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How To Afford Travel To Film Documentaries

Documentaries have this odd tendency of needing to be filmed far, far away from where you’re based. Even when you start out with what you think will be a local film, almost invariably there will be some twist in the storyline that will send you packing. Travel and documentary go together. But travel is probably also one of the biggest — if not the biggest — expense for just about any doc project. So how can you afford gear, the three phases of production, and travel too?

Up to here, I’ve traveled to 91 countries and filmed documentaries in at least nine. If you’ve ever followed me on my personal blog you will know that the only way that I can make funding my projects feasible is because I know how to geographically bundle them. It is absolutely imperative that when I travel for one project I add in two, three, sometimes even more projects that I can do on the same trip. Ideally, multiple projects mean multiple streams of income, and if I can combine them all into a single travel budget then I have a chance of remaining solvent … or, even better, profitable.

Still from the Assasi project

Still from the Assasi project.

I used this strategy best when I produced content in multiple mediums. For a span of years, I was a perpetually traveling foreign correspondent at Forbes, wrote features for the Guardian, made documentary films, ran a vlog on YouTube, wrote books, blogged, and also gave talks. Each arm of media would grasp at different streams of income, and I would plan my travels and projects in a way that would enable me to squeeze the full juice out of each mile.

I also dove headfirst into repurposing content for multiple forms of media. An interview that you do for a film can also be used for articles and books; rough drafts, notes, and the background story could be used for blog posts; unused footage can be used for social and YouTube videos … It was my goal to never allow a day of work to be a one-fer. I always tried to come up with ways to make the day viable for two, three, or even more forms of media — even if that just meant filming the BTS for YouTube vlogs.

Still from the wind farm project

Still from the wind farm project.

For my first film about Songdo in South Korea, I had my travel paid for by the organizer of an event that I covered. While there, I shot for the film, gathered information for a couple of articles for Forbes, shot some vlogs, wrote a bunch of blog posts, as well as fulfilled my duties at the event. Each of these ventures had their own income streams. I gave the project many arms, came out of it with a film, and made money too. The travel for The White Elephant was financed similarly — I was in Melaka to do a story for Forbes but also shot the film, acquired information for a section of a book that I was writing, and blogged about the trip too.

Now that I’m working almost exclusively in film and no longer writing articles and books, some of my options for financing travel may seem a little more limited. However, rather than working in multiple mediums I just pile on the film and video projects. You really use so little of your footage — often less than 10% — when filming documentaries that the rest is fair game to be used for shorter films, interview videos, vlogs, social posts, or even teasers of what will come in the main project.

Still from Atlantic Explorer project

Still from the Atlantic Explorer project.

Every moment that you’re out on a project think about how you can incorporate other, smaller projects or split off to start new ones. Did you meet someone fascinating while filming for a doc? Then make a short video about them. Did you see something interesting when traveling between the hotel and your filming location? Shoot it. Is the location that you’re filming in beautiful? Then feature it in a YouTube video. You have all that gear with you anyway, may as well use it to its full potential.

A few weeks ago I took a filming trip to Rhode Island and Maine. The trip started out as being a shoot in Narraganset for a new film that we are doing about off-shore wind farms, but I was able to add on a trip to the far north of Maine to film a commercial doc for a client, and on the way back I stopped near Portland for another filming session for the Assasi project — so three films wrapped into one trip.

So, the elevator pitch here is simple: never think about traveling for a project, think about traveling for multiple projects. When you get funding for a trip for one project pile other projects on top of it. This is the only way I found to make traveling for the film life sustainable and profitable.

Still from the Assasi project

Still from the Assasi project.

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