Filming in Cambodia, Part 2: Why It’s Hard to Film in a Floating House

This is the second post in a three-part series documenting CI’s visual storytelling team’s recent trip to Cambodia. Read the previous post.

filming from boat, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

CI’s visual storytelling team heads off for a day of filming on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

We all rose before sunrise — easy to do when you turn in at 8 p.m. Lights were already blinking on in the floating homes nearby.

Over a breakfast of fish, pork ribs, eggs, rice and instant coffee, the visual storytelling team met in a corner of the floating office to discuss priority shots for the day. We would only have three full days of filming here on Tonle Sap Lake, so we needed to make the most of it.

As the morning began to heat up, we loaded all the film equipment into a boat — nervously gauging the distance between the gear and the water — and headed back to Sophy’s place.

After a quick look around her house — made up of three rooms, plus an adjacent floating pigsty — the team determined that Sophy’s interview should be shot in the main room, with a colorful wall of framed photos and fake flowers as a backdrop.

It took a few minutes to figure out where everyone should be positioned in these close quarters. Sophy sat in a chair in the middle of the room, John was behind the camera, and Becca stood next to him, holding the boom microphone over her head. Peter and Nara sat just out of view of the camera, Peter with his notebook full of questions. I sat off to the side with Sokrith, the manager of CI’s Tonle Sap program, trying to stay out of the way but be available when needed.

filming interview in floating house, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

John filming Sophy’s interview in her floating house. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

It was clear that Sophy was nervous. When we’d visited her the day before, she’d been full of energy, joking with us even though we’d just met. But once the camera started rolling, her smile vanished.

After a while, though, she loosened up and seemed to be enjoying herself. And it’s a good thing, too … because we spent most of the day in and around her house.

I was soon reminded just how long it can take to get the perfect shot or sound bite. With Nara acting as translator, Peter asked Sophy questions, and then asked the same questions in a different way, trying to capture the most articulate response on film.

One challenge film subjects often have is speaking in full sentences. For example, when asked, “What’s your name?” it’s natural to just answer with your name, rather than starting with “My name is…” However, since Peter’s questions are not heard in the final film, full sentences are important.

Even when you finally get the right quote, things can — and very often do — go wrong. Numerous times during the interview, Becca, who was monitoring the sound quality through her headphones, would tell Sophy to pause until a background noise had subsided.

floating pigsty, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Sophy’s floating pigsty. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

And there was plenty of noise. Boat motors, yelling children, squealing pigs … all could easily interrupt a shot and require a redo.

The pigs were a particular annoyance. Seven or eight of them lived not 15 feet [4.5 meters] from where Sophy was sitting. The animals seemed to have a lot to converse about, and could not be persuaded to take a break. When they finally did, the neighbor’s pigs would start up. (Listen to a sound clip of the pigs interrupting the interview below.)

I quickly learned that when you live in a floating house, you have to think about things that others don’t. At one point while the team was setting up a shot, we all ended up standing on one side of the room. Almost immediately the floor tipped in that direction and water began flooding in. We also found that during filming everyone had to keep very still, to avoid rocking the house and jiggling the camera.

Several hours later, the interview finally finished, we split up for the afternoon. John and Becca stayed with Sophy to get some “b-roll” shots — footage of Sophy and her family going about their everyday activities, which could later be spliced together with her interview. Peter and I went off to attend a community fisheries meeting that some of the CI-Greater Mekong staff were helping to facilitate. (Check out Sophy’s “Field Spotlight” below.)

When we reconvened at the floating office later, it was time for the team to back up the day’s footage on their portable hard drives and recharge batteries at the few available outlets — after a little rest, of course.

CI floating office, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

John takes a break on the floor of the floating office. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

There’s a small roof deck at one end of the office — often the best place to catch a breeze. After a long day of shooting, we watched the sun set over the village and the Cardamom Mountains in the distance, preparing ourselves for another early night.

roof deck of floating office, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Peter and John of CI’s visual storytelling team relax with Tracy Farrell, the senior technical director of CI-Greater Mekong, on the roof deck of the floating office. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature. This is the second post in a three-part series; read the next post.

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