Ten Unexpected Challenges Of Shooting On A $100 Million Dollar Set

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

Ten Unexpected Challenges Of Shooting On A $100 Million Dollar Set

15 months ago we took on a project that would forever change our businesses and ourselves.

With a first time director and a film team lightly versed in narrative film making we set off to do the impossible, shoot a short narrative film (easy right). We chose to use the 100 million dollar backdrop of Black Rock City as our setting for a beautiful story of surrender and possibility.

So, what really could go wrong with such an engaging setting?

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

What exactly can go wrong at Burning Man?

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

  1. The weather

    1. In 2014 we experienced burning man for the first time and had the delight of experiencing a single white out dust storm, that left us longing for the magical experience of being secluded in a dust storm.

      Thinking 1 or 2 dust storms was usual for the playa we headed in to shoot our short film with high hopes of beautiful skies and breathtaking scenery to be bombarded with 9 out of 11 days of white out dust storms. To the point where you could not see someone 10 feet in front of you, this caused an issue on many fronts. We were unable to shoot according to our call sheets and schedule. Our gear was taking a beating while our crews initial high spirits wavered in the storms.

      Lesson: Be prepared for major setbacks due to weather and when it is nice, be ready to shoot.

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

  1. Your equipment

    1. After reaching out to 15 different insurance companies, we finally got the hint… shooting a production at burning man is not insurable. Great lets take out $30k of production gear into alkaline dust and hope that the weatherproofing that Sony speaks to actually works. With that said, we had taken precautions to protect our gear and our operators in extreme situations with a heavy black fabric cover that could go over and around everything. While luckily we did not end up running into any issues with our cameras as we had two setups to not have to change any lenses, our hdmi cords did crap out in multiple instances hindering the quality of our shots as we ran for the only extras we had.
      Lesson: As a production you are uninsurable to shoot on the playa. Prepare accordingly and remember other burners do not have awareness around your gear.
    2. We shot on Sony A7s outputting to an Atomos shogun external recorder on a DJI ronin steadicam with a wireless focus pull. That may seem like a dream rig to many, it left us very few options to protect our gear from the elements (weather and burners alike)
      Lesson: take the time to prep/protect your gear as much as possible so that it can be used in harsh conditions.
    3. Guess what all of this equipment needs in order to run that is not in simple supply on the playa… electricity! We luckily were a part of an amazing camp (Burners Without Borders) as well as one of the coolest art cars on the playa, SolarBeatz (a solar powered mobile sound stage). So we were able to charge with regularity, however that did not stop us from bringing every available battery we could in the event of battery exhaustion.
      Lesson: Make sure you have a consistent power source for you and your team.

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

  1. Schedule

    1. Be prepared to throw it out the window, we arrived early to help set up our camp and prepare for our shoot, however when the first dust storm hit within a day of us being there… the schedule we had spent weeks creating with every shot storyboarded and timed out took a backseat to determining what were the most important shots to get.
      Lesson: Do the prep work with additional time added for all of the different variables and embrace that it will change drastically.

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

  1. Dealing with extras

    1. As with any movie/film you need to get releases from anyone that has their likeness appear in the film. So when shooting on the playa, gathering everyone’s information who happened to walk in frame was an ordeal all its own that our producers had to run around and speak to each one. As the days went on, our schedules stretched, and spirits diminished it became a labor-intensive affair.
      Lesson: Make it as simple as possible for your team to grab releases, ideally doing video or photo releases on their phone through an app.
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Producer, Seth Bunting, filming on set at Burning Man 2015 for our short film, Deep Playa Sunrise.

  1. Managing data

    1. We had an RV that our director was staying in that we used for dumping data, a relatively clean and dust free environment. This is a must if you want your footage to survive. Also have extra cards and/or HD’s available for backup as your data is the most important asset.
      Lesson: Have a clean place to dump data and bring extra hard drives and SD cards for backup.

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

  1. Finding your team & locations

    1. In an ideal world your whole production team would be camping together… this is burning man… good luck with that. With team members and actors splayed across the playa we relied on radios and planned call times with some success. Keeping the radios charged and working was a challenge within itself. We created agreed upon meet locations with call times, however… this is burning man… we are running on playa time, which severely hindered our abilities to get the shots we needed amongst the fury of dust.
      Lesson: Radios are a must and do as much as possible to have your core team that is needed to shoot camping in the same location.
    2. We chose to use art installations that we had researched prior to arriving on the playa, however finding the art installations and knowing when they were completed was a challenge in itself for our producers and scouts. Full days were spent scoping out locations to end up using ones that we felt would work aesthetically and drive the story forward.
      Lesson: Do not be attached to a specific location or art piece to drive the story, as there are multiple factors that go into making that work.

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

  1. Shooting on the playa

    1. After covering all your bases, finding a suitable location, getting your team there, you still have to shoot in one of the most unpredictable environments there is. You have to get the performances you want out of your actors, and make sure that your crew is capturing it. We had setup and locked off shots multiple times, only for an art car to drive through our shot, burners wanting to be “funny/burners”, or a dust storm to kick up and we had to wrap even if we hadn’t shot a single scene. It was challenging and just when you thought you could relax, the playa had other plans.
      Lesson: Have team members redirecting people around your shots and do not relax and think the worst is over. Keep the mindset of getting as much usable footage that speaks to the beats of your story as possible.
    2. We shot in the traditional manner of one camera for every scene. Which meant one focal length and one angle was available. Our camera crew was used to shooting editorial and documentary style and could have shot two cameras, which would have given us much more versatility in post. Ultimately it was the decision of our director to shoot one camera, however we all agree it would have been great to have a second angle as a backup for each scene.
      Lesson: If you have the capability to shoot two cameras, it is worth it.

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

  1. Building the story

    1. We chose to create a narrative that had minimal audio because capturing quality audio on the playa might as well be shooting a strand of hair with a bow and arrow from 50ft away. This meant we had to tell the story visually, which put a lot of pressure on our Director of Photography as well as our camera operators. With all of the other complications and inability to shoot the multitude of scenes that we had storyboarded, we came off the playa with an unfinished story. We had beautiful imagery without a complete through line.
      Lesson: shoot as much as you can that relates to the story you are working to build. Be ready to do all audio in post.
    2. While ideally you want to have everything shot on location and walk away from your burn with the heartwarming feeling of doing so; be prepared to build your story in post. We had to shoot multiple insert scenes & audio in post as well as going through innumerable iterations to find the heart of the story.
      Lesson: Do not be tied to the way it looked in your mind and allow it to come alive in post.

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

  1. Approval

    1. Before even approaching the playa, if you wish to shoot professionally you will have to submit your project for approval to the Burning Man Media Mecca. Once you have overcome those hurdles you will need to make it to media mecca on the playa to pick up your official media badge, otherwise people shooting on professional gear will be questioned by rangers and may be reported and/or given a ticket (What actually happens).
      Lesson: Take into account all of the burning man principles and guidelines for media. If your project is speaking to those it will allow for a smoother and simpler approval process.
    2. You have jumped through all the hoops to shoot on the playa and may have created the most beautiful piece of media of your career however one of the caveats of shooting at Burning Man is that they are part owners of that piece of media as well as them having final say on approving it for when and where it is distributed. While that may seem initially that it is not a big deal, we have found many projects that were not approved or needed multiple iterations, as they are very intentional about how it is portrayed to the default world. So in one way or another you still have to answer to the man… even if he is burning.
      Lesson: Be prepared to alter your piece and where it is distributed in order for approval. Remove any companies/logos as much as possible from your piece.

burning man movie deep playa sunrise

    Managing your team

    1. Shooting an actual production on the playa is a challenge no matter how you look at it. Each member of your team is there to shoot as well as experience everything Burning Man has to offer. You will run into complications and you will need to solve issues quickly. You not only need to manage your teams expectations, but also the balance of time for when they get to experience the playa and when they are shooting.
      Lesson: Make sure there are clear expectations with your team of their responsibilities and their committed time.
    2. We had many complications with our actors, our team, and our director. This came from different genres of filming coming together with a first time director to shoot in one of the most challenging places there is. One of our biggest issues came from our camera crew wanting to shoot as much footage as possible, while the actors were looking for strict input and shots from our director. This ultimately had one of our leads walk off set as they felt the camera crew was not respecting the director and his vision. Two months of prep time, thousands of dollars of our own money, and crowdfunding campaign were swirling around the drain. Every team member was on the verge of breakdown, yet no one wanted to actually give up. The way that we rescued the project was to break down where miscommunications were happening and give direct responsibilities for how shooting would work to each team member. Encompassing all of that communication inside the bigger idea of why we were all there together and the amount of work that had already went into this, so that egos were put aside and we could get what we needed from each member of our team.
      Lesson: Always be paying attention to the tone of your team’s communications and have them buying in to the bigger purpose than anyone of their roles.

Were we successful? I would say so. Did we learn more than we even knew possible? Yes. Were they some of the most challenging few days of our careers? They are definitely up there. Was it all worth it? Absolutely. Check out the end result and you can determine for yourself. Much love to you and good luck on any projects you take on at Burning Man.

Lastly and most important, thank you to every person who helped make this project a reality as it was not done alone, it was our community, the Burning Man Organization plus hundreds of others who supported us through this tough and challenging film.


Kris Kish
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