Steven Ballantyne, Asia based fixer, researcher, line producer, location scout /manager and founder of Expedition & Production Management (EPM) Asia Ltd talks to Wildlife-film.com about his life in Asia, his passion for logistics and why he is happy to help production companies for FREE with content development.
Steven, you are originally from the UK, when did you move to Asia and what prompted the move?
I moved to Hong Kong 5 years ago, there were a number of factors that lead to this decision but primarily it came down to life style. I love Asia and have spent over ten years exploring, working and experiencing as much as Asia as possible – from the Jungles of Papua New Guinea to the Deserts of China and Mongolia to the foot hills of Tibet and India – My personal adventures and remote location production logistics work have and continue to take me across this amazing continent, so moving to Asia was always on the cards.
Why did you choose Hong Kong as your Asia base?
Hong Kong was not my first choice, I had originally considered moving to Papua New Guinea where I have spent considerable time, however I wanted my company EPM Asia to continue to work in a range of locations across Pacific, Central and East Asia so chose Hong Kong for its easy access to the key locations I provide production support in.
Hong Kong also has a thriving production industry and an amazing network of production professionals to call on, it is as much fun supporting crew filming here as it is filming in a remote location.
It is also a fantastic place to live and work and has an International edge and energy while still retaining its own traditions and cultural heritage.
You wear many hats, why have you chosen to provide a range of production services rather than just one?
At the end of the day I am a logistics expert and thrive on sorting out the best possible way to manage a production’s requirements, especially when the logistics are complicated which they can be when working in remote Jungle, Desert and Mountain locations.
Having many hats means I can provide a much wider and consistent service and help production companies keep crew costs down, there is actually a natural synergy between the jobs I do, through researching and content development I gain a detailed insight into specific regions, this coupled with my own personal knowledge and experience is paramount when scouting and managing a new locations. To then provide a hands on Line producer and Logistics management service as I do with this knowledge and experience makes the job much easier and production companies know the crew on the ground are in safe hands and the all important footage is managed well, which can be difficult in Asia’s varied climates.
Why should a production company use your service above a local fixer?
This is a good question and one I am asked frequently!
I know a lot of extremely good local fixers in Asia which is why I do not work in places such as Thailand, I do also know a lot of stories about poor quality of service and not understanding the needs of the production companies, false promises can lead to extremely expensive outcomes!
I know it can be a tough call for a production company to use a service like mine above a local fixer, but at the end of the day I provide a comprehensive guaranteed service that ensures production requirements are met to schedule and to budget.
I understand western production requirements while still working a local level, understanding how to work with local groups is just as important as maintaining business relations, so as a company EPM retains its own data base of local contacts who we regularly keep in touch with and at times provide financial support too – this means our Asia reach is strong and a consistency in service provision is retained.
Production companies that know my work well have asked me to work on productions as far as Africa and understand the value in calling on me when working in remote locations, as was the case recently when I worked with Tigress productions on the Marooned and Naked series with Ed Stafford in Fiji.
As part of your service you research and help with content development, we know this is a FREE service, why do you do this?
Every production starts with a good idea, I understand to take a production forward, production companies need help with development, however I also appreciate in the early stages of development there are generally no production funds available.
For me its two fold, I provide this service initially for free primarily as a gesture of good will, helping production companies develop an idea and undertaking baseline research can often lead to paid work further along the line as and when that production gets the green light, however this is not always the case and the majority of ideas we work on sadly never see the light of day, but that does not stop wanting to help as you never know which idea is going to be the next big production challenge, you need nerves of steel in this game but I personally thrive on this!
I also have a personal library of books, magazines, articles and a mountain of notes and images from my own expeditions that I frequently draw on – crazy locations, species or remote communities, so any excuse to go rummaging through these is always a bonus.
We notice on your CV you list Tribal Negotiation as one of your skills what do you mean by this?
Working in the environments that we do, frequently means production crew need to live and film with tribes or on land belong to a local Tribe, Clan or Indigenous community.
The impact a film crew has on such communities can be quite profound and need’s to be handled with great care and in some case caution.
For example I have seen in the past funds paid by production companies tear villages apart however this can be avoided and thankfully is taken extremely seriously by the majority of companies we work with.
The Tribal Negotiation service I provide ensures the community fully understands the purpose of the production, fees paid are realistic and in some case we help the community to open bank accounts, which we did for the Clans who owned the Island, used in the Ed Stafford series.
Through simple and focused negotiation you gain respect and trust which in the long-term benefits not only the community but also the production company, as there is more willingness to help rather than hinder.
I personally would like to provide an after care service for Tribes, to perhaps revisit the community a couple of months after the shoot has ended to ensure all is well, but a tight budget and the speed productions are conclude prohibit this.
Why did you choose to promote your service through Wildlife-film.com?
Throughout my professional career I have always had a deep fascination with anthropology, however in 2008 I lead an expedition to the restricted Area A, Gobi Desert, Mongolia to lead a team of scientists to study the extremely endangered Gobi Bear – since then Wildlife has played an important part in both my professional and private expedition work especially when it comes to preservation and I have been involved in a number of projects including a wildlife sanctuary in North Sulawesi, the Gobi Bear and Snow leopard trust in Mongolia and a Sea Turtle preservation group in Hong Kong.
I am not generally known for my wildlife work and wanted to rectify this, to reach out to the Wildlife-film.com film community now I hope to introduce our Asia service to production crews with a long-term view to provide professional support in the future.
Are you working on any wildlife focused productions at the moment?
Based on my expedition history in Mongolia I was asked recently to help develop a program focused on filming the Bactrian camel, Gobi Bear and Pallas’ Cat, we are waiting to see if this production gets the green light, but we are certainly ready to run if it does.
I am also working on an Expedition into the Northern Jungles of Myanmar – an area closed to the outside world for over 50 years and has been identified as possibly being one of the last untouched jungles in the world, the opportunity to potentially identify new species is extremely high and as such we are working with the Natural History Museum in Australia to lead the scientific research team.
The area is still closed due to the on-going conflict but I have built good relations with the Myanmar Ministry of interior who have in principle agreed to allow the expedition to proceed. We want to capture on film every step we take and have received interest from a number of production companies we have worked with in the past, so again we will see where this goes, but I am extremely excited about this project.
When not working on a production what do you do with your time?
As a freelancer you need to be extremely proactive in keeping your name ‘out there” so I spend a great deal of time touching base with contacts and reaching out to new companies to introduce my Asia service.
I also work on our own production concepts and ideas, some we send out to companies, others we develop ourselves, I launched in 2012 my own production company called Yawning Cheetah Productions – it is still early days and we are focusing primarily on creating productions with a Natural History, survival and factual content for the local Chinese broadcasters but aim to expand in time to an international level.
And when not at my desk I am out in the field, exploring new locations and building on the knowledge we already have, even some of the remotest locations are changing quickly and as such we need to keep abreast of what’s happening to ensure we maintain the high level of service we are known for.
Finally what is your top location in Asia for Wildlife?
This is a tough question as there are so many and the variation is immense, however I am excited about Myanmar right now and Papua New Guinea will always feature as my top location, but I do have my eye on Pakistan, the Balochistan province in the Western region is especially of interest as it has a fantastic mix of highland, plains and deserts and a wealth of wildlife still yet to be fully appreciated and yes I can support production companies to film there.