The Jeff Colhoun One: "The heyday of going and flying your drone around like a maniac is over"
Updated: May 25
Jeff Colhoun won Best Humanitarian Documentary for his work, Operation International, in the IFA London 2020 season. He catches up with our co-founder Adam Kearns to discuss the making of this important film and how to work effectively in Africa.
One patient even got my email address and has pitched screenplays to me.
Operation International is a fascinating documentary, how did you become involved?
I reached out to Operation International after completing a few environmental projects in Mongolia. It was clear they did amazing work but from what their previous coverage looked like I felt I could help them tell their story in a more concise way than they had been portrayed previously. They immediately pitched the Ivory Coast project to me and 4 months later I was on a plane and met the team when I landed at the airport.
You got to spend time in Ivory Coast, what was your impression of the country?
It was beautiful but there were concerns with safety as we were a few hundred kilometres inland in a rural city. The local government mobilized and did their best to make sure we were taken care of, but it was dicey for the 6 days I was there.
Filming patients in a documentary obviously brings ethical considerations, so how did you approach getting them on-board?
That was the most interesting part of filming this. I had spent a bit of time in Ethiopia shooting and as soon as you take a photo or video you would be asked for money. This was my expectation and it was wrong. In Cote d'iviore it was the opposite. Everyone wanted to be filmed and have their picture taken and wanted nothing in return. The patients were told they would be treated whether they participated in the film or not and not a single one had reservations about being included in the documentary. One patient even got my email address and has been pitching screenplays to me.
What can people do to support the Operation International organisation?
You can go to https://www.operationinternational.org/donate
Never stop rolling. Shoot as much as you can whenever you can.
What equipment did you use to film?
Blackmagic pocket 4k camera shooting 422 prores, Sony a7Sii as backup and a Mavic Air. I brought it all as carry on in a Tenba Roadie Aircase roller. Looks like a simple black small suitcase but is tough like an SKB or Pelican case. Gate checking your gear with one of these is pretty stress free.
You employ a lot of drone footage in your work, what advice do you have for people wanting to start using drones in their film?
Don’t assume its legal and understand the consequences. The heyday of going to a developing country and flying your drone around like a maniac is over. I have been using this technology in my work since 2012 and I have had to pay local police in developing countries for a "permit" and I've been hassled by customs more times than I can count. For this project I knew drones were not allowed in Ivory Coast. They have an outright ban. That being said I had a bunch of official documentation saying I can bring cameras in country from the government health minister. I could try to pass this off as permission if I needed to, so I separated the drone from its battery, stuffed it in a boot, put the propellers in a different bag and got lucky.
What advice would you give to someone looking to film a documentary?
Never stop rolling. Shoot as much as you can whenever you can. You will think you have enough b-roll and you might not. Don't get caught up in your gear. The simpler your setup the better. Always have a backup whether it’s a camera or duplicate drive of your footage.
I hope you don’t mind my asking, how did you approach the funding for your work?
The organization paid for economy flights, in country costs and a small production budget of $1400. That covered music and my story editor. I do all the shooting, editing, mixing, and color so it’s not an impossible number.
How have you gone about distributing your film?
This is a fundraising tool for the organization. The intent was never to approach distributors but to give them something to show their donors. Aside from a few festivals and fundraiser screenings we have not done much.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for taking the time to chat.
I really enjoyed watching your documentary Jeff, and thank you for submitting to IFA.