First the basics. Any successful video project requires thought before, during and after: preproduction, production and post-production. In these days of much tougher travel restrictions and the possibility of unanticipated hassles in your destination country, the pre-production part of things requires careful consideration.
Start by researching your destination and firming-up your itinerary. If your trip is strictly domestic, you can skip some of the warnings and advisories, but if you plan to travel anywhere outside the USA (including Canada and Mexico), then you’ll need a checklist. Where you are going will dictate what you take along and how you use it when you get there. As part of the planning process, anticipating what you hope to accomplish (video-wise) will help you choose equipment and pack it wisely. If you are flying to your destination, you should make every effort to hand carry your camera. Airline regulations typically allow each passenger two pieces of carry-on luggage, one in the overhead bin and one that can fit under the seat. The bag or case for the overhead bin must weigh less than 40 pounds and be no larger than 9 x 14 x 22-inches. Luckily, many of today’s video cameras are small enough to fit into a case of this size.
Lock ‘n Load
On the other hand, if you must check your camera, make certain to pack it to withstand a lot of abuse. The newest travel cases for delicate video equipment will withstand vigorous and prolonged mistreatment. There are some great cases out there, whether made of anodized aluminum, high-impact plastic or the new collapsible cloth with metal brace inserts. The travel case you choose for your video camera and all of its accessories must be deep foam padded inside, highly shock resistant, as nearly indestructible as possible on the outside and equipped with a solid, tamper-proof lock. Other equipment such as lights, batteries, chargers, microphones, cables, tripods and tapes, can go in the cargo hold. Remember, all of your equipment must survive being tossed, dumped, dropped, stomped, stacked, vibrated, frozen, cooked and generally humiliated by baggage handlers between here and Timbuktu.
Either way, be prepared to have your luggage methodically hand-searched by security personnel at each departure airport. Airport X-ray screening devices used to check carry-on items will not damage undeveloped photographic film. However, the CT scanner and many of the high-energy X-ray systems used to examine checked baggage can damage photographic film, so you should always carry film with you anyhow. At some European and Asian airports, all baggage runs through high-powered X-ray systems. Fortunately, none of this is a problem for camcorder electronics or magnetic videotape.
Strangely, while most security rules don’t consider collapsible tripods as weapons, monopods sometimes are. You’ll find a Complete List of Prohibited Items at: www.airsafe.com, even though monopods are not on that list. Although you are required to take laptops out of the case and may be required to turn it on, camcorders are not covered by this rule. Still, don’t be surprised if the person screening your luggage asks to take a look in your bag when she sees an unfamiliar camcorder or your shotgun microphone on the scanner.
Train, boat, barge and bus travel restrictions and inspections are generally less stringent than air travel, but metal detectors are now commonplace in many locales. Be forewarned, nowadays many transit stations and border crossings feature some crisp-uniformed person wanting to examine not only your bags and equipment, but also your passport, visa and travel documents. When travelling to some countries, India, China and Japan for example, it’s not a bad idea to carry copies of sales receipts for you camcorder with you. We have heard first-person accounts of customs tax hassles involving expensive equipment from more than a few people.
Part of the fun and excitement of a video vacation is documenting everything you see along the way, however playing investigative reporter at the security check-in station might be a bad idea. While federal regulations do not specifically prohibit incidental videotaping of security personnel and equipment, they do explicitly prohibit taping at security screening check-in procedures. In other words, it’s okay to grab an establishing shot of the security gate and maybe one shot of your travel mate with shoes off and arms outstretched, but anything more will be frowned upon by security personnel.
Are We There Yet?
So okay, you’ve managed to reach the Isle of Corfu in one piece. Your video equipment all seems to be in working order and you can’t wait to use it. You’ve packed smart and traveled smart, now is the time to shoot smart. Remember that every video project must be about something, whether it’s the breathtaking ruins of Machu Pichu or those sun-splashed beaches of the Aegean Sea. The difference between a successful program and a collection of odd shots is organization. There will be instances where you cannot pre-plan or set up shots and that’s okay. Quick and dirty shooting is often the only way to capture those once-in-a-lifetime images.
First, get a variety of angles, look for composition, and always try to avoid repetition. While the temptation to pan a large vista is ever present, keep in mind the fact that you will probably edit out most panning shots. Use a tripod or monopod whenever possible, and when it’s not, find something to lean against to steady your hand and camera.
Don’t forget an establishing shot. Try to change image size on every scene you record so that in editing you will have a choice of wide, medium, and close-up shots. Cutaways, or inserts, are important for two reasons: (1) they enhance the overall interest in your subject by adding detail and texture and (2) they aid in making transitions. Look for natural titles in things like street signs, storefronts or local newspapers.
Ambient or natural sound is often overlooked or minimized, yet it is the sound which adds fullness to the reality of the pictures. Although the clanging church bells, clattering streetcar and gurgling fountain may all seem like clichs, they are essential elements of any video production. Spend just a little time explicitly recording nat sound, just as you spend time explicitly shooting cutaways.
Whew! You’ve run off a full day’s worth of breathtaking video and now it’s time to re-charge those batteries. Did you remember to pack the voltage converter? Of course! What about the plug adapter? Okay, we’re back to planning and packing: know where you’re going, pack accordingly.
Voltage around the world differs from country to country. Some countries like the United States and Canada run on 110/120 volt 60Hz. Most of the rest of the world operates on 220/240 volt 50Hz. Using an appropriate voltage converter/transformer can solve the disparity. Step-down converters allow your 110-volt equipment to work with 220-volt electricity, step-up converters convert 110 volt to 220 volt. Transformers are required for any appliance containing a circuit or microchip, which means all of your video gear. For most amateur, hobbyist or semi-pro videographers, a combination voltage converter/transformer and stabilizer should be sufficient and are available for under $100. But plugging that thing into a wall socket can be a problem: there are at least ten different plug shapes, plug holes and plug sizes in use around the world. Many countries use several different plug configurations at the same time. Plug adapters are available at several on-line sites.
Home Again, Home Again
All too soon, your two weeks of video vacation will have to come to an end. Will the trip home be any easier than getting there? Not likely. About the only thing those inspectors and screeners and security types won’t be able to unpack, X-ray, metal detect or hassle you about are the wonderful videos and indelible memories you captured in paradise.
Bud Elliott is an Emmy award winning broadcaster with more than 35 years in the news gathering field as anchor, reporter, photographer, producer and news director.
[Sidebar: Less is More, Except in News]
In the news business we always over-shoot. That means we shoot much more than we’ll ever use in a 90-second packaged story for broadcast. We’ll shoot the three-alarm fire wide, medium, close-up, extreme close-up. We’ll pan and zoom and tilt and elevate and dolly. And then we’ll interview the fire chief, the witnesses, the bystanders, the victims, the neighbors. We’ll grab all the natural sound we can. Then we’ll take that 45 minutes of tape and whittle it down to a tidy little story that leaves 95% of what we shot on the editing-room floor. Why? Two reasons: First, we can. Television news photographers always carry enough fresh batteries, tape, spare microphones, lights and other equipment. And second, we must. News only happens once. If we miss a shot, there is no chance to re-shoot it. Therefore, we over-shoot, which is to say, we must shoot much more than we ever expect to use. The challenge for the vacation videographer is to plan your shots so that you don’t over-shoot. So, while the temptation is to roll on everything, careful planning will ensure that you don’t find yourself out of film/tape/batteries just as the money shot of your entire vacation unfolds before your (now useless) camera lens.
[Sidebar: Baggage Carry on Tip]
News photographers always hand carry their own cameras everywhere, since it’s their livelihood. They will check in the rest of their accessories like extra batteries, tapes, tripods, but they will always keep at least one battery and one tape loaded in the camera. This way, if your luggage goes to Timbuktu while you go to Bora Bora, you have at least some potential to shoot until your luggage catches up to you.