This week we talk to Location Manager and Fixer, Steve Ballantyne, on the challenge of working in difficult environments, finding that perfect location, and his move to Asia.
You live in Hong Kong – how have you had to adapt your career to work around this?
My move to Hong Kong was actually adapting my personal life to work around my career – from day one I have chosen to work on productions filming in remote locations across Asia. I was originally working from London which did give me direct access to clients but restricted me on my ability to develop knowledge and to gain further valuable experience in the countries I wanted to support productions in, moving to Asia was always on the cards and inevitable to support my career plans in both managing the logistics for filming projects and my own personal interest in exploration.
What prompted the move to Hong Kong?
Initially, I had planned to move to Papua New Guinea, a country I still have a strong and very close affiliation to. However, PNG was just one country of many I wanted to work in, so I set my sights on either Hong Kong or Singapore as both have booming production industries. I finally chose Hong Kong for its close association to China and the countries it borders – I also felt Hong Kong was quirky enough to match my personality. I love the buzz of city life which is where I keep my office but I live out on Lamma Island and have chosen a home in the mountains. I love the contrast of life and the gateway living in Hong Kong gives me to provide production companies comprehensive logistical support in a range of countries across Pacific, Central and East Asia.
What has been your best project/favorite location to date?
This is a tough question as I have been fortunate to work on a wide range of productions in some amazing locations. However, last year I worked on ‘Naked and Marooned with Ed Stafford’ created for Discovery by Tigress Productions which was filmed on a remote Island in the Southern Fijian Oceania. I was originally commissioned to find a suitable location, which as you can imagine, to find a remote island to match the production specifics was like finding a needle in a haystack but I managed to do this successfully and continued to manage the location, which included making all logistical arrangements and negotiating the use of the island with the clans who owned it. Tribal negotiation is just one of the specialist services I offer; there has to be a balance between looking after the needs of the local communities involved as well as ensuring the production needs are met. My skills in this area certainly came into use as I continued to work on the production as line producer for the entire shoot period, living for just over 60 days on my own island 8.5 nautical miles away from the production island – working remotely and in principle alone but with daily contact with the production team in the UK. It was a fantastic experience and one I am keen to repeat again should a similar project come along.
What are the key skills involved when working on projects that require special access?
Being a confident decision maker and providing clear and transparent communication when working with people at all levels are the principle skills that helps build the trust required to gain access into special and restricted access. Areas are restricted for a reason and through showing respect for this from the very outset but clearly presenting your ‘case’ as to why you can safely and successfully film there is a paramount skill, as is a great deal of patience and focus especially when working against tight timelines. At present, I am working on a production concept to access the northern jungles of Myanmar, an area closed to general access due to the on-going conflict. However, after months of negotiating, our request for access has now reached the President’s office and it’s a major step forward. Working closely with both individuals on the ground and at government level has certainly helped move this forward and is a tried and tested method in securing a range of potentially inaccessible locations.
Travelling must be a big passion of yours – what encouraged you to pursue a career as a location scout and fixer?
Following just under five years of personal travel across Asia, I wanted to be able to use the knowledge and experience gained. I fell into ‘fixing’ and location work by pure chance; it initially started following an article I wrote on Papua New Guinea when I was asked to support the PNG episode of Discovery’s ‘Into the Unknown with Josh Bernstein’ series produced by Darlow Smithson. This was certainly a baptism of fire but I was hooked – I have a real aptitude to work through complicated logistics and an ability to understand exactly what production companies need and how to deliver on requirements. This skill fitted well with the needs of productions working in remote or difficult locations. Making it into a career has not been an easy ride, but nothing beats the feeling of seeing a production you have supported on screen, especially when you know how much work has gone into making it!
What kind of preliminary research goes into hunting for the best location? Are they generally places you have visited before, or do you rely on other sources (e.g. the internet)?
In principle, my work is in locations I know well and have spent considerable time in. However, in Fiji last year, when starting from scratch, I generally steer away from the internet as it tends to cloud initial investigations by only providing details on ‘popular’ areas. My research starts at grass roots and good old fashioned talking to people; Hong Kong is an international city and the people who live here come from a wide range of backgrounds and countries – so tapping into communities here is always a good start. I have my own library of books, magazines and articles which I often draw on for inspiration. If an island is mentioned in an article, it’s the untold story I am interested in – it was this technique that helped me locate the island for the Ed Stafford series.
What kind of procedures do you have to go through when thinking about health and safety regulations for location filming?
I see risk assessment, risk management and health & safety evaluation as a principle part of my job; the hands on knowledge I have as a fixer, location scout and manager means I can build quickly detailed reports which fall in line with insurance and production regulations. Evaluation of risk and safety starts from day one of commission, as I build a detailed report on potential risks as the project develops – this ensures all areas of the production are considered and constantly evaluated. It’s a subject I feel passionately about and I run risk and health & safety evaluation courses at the Hong Kong International Academy of Film and Television.
When working on remote and hostile locations, what lengths do you have to go to, to ensure that the area is accessible for the crew?
Getting production crew and their kit to and from locations can be at times like a military exercise – ensuring charter flights are in place, boats arrive to schedule and making sure what are often long and uncomfortable journeys as comfortable as possible. The most extreme example was a production in PNG where I quite literally arranged for an abandoned airstrip to be cleared and housing built prior to the arrival of the crew. The time lines where tight but I achieved, with the support of many local hands, what seemed like the impossible in just 3 days. However, managing these remote locations does mean I am on call 24/7, always expecting the unexpected and being ready to take action at a moment’s notice. Maintaining clear lines of communication with both the production company and all involved is paramount and with extremely remote locations I will pay for a person on the ground to act as my voice/representative.
How much does your work rely on the weather and seasons?
Weather and seasons play a major role in my ability to secure new production contracts, which is why I have created the ability to work in a wide range of Asia locations. It means if one location becomes less popular due to the monsoon season, I can still provide my services elsewhere.
What happens when things go wrong?
This is quite simple; I take responsibility and deal with the issue quickly. It is inevitable that things will go wrong but through good solid planning and having a number of backup plans (all agreed with the production company in advance!), for the most part, things that go wrong can be dealt with; I also find being open and transparent with the crew at all levels throughout the production period means that as and when an issue arises I am trusted to manage the problem. I draw on over 8 years’ experience and know how to retain a level head, but most importantly, I do take full responsibility for the problem and making sure it’s resolved!
In your opinion, how do you think the role of the location scout/fixer has evolved over the years – and where do you see it heading?
From my personal perspective, the role has developed into being a more trusted and valued part of the production team – without fixers, location scouts and managers there would be no productions. I am aware my hands-on knowledge and ability to support crews filming in some of the remotest parts of the world is the principle starting point to many productions. I have invested a great deal of time and money into building the knowledge that I’ve acquired which is being recognized as a valuable and required resource to ensure filming success. I can certainly see this role being more integrated into production houses with freelancers like myself having longer term contracts whereby we work on a number of productions across a number of locations. This would certainly be a cost effective approach – I know I would certainly welcome this.
My future plans also include becoming more involved in designing production concepts and supporting further research and development, as well as potentially playing a stronger role in managing productions on locations. I have a strong working relationship with a number of production companies both in the UK and USA and look forward to developing these relationships and making a great deal more in the coming years.
Steven Ballantyne is a freelance Fixer & Location Manager and a ProductionBase member.