Permits, Planning and Primates The Ups and Downs of Filming in South Africa.
With so much to offer, it is hard to know where to start when extolling Cape Town’s many virtues. If you have never been to or filmed in Cape Town you will find it hard to accurately imagine the quality of the light, the freshness of the air and the friendliness of the people. If you have been here you will already be planning your next trip. I first arrived in the Cape of Good Hope in the late 1990s because I heard that there was a film industry here and I was an adventurous film school graduate looking for somewhere sunny to call home. Little did I know that the industry was growing fast and within the next 10 years there would be more than 100 production companies, several crew agencies, gear houses and numerous specialist suppliers from animal wranglers to wig-makers.
The focus of the industry in Cape Town is TV commercial servicing with international TV production facilitation coming a close second. There is a multi-million dollar studio complex 30 mins from the city centre which boasts state-of-the-art sound stages and facilities. Johannesburg is home to the South African Broadcasting Corporation and is where the majority of local TV productions are filmed. There are so many stories here and the fact that they take place in one of the most beautiful places in the world makes for compelling TV. After I arrived, I worked as production manager on several TV series and in 2003 I helped out a colleague on a job as a fixer. I was hooked and in 2007 I set up my company Two Seas TV, mainly because it is hard to get permits as an individual. Other issues with the processing of film permits include a long turn-around (up to a week), confusion about who is responsible for which location and technical issues with the online system but more on filming permits later.
The first step when planning an overseas filming trip is to set an approximate date and then contact a local fixer or production company. Despite the fact that most producers looking for a fixer would prefer an individual, having a registered company does not necessarily mean high overheads. I have built my own website and work from home hiring freelance crew as necessary. It does have many advantages. I have accounts at gear houses so I can order a piece of equipment to be delivered to set within an hour without having to worry about making payment while shooting. Crew agencies prefer invoicing an established company and hotels give better rates.
Once you are confident that your fixer is qualified to assist with both pre-production and on-set logistics, you will probably want to know how much it’s all going to cost. Working together to lock off a cost estimate helps you to budget accurately and prevents any surprise expenses at the end of the shoot. In Cape Town municipal permits are free but nature reserves and private homes and businesses often charge exorbitant fees so it would be good to start with a location search which you fixer will be able to help with. The permit office requires the production company to hold valid public liability insurance and they must be registered on the online system in order to make bookings. In Johannesburg and Durban the Film Offices are functionally incompetent so discuss with your fixer or location manager about alternatives to being stuck without an answer when asked for your paperwork. There is a very helpful gentlemen in the Johannesburg police department who issues permits on behalf of the city thus circumventing a potentially time consuming and frustrating application process.
Whether you have specific locations in mind or need someone to scout for you, it is always good to make sure that the scout takes the following variables into account; access and parking, environmental controls and oversight, filming restrictions, costs, sun-light and direction, availability and contact details for the person responsible for the location which you can put in your call sheet or contact list.
Where you are filming is often dependent on what you are filming so early on you will need someone with the experience required to come up with relevant ideas for contributors / stories and who is able to ensure that you are adequately informed of exactly what you can expect on the shoot day. Preferably, you need a written guarantee of access and a breakdown of any costs or donations before you arrive in South Africa. Potential contributors need to be informed about what will be required of them on the day and you need their contact details and information about their availability so that you can schedule the shoot accordingly.
Your fixer will be able to recommend the best way to travel around. Local flights are essential for long distances and depending on your crew size and amount of equipment, a minibus is best for shorter distances preferably with a professional driver who can act as security guard when you are away from the vehicle and as a translator. South Africa has 11 official languages so there is a good chance that you will need to hire a local from the province that you are travelling to. Most people in the cities speak English and the majority of business emails and contracts are conducted in English so if you speak that you will not have too many problems. Whether you understand the accents or vernacular is another story.
Talking of stories, your trip to Africa would not be complete without a few edge-of-your seat moments for the memory bank so don’t forget your personal camera or smart-phone. Over the past 15 years I have experienced some hair-raising and hilarious adventures. I have climbed half way up a mountain in the rain with camera equipment and spent the night with rabid dogs on a movie called The Breed. I watched Fear Factor contestants eating bull’s testicles and got stuck behind a locked gate on a director’s recce fearing starvation whilst waiting for the fire department to arrive. I would have eaten my right arm; testicles would have been a treat. I was once forced into dancing with an Arabian princess at a royal wedding, in my trainers, at 5 in the morning and another time I was an extra in club scene filmed in a township bar at midnight grooving to house music unworried about gang-violence or car-jacking. Sometimes luck trumps good judgement or planning.
At the end of one job the client decided to visit Cape Point the morning before leaving for the airport taking along her backpack containing her travel documents, passport and…a sandwich. Despite walking past several signs warning of the dangers of carrying food into this area notorious for its wild and unruly baboons, she carried on nonchalantly pottering along the path admiring the view. Suddenly a huge male baboon jumped out of the bushes, bared his enormous fangs and grabbed her backpack. A desperate tug of war ensued with the baboon fighting for his lunch on one side and a fat German producer on the other fearing for her life but reluctant to miss her flight and thus delay the edit. I was incapacitated with laughter, holding my sides and incapable of helping in any practical way. Needless to say, Teutonic determination prevailed and our producer gratefully caught her flight back to civilisation with her luggage intact but dignity in tatters. As the saying goes, Africa is not for sissies…something I once said to a homosexual director which went down about as well as a teetotaller at a wrap party.
The industry in South Africa is well developed and supported by a full range of professional suppliers. They can advise you of the minutiae regarding the rules and regulations of their particular discipline but there is no substitute for a good local fixer or producer. An experienced fixer will coordinate the pre-production process liaising with gear houses and providing up-to-date prices and guidelines. For example, there is currently a country-wide ban on flying remotely operated aircraft such as drones or hexacopters. The Film Commission is negotiating with the CAA but the rules change weekly and there are many grey areas. Filming dogs and penguins at beaches is also banned but the rules can be circumvented for crews with less than 3 people as long as tourists and sea-birds are left to their own devices.
Finally, here is a list of resources to help you get started. Google is your friend but a good fixer will be your right-hand, mediator and saviour in more ways than one. They might not wrestle a baboon for you but they will give their heart and soul. Africa will do it’s best to capture your heart so just make sure to take it with you when you leave.
Helen Atty (Local Producer/Fixer – South Africa)
http://www.twoseas.cc (Helen’s Company)