On the flight back from filming a documentary in Samoa, Ande Schurr interviewed his colleague, cameraman Jason Wetzel, about filming overseas and storytelling.
"You've got to know these key things: who is your target audience? What is your production brief? What do you want to tell and show people on screen? If you don't really know those parameters you're shooting blind."
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The quality that I admire in Jason is his unassuming nature. He won't tell you he's good at what he does. It's something you just realise when you work with him, that he is aware of the world around him and what kind of shots are needed to tell the story.
Jason is a realist to a refreshing level - without being brash. He's observant too. He doesn't just look down the lens of the camera but he studies the things he sees and shared some observations on this trip that I would not have noticed but helped increase our grasp of the people we were shooting.
I thoroughly enjoyed Samoa. It helped me understand the Samoan people living in New Zealand. I saw the origin of their kind natures, emphasis on family and friendships, humour and their relaxed attitude. Jason himself says - "a smile on your face in Samoa will get you everywhere".
This interview with Jason may bring a sense of realism to the tasks ahead for freelancers wishing to become a dependable crew-member and film-maker, able to be trusted anywhere in the world on a shoot.
Tell us about the job you're on now
It's a commissioned documentary covering a Blues and Jazz festival in Samoa. The brief for us was to cover the event, pick up some piece to cameras to flesh out the event for the audience and what it means for the artists and Samoa. The thing that makes it special is that it's the first time they're had an event like this over here.
We got some nice images but some things happened that didn't go according to plan such as buckets of rain, at one point, like the monsoon but the artists kept singing. So the judgement call was to decide "shall we keep shooting" and that is based on what the brief is. In this case, having images with rain in them didn't fit the brief so we didn't shoot and missed covering that part of the event. We had some transportation issues - mainly to do with the fact it's Samoa and the infrastructure that's there isn't as slick as we're used to.
The heat was a factor because a lot of the audience and the artists were all nicely shaded but to get the right shots and coverage we had to go in quite exposed environments in the sun. It just became quite hard sometimes. We had to make some decisions such as "will we cover this" and "how much exposure will the crew have to this weather".
What was your workflow?
We were shooting on solid state - Canon 7D's and EX media - which is a very stable media option for those sorts of extreme environments and relatively quick for data-wrangling. We worked out a system - myself and the other lead DoP - before we start rolling. You don't sit there and go "help, I'm out of media" - but rather you be proactive and that's the key to this sort of filming because you shoot a lot of material. You can have the most beautiful shots but if you don't do the planning and you run out of media then you're done.
What clothing do you need in Samoa? I have never seen someone pack such a small amount of gear as you!
Do your research and development. It's hot and humid - you're not going to go over there in jeans or close-fitting t-shirts. You're going to take loose clothes - three pieces of clothing max - shirt, shorts, underpants and some form of jandals. That's all you need. You don't need a jersey and no raincoat because if you get wet you just dry. I did take a large plastic bag to cover the camera, along with a toothbrush and a few personal items. With clothing, I like using Swanndri shirts because they look presentable - are warm and cool at the same time because they're loose - and they dry quickly.
Part of your professionalism is how you present yourself. I knew we were going to be at a Jazz festival and people have paid some good money to be here. The last thing they want to look at is someone wearing tatty shorts and a t-shirt or singlet with some loud words on it. You want to look as if you fit in a little. For me, that creates less issues. I don't get as many people coming up to me and saying "you're in my way". Avoid synthetics because you want to keep away the sweat and moisture - not keep it on your body.
What's the money like in Samoa?
Any shoot will give you some form of per diems. These are a daily rate that you use to buy breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were given those in Samoan currency [Tala] before we left NZ which was good. So we didn't have to worry about exchange rates. If we did run short we could use the eft-pos machine at the Apia Westpac bank. The prices were not cheap yet no more expensive than NZ. It was about on par.
What was your experience of the locals?
They were very friendly and couldn't do enough to help us out. I didn't have any issues. The only time I got rubbed up the wrong way was by a drunk Australian who was on holiday. Everyone else was just chilling, island time, just doing their thing but when we needed something done they were very good at making it happen and doing it with a smile on their face. A smile on your face in Samoa will get you everywhere.
How did the humidity affect you and your gear?
You are going to sweat. You need to constantly hydrate yourself. The temptation to get on the booze after a shoot is risky in these environments. If you wake up hungover in the morning with low levels of salt or electrolytes left in the body you're just going to have a really tough time and it will surely have an impact on the quality of your work and the choices you'll make. Have a few beers by all means but party on the last day!
It's so easy to buy a decent yet inexpensive camera, travel overseas and start shooting. What makes the difference between a mediocre filming experience and an experience where everything works well?
Pre-production. Doing your research well. Asking yourself: Where are you going? What do you hope to achieve? Most importantly, you must know your story so that you don't shoot miles and miles of stuff you're never going to use. Know what you're actually trying to put together to show your audience - that will help you choose what to shoot. Work out whether you'll shoot this one verses this one because you may only have time to shoot one.
It is totally dependent on the production itself; what you are actually doing. I think if you just grab a camera, jump on a plane and go "well I'm going to do a travel-log" or "I'm just going to film something" or "something will happen that will make a great story" then in my opinion it is fraught with danger. I think you'll shoot miles and miles of rubbish and you'll try and cobble something together and it will look as though it doesn't quite have the structure and in hindsight when you've reflected on your journey you'll go "oh man, I wish I had done that or covered this or that shot" purely because you just didn't know what your journey's end was as far as the story you're trying to tell.
So story is just as important on documentary shoots as it is on dramas?
Fully. You've got to know these key things: who is your target audience? What is your production brief? What do you want to tell and show people on screen? If you don't really know those parameters you're shooting blind. You'll make bad decisions and it will come back and bite you because it won't be such as enjoyable experience. You'll look at the footage and just go "it was a really great time I had but where has the magic gone?" and the answer is that you probably didn't shoot it.
When you're shooting abroad is it a fine line between holiday and work?
There are shows that you see on TV where a couple of guys will grab a camera and do their overseas experience and they'll film what they're doing - and it looks like a hell of a lot of fun while they're doing it and they're obviously enjoying themselves - they are part of the story. If it's a little more subjective and you're out there and you're covering a story or event for a documentary or travel-log then at the end of the day you're hopefully there to do a professional job no matter your financial recompense will be. You have to take that professional approach to it. I think people forget that. Your attitude has to be " I have to do the best damn job I can because someone back home will watch these images". Sure, you may be underpaid or be a tight production but that might lead to a far more lucrative job or experience that makes up for that. Remember someone will watch your show and you won't know who.
In the quest to becoming a mature film/TV technician do you feel an overseas shoot is essential?
No. I don't believe that is essential to being a better operator or director, producer or sound recordist or technician of any kind. In terms of personal development then sure, you will learn things about yourself and other people but you don't necessarily have to go to the back of beyond to get that. I've had some full on arduous experiences in New Zealand with small crews, tight time frames, reluctant talent, strenuous environments - I don't need to go to Senegal to experience these things. I believe there is a pro-conception that you do have to do these overseas shoots to have credibility and that would probably be true in some circles - depending on who the producer was who hired the contractors - "they've filmed here and filmed there, they must be good" - but not necessarily. Hopefully the people hiring the freelancers look beyond what the CV locations where and look more to the quality of the work; be it if they've shot just around NZ or more international based stuff. Where the overseas experience comes in is if production are deciding which crew to take on an international job and they may use previous overseas experience to gauge that you are good traveling with crew. You know, 19 years old, never been out of Whitianga. That might be a case where the production are not sure how they will react. However a lot of young people have had overseas experience and that itself is valuable.
I regularly hear of overseas shoots that will pay just the crew member's expenses. Would you recommend to my readers, who may be newer freelancers, that they take these unpaid opportunities?
That's a two-edged sword. I have in the past been offered work outside of NZ where the producer has said "we'll get you there, pay your food and accommodation but there's no pay rate. I tend to turn down those jobs because I feel that I've earned the right to charge reasonable rate. That is a personal thing but I'd certainly offer encouragement to the person who would take a position like this - good luck to you, have a great time and shoot well. As far as I'm concerend I would tend to say no. If you're young, single, don't have mortgages, children and gear that you're trying to pay off then go, and you have time up your sleeve then maybe it's a really good thing because it will be an adventure; a war-story. At wrap time with the crew several years from now "when I did a job in Madagascar". Saying you shot off the platform of the SkyTower only goes so far!
What's the best job you've done?
The best shoot I ever did was with a production unit that was commissioned by Diesel - the clothing, accessaries and footwear company - who are renowned for being slightly left of center in their marketing campaigns. They commissioned us to create seven short films based in NZ, with iconic envirnonments, but they all had to have a common thread with a common element of Diesel footwear. They were about two minute little pieces of lit, scripted drama, with a beginning, middle and end so they were like seven chapters that made up a greater story. At the end there had a 14-15 minutes short film. That was fabulous shooting that took place over six months. We went from the top of NZ down to deep south. We shot inside glaciers, on tops of Mt Cook, in forests, rain forests, white beaches, the middle of Queen St - it was just a great experience. As lead camera I had a huge amount of fun.
What will most people know your work as?
It's mainly for television: Music clips such as Dane Rumble and Ivy Lies. I've just finished doing a documentary series for maori Television called Wairua - travelling around NZ covering Maori spiritulism , legends, what happends after death - that kind of things. That was a very interesting shoot and is screening at the moment.
As a cameraman, how do you get these opportunities?
Word of mouth. Networking. Working alongside people. Obviously, at some point, someone has thought "I like him, he's shooting nice, we've got a job coming up let's get him". You just go from there. It's the kind of industry where you're not going to see 'Cameraman Wanted' in the NZ Herald job section or on Trade Me. The ones you do, you need to ask questions about to be honest. It is very much about who you know - what your relationships are like with individual production companies, producers, production managers and to some degree directors because they end up favoring the people they like.
Is there a lot of work to be done to get to where people are talking about you and referring you?
Yes, you have to get your foot in the door and then you have to wedge it open. If you sit in your couch after film school and you fire off email with your CV then I really would be surprised if you got much traction. I really would. I often hear ex-graduates of training institutions say "Oh ya know, I haven't got a job - it's a very hard industry to get into - it's not all what it cracked up to be" and when you actually delve a little deeper, their effort level is not as aggressive as what it needed to be. Quite simply when young people ask me "how did I start" I say "send out your CV's and emails but at the same time phone them - go around and find out the address of these productions and knock on the door. Create a list of the kind of people you want to work with or the work you want to do. Before you email them or knock on the door; do your research. Go and find out the shows and the people who're making them because they may ask you "do you know what I do" and if you go "oh no" they will dismiss you in their mind but if you say "I really want to work with you because I liked your work on Survivor or the behind the scenes on such and such a show" then they will see you're interested genuinely.
You will get lots of "no's" but the idea is to keep going back. I remember a guy saying to me many years ago "Jason you just have to keep going back and knocking on those doors. They're going to do one of two things - trespass you or give you a job"
What's the best aspect of leaving NZ for a shoot?
The fact that you know you're going to see something you haven't experienced before. I'm going to see something, film something, frame something, experience something that I've never done before or probably will never do again. This 'something' might be unrelated to the job you're doing and even occur after you wrap. Just savour these experiences. Plant them into your mindset and you can feed off them later on when you're stuck on a camera for 10 hours covering the opening of parliament! Like the Sky TV slogan "go to your happy place!".
What will you savour from this job?
People can be very happy with very little. I experienced that many times on this trip because we were working and dealing with a lot of locals rather than the touristy types. We weren't getting a rose-tinted view of Samoa. It was fantastic to see these people so happy and so content and at ease with themselves and their environment without all the possessions we have.