Going On-Location in a Post-9/11 Environment

I used to worry that I couldn't be in two places at once; now I find that I can't even be in one place at once.

Ever since the air transport system tightened security measures in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, it's become incredibly difficult to pack up a video crew and run off at a moment's notice.

There's the endless baggage inspections, and if the entire crew emerges barefoot and beltless from the security checkpoint, how must the equipment be faring on the airport conveyor belts? Every single item in our location-pack looks like a weapon. The friendly skies have darkened, making it much harder for us to do our jobs.

In my corner of the production universe, the effects of these changes are significant. We now consider the idea of flying the crew to a location shoot pretty much impossible. One of us might take one case--the big Ikegami camera--and source everything else locally. For the most part, though, it's a solo trip for the producer/director and a call to a trusted local crew for the rest.


We've met all kinds of people booking crew members across the country. We've had our uppity East Coast chauvinistic attitudes challenged in the process. We never expected to find talent like Mele Mason in Omaha, Neb., or Kurt Snider in Laguna Beach, Calif., nor did we expect the lowbrow characters we once found in Kansas City. It's a learning experience on a lot of levels.

Some of the best lessons learned by using local crews are the examples of sheer resourcefulness. One veteran film sound guy showed me two dozen ways to use Dr. Scholl's Moleskin foam for mounting wireless mic capsules. Rob O'Gorman wins the award for being best-prepared--moments after the snatch-and-run theft of his new camera in front of a posh Chicago hotel, he calmly reached back into the van and pulled out a spare. Yes, a spare camera.

It's good to know a native when traveling to distant cities, and our hired crews have become some our best travel friends. A stroll down any Portland, Ore., street with local producer Tom Shrader is like a walking tour with the mayor. Years of covering the Portland Rose Festival have made him familiar to, well, everyone in town, and he can tell you the story behind every restaurant, bridge, historic building and fireplug.

We've had flawless restaurant recommendations in cities everywhere, most often from the grips and prompter operators. U.K. shooter John Whatton's best culinary advice to me was, "Mind the Speckled Hen [ale]. It'll knock you on your arse."

Best of all is the chance to look at other folks' gadgetry and geegaws. We saw our first Leatherman tools on-location long ago. David Haylock from Image Devices showed us our first cell phone, a five-pounder that looked like a military radio. The late, great Don Hunt from Nashville, Tenn., tricked out a Rubbermaid office cart with hooks and bungees, brackets and wireways so that his net cart setup time was less than 90 seconds.

The Hardcastle brothers of St. Louis are masters of the unexpected accessory, with a collection of goodies and tools for every unforeseen situation. When you inventory some of these folks' location-packs, you begin to understand why the grip and studio supply houses have begun to look more like hardware stores--it's all about ingenuity.

The air travel crunch may have been hardest on the stringers, those fearless souls who serve at the networks' beck and call. After several travel nightmares, Bill Mumford and Jack Neu, a camera/sound team out of the Tampa, Fla. area, did an end-run around the problem. Mumford bought a new Ford F-250 diesel pickup and drove 5,000 miles in the first month for clients like the CBS series "48 Hours."

As it turned out, driving to Charleston, S.C., compared favorably with arriving at the airport hours early, loading out, parking, paying excess baggage fees, flying, claiming baggage, renting a vehicle and driving to the location. In their Super Stringer pickup, they alternate driving duty with naps in the fully reclined passenger seat, aka "the day bed."

Comfort, lifestyle and scheduling may be attractive side benefits to the team's drive-anywhere philosophy, but at its core lies money. Everyone knows that a crew can't get by with three bags apiece, let alone the new de facto limit of two. There's going to be some excess baggage every time you fly.


Remember the old media rate of $25 per excess bag? Gone. In its place is a progressively more punitive scale of baggage penalties, often ranging from $50 to as much as $125 per bag. And that's if the cases aren't too heavy. New regulations have lowered the threshold from 70 to 50 pounds per bag. Worst of all, such expenses are usually picked up by the client who booked the shoot, and anticipated costs like these can kill a project before it starts.

The ultimate headache is the conspicuous absence of one's baggage at the destination. According to Neu, one airline's disgruntled baggage handlers have randomized baggage routing, hoping to make their point to management. Even the passable airlines consistently leave bags behind when schedules get tight.

"When we drive, we know we'll have all the gear when we get there," said Neu.

In the end, it's all about control. It is the desperate desire to try to regain control of the simplest aspect of running a business--the ability to show up for work. But we're a crafty bunch, hewn from hardy stock. Bested by terrorists, federal regulations and gargantuan airline corporations? Never. n

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at walter@mmgi.tv.