New restrictions send some crews out of the skies and into their cars
Add one more inconvenience to the list of worries for today's production crews: learning how to successfully travel on airplanes in the post-9/11 era with all the bulky, heavy production gear that's vital for any production shoot.
With restrictions on baggage size, weight and number-and the increasing number of airlines who may not allow excess baggage at all-production crews nationwide are finding themselves in a bind.
"The days of checking 30 cases for your overseas production shoot are over," said Scott Munro, president of Media Arts Inc., a corporate and commercial production house.
LEARNING THE RULES
In the last few months, the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) has released myriad new security and baggage restrictions, including rules regulating the size, number and weight of checked and carry-on luggage. For each passenger, most major airlines allow two checked bags, one carry-on and one personal item, such as a laptop or a purse.
"If we're travelling with a small production crew, it's probably 15 to 18 bags in total, and if you're lucky, room to put your clothes," said John Sharaf, a cameraman and lighting director based in Los Angles who works for ABC and CBS on their magazine and morning show programs.
Baggage restrictions vary by airline: Maximum weight for most carriers is 70 pounds for checked luggage and 40 pounds for carry-ons, though a few limit passengers to 50 pounds of checked gear. The maximum size for baggage is 62 inches.
That's little comfort to a videographer whose packing list likely entails a camera, tripod, monitor, lighting, filters, audio equipment, grip gear and tape stock.
In the past, passengers paid for additional pieces of luggage, which might range from as little as $35 to as much as $110 per bag. But some airlines are simply not allowing passengers to check additional baggage at all, in part due to a new TSA requirement requiring every piece of baggage to be scanned or hand-inspected. Successfully getting excess baggage on board seems to depend on the airline and the day of travel.
"When we travel nowadays, we do it by car due to the hassle and expense of flying," Sharaf said. "We have a grip truck [in L.A.] and simply drive to San Diego or Modesto or Phoenix, whereas in the old days we would hop on a plane."
A typical magazine program crew can carry as many as 40 pieces of cargo, and if an airline charges $50 a bag, that can be an extra $2,000 a flight. Add that to the fear of an airline losing a critical piece of luggage, and "it simply becomes less expensive to drive," Sharaf said.
FINDING A NEW WAY
But for video crews who do travel by air, solutions to the equipment issue are out there.
"In general we try to pick up as much support gear on-location as possible," said Bill Howard, senior producer at Henninger Productions, a media services company headquartered in Arlington, Va. Henninger recently completed a documentary of the Cuban missile crisis for the Discovery Channel called "DEFCON-2," which took them and their Sony HDWF900 24p high-definition camera to Moscow and Cuba.
"In a place like Moscow, where they've had 90 years of film production, they've got a lot of stuff; it just happens to be a little antiquated and a little specialized," Howard said.
The key to an all-around successful shoot is to find a reputable local fixer, Howard said, one that can book a hotel, arrange a translator, ease passage through customs and even track down a "bounce card" to control lighting in unfamiliar surroundings. "When traveling, you want to leave as little to chance as possible," Howard said, adding that the best way to find a good fixer is by word-of-mouth. "You find out who's already been there and ask who they used."
Within the U.S., the proliferation of reliable professional video cameras and operators means you save the trouble of having to fly your crew in and out of major markets, Sharaf said.
Another tip for traveling video crews: curbside check-in. "Curbside check-in is the friend of all production people," Howard said. "You don't have to bring all that gear into the terminal, and sometimes the curbside guys are able to help out with excess baggage. Tip those guys well, because they can smooth out your trip."
GEAR ON THE GO
Gear is out there to make the job of traveling easier. Bogen Photo, for one, introduced the new Manfrotto MDeVe series of lightweight video tripods last year. These aluminum and carbon-fiber tripods weigh between 4.19 pounds and 6.17 pounds.
Likewise, Frezzi Energy Systems has been working to provide several networks with lightweight and smaller-sized ENG lighting kits. Some crews had been using lighting systems transported in bulky, heavy wooden cases, and were using additional equipment cases to carry soft boxes and miscellaneous lighting gear, said Kevin Crawford, Frezzi's vice president of engineering. In response, the company introduced the 3.5-pound 200W Super Sun Gun HMI lighting kit, which fits into a suitcase-sized carry-on and has the output of a 400W HMI. "An ENG crew can travel with just two equipment cases: one for the camera and batteries and one for the HMI," Crawford said. Frezzi's 6-ounce Micro-Fill on-camera lights for MiniDV camcorders were also designed with space and weight restrictions in mind.
While technical advances and good packing skills are making travel easier, it is still a rough road, say several travelling videographers.
"Every time you go through an airport on a different airline or go in and out of a different country, things are getting tighter and more difficult," Sharaf said. "Couple that with the fact that the airlines are trying to make as much money in various ways that they can. Traveling as a videographer continues to present interesting hurdles."
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Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.