China is becoming an increasingly popular location for filming and media production. From the bustling street of Shanghai to the snowy peaks of the Himalaya’s, the country provides an ideal backdrop for scripted dramas, documentaries, and commercials.
We spoke to Mandy Bueschlen Li, an award winning local producer, director and fixer who has worked with the BBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic.
Mandy has extensive experience working in China. We spoke to her about her work and sought her advice for others setting up a project in the country.
How did you get into film and film production?
After graduating from university, I worked in international TV news production for more than 5 years covering stories in China. We produced breaking news, short form news stories, and 15-minute documentary series.
This line of work has taken me to meet people and listen to their stories that would never cross my life otherwise, and brought me to places that I would never been if it wasn’t for filming.
I feel extremely grateful for having a career that has the privilege of telling important stories to large audiences while at the same time enriching my own life. After a few years of working in news, I started to wonder what happened to the lives of the characters after the news cycle ended, and what deeper issues beneath the headlines could be explored.
I found myself truly enjoying visual storytelling and developed an appetite for full-length documentaries. I made a career shift from news to documentary filmmaking and now, for more than 8 years, I have been producing and directing documentaries and love every minute of it. I have grown from associate producer to senior producer and taken on director roles too.
Because I have worked in many capacities in productions with extensive experience in whatever role I am hired for, I can see each step from the perspective of a researcher, producer, and director, which I find extremely valuable for making a project a successful one.
What has been your favourite project so far and why
My favourite project so far would have to be The Story of China, an ambitious 6 x 1 hour BBC/PBS series about the history of China presented by TV historian Michael Wood. The series was a culmination for my love of storytelling, where we told the story of China to the world through a great storyteller like Mr. Wood, a story that is complex and thousands of years old – and also one that so many people outside the country have never heard.
I was responsible for all aspects of China production over the course of this monumental three-year project. It was a great pleasure working closely with Producer/Director Rebecca Dobbs and Mr. Wood on a series that looks into the entire history of China; one that saw us travel through a large number of cities and landscapes in China.
Which locations have you filmed in China? Which was the most memorable for you?
I have filmed in almost all the regions of China over the years, from bustling cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai to the sprawling deserts in Gansu and Xinjiang. China covers such vast areas and has so much to offer; stunning locations and unique stories – you name it.
The most memorable place I have ever filmed at is probably Everest base camp in Tibet when directing for China From Above 2 for the National Geographic Channel. Everest was so breathtakingly beautiful but utterly foreboding and inhospitable – it was physically and mentally challenging at the same time.
What do you think are the benefits of filming in China?
China has all kinds of amazing locations, from rivers to deserts, grassland to snow mountains. It also has a large population with diverse demographics. There is beautiful and diverse scenery to be filmed and unique stories to be told everywhere you go. There is a rich mix of people just as there is ancient and modern. Where else can you see brand-new skyscrapers rise over ancient palaces and temples?
Before the Flood, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Fisher Stevens on fighting climate change – China Production Coordinator, National Geographic and Theatrical release
Why do you think filming in China is becoming increasingly popular?
China is a major force in the world, a key player in news headlines. But there are still so many people outside of the country who know so little about it.
I am really glad to see that the international audience has taken more of an interest in China. People in the world would like to know what is happening in China – how its people living their lives in such a modern but ancient middle kingdom, as well as the new developments it is making.
In the recent years, China has also been trying tell its stories to the international world through documentaries. There is more and more funding from China for international filmmakers to tell China stories. This could be another reason for the increased popularity in filming in China.
How do you think it may continue to change in the future?
I think the interest in China will continue to grow and there will also be more funding from China for international filmmakers to tell China stories internationally. Production companies/producers/directors who have filmed in China successfully will be more and more likely to come back to film more projects. More long terms collaborations will flourish.
Mandy’s advice for filming in China
Setting up a project in China can be very different from what filmmakers knew from their previous experiences working in their own countries.
1. Keep an open mind. For filmmakers who are coming to film in China for the first time, throw out any preconceptions that working there will be like it is at home.
2. Bring a Chinese producer on board. I think other than having good stories – which is the key to any successful film in my opinion – bringing an experienced Chinese producer on board early is the key to success. Having a good Chinese producer/fixer helps projects avoid any potential roadblocks, adding value to the project and helping to make the production a smooth one.
3. There is plenty of help available, you just need to seek it out. There are many international-standard crews available locally, such as producers, directors, DPs and sound recordists.
4. Contact a fixer earlier rather than later. I’d suggest contacting your Chinese producer/fixer as early as you can, at least 2 months before the filming date, high quality crew members are getting busier and need longer advance notices.
5. Apply for the correct visa. A temporary journalist visa (J2 visa) is required for filming in China. Visa letters will be issued after the project is processed and approved by Chinese filming authority, it usually takes about 6 – 8 weeks to obtain filming permit and J2 visa.
A permitting fee will apply 70 USD – 120 USD/crew member/day in China with a minimum charge of 2,000 USD – 3200 USD/project.
5. Get to know the permitting system. For most projects, it usually takes 6 – 8 weeks once the final detailed filming schedule along with other documents is submitted to the filming authority.
The ease/difficulty of process will highly depend on the nature of a project, the topic, and the locations. In general, the more controversial the topic is, the more public-owned locations there are, i.e. museums, nature reserves, the more difficult it would be.
6. Customs clearing for bringing in kit. From my experience, ATA doesn’t work for Chinese customs. A Chinese carnet is needed for bringing in kit. At the end of the permitting process, a Chinese carnet will also be provided if needed.
7. Research the restrictions. Depending on the stories the documentary is going to tell, some regions are easier to apply to be filmed in than others.
Generally speaking, coastal, eastern and southern areas of China are more open-minded and the western part of China are a bit more closed off. Among the western provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions are the most difficult. It is important for filmmakers to choose locations carefully especially when facing a tight deadline and/or budget.
More difficult locations will take more time, need more budget and has higher a risk of refusal. It would be the best if you could consulate with your China producer/fixer in the decision-making process.