How To Shoot a Documentary Film That Tells a Cultural Story
The team at Suika Studios discover the world through food, culture and everything in between. They share how they created their most recent food documentary in Thailand, through building networks, engaging local cultures and improvising while on the move.
Living and breathing creativity, adventure and the unknown, brothers Jason and Vincent Tran launched production company Suika Studios in 2019, channeling their love for travel into documentary filmmaking.
A venture they’d been eager to explore for a while, they were drawn to documentary filmmaking as a medium for genuine storytelling, diving into real world topics and issues that they were passionate about.
Combining their interest in cuisine and travel, Jason and Vincent set off to explore Thai cuisine and culture. They share some of their top tips in documentary filmmaking and how this film came to life.
BUILD LOCAL CONTACTS IN ADVANCE
Before traveling to a foreign country, Suika Studios express the importance of putting the hours into research and pinpointing possible subjects in advance.
Through emails, Whatsapp and Instagram, they were able to remotely build a small web of key local contacts, potential subjects and stories for the film.
“After touching base with potential subjects through email, we would schedule calls over web-based meeting apps to discuss our ideas for the documentary and learn more about them, all before we’ve even caught a flight.”
Whilst it is essential to have a rough idea of the story you want to explore, Jason says coming in with an open agenda is just as important so interactions with subjects can guide the development of the story.
EMBRACE THE CULTURE
Cultural and language barriers are a constant challenge when filming overseas. It takes an open mind and willingness to embrace new cultures – asking questions no matter how small and showing genuine curiosity.
Suika Studios provide a few pointers that allow for a smoother transition when traveling to a foreign country:
- Learn some of the local language. Even just local greetings and basic phrases can go a long way in showing the locals that you’re eager to learn about their country and customs. We like to keep a digital language notepad on my phone that we add new words and phrases to throughout the trip.
- Learn local customs and etiquette. This is a vital part of travel, and probably the most key part of a successful journey. Being conscious of local customs and etiquette will allow for more positive interactions and locals will be more inclined to help in a country that is less familiar.
- Be open-minded. Eat something weird, go to that small country town that nobody’s heard of, go chat with a local. Our most unforgettable experiences have come from doing things we wouldn’t normally do and going beyond our comfort zone, and there’s no better opportunity than when you’re traveling.
TRAVEL LIGHT AND MAKE DO
As with most creative professionals that film on location, you don’t always have a full team or carpool of equipment to lug around with you. When you’ve only got what’s in your backpack, the best results come from improvisation.
“For example, in terms of lighting subjects for interviews, we have to use available light. We use the sun as a key light, place subjects on the edge of the light, and use the other side in a shaded area. Maybe use a diffuser to bring up the shadows a little bit. Being creative with what’s available is essential,” says Vincent.
- Chargers – always.
- Camera gear – one camera body usually gets the job done.
- Lenses – we like to stick with zoom lenses – they offer the most versatility in run and gun situations. One prime for when it’s dark.
- A laptop – for those quick edits, backing up footage, and working on the go.
- An external hard drive – for backing up. We highly rate SSDs due to their portability, speed and reliability.
- Kindle & earphones – for those long bus rides.
- Water bottle – always stay hydrated.
- A towel – just in case.
- A polaroid printer – as a gift for locals.
KEEP YOUR HARD EARNED FOOTAGE SAFE
Working on the go while traveling in fast-paced environments means there are great risks. One risk you don’t want to take is having a poor backup strategy that can’t keep up with the pace you’re moving.
“We’ve had to power through monsoon season rainfall in Thailand and Nepal, the pumping snow in Japan and Canada, edited footage over the Nile in Egypt and battled raging heats in USA’s Death Valley,” says Vincent. “Sturdy gear is a must!”
Along with weather sealed camera bodies and rainproof backpacks to combat these conditions, fast, rugged hard drives are core to the team’s travel kit.
“We relied on the G-DRIVE SSD 2TB1 as the primary drive for all footage we shoot and edit when on the go. On top of that is a secondary drive for storing the footage so we have the data in two places,” says Vincent.
“The G-DRIVE SSD is incredibly fast, we were able to transfer around 100GB of footage in 5 minutes2 which is crucial when on the go and time is of the essence.
“After having regular external drives fail us on previous trips, the rugged exterior also provided peace of mind knowing that internals won’t fail with accidental bumps and drops.”
1 1GB = 1 billion bytes and 1TB = 1 trillion bytes. Actual user capacity may be less depending on the operating environment.
2Based on read speed. 1 MB/s = 1 million bytes per second. Based on internal testing; performance may vary depending upon host device, usage conditions, drive capacity, and other factors.
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