7 Valuable Survival Tips For Filming in Dangerous Environments

ChernobylGSheldon

Graham Sheldon, holding a Geiger counter, outside Reactor 4 in Chernobyl, Ukraine.

There is something about working in film that makes people take risks. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that there is always someone else standing in the sidelines ready and willing to take your job, or the idea that you can really stand out on the project if you go that extra mile.

Whatever the reason, people get hurt while filming all the time. It is the job of the individual and the production to remember this and do everything possible to keep the team safe.

During my career as a Producer/DoP, I’ve filmed in radioactive environments (Chernobyl), harsh weather (Alaska in winter) and countries where the politics are not supportive of the production (Cuba). Working in these environments comes with risks, sometimes anticipated and sometimes as complete surprises. So here are 7 tips, gathered from my own shooting experience to stay safe while still getting the shot:

1. Harsh Weather

Several years back, I was working in sub zero temperatures in Alaska to film one of the world’s most grueling races: the Iditarod. This dog sled race covers over a thousand miles, and while the race itself is unbelievably challenging, the process of filming is no walk in the park either. Listen to local experts when it comes to clothing, take note of weather reports, and try to solicit advice from other crews that have worked in the area before. I find most people in this profession, myself included, don’t mind answering a few questions over social media about a past shoot.

2. Politics

While filming in Cuba with a US based crew, I encountered multiple instances where local politics were interfering with our production. Memory cards would “disappear” from our hotel room and local security forces would constantly hassle our documentary shoot. Before arriving in any country, try to understand the various ideologies at play in local and national governments. Doing your best to navigate local customs and treading lightly will always make your experience a safer one.

3. Work Together

Every member of the crew has a duty to keep the shoot a safe one. In a foreign country with a hundred thousand dollars of equipment in the back of your Jeep, you will be a target for someone. Keep a good eye on everyone and everything, and always listen to your local fixer or driver – they know the area better than you.

4. Instinct

If the situation feels wrong, chances are it is. Give yourself time to plan escape routes out of potentially dangerous neighborhoods and never move too far away from your vehicle when filming. If you are operating, tell your assistant to face the opposite direction and watch any approaches. Never spend too long in dangerous areas, as it is giving potentially unsavory characters time to spot you and formulate a plan to relieve you of your equipment. Paying for a local security guard to accompany your crew for the day is always recommended.

5. Know Your Surroundings

Keeping a good eye on everything around you while still keeping good exposure and focus is an essential skill. Spend ten minutes on YouTube and you’ll find countless videos of camera op’s losing track of their surroundings and face planting the turf. Operating a tricky backwards move with no way to look behind you? Use anyone present, such as an Assistant Cameraperson, to spot you.

6. Animals

Having recently been bitten by a wild dog in Ecuador and dealing with the subsequent rabies shots, I find it necessary to include this tip. Take the advice of local fixers and guides when filming in areas with a large wild animal presence. As a last resort, tripods work well to keep the animal back while getting out of the area, and always, always keep a first aid kit in your vehicle.

7. Leave the Camera

People always come before equipment. While filming NBC’s “The Island” I had the choice at high tide between drowning/getting beaten up by rocks or leaving the camera. I took the memory card and left the camera. This is a lesson that sometimes is lost on the camera team, but no show or film is worth injury or loss of a life to save equipment.

At the end of the day, we are participating in an art form, not trying to save the planet. Weigh your risks according to that principle.

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Derek Heebink Reply
Derek Heebink August 2, 2016

That looks like it’s fully automatic, black, can be purchased easily the the United States, and has a high capacity storage. America has 250million of these

Matias Goinheix Reply
Matias Goinheix August 2, 2016

That is all false and easily debunked by a quick search.

Binoy Bino Reply
Binoy Bino August 2, 2016

Creative idea

Sten Malcolm Rosenlund Reply
Sten Malcolm Rosenlund August 2, 2016

You mean video ? Not filming ?

David McBean Reply
David McBean August 3, 2016

Thank you for sharing your expertise in this subject. As someone who adores you, please be careful about where you place your beautiful self! Just so we are clear, I would never take the risks that you take to shed the light of awareness on these topics – I admire the dedication it takes to face these situations!

Reply
Mario Pad August 3, 2016

Very good article.
It is unfortunate, as my experience tells me, most production accidents happen due to lack of common sense and they are almost always preventable.
This simple tips you point out should be part of every production checklist.
Thanks

Andi Beqiri Reply
Andi Beqiri August 3, 2016

Great and informative article from someone I highly respect!

Reply
Devin Hennessy August 3, 2016

Great advice for adventurous filmmakers!
Thanks for sharing! You’ve sure logged a lot of miles!

Max Turner Reply
Max Turner August 3, 2016

Fantastic article from the Bear Grylls of the film world Graham Ehlers Sheldon

Tara Jilian Goldsborough Reply
Tara Jilian Goldsborough August 4, 2016

Great tips, Graham Sheldon!! Your insight is so helpful for all filmmakers as we of course run into new challenges on each and every project. And you are so right, no piece of equipment is more valuable than the person handling it.

Devin Hennessy Reply
Devin Hennessy August 4, 2016

This is a great run down for adventurous filmmakers!
You sure have logged some serious miles!