Kabir Khan’s 5 Hacks To Shooting On Tough Terrain, Film Companion

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A documentary filmmaker by origin, Kabir Khan has always been a great champion of shooting on real locations. He admits there’s nothing that VFX can’t recreate these days, but that ‘kills the romance of filmmaking’. Having said that, shooting on real locations comes with it’s fair share of challenges. From managing a massive team in sub zero temperatures to braving death threats, Khan has seen the worst of shooting on tough terrain. 

And yet, he keeps coming back for more. A major part of his next film Tubelight, starring Salman and Sohail Khan has been shot in Ladakh. On a particularly rough schedule, Khan was shooting with a crew of thousand members at a location that was 12,500 ft. above sea level. “It was an excessively windy day and the sand and dust had begun to sting us. But thanks to the weather conditions, we didn’t need to create the extra drama. You can literally feel and hear the wind in the shots. So while some of my crew may think I’m a mad guy, it ultimately pays off,” he says. Here he lists five tricks to surviving rough shooting conditions.

Give Your Crew 48 Hours To Acclimatise

You can’t go to shoot in Ladakh thinking it’s going to be a picnic. Because of my experience trekking in Ladakh while I was a documentary filmmaker, I knew how high altitude sickness sets in. There is a common misconception that the sickness has to do with your physical fitness. This is absolutely false. Some people take 12 hours, some 24 and some 72 hours to fully acclimatise themselves. 

When I was climbing Kilimanjaro I was hit by mountain sickness and couldn’t make it to the top. So during Tubelight I gave strict instructions to my entire production unit that I wanted a minimum of 48 hours of no work for the crew once we land there. It may come at an extra cost and take us more time but without that you are merely asking for casualties. 

Drink Lots Of Water And No Alcohol

Ladakh is a high altitude desert so it was crucial to ensure that everyone on the set was well hydrated. The mantra that every mountaineer follows is that the more hydrated you are, the less the chances of altitude sickness. Even if you are not thirsty you have to force yourself to drink water. We also asked our team not to consume alcohol at night. The more alcohol you drink, the more dehydrated you are going to be the next day. 

Exploit Your Natural Surroundings

In Tubelight there is a scene that shows the Chinese army running across the mountain. The initial plan was to have them run across this flat stretch of land. But on the day of shoot we found these beautiful mountain slopes that were looking so much better in our frames. The magic of real locations is that you can react to your surroundings while you are there. Now we have this stunning shot, which was captured on a heli-cam, of thousands of soldiers running down the mountain. It looks grand and scary at the same time. It’s important to make quick adjustments, turn your cameras around, and send your actors in a different direction. 

Kabir Khan’s 5 Hacks To Shooting On Tough Terrain, Film Companion

Know Where To Draw The Line 

We literally shot Kabul Express in a war zone. We were 14 days into filming, and were called by the Indian ambassador to be told that five terrorists had been sent from across the border to hit out at our crew in Kabul. They even showed us the messages and their plan of action. Aditya Chopra had told me that the entire unit was banking on my experience as a documentary filmmaker. It was a very low point for me when we had to stop shooting for 5-6 days. 

I did consider aborting the film and not letting my ambition to make my first film come in the way of so many lives. Over the years I’ve developed a sense of ‘this far and no more’. I know a lot of my friends who have crossed the line and paid for it dearly – they’ve stepped into land mines or succumbed to extreme conditions.  As a documentary filmmaker I would push a lot harder when I’m only responsible for 2-3 others and myself. But on a film set it’s a much larger number of people and not everyone is as equipped as the other.

Dress Suitably For The Weather 

At a store in Berlin that sells material for outdoor activities I once read a poster that said, ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, it’s only bad clothing.’ If you are well equipped, you can even shoot on Mount Everest without a problem. 

In a sequence  for Ek Tha Tiger, I remember we were shooting in this ridiculously cold town in Syria but were really not equipped for it. In the photos the place had looked nice and sunny. But when we landed there it was minus 9 degrees with a hailstorm outside and our crew from Mumbai was in chappals! We had to send production to go out immediately and buy shoes, equipment, warm clothes, gloves and the works. The minute you equip your crew, their level of efficiency goes up and they start enjoying the shoot and the beauty of the place. 

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