China offers a wealth of opportunity for new and exciting projects, but filming here can be a challenge.
China is becoming an increasingly popular location to for media production. From Hollywood blockbusters such as Iron Man, to commercials like Land Rover’s epic ad shot on the Tianmen Mountain; the country is a mine for jaw dropping footage.
The country is also a hotspot for journalists from across the globe. As foreign relations with the US change by the day, and Xi Jinping unveils a string of new infrastructure developments, demands for news coverage are continuous.
However, the Chinese government imposes strict conditions on film makers and journalists, and failure to adhere to content, trademark and permit guidelines could prove disastrous.
The opportunities are endless
China offers a startlingly varied physical landscape which has set the scene for a huge variety of documentaries, scripted drama and more. The award winning 2005 documentary, China Blue, explored life inside sweatshops in Guangdong, while the thriller ‘Great Wall’, starring Matt Damon (2016) was shot entirely in the country.
“I have travelled to amazing locations, such as the source of Yangtze river and the Kekexili nature reserve, filming ordinary people with extraordinary stories,” Says Nina Huang.
Huang has extensive experience filming in China, and has contributed to a range of high profile projects. Her filmography includes Devils on the Doorstep, directed by Jiang Wen, and Grand Prize winner at Cannes in 2000, as well as the international hit, Kill Bill. Having worked as producer, fixer, and Directors Assistant, she knows the industry inside out.
“The Tibetan Plateau is by far my most memorable filming experience,” Nina says. “It can be physically, mentally and emotionally challenging,” she warns, “but a privilege and an inspiration.”
“Filming in China is certainly a challenge, but always rewarding ” echoes Steven Ballentyne, Location Producer and Fixer based in Shanghai.
Steven’s organisation EPM-Asia has managed shoots for Disney, National Geographic and the BBC across the country.
The diversity of human stories is also a huge draw for film makers and journalists.
“China is a vast country with 55 ethnic minorities,” Said Nina. “There are numerous diverse landscapes here, abundant in rich cultural and human stories. You can achieve in one country what might otherwise require an entire continent.”
“China will always be of interest to the outside world because of its fast growing economy,” Echoes Kim Taylor, director of Kaimu Production, a specialist documentary film production company based in China.
“We do a lot of corporate videos for international corporations, engineering programs are very popular too, because of the boundless ambition of China’s construction companies to build the fastest, tallest, longest of everything.”
Keeping inside of the law
The People’s Republic may be a director’s paradise, nevertheless, projects can quickly turn sour without an understanding of financial and political systems here. Despite the country opening its doors for new filming opportunities, there remains prohibitive measures on visas and permits.
“Working with the authorities is essential,” Warns Ballentyne. “The Chinese government wants to ensure productions are representing the country positively.”
However, permit applications can often be a minefield, as there are several authorities responsible for monitoring productions. State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), State Ethnic Affairs Commission, ministry of state Security and ministry of Education are all involved in monitoring filming.
On top of this each province demands a separate permit; therefore to cross between regions- as many shoots do- requires extensive preparation. With permit regulations changing continually, major shoots require three to six months pre-production.
Nevertheless, Ballentyne insists producers need not be intimidated by the process. “It is not scary, it just takes time,” he says. “We have never had been denied a permit, because we submit ample information about our shoot and collaborate with the government.”
Planning is essential. In order to apply for a filming permit, authorities demand a blueprint of the entire shooting schedule, this includes all key locations and contributors in writing as part of the application.
“I advise spending more time and money on pre-production to ensure we submit a serious and considered application,” Advises Taylor. “It is very hard to get doors to open in China, but once open, you will experience full co-operation.”
Censorship regulations will also affect production. Nina warns of rising censorship. “Regulations have gotten tighter, and they show no sign of letting up”. This is something Nina has wide experience in, as Devils on the Doorstep was eventually banned in China.
“As censorship becomes more restrictive, it will become harder and more complicated for western film/TV crews to acquire necessary filming permits,” she added.
Indeed, the China Film Insider has repeatedly warned of the need to be able to navigate Chinese filming laws. Sports broadcasting, film and video games production are all subject to intricate copyright laws, which need to be heeded.
Nina’s experiences reveal the potential volatility of filming projects. Regardless of careful planning, the Chinese government can be unpredictable in it’s treatment of foreign film crews.
“In 2009 I was fixing the 80 days around the world, a reality show for BBC,”said Nina. ” Everything went well until the BBC broadcast a documentary about the June 4th incident; the Chinese government was not happy about it and suspended all projects related to BBC.”
Local support networks
Selecting the correct international and local team is essential.
“It is important to find the right local partner, someone who understands your needs and the local political and cultural environment; with a broad network and sufficient knowledge of production,” advised Nina.
Rising popularity of the country as a location for production, means there is an increasing volume of local support available. There are a plethora of individuals and organisations offering high levels of technical support, in areas such as special effects, SPX make up, stunts, animal wrangling and drone filming. Indeed, World Fixer’s pool of fixers and producers in China is expanding rapidly.
However, rising costs are an issue fixers, directors and producers need to keep in mind. As is the unfortunate rule of supply and demand, an influx of global interest has pushed costs up considerably over the past decade, and previous competitive pricing is beginning to disappear.
As a result Kim Taylor warns of the price tag attached to a shoot in China.
“The cost of living in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai is on a par, if not more, than major first-world cities such as New York and London, however, outside of the big cities, accommodation and meal costs can reduce substantially,” She says.
Nina warns this means filming personnel must also take additional care ensuring the quality of their projects. “Many are attracted to the prospect of quick money, which leads to chaos in the production that results in a poor quality end product,” she warned.
Ballentyne echoes her concern. “Local outfits are undoubtedly proficient at organising small scale operations, however for extensive projects larger teams are required.”
Selecting the appropriate western crew is also essential. All foreign crew members are vetted by the government, and anyone on a black list risks being denied entry. Therefore, selecting personnel with dispensation to work in the country is imperative.
Lights, camera, action
Over the last few years China has become a media production hotspot, and demand continues to rise. However, filming in the country requires diligent planning and a lot of patience. Collaborating with authorities and local networks is essential; while this may seem an arduous process, the results are worth the effort.
To find out more about Nina Huang, visit her World Fixer Profile
To find out more about Kim Taylor visit her website