Things to keep in mind when filming in London and South Africa

Jun 14, 2016 by Brendan Jack

The cops don't have guns in London, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t shooting in the streets. We recently jetted from Coolfidence HQ JHB to the UK to find out how much shooting we could get away with. In the filming sense of the word.

It takes a global village

The Internet has the perils of time drainage and trolls, but online connectivity has changed the film and creative game-space for the best. We write scripts and produce the project in South Africa, cast via Skype, get feedback from all corners of the planet, film in London with UK actors and crew, have our web development team in Kiev, Ukraine, connect with them on FaceTime to approve technical specs, edit in Joburg, pay American lawyers, and provide content to the world.

And action

When it comes to equipment, pack the basics. However, you can’t always travel with lighting rigs and slide-and-glide tripods on a plane, then drag them around the streets. Outsourcing is a wonderful thing, and a solid option because of the aforementioned Internet. A simple Google search around the area we’d be shooting (Shoreditch) got us several contacts and quotes. Equipment is cheaper to buy for even the smaller UK gear owners.

Renting overseas equipment eliminates Sisyphean schlepping of heavy gear, and the suppliers can oversee specifics like technical recces and making sure there are backup facilities. Forgot your favourite lens in your other computer bag? No problem, someone else has two of them. No issues with plug points, customs’ forms for work gear (involving more expense) and mobility. Just hop into an Uber and get to the location.

Same but different

We all still use the basics of a camera, lights and actors. No one’s really shooting on virtual reality rigs and speaking in binary yet. Although I haven’t been to Tokyo, so can’t vouch for their workflow.

If you have the guerrilla spirit, you should be able to get away with not having location permits (if you're not making The Avengers or a massive beer advert).

Use a small crew and compact equipment and you could be a high-tech tourist group. Use a radio microphone and not a boom microphone on the streets. Not even the top tech tourists are booming their audio recording just yet. If all else fails, pretend to speak to the authorities in another language while waving and jogging off in haste.

Inside job

It’s not essential, but it does help to have a go-to person on the other side.

They know the lay of the land. For our shoot, we had a fellow filmmaker and friend in London helping with logistics. For his efforts, we decided to use his house as a free location.

I’d add that he could also speak the local language, but everyone there seemed fine with English, being its country of origin and all.

He knew where not to go and how to avoid tourist traps. Although it wasn’t exactly Fallujah or Sarajevo, so mostly which overpriced fast food places to avoid. Have you seen the exchange rate?!

Speaking of which …

When you’re paying in pounds, ask for favours. Favours are always cheaper than pound sterling. (Thanks Jacques, you know who you are.)

Both countries have talented performers. We worked with Alex in London and later with Tom in South Africa. Both with West End and professional film set experience. Both were pros willing to go the extra mile, even in the face of shooting 25 scripts a day. Learning long Aaron Sorkin monologues won’t be a problem for them in future.

At one point our shoot got interrupted by a ruckus outside, nothing dissimilar to South Africa, when someone often pulls up to have a snoop, but first pumping up their car’s radio volume until someone has to tell him to turn it down. This particular outdoor noise was a welcome distraction, in the form of a pub on wheels where everyone had to pedal to move it. It was the embodiment of democracy in action - people working together to share a good time. Until the pedal bar couldn’t get up a small hill and some of them had to climb off to push, while others decided not to help and carry on drinking. It seems that democracy has its limits.

Getting there

Pack some nuts and sealed snacks (maybe tinned pilchards?) to avoid the alarming price of UK burgers (more about those later).

If vitamins work for you, they may help fight jet lag, a crazy filming schedule and 6 million germs you encounter in First World cities. Sitting alongside someone on a plane while they cough for 12 hours is always fun. Note to self: Consider travelling with a surgical mask, as popularised in many Asian cities. Hand them out as a friendly gesture to the coughing person. Beware that this could be taken the wrong way if there are language barriers.

Always get to the airport and shoot location early.

Never use the word ‘shoot’ when at passport control.

Visa

If there’s limited time and budget to get an official working visa, tell the consulate that you’re going to visit friends. Which you kind of are, except that those friends are currently strangers. If anyone from the UK visa office is reading this, we all became friends on set - so technically it was about visiting friends.

Rub and tug

Never try to be lighthearted with customs officials; this makes them suspicious and agitated. Mouth closed, eyes forward.

Our film props included a fake flick knife that flicked out to reveal a comb, as well as a fake burning cigarette - fortunately we didn’t try to raise a chuckle with them and therefore didn’t get flagged and strip searched for our efforts.

SA airports are pretty laid back and you usually won’t get stopped at customs unless you're dripping in Rolex and Versace. Dress to not impress on arrival.

That said, SA and London are far more relaxed than the States, where their body scan machines can possibly run blood and gender tests while you’re being scientifically molested in their scanning pods.

Flying high

If you don’t have the gift of being able to sleep on a plane, don’t bother fighting it. Avoid sleeping pills, it’ll just put you into a half-trance and make your day on the other side seem like a nightmare. Especially if you have a meeting after landing, where you’ll eventually have to remind yourself that you’re not dreaming and can’t fall asleep on the lobby's art deco couch while talking to someone.

Try staying up after landing and sleep in the evening to get into the rhythm of the new time zone.

The exception for sleeping pills is if you travel first class. We were lucky enough to have an earlier trip to New York, after which we skipped off the plane with the freshly-slept energy of a ballerina. After a first class pod, flying economy can make a grown man weep. But we must endure.

Drinking coffee and alcohol to stay up throughout flight, plus the rarified air and no sleep equals the equivalent of a crack hangover. Rather stay hydrated.

Earplugs can dampen cabin noise and provide a bit more zen, despite being in a cylindrical tube moving at 950 kilometres an hour at forty-thousand feet above earth.

Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice makes even less sense after 10 hours of flying, but is still a great movie if you enjoy his work.

In the hotel room, check that your alarm clock hasn’t been pre-set for a ridiculous hour. I finally got some sanctuary in the hotel, drew the curtains, lay down, and got woken a few hours later by someone who’d set the room’s alarm for 3:45am. First thoughts was that it was some prankster, and if it was, all is now forgiven.

Note to First World hotels: Unslammable doors should be a human right. We don’t need to hear trust fund kids arriving back from the strip club after twelve ales.

Getting around

London is way more accessible to cyclists and pavement hoverboarders than SA. You won't get the same leeway scooting around the mean streets of Fourways, heading to a meeting on William Nicol after being gassed and winged by taxis and road-ragers.

Public transport is a lot more user friendly in UK, but services like Uber have changed the game everywhere.

Pro tip: Try taking the Thames Taxi (river bus). It requires the standard transport Oyster card. It dropped me the distance of a bridge walk from the Tate Modern. The Tate’s fire alarm then went off while I was checking out some Dali and the entire building got evacuated. Someone probably accidentally set fire to a packet of fish and chips and, being a Nanny State, the authorities got over-precautious. In South Africa, we don’t care about fire alarms.

The trip also turned into a burger expedition, to find the best burgers in London. (Someone had to do it.)

The best spots we hit included Tommi’s Burger Joint, Shake Shack, Byron, Five Guys, as well as The Hoxton Grill - the home of the R340 hamburger. (To be fair to, it did come with bacon and blue cheese.)

South African tap water tastes better. Possibly because we don’t have pre-Roman bodies floating in it like the Thames. Although according to Carte Blanche, our water quality is getting there.

And as Shakespeare once said when comparing South Africa’s weather to London, “Thou art more lovely and more temperate."

Break the ice

Aim for at least one free day to explore. Why travel and not get to see the place? Take some photos, sure, but you don’t need to put ALL of them on Instagram.

Both places are great walking cities, London especially so. Pack your most comfortable shoes and a backpack.

There’s a lot of free Wi-Fi in London, which is great for using maps and finding burger joints. (Next time, we track down the best shawarma joints!)

Summing Up

Plan ahead, keep it tight. The Internet is usually your friend.

Be well prepared on scripts, running order, wardrobe, locations, etc. Once the basics are nailed, you can start improvising and fixing problems on the fly.

Shoot in South Africa instead of England if it’s going to bankrupt you. Enjoy both countries when there.

An LA filmmaker visited one of our movie shoots a few years ago and remarked, "This looks just like any indie American film set.” We took heart from that. South Africa's got the crews, performers and technical know-how. We now just need more local stories to be told.

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