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Guidelines to International Production


by David Calderwood,
Senior Executive Producer, Euro-Pacific Film & Video Productions, Inc.


During the past ten years, the global marketplace has experienced more changes and upheavals than it has in the previous twenty years. The dropping of national borders and the removal of trade barriers in the European Common Market, effectively forming one large marketplace, has led to the merger and centralization of transglobal corporations in response to the increased opportunities and competition that the EC has generated. Legislation to remove trade barriers has gone into effect over the past two years, joining together economically the twelve industrialized countries of Western Europe. In addition to the changes within Western Europe, there have also been massive changes in Eastern Europe, with a shift from a Communist-based economy to a free market economy, and the emergence of a large consumer base, eager for what the West has to offer.

The speed with which these changes have taken place has caught many North American corporations off guard and they are only now starting to move toward meeting the challenges and opportunities that the new Europe has to offer. This has resulted in a large increase in the volume of video being shot in Europe by American based producers for North American corporations and organizations. The lack of knowledge about Europe, little or no European production contacts, and unfamiliarity with the PAL video system will often result in the American producer taking all of the crew and NTSC video equipment from the U.S. to Europe. This is an expensive and time-consuming exercise, as the crew are not familiar with Europe and there will be additional cost of airfares, excess baggage, Carnet, hotels and crew overtime. This results in shortened shooting time and a reduction in available post-production budget.

There are also technical problems to be considered that can arise when shooting in a PAL country using NTSC equipment. A very common problem is the strobing or flickering of lights in the picture, which is caused by the 50 Hz electrical system not being compatible with 30 frames per second NTSC (60 Hz). Similar problems can also arise when shooting in Asia and the Pacific; except for Japan all of these countries are PAL and have a 220/240 volt, 50 Hz electrical system. Other common non-technical problems that are encountered when shooting in Europe and Asia include language, unions, customs, culture, travel, budgeting and scheduling. In the United Kingdom, Asia and the Pacific, North American crew also encounter the problem of driving on the left-hand side of the road.

Setting Up A Shoot For The First Time

Setting up a shoot outside of the United States can be an unnerving experience for the first-timer, and mistakes can be expensive and time consuming. Following are some guidelines to help you on your journey. The key to a successful foreign shoot is in the pre-production planning. The first step is to find a production company or producer with production experience and contacts in the country that you are planning to shoot. Next, bring the person in at the budgeting and pre-production stage; there will be a lot of additional costs that you will need to include in your budget that you would not normally have on a local production. When organizing a shoot in a foreign country, one of the first decisions that you will need to make is whether or not to take crew and equipment from the U.S. Taking your local crew and equipment to far off destinations may be a nice perk for the crew and it may help you feel safe and secure when shooting in a foreign country, but it can also be a recipe for disaster. Aside from the obvious lack of knowledge about local conditions, shooting restrictions and cultural differences, the more major components to consider are extra cost, airfares, travel time, hotels and general expenses. Traveling with equipment will also add the cost of arranging bonds, Carnet, insurance and excess baggage. If any equipment gets lost or damaged in transit, you may have to extend your shooting days and disrupt your production schedule.

When traveling long distances, whether by yourself or with a full crew, you must always allow a recovery day at the other end. Jetlag after an eight to 14-hour flight can be a killer, especially for the inexperienced traveler. If you are taking a crew with you, this unproductive, extra day of crew, hotel and expenses, will eat away at your budget.

Budget Considerations

If a producer goes to England for a five-day shoot, has two travel days, takes a three-person U.S.-based crew and NTSC video equipment, they will incur certain costs that they would not have, had they used foreign crew and equipment. These include:

  1. US$ 3 x round trip coach airfares (more if business class)…. $2700
  2. Excess baggage charges for the equipment………………………..$350
  3. A minimum of 2 additional travel days for the 3 crew……………$1600
  4. A minimum of 2 additional travel days for the equipment………$1700
  5. The cost of getting a Carnet and arranging the bond ……………….$450
  6. 3 hotel rooms and meals for 3 crew for 7 days ……………………$6300
  7. U.K. Value Added Tax (VAT) @ 17.5% on hotel and meals….. $1102

The approximate cost of the above will be: …………………………….$14,202

If some vital piece of equipment is lost in transit or the crew travel business or first class, it is not long before another $14,000 has been spent, with no added production value.

If you are going to a country with an established production community, it is often more beneficial, both financially and logistically, to hire your crew and equipment there. Your local production coordinator should be able to set up crew and equipment at the foreign location, the crew should speak English, and you should arrange to meet the key members of the crew the day you arrive, prior to the start of the shoot. By using foreign crew and equipment, a producer can easily save more than $10,000 on an average corporate video shoot and eliminate a lot of possible problems such as a crew member falling ill, or lost and damaged equipment.

Choosing International Crew

To help make your decision, find out as much as you can about the location. Is it near a major city or airport? Are there good production facilities and crew available? What equipment is available for rent? Do you need a permit or license to shoot on the streets? On a large production, the budget may allow for a site visit by the producer prior to the shoot, however on most corporate productions the budget is not that generous. In most cases you will find that the best decision is to hire crew and equipment at the foreign location. If you don’t have a choice, or you decide to take the crew and equipment with you from the U.S., find a local contact or hire a production manager at the foreign location to work with you. Their local knowledge will save you time and money, and in many countries will help you cut through the red tape.

Foreign Travel Logistics

Once you have made your decision to take or not to take crew and equipment with you, the next step in the pre-production is to make a production travel schedule. To do this effectively, you will need a good map of the country you are shooting in, airline schedules, local hotel guide and information on internal travel times by car and public transport. Identify your shoot locations on the map, check local accommodations, airports and road access. If you plan to travel throughout a country by automobile, get accurate information on how long it will take to get from point A to B, in Germany you can travel 160 miles in two hours, but in parts of Japan you may only get ten miles in two hours. Find the best connection between your locations, keeping in mind travel time, availability, ease of access and cost.

Renting an automobile in the U.S. is a relatively painless experience: select the size and model of car that you want, give them a credit card and drive off. In Poland, for example, it is also fairly easy to book a rental car, but getting it is another matter. It may be 24 hours or more before the car is delivered to your hotel and then trying to get gas for the car will be your next problem. I recently spoke to a crew who had been to Poland and waited two days for their car to be delivered. When it finally arrived, it had no gas, and it took the crew six hours to get a full tank. Next time they will know to use taxis in Poland. Always allow sufficient time for hotel check-in and check-out. If you are flying from one location to another, find out how much time is required for airport check-in. If traveling with equipment, you will need to get your Carnet and equipment checked by customs every time you exit or enter a country, and this can be very time consuming. If you are using local crew, determine if they will pick you up at your hotel or if you will need to meet them at the location, and how long it will take to reach the location.

Check on requirements to enter and shoot in each country. A telephone call to a country’s diplomatic representative or trade development office will often answer most of these questions. Do you need a shoot permit? Is there a permit fee? Do you have to pay a bond? Do you require a visa or work permit? Are there union restrictions on what you or your crew can do? What vaccinations or medical certificates do you need? Some countries now require proof that you are HIV negative, while others, such as Spain and the British Virgin Islands, require you to apply in writing for permission to shoot in their country. In the British Virgin Islands, the shooting fee will cost between US$1000 and $3000.

Another important area to check on is regional, national and religious holidays, and usual business trading hours. These vary from country to country; in some countries business will close for a three hour siesta in the middle of the day and then work well into the evening, while in others the business day must cease before sunset. When you book your airline tickets, ask your travel agent what restrictions apply to the tickets. Can you change your departure dates or destinations at short notice? Will there be a penalty charge for doing this? Can you use the ticket on a different airline, and if you don’t use a ticket segment, can you get a refund? You will need to obtain medical, lost baggage and travel insurance for the duration of your trip and if you are traveling with crew, you may need to obtain worker’s compensation. These insurance policies will not cover your production or equipment. You will need to arrange for specialized production coverage from an insurance broker who handles international production insurance.

Final Checklist

Before heading off to the airport, there are a number of very important items you will need to take with you. These include:

  • Passport, visa, work permit, international drivers license
  • U.S. Embassy contact details
  • Vaccination certificate, HIV test results (for some countries)
  • Carnet (if traveling with equipment), bonds (if needed)
  • Itinerary, airline tickets, rental car and hotel confirmations
  • Credit cards, travelers checks, cash
  • Reference material: maps, production directories, hotel guides, airline schedules, contact list, translation dictionary
  • Talent release forms in the language of the country
  • Good stills camera and film stock

Paying The Bill

Usually you will be required to pay for the crew and facilities you use in foreign countries at the end of the shoot, so arrange to have sufficient travelers checks or cash to pay for them. Another option is to arrange for a transfer of funds from your U.S. bank to their bank account; this eliminates the need to carry large amounts of cash or travelers checks with you. Occasionally you may be asked if you can pay for the shoot in part by supplying videotape stock. This is more common in countries where foreign currency exchange is strictly controlled by the government and the camera crew have difficulty obtaining new stock because of tight import controls. Always inform the people that you are dealing with what the terms of payment will be and confirm that they are acceptable. You don’t want to be stuck with a large invoice at the end of a shoot and no way to pay. Hotels, rental cars and travel can either be paid for by credit card or prepaid through your travel agent. I have on occasion arranged for a charge back through my travel agent for rental cars and hotels, using a voucher system. All of the major long distance telephone companies now offer a direct dial service from foreign countries, giving you direct access to an American operator. The cost of this service can often be a lot less than what a hotel will charge you for making the call, and it can help overcome any language problems you may encounter with the local operator.

Protecting Yourself And Your Stock

If your production takes you into countries which are in political turmoil, or third world and what used to be eastern block countries, it is advisable to notify the U.S. Embassy or consulate representative in that country of your visit. Camera crew can often get caught up unintentionally in a country’s internal strife, just because of the fact that they are a television crew. When traveling through airports in the U.S., you will often be told by airport security staff that their x-ray machine will not damage your videotape stock, and as a general rule this is true. However, you should always have your stock hand-checked at some airports, especially in less developed countries, which have older, inefficient x-ray machines that emit very high levels of x-ray that can damage your stock. These guidelines should help you have a successful shoot overseas. When you arrive back home with your PAL videotapes, you do not have to rush out and have it all standards-converted to NTSC. The videotape can be edited in PAL at a post-production facility in the U.S. at about the same cost as editing NTSC. There are PAL edit suites in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, California and Florida. Because the extra 100 lines of information in the PAL signal allow it to be standards-converted without any noticeable degradation, the finished master can be standards-converted to NTSC with little quality loss.

David Calderwood is President of New Jersey based production company, Euro-Pacific Film & Video Productions, Inc., specializing in international production and production coordination. This article first appeared in Location Update magazine

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