On location with Karina Moreton, Managing Director of Panoramic Fixers
It’s no secret that Asia is an unparalleled treasure trove of unique locations, but each country comes with its own considerations. The question that plagues production professionals is how to best navigate the territory? TLG spoke to Karina Moreton of Panoramic Fixers, a production service company that operates in Mongolia, Bhutan and Myanmar, to understand the intricacies of filming in the region.
What countries and regions do you specialise in and how popular are these places as international filming locations?
Panoramic Fixers arrange shoots in Mongolia, Bhutan and Myanmar. During the last decade we have arranged over 100 shoots to these countries. The majority of the projects we have worked on are documentary and adventure series but we have also arranged commercials and fashion shoots. While a large portion of our work has been carried out in Mongolia, production companies worldwide are waking up to the opportunities of our other two previously closed off destinations.
What sort of shoots have you worked on in the past year or two?
At this moment we are working on about 16 projects with clients in the USA, UK, Asia, Australia and Europe. These projects have involved sending Ben Fogle to Northern Mongolia in the depths of winter to live with an American missionary family, introducing Mongolian nomads to virtual reality for Samsung, hosting reality TV documentaries with Kazakh Eagle Hunters, and sorting a pre-production trip to visit the Nat Kadaws, Myanmar’s little known community of transvestite, spirit mediums!
How do you think Mongolia is perceived internationally?
When I mention our passion for Mongolia - people tend to react with "wow" or "where"? Due to the fact that past projects such as Long Way Round with Ewan McGregor have had a lot of air time, Mongolia also attracts Producers of adventure and survival/wilderness series. The roads in Mongolia now seem to have a reputation too - resulting in series such as World’s Toughest Trucker.
Due to our expanding relationships with filmmakers, we find that teams come to us to brainstorm ideas even before a series is underway. Feature film scouts and commercials directors have also commented that Mongolia's rural and urban settings surpass their expectations. I am proud to say that Mongolia is becoming increasingly recognised as a film-friendly location.
What are the biggest challenges involved with a shoot in Mongolia, Bhutan and Myanmar?
All three countries have a great deal of bureaucracy to be navigated - but once someone like us is signed up this isn't a problem. We recommend though that at least six weeks are allowed for the process in Myanmar and we may even need to seek permission from the King to film in Bhutan. Another challenge for some shoots in Myanmar is that a representative from the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise (MMPE) needs to be paid to oversee the shoot on a daily basis.
Each of our three main destinations will, for many clients, require a series of international and domestic flights, so one of the key recommendations I can make is to avoid having a short connection time between the two. Some of the domestic carriers can postpone or cancel flights at a whim so having a slittle leeway in the schedule is essential in the grand scheme of things.
The Mongolian winter, which can plunge to -35°C, can be a challenge for both crew and equipment – batteries often don’t like sub-zero temperatures so it’s worth taking plenty of spares.
How did you come to be doing this work?
Before setting up Panoramic Fixers and its sister business, Panoramic Journeys, I worked for over a decade in the world of documentaries, feature films and commercials. From an early age I had wanted to work in documentaries – and for that reason I studied Anthropology. My first paid job was delivering call sheets to Hollywood stars and assisting the Producers whilst shooting on location. I then managed to then get a job overseeing the post production of an epic series shot in China. Learning under Producer Phil Agland, I gained the confidence to then direct and produce my own films - whilst funding myself by working as a Production Manager on commercials.
In 2002, my then boyfriend (now husband) and I went to Mongolia to make a film about a jockey. We both instantly fell in love with the country and so we set up a travel company to share our love of Mongolia with others. It so happened that someone who I knew from production had heard about it and put Ewan McGregor in touch with us. He was looking for help with the logistics of riding motor-bikes and filming in Mongolia for their series Long Way Round. Landmark series such as the BBC’s Human Planet have led us on an exciting journey ever since.
Tell me about the regions that you cover and the types of locations that are on offer?
Mongolia is three times the size of France and yet it has only three million inhabitants. More than half of the population live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world with nomads living in felt gers (yurts) in vast open swathes of steppe. In the South of the country is the Gobi Desert with sand dunes, gorges and camel herders. The Altai Mountains in the West is where the Kazakh Eagle Hunters live, snow leopards abide and mountaineers adventure. Siberian taiga forest surrounds Lake Khovsgol in the North of the country where the Tsaatan reindeer herders live. All across the country there are Buddhist monasteries, ancient monuments, herds of horses and yaks and one of the last true nomadic cultures.
Panoramic Journeys can organise locations ranging from remote isolation in mountains to post-communist night club interiors. From inside the trans-Mongolian train to a hot air balloon ride above a desert. Obtaining permission to film in strictly protected national parks, in the middle of a main highway or up front with the action during the Naadam festival horse races and wrestling contests, we pride ourselves in making it possible.
A magical land of golden pagodas, stupas, hill stations, tribal villages, rivers, mountain ranges and stunning beaches. Mandalay, the Irrawaddy River, the Temples of Bagan and colonial Rangoon (Yangon) all conjure up images of a bygone era steeped in colonialism and immortalised in the works of Kipling and Orwell. From its remote villages with floating gardens and houses on stilts, to bustling markets in the old towns, Burma is an extraordinary country rarely captured on camera. As the country rapidly opens up there are new tribal, cultural and natural history tales to be told. Myanmar has its own nomadic community, the Moken Sea Gypsies of the Mergui Archipelago living on their boats as they sail between the 800 islands of this rarely visited region.
Bhutan was for a long time an isolated, mysterious kingdom known about by few and visited by even less. A true kingdom where gross domestic happiness is viewed as the mark of success and its ‘Carbon Negative’ environmental status is a badge of honour. The Himalayan peaks to the sub-tropical valleys are home to a diverse range of tribal cultures with deeply rooted Buddhist beliefs and unusual practices such polygamy where a woman may take a number of husbands. It is a carefully managed society with rules and tariffs to navigate and careful diplomacy is required so as not to insult your hosts.
Roads are difficult – there is altitude to contend with and some areas are extremely remote so those prepared to put the effort in will be rewarded. Cap it off with some spectacular festivals and iconic sites and Bhutan can prove to be a colourful and fascinating location.
What filming infrastructure do you have?
We are able to provide a one stop shop or to just quote for elements of a shoot. We can source all the local crew for you - or work with getting permits for your own crew. We have all of the equipment for the logistics of an efficient and cost effective shoot - such as generators, walkies, kitted out production vehicle, etc. If necessary we can also source steadicams, drones for aerials and lighting. Prior to your arrival, we get all the press passes issued and release forms prepared. Our transcribers can work during the shoot so you know what you are getting.
What locations are most commonly used by foreign film and TV crews when they come and film in the areas you cover?
The Eagle Hunters in the Altai Mountains are so photogenic they attract a lot of crews. A great number of shoots also want to capture the atmosphere and backdrop of the traditional nomadic life in a felt ger (yurt). The golden temples of Myanmar are an obvious draw; however strict etiquette must be followed so as not to offend.
What are the rare, more unusual locations in your region that our readers would not necessarily associate with Mongolia, Burma and Bhutan?
We recently spotted this amazing colonial house with a tree growing out of it in Yangon and shot there during a fashion shoot. Similarly, a quirky "egg statue" temple that we lined up was enthusiastically restored to its colourful glory by the locals when they learned of an upcoming photo-shoot.
What have your most difficult location assignments to date been and why?
The locations brief for World's Toughest Truckers was quite a challenge. We needed to choose an A to B trajectory across the country that would take three old Russian trucks about five days to drive. We needed to ensure that the production infrastructure was in place to film every few hours of the various routes that the drivers might choose to take. Meanwhile the logistics of the shoot required us to be able to supply comfortable accommodation for a crew of 54 people, even though it was out of season when there are no camps open due to the cold weather. I am pleased to say that we succeeded in meeting all of these requirements.
Other fun challenges have included finding a golden eagle that is happy to be harnessed with a camera, adapting Russian 4x4s as camera mounts and getting permission to climb the rock face beside the iconic Tigers Nest Monastery in Bhutan. Liaising with the Indian High Commission in London over eight weeks (including over Christmas) to do a fashion shoot on the Andaman Islands was one of the most painful of challenge that we have undergone!
Are there any particular tips that you would like to share with our audience about filming in these countries?
For all three of our countries I recommend getting underway with the application process for special visas and film permits as early as possible. Also ensure that you arrange full medical rescue and repatriation insurance cover in place for your crew as you’ll be dealing with many remote locations.
Please remember your hosts and respect them by giving them translated release forms to sign and getting the final edit back to them via us. Don't ever underestimate the sensitivities around shooting in religious places.
For Burma / Myanmar:
- Accept the fact that you will have a MMPE representative with you. This is a requirement that is best seen as a bonus rather than a problem
- Understand that the cost of shooting here is high but it is worth it for a series with the right budget.
- Even if you are happy to forfeit the deposit required until your edit is shown to the Ministry, please respect the country in your project.
What are the most film crew friendly hotels in your region?
We mostly set up production base camps for our rural locations. The UB hotel in the capital is central and forgiving of all the kit. For those with a higher crew budget, I would recommend Kempinski.
Bhutan & Myanmar:
The lead time that crews normally give us - and the high pressure from tourism during peak seasons means that we normally have to select the hotel with availability that matches the production budget.
What would you recommend crew and cast do to visit, have fun and relax in your region?
Panoramic Fixers is a part of Panoramic Journeys. We have expertise in arranging holidays to all of these destinations. Whether crews are up for collapsing in luxury on the beach in Burma or getting active trekking, riding and exploring, we can put suggestions together.
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