When You Need to Shoot Video In Countries That Aren’t Friendly to Filmmaking

During my career so far, I’ve produced films or TV programming in about 70 countries around the world. In many cases, it’s not a difficult challenge – even when shooting without permits. But what about shooting in countries that aren’t so friendly to video production – especially when for schedule or budget reasons you can’t get permission or permits for all the locations, or a business visa for the country?

Certainly if it’s a major production with lots of equipment and a large crew, permits and permission is absolutely required. In those cases you may also need to hire police officers, fire department safety officer, and go in under a business visa. But most of my projects have been produced documentary style with a crew of just a few people. In those situations, there are some ways around all the trouble and expense if you play it smart.

We just finished a pretty grueling documentary schedule filming in India, Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan. So I asked our Director of Photography Brad Knull for his suggestions on how to get top quality video in the fly. As you’ll see below, Brad’s first recommendation is to look, act, and think like a tourist. We’re not attorneys and I always recommend you get good local and legal advice, but based on Brad’s experience, here’s his great advice:

Brad Knull:  My first tip would be to actually BE a tourist. By that I mean truly embrace a curiosity and respect for the places you travel. Remember, you are a guest in these countries, and while you’re there to tell a story, it shouldn’t be about taking all the time.

Recently we were in Calcutta and wanted to get some street market shots for a documentary film. So we wandered into a very busy market area. At first we felt like aliens that had landed on another planet. People were looking at us strangely and it even felt a bit hostile. Then we began asking people permission to take their portraits and showing them the shots on the back of our cameras. Soon, everyone wanted us to take shots of them. After an hour, they were taking selfies with us and inviting us to come home and have dinner! I’ve had this experience all around the world, including being invited into mosques in the Middle East, temples in Thailand and coffee around an open fire in Ethiopia. So tip #1 has little to do with gear and more to do with your attitude. Be curious, be respectful and be a tourist in the sense that you are truly exploring the places and cultures you encounter.

Beyond that here are some nuts and bolds techniques we’ve used successfully in places like China, Vietnam, Cuba, India and other countries that may be less than thrilled you are filming:

1. Have a simple truthful statement. Lies are hard to remember, so come up with a reason why you are taking pictures that is as truthful and simple as possible without spilling all the details. Memorize that simple statement and have everyone on your team give that version of the truth when questioned.

2. Use DSLR or mirrorless cameras that shoot high quality video. In the last few years camera technology has advanced so rapidly that there are a huge range of cameras capable of taking UHD, 4K or HD quality video that is nearly equal to professional video cameras. These small cameras which were originally designed for still photography don’t raise nearly the questions that professional video cameras raise and can usually be taken even into locations where filming is strictly forbidden.

3. When necessary, shoot without a tripod! If there is one piece of gear that will get you singled out, it’s a tripod. I was traveling in Egypt shortly after the Arab Spring uprising a few years ago and when the customs official found my tripod it set off the alarm bells. He asked me repeatedly, “Where is your professional video camera? Where is your professional video camera!” Fortunately, I was traveling with a DSLR camera (see tip #1) and so after he looked thru every single pocket of every single bag he let me go with the warning: “If we had found professional camera there would have been big problem.”

4. Try to use a monopod. (Sometimes you can get away with this.) Steady shots are the hallmark of a professional production and the monopod is the best stand-in for a tripod. This piece of gear usually won’t get the attention of a customs official, as it is often used in still photography, but some places (like museums, temples and other public places) simply won’t let you use any device that supports the camera because they’ve become wise to the fact that professionals like these kinds of tricks. On our last trip, between shots, Phil even carried the monopod like a high-tech walking cane and he was never once stopped!

5. No monopods allowed, now what? As mentioned in tip #1, modern camera technology has made amazing advancements. One of those is internal image stabilization both in the camera and in the lenses. Most of the time these setting can help you steady a handheld shot. Experiment with these and see how to get the best results. Do some testing first because I’ve occasionally had negative results under certain conditions so make sure you know your gear and how best to utilize these setting.

6. Using camera straps, 3 points of contact and wide lenses. Here are three very practical ways to get steady shots under most challenging circumstances:
1. Use your camera strap as a sling for the camera by pushing the camera into the strap.
2. Three points of contact are better than two. Use your face, eye socket or forehead in addition to your hands for a third point to hold the camera.
3. Wide lenses are more forgiving. When in doubt, go wide. No one can hold a 200mm rock-solid handheld. A 16mm lens on the other hand is pretty forgiving.

7. Slow motion is your friend. Let’s face it, no matter how steady your hand may be, shooting with a lightweight camera designed for photos makes it impossible to hold it perfectly steady. Slow motion shots can smooth out some of those sins and it also can make for some pretty epic imagery.

8. Ask forgiveness not permission. This sounds worse than it really is, but in most cases you can grab a shot before you get shut down and in most places the bureaucracy of asking will take up most of your day. I once set up a timelapse shot overlooking a major international city. When authorities saw my tripod (see tip #2) they told me it would require permission. I sent the producer off to get the permission as I walked away from the camera. Two hours later when he returned to tell me we’d been denied, I took the camera down and returned to the car. Fortunately, the camera had been shooting the locked off timelapse the entire time and we left with the shot we wanted. But be careful on this one, because in some places this might land you in jail.

9. Don’t film military personnel or government buildings without permission. I was once filming on the border of Syria and a young intern stuck his camera out the window to get a picture of a UN compound. The security guards pulled our van over, took our passports, and detained us for a few hours. Luckily, no jail time was necessary. Speaking of jail, a good way to end up there is to point a camera at one of the above mentioned military or police buildings or personnel.

10. Don’t speak too openly in public about why you have cameras. Just be sensible. Some governments have “minders” who might be posing as your taxi driver, translator, or guide. You just never know.

11. I even recommend you actually look like a tourist. This might seem like a silly one, but leave your Easy-Rig at home and don’t be afraid to look like a dorky tourist. You’d be amazed how many shots you can get when you just sling a camera around your neck, don your Hoka running shoes and have that wide-eyed-deer-in-the-headlights look on your face.

Happy shooting!

Are American Missionaries A Thing of the Past?

This week I had the remarkable opportunity to speak at a global conference of pastors and marketplace leaders in the amazing United Arab Emirates city of Dubai. In the conference were pastors who individually oversee hundreds of churches and collectively oversee thousands of churches in some of the most difficult and challenging places Christians can operate.

One thing I discovered was that they were hungry for information about using the media to share the gospel. They understand – even in remote places in Siberia, rural Africa, or the Pacific Islands, that we all live in a media-driven culture now, and using the media to engage with their communities is more important than ever.

The truth is, if I could find the funding, I would focus more of my time on teaching media internationally. These leaders are making a remarkable impact in the most difficult places, and were energized when I shared simple, basic techniques and principles for social media, websites, and video. As I told the attendees, it’s time we stopped thinking about “missions” only in terms of geographical boundaries, and started thinking about missions in terms of digital boundaries as well.

If you feel a burden to help us reach these global leaders with information and resources in communication and media, you can contribute to our Influence Lab initiative.

But something else I learned is that for the most part, the age of the Western missionary is over. The truth is, we really don’t need more Americans moving to Asia, Africa, Russia, or other places because right now local leaders are raising up a generation of young pastors that are planting churches in remarkable numbers. Historically, past missionaries from the West did their job, and now the baton has been handed to these local leaders.

However, they still need our financial support, expertise in select areas, and strategy. In some countries it may be to help finance a church building, in others, build a school or medical clinic, in still others it may be a motorcycle to help a church planter make his rounds. They also need strategies as I mentioned in communications, media, and other specialized areas. They have picked up the challenge and are making a difference, but they need our prayers, professional expertise, and financial support more than ever.

I can tell you that after a week with these global leaders, the world is changing, and in spite of all the negative stories you hear in the news media, the gospel is moving forward.

Globalizing Your Media Means Localizing Your Media

Whenever I travel internationally, I’m always surprised to find that when watching American produced religious programming, the vast majority of programs do nothing related to local audiences.  In other words, the program open and close, structure, and even commercial spots were the exact same as the program that had been broadcast in Cleveland, Atlanta, or Tulsa.  It goes without saying that creating a commercial spot with an American phone number and a price in dollars is going to fail when its broadcast in Russia, South Africa, or Bolivia.  And yet, major media ministries do it everyday – wondering all the while why they don’t seem to get a response.

First Rule – Make sure international viewers can contact your organization easily and buy your products or donate to your organization in their local currency.  I carry dollars in my pocket, not Rubles or Pesos.  Likewise, a viewer in Bangalore carries Rupees, not dollars.

And it goes deeper:  “Cultural sensitivity” is critical is getting your message across in other cultures and countries.  In the Christian world for instance, too many American believers think Indian Christians worship in choir robes, and sing classic hymns with an organ playing in the background.  But Christians in other countries adapt their worship to the styles, customs, and methods that are meaningful to them.  As a result, we need to understand that and respond with our programming.

Second Rule – Do more than just have your program sub-titled or translated.  Think about customizing the program itself.  Certainly it will take time and money, but the meaning and connection will be far more powerful.  Perhaps better yet, instead of simply broadcasting your weekly or daily program into multiple countries with no changes made, think instead about periodic TV specials, that are completely customized to people groups around the world.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to be a producer on a series of TV specials produced by the Billy Graham Association.  Not only was Billy’s sermon translated into multiple languages, but we divided up the world into people/language/culture groups, and completely re-structured each version with local interviews, music, and features shot in regional languages and featuring locally known personalities.  In the end, it created a far greater response than simply broadcasting a typical American version of Billy’s program.

Major secular networks realize that having localized programming matters.  It’s time Christian program producers got the memo.

2020 Proves It – COVID-19 No Match for the Digital Tools Available to the Church

2020 Proves It – COVID-19 No Match for the Digital Tools Available to the Church

The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 forced the Church to go online or go out of business, while accelerating the digital revolution on a global scale, ushering in a new digital age. There has never been a time in the history of the world when so many tools have been available to share the gospel with so many people.

While a number of international trips on mine and Kathleen’s schedule were canceled because of the pandemic, we’ve never been busier sharing the gospel with global pastors, leaders and their media teams. Through Zoom meetings and webinars, we’ve been able to inspire and train communicators in Russia, Portugal, Nepal, India, Australia and other countries around the world to navigate the new and expanding digital media platforms with confidence and success.

The year 2020 proved that a modern-day plague like COVID-19 was no match for thedigital tools available to the Church today. Those tools not only overcame a global shutdown, but they continue to allow us to speak to a worldwide audience. Online, previously little-known churches, ministries, and their leaders can now influence millions, and the ministry of The Influence Lab is helping them accomplish what just a few years ago seemed unimaginable.

The need to share our message never changes, but how we share it does, and that is the thrust behind the vision of The Influence Lab. This is the moment to embrace the digital world and strategically help our global brothers and sisters maneuver it to effectively share the gospel. – Phil Cooke