Making Magic Abroad

By Drew English

We were commissioned to make a short film about people and the power of connection. Sounds simple enough. But what goes into making something like this happen? This production was to take place in Brazil across two separate cities on a very condensed timeframe…and we are a very small crew from New York City. I can tell you this; we made it happen and hope to show through this post, that you don’t need a 30- person crew and limitless resources to deliver a visually powerful and touching story. First, the film:

Keep It Simple Stupid 

One thing we have learned over time is the more stripped down and streamlined the production, the simpler the execution. I’m not breaking any new ground by saying, as productions build in complexity, the number of moving pieces increases and they become harder to reign in. This is something we have worked very hard to embrace and as a result, our core team out of New York was only four people; a Producer, a Director, a Cinematographer and a Location Audio/DIT Tech. That’s it. Being such a small unit kept us nimble, streamlined and under the radar. Even with local production help, our total on-location size was never more than eight people. This was key. We could roll around in one van (equipment included).

140124_BRAZIL-238_WEB“Island” Location

One of our most important locations for this shoot was the middle of a traffic island, so we could set up a full production without having to obstruct traffic and other normal day-to-day operations of the city. In case you were wondering, yes, we were fully permitted for all of our locations. But the fact that we never once had to be hassled by local law enforcement just sweetened the deal.

Plan Plan Plan 

If there is one thing to be impressed in this post, it is the importance of planning. Planning until you are blue in the face. Planning until you realize that the smell you are smelling is you, because you haven’t showered today due to your voracious cycle of emailing.

A great producer is key and our producer, Jason, is basically “the man”. He basically stopped taking lunch or breaks of any kind during the entire pre-production phase. Not only was he coordinating all of the travel logistics like flights and hotels, but he also hired and worked with a local production company to coordinate our in-country needs, planned our shoot schedule and set up our customs agent ahead of time. Not only that but he managed to talk the Brazilian Consular to the United States himself into putting a rush on our work visas. I only wish I was there to see that. When we were actually in Brazil, Jason went out of his way to ensure that we were staying hydrated, healthy and focused.

As mentioned before, Jason is “the man”.  Make sure you have a good Producer.

Have Octocopter, Will Travel 

Our DP, Tim, is amazingly talented and a veritable Swiss Army Knife when it comes to capturing amazing imagery in camera. I will sum up Tim in the words of Captain Steve Zissou, “Cool. Collected. German.” That is exactly Tim. He knows what he wants and if he doesn’t, you’d never be the wiser. He is always precise and on point.  He is also German.

That being said, Tim has added two key pieces of kit from Freefly Cinema to his arsenal as of late, that let us execute extremely high production value shots with minimal impact and cost; the MoVI Stabilization unit and Cinestar Octocopter. These make all the difference in the world. Now, there is a lot of copter/drone footage out there on the interwebs, but most examples suffer from the same issue; they look like helicopter shots. The really key thing to point out here is that Tim and our Director, Michael, utilize this setup to create dolly shots, crane shots, cable-cam shots, and sometimes, hybrid shots that would not be achievable by traditional means.

140124_BRAZIL-191_WEB Tim & Michael Flying

In the opening shot of “The Conditioned”, we went to a Favela just outside of Sao Paulo (similar to a slum but slightly more developed). I can definitely think of safer places to be with tons of gear, so we wanted to keep a low profile. Our copter setup was great for this. We were able to get in and setup within twenty minutes and before you knew it, Tim and Michael were flying out over the expanse of the favela without hassle.

Tim as pilot and Michael as Camera Op have developed this synchronicity and cinematic sensibility that lends itself to powerful story telling. The opening shot, by traditional means, would have been hugely challenging if not impossible to achieve. This rig has really been a game changer for production value vs. crew size and cost…and all you have to do is make sure the batteries don’t catch on fire or that you don’t crash into anything…AMAZING!

When you’re done working, work some more…and multitask…and be organized 

I cover all the location and interview audio tasks on production in addition to acting as the crew’s DIT and Editor. What this meant was consistently little down time during the week, but it paid off in droves when it came time for post.

My advice for anyone in a similar position; take the time to be ultra organized and prepped ahead of time.  The best thing I did for myself was to construct a log sheet where I could catalog video and audio assets on a per-card basis. It took 5 minutes to format but has saved hours in hunting and editing. Plus it gave me time to focus on not blowing up copter batteries while charging them, putting myself into oncoming traffic and all the other really fun stuff.

On location, I would essentially have one of our two Retina Macbook Pro’s running constantly, whether in the van, under our easy-up or in the hotel. What this meant was that, by the time we got on the plane back to New York, I already had a full set of assets prepped to start the edit process. By the end of our 10 hour flight back to the States, I had all our interview material synced, chopped up and ready to go. This was key to the success of the project.

A word to the wise: it’s funny but computers don’t like to be hot. It makes them angry.

Roll with the punches, but hold out for the story 

We had two pretty sizable hiccups in this production. The first was when we took the copter and MoVI setup to the roof of our hotel.  Radio controlled gear does not like interference and there was an endless field of towers up that high. The copter wouldn’t even think about lifting off and every time the MoVI switched on, instead of nice smooth motion, it decided to whip and gyrate and cause havoc in general.

Thankfully, we could lean on shots we had gotten previously in the week. The take away is don’t let your production ride on just one or two shots. Give yourself some options. This let us roll with the punches and ultimately, all was OK.

140124_BRAZIL-254_WEBHotel Roof – Sao Paulo, Brazil

The second, bigger challenge, was regarding one of our interviewees. Francisco, the brother of the film’s main subject, was adamantly against being interviewed for the piece and really didn’t want us around in the first place. None of that was communicated to us until we were already on location. So what do you do? The story hinged on this interview but simultaneously, you have to respect other people’s wishes. This was an emotional roller coaster for the entire crew, but specifically for Michael, who had spent days and days crafting this story and pulling all the creative pieces together.

It quite literally, came down to the wire, but Michael prevailed and we were able to get our interview.  You can read more about it here.  We left with hugs and smiles all around and an open invitation to return any time. We held out for the story and got so much more in return. It was well worth it.


In conclusion, the most important thing I can offer is this; find enjoyment in what you are doing. Yes, this was a lot of work. Yes, it was long hours. Yes, there were challenges and frustrations. But we were also able to find joy in the little things.

140124_BRAZIL-342_WEBMichael and #setpets

Our Goiania location was riddled with puppies. Adorable, amazingly cute puppies! Animals always bring a smile to the faces of weary crew members. So much so that Jason coined the hashtag #setpets so that in our future endeavors we can catalog the cuteness encountered on location through Twitter, Instagram or some other social network of choice.

It’s being able to ground yourself in the joys of real life that tie everything together and make all the hours and hours of hard work worth it.

Photography by Drew English

  • Written by Drew English
  • Published February 4, 2014