way to spend an evening.
7. The Human Element
Of course, no production will ever be successful without your team (unless you’re an army of one, in which case, you can stop reading). Whether they’re waiting for you back home, traveling with you, or waiting for you at your destination, keeping communication active, staying upbeat and positive, and maintaining clear expectations and well-defined roles with those around you will help ensure your success and survival in the field. Sometimes your strongest production partner may be someone you’ve just met (like a local fixer), so I find that having a positive mental attitude, no matter the circumstances, can help overcome even the most challenging of productions. Plus, you’re more likely to get hired again if people like you.
Gavin Garrison has produced two seasons of the Emmy-nominated reality show Whale Wars, as well as Whale Wars: A Commander Rises (Discovery). In 2013, Gavin filmed the sports series Nock Out for NBC, and his history with network and studio production includes work on The OC, Mad Men, and The Middle. Gavin also worked in development for Paramount Studios while receiving his master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California. Today, he consults, directs, and produces for clients around the world, including Ford Motors, Costco Wholesale, and Michelin. Gavin is a Samsung Imagelogger and Pond5 Ambassador. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @gavingarrison.