Filming in The Desert
Filming in any extreme environment is a challenge. So don’t set out until you’ve thought through every eventuality. The health and safety of the crew is paramount but you also need to make sure you have the right kit if you want to come home with the best footage. Here are our top tips when it comes to shooting in the desert.
It makes sense to think about what kind of shots you want to achieve before you set out. This will help make sure you take the correct kit and that there is no misunderstanding with the production services firm on arrival. Planning will save money, time and avoid you missing shots altogether. Think about the film format your DoP would like to use and check that it is likely to function effectively in extremely hot conditions. If going after specific locations, check the logistics of filming there. What vehicles will you need and how much will they cost? How many people will you need to cope with the tricky conditions? Don’t be tempted to take short cuts, you’ll regret it later. Physical fitness is important in extreme conditions. So is insurance. Make sure you have the right insurance cover for your entire team and that it includes emergency evacuation
It’s tempting to strip off layers in hot weather but for safety’s sake you need to make sure your head is covered (to avoid sunstroke) and that your skin is protected from sunburn. A practical hat (wide-brimmed or foreign legion-style maybe), long-sleeved shirt, long trousers and sturdy shoes are as useful here as in any climate. Aim to avoid heavy materials like denim and leather, opting instead for light, loose-fitting clothes. Sunscreen, sunglasses and lip balm are essential. Other issues to keep in mind include the risk of sweating and chafing. Think about bringing a change of clothes and maybe some talcum powder or skin soothing cream. Rain is unlikely to be an issue but dust storms mean neck scarfs that can be pulled up over your mouth and nose make sense. Gloves are also advisable if you are working with kit that is likely to be scalding hot.
Deserts cool down quickly at night so you also need to make sure you have warm layers and a tent for after sundown. As with any changeable climate, packing lots of layers is a good idea because you can vary them as the temperature changes.
Don’t underestimate the desert. Always stay in shelter when possible to avoid sunstroke, dehydration etc and consume lots of liquids. Some producers advise wearing a water bladder (eg a Platypus) so you have continual easy access to water while filming. Team leaders need to make sure they aren’t pushing people too hard and are monitoring when people are suffering. Factor in extra time because people work slower in extreme heat. Remember that it’s not just the sun that is a problem – wind plus sand can mean friction burns. Also remember that temperatures drop sharply at night in the desert!
Protecting equipment from heat
Recent generations of disc/digital/solid state cameras are more resilient to heat than tape cameras. But they still need protection in extreme conditions to prevent malfunction. That’s why any kit that is not being used should be kept in the shade. Pop-up tents are generally the best solution because they are easy to put up quickly – but some producers report using large patio umbrellas. Having ice packs on hand is also a good idea. These should be placed inside a ziplock bag to prevent condensation. Other useful items include space blankets, which can be used to cover cameras during set up. If you do use them, remember to lay them with the reflective side upwards.
You also need to bear in mind that equipment can be scalding hot if left in the desert sun. In terms of tapes, discs, SD cards etc, have a strategy to ensure they are safe from heat and dirt.
Protecting equipment from sand and dust
As mentioned earlier, sand can be a nightmare in the desert. It doesn’t just get inside your clothes, it gets inside every nook and cranny of your equipment. As a result, experts in desert shoots usually end the day by cleaning their equipment thoroughly. Tools that are often used include brushes, compressed air and blowers. You need to be a bit careful with air and blowers though because they can push the dirt deeper into the kit. During filming, try to minimise the sand problem by bringing big thick plastic bags that you can put over the kit when not in use.
Another kit issue that can cause headaches is how to protect lenses. One option is to put a filter in front of the lens to keep it shielded from any dust blown about by the wind. It’s easier to clean a filter and cheaper to replace should scratches occur.
Ideally, don’t shoot when the wind is blowing because it’s bad for the equipment. But sometimes the schedule demands it. One option in such a scenario is to shoot from inside a truck.
Getting the best shots
In order to get the best shots, you need to make sure you aren’t wearing anything that might cause annoying reflections. For example, it’s a good idea to put away any items like watches or jewelry that could reflect light into the shot. For the same reason, don’t wear white clothing. Light neutral colours are better (also avoid dark colours which absorb heat).
Still on the subject of reflection, you need to make sure you have covers or shades to reduce the glare on monitors so you can see images properly. A leading company in this area is Hoodman, which creates products for this purpose. If your rental company doesn’t have any (or doesn’t have enough for all your monitors), you can make them yourself with tape and cardboard. Or you can drape an item of clothing or towel over your head to cut out glare.
Having a camera that can also film in night vision is very useful, as the sun disappears fairly rapidly when filming in the desert.
Don’t take too much kit, but do take spares
Deserts are usually pretty remote so you don’t want to take too much with you because that will increase vehicle and porter costs. And you’ll increase the risk of damage. That said, there’s nothing worse than being stuck in an isolated desert without the right kit, so make sure you have essential spares. Ask yourself which kit you are most reliant on, whether it is inherently fragile or prone to damage and whether it would ruin the shoot if it broke. Then make sure you are covered.
Choice of desert
There’s no shortage of deserts where filmmakers can shoot a decent film. Within a few hours of Hollywood, for example, are the deserts of California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Texas and Mexico. Further south, options include Chile, Colombia or Southern Africa. Then there are great Middle Eastern and Mediterranean locations such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, Jordan, Israel, Morocco and Southern Spain.
Key questions to ask before shooting in any of the above are: What incentive is on offer? What track record does the region have in desert shooting? What is the situation with kit and crews (check showreels to get some idea of desert credentials)? How far is the desert from civilisation (ie do you need to overnight in the desert? Is it far for getting replacement kit?) and what kind of desert terrain is on offer (dunes, rocks, mountainous etc).
Without making any particular recommendations, for example, New Mexico and Abu Dhabi both have tax incentives, Chile and South Africa are good for winter season shoots, Israel is a small country which means you can go from desert to other terrains quickly, Morocco is cheap and hugely experienced etc. Note – some of the leading desert production service companies will have experience shooting in more than one location.
Any extreme adventure requires good emergency planning. It’s important to undertake a thorough risk assessment when planning your shoot. This will be needed in order to adequately insure your crew and equipment. Your location scout or manager should have a solid knowledge of the risks involved in filming in their chosen area. This includes access and evacuation routes, where medical facilities are located and how to access them.
Larger productions should have their own medic with them on location and it would also be useful to ensure other members of crew are trained in basic first aid. All crew should be briefed on how to keep themselves safe and healthy during filming. The key message is to be prepared for every possible eventuality because conditions change quickly. Keep in mind also that equipment like generators, mobile or satellite phones and radios may also be adversely affected by the weather. Think in advance about how to resolve this.
Listen to the locals
You don’t want anything to stop your shoot. And you don’t want to show any signs of ignorance. But don’t be so stubborn that you ignore advice. Local knowledge can be invaluable in helping to plan a safe and efficient shooting schedule. Heed warnings from guides, their advice could be crucial to maintaining your crew’s safety. Be prepared to use local specialists if confronted by complex or treacherous conditions.
Whichever part of the world you plan to film in for your desert shoot, you can find a raft of production companies and services on KFTV.