Author’s note: I’m about to try and condense seven days and 17 raw footage hours into a few paragraphs. There were so many great people and stories that I came in contact with on this trip, but for the sake of time and a sense of corporate moderation, we’ll just quickly skim over the essential parts of this narrative.
When one of our clients asked us to execute a video shoot in India, we were extremely honored and excited, albeit I was bit in the dark about how really unlike the process would be compared to how we normally produce content. We’ve coordinated and shot videos in so many places around the world – Japan, El Salvador, Brazil, China. Over 30 years in the business gets you opportunities to be a part of so many great projects. But again, India is different.
The first step is to get over the big differences: the way people drive, the lack of personal space, the food, etc. Once you wrap your head around the major dissimilarities to western culture, you can start to appreciate the little things that make India a very different, but amazingly warm and human place.
Before getting into any of that, we have to get there first.
The client’s needs called for a 4-5 day shoot, utilizing our standard corporate documentary crew and gear. This generally consists of our Director of Photography (DP), Camera Assistant, Audio Technician and Producer. Since this one happens so far from home, the most practical and affordable way to make this work entails sending our producer (your humble narrator) from the US to join up with a team already on the ground in New Delhi. Luckily, with the major advances in technology, and the accessibility to gear in some of India’s larger cities (thank you Bollywood), we were able to find a team that suited our needs.
Our general go-to camera package these days is the Sony FS7 with a prime lens kit, giving us that beautiful large sensor feel, internal 4K and very user-friendly menus. The team on the ground, however, wasn’t quite familiar with the system, and we weren’t about to throw a new camera at a new-to-us DP for our project, so we went for the C300 kit. It works great for documentaries, and it’s a beautiful camera.
The crew on their end would consist of the DP, Camera Assistant, Audio Technician, and Production Assistant. As the production rates in India tend to run a bit lower than what we have to work with in the US, our budget could afford the extra hand, which turned out to be the right call.
So, with crew in place and production schedule timed out to the minute (I found later that a production schedule is laughable in this case, as nothing ever happens on time in India), I took the skies for a 33-hour trip from XNA (Northwest Arkansas) to DEL (New Delhi). My posterior is still numb.
After a night or two of very groggy jetlagged hotel sleep, along with a minor earthquake, I was certainly ready to get things underway. On our first day of shooting our DP (Raja) and Production Assistant (Vikash) picked me up in the standard mode of transportation for Indian documentary teams: taxi van. The great part is that cab drivers can typically be acquired for the whole day at an affordable rate, so it makes load in, parking and watching the gear super convenient.
Upon arrival, we needed to gain entry into a very secure compound that housed one of the largest companies in the country. The guardhouse was empty, but after someone shouted at us from across the street, we found the head of security who let us in.
On the inside, it was business as usual. The great thing about production folk is that regardless of country or native language (only the DP and PA spoke fluent English), everyone slips into their normal roles, doing their usual onset jobs. The only difference here is that the electricity would go out for about 30 minutes every few hours and we would just sort of wait it out while the power grid found it’s feet.
Hence I discovered the absolutely tantalizing practice of “tea time”. Every couple of hours, the clients and crew help themselves to Indian tea, snacks, and a short sit down to chat about life and how things are going. This is a custom that I will attempt to implement into production timelines immediately upon my return to the US.
After the wrap, we headed south four hours to Agra for our second day of shooting. Before the day got started, Raja and Vikash insisted that I at least visit and touch the Taj Mahal before we got started. I’m glad they did.
For lunch, in between locations, we stopped at a roadside diner for some aloo bain… samos… uh… Indian food.
I promise, I tried to learn the names of the dishes and the only thing I picked up was “naan” (bread). Essentially, you use the naan to dip in and pick up everything on the plate. It was all extremely delicious, even though it was all mostly vegetarian. The only word of caution, and I cannot stress this enough: if it looks like a green bean, it’s not. See ‘green chili’ for more information, and tips on how to get the crew to stop laughing at your flop sweat and tears.
Once on the road after our second day, we traveled 3 hours to get to the boarder of Delhi, then we waited in traffic for four hours to make the remainder of the trip, which should have only taken 20 minutes. Evidently a car had exploded in the middle of the highway, and vehicles passing it where wisely giving it a wide berth. My crew assured me that this wasn’t a very common occurrence.
Our third day of shooting was based in a poverty stricken area of New Delhi inside of a government complex. The NGO occupying the space was quite an eclectic bunch, full of amazing life, accomplishment and hope. If you ever get the chance to learn more about Dr. Puri and the Society for Child Development, you’ll understand what made her an amazing interviewee.
For our last day of shooting, we were housed in our client’s corporate office in Gurgaon. You are more than likely connected to this city a couple times a month for technical support. Many of India’s call centers are stationed there.
More tea breaks, more great food, more friendly people (even if they scrunch up their face when you say “how ya’ doin’” in your Midwest accent) and far too much to try and cram into a single blog post.
There were a few gestures of “Happy Diwali” when we had our final wrap on the fourth day, and I was extremely grateful to my hardworking crew and very talented DP.
I learned so much from my team in our short time together. There were so many great conversations about India and why it’s amazing, how different it is from Western culture and the rampant problems that cause a lot of pain for some. The outlook on life and warm human element is so inspiring, despite the many obstacles for a lot of people that live there.
And production schedules should be considered rough guidelines, at best.
Written by Sam McDonald, Producer