Behind the Camera 1995: Filming the Third Series
by Rick Steves
Tall and proud on his decked-out horse, the little boy rode into his Turkish hometown. Ibraham was the center of almost too much attention. The entire village was converging upon his house to witness and celebrate his circumcision. And to make matters worse, there was an American film crew set up to share the event with public television viewers across the USA. As they say, "If public television doesn't do it, who will?"
I'm thrilled to bring a better understanding of faraway cultures to our country through my work with "Travels in Europe ®." Turks celebrate circumcision as a rite of passage, calling it a "wedding without in-laws." Filming Ibraham's circumcision may seem crass, but we paid for a grand day that his family otherwise would never have been able to afford. (And little Ibraham healed up just fine). The festival (squawky band, fancy horse, Ibraham's "little prince" outfit, the doctor, 200 Turkish pizzas, and all the decorations) cost $300.
This is people's travel on people's television. The travel feels real because it is. We film like I travel — as temporary locals, without lots of reservations, opening doors with smiles rather than tips. With a crew of three or four (me, a camera person, a director and often a grip/sound/light person) we shoot a 30-minute show in five days. On the sixth "day of rest" we travel and lick our wounds. It takes 78 days in Europe to film 13 shows. We shoot Beta-SP video at a 13-to-1 ratio (6.5 hours of footage to edit into a 30-minute show). Our six-year-old Ikigami camera shoots great footage but is about twice the size and weight of new cameras. Our crew per diem on our last shoot was just $60 a day for hotel rooms and meals — just as I recommend in my guidebooks.
Our filming process is intense. Six days is never enough to do all we want. The scripts are drawn from my experiences leading my Europe Through the Back Door tours and writing guidebooks. My script editor then reminds me that TV shows are not guidebooks. Between my determination to teach smart travel and my Small World Productions partners' understanding of what makes good TV, we hammer out our scripts. Each script has about a 14-minute "spine" (actual read- through time) leaving us the necessary room for creative "meadows," to capitalize on what TV people call "positive serendipity"...or to recover from "negative serendipity."
We work to capture a real travel experience. In 1993, I stepped off the train in Prague without a hotel reservation and found a dozen hustlers, carrying scrapbooks featuring their B&Bs, eager to take me home. Returning in 1994, I brief my cameraman about the action we hope to capture upon arrival. At the station, he gets off on one end of the car and I hop off at the other...just another tourist in need of a bed. Precisely as I hoped, the B&B gang is there, armed with scrapbooks, still eager to take me home. And my buddy with the big camera gets it all on video.
Each show's script is divided into "on-camera" bits (determined by lines that are hard to "cover" with other visuals) and "voice-over" bits. I give the memorized "on-camera" parts directly to the camera. The rest of the narration is usually done in a one-star hotel room draped with acoustically-correct blankets. Because of our hectic post-production schedule, the "voice-over" recording needs to be sent home with the video footage so the show can be cut together back at Small World headquarters in Seattle.
As the on-camera host, my mentor is Ringo who sang "All you gotta do is act naturally." My first shows were plagued by a distracting "eye thing" where at the end of an "on camera" my face would freeze, and looking like Steve Forbes with two glass eyeballs, I'd turn slowly away. (I now kill the "eye thing" with a Bob Dole-style blink at the end of each "on camera.")
I also took a while to accept my coach's admonition to "internalize your lines." Another problem of mine which exasperated our director was my habit of echoing comments by locals, Ed McMahon-style. As if to reward me, when I finally got over the "eye thing," started internalizing my lines, and quit "stepping on people's lines" with my echo, I was let off my audio leash. For the first series I had been tethered to the camera by a microphone cord which ran down my pants leg. (To mask that, you never saw my feet). After the first series, we invested in a wireless microphone and I was freeee.
"Continuity" is another filming bugaboo. In order to smoothly splice bits of a show together over six days of filming, I must have the same clothes on during each segment. To avoid needless confusion, I end up wearing the same shirt for six days (and ignore my cameraman's comments about how he'll pack an olfactory lens next time).
Compressing the lessons and experience of Europe Through the Back Door through a TV camera to get "Travels in Europe" is a scramble. On one particularly trying day we were arrested briefly for filming in the Rome train station and had a camera bag ripped off at the Forum...while filming a bit on the risk of theft.
Travels in Europe, tickling the traveling fancy of public TV viewers, has been a hit. It's famous in PTV fundraising circles as the third best money maker during pledge season (right up there with Lawrence Welk and the Three Tenors). Of course, that success is due to support from traveling viewers like you. Thanks for your support of our work on PTV — helping Americans see the world as a cultural yarn shop and turning them loose to weave the ultimate tapestry.
Rick Steves is the host and writer of the Public Television series, "Travels in Europe ®," and the author of "Europe Through the Back Door" and 14 other European travel guidebooks. "Travels in Europe" is produced by Small World Productions in Seattle, Washington.