CEO of Red Van Studios gives his insight into documentary filmmaking

April 24th, 2018  |  by perlatkociaj

From working in geophysics to shooting a video for Merlin Entertainment

We caught up with CEO of Red Van Studio Inc., Brendan O'Brien, to talk about his passion for filmmaking and his skillful approach towards tackling the practices he underwent for his latest project in Tajikistan. Here, he delivers some invaluable advice to upcoming filmmakers and videographers and gives us a real sense of what the production process is like.

How did you get into documentary/corporate filmmaking?

My name is Brendan O'Brien, I'm 34 and based out of Alberta, Canada, but do most of my work overseas. I own and operate my own production company called Red Van Studio Inc. (

It started somewhat by accident. I never followed the typical path of always wanting to get into film or anything like that. I like movies, but I never thought I'd want to make them. I did, however, always have a passion for photography, and it wasn't until about three years ago that I was given a GoPro and started making some small, fun videos of my previous job in geophysics. After that, I quit my job, bought some gear, and started going full time at it.

Could you tell us a little bit about your previous projects?

My first major client was Merlin Entertainment out of the UK. They flew me out to film an interview and wax-figure session with a big movie star. It was surreal and rather nerve wracking. I made a number of mistakes and now have an entire laundry-list of what to do and what not to do for any project.

My latest project was in Tajikistan; I'm actually still on my way back from that. Myself and a small crew travelled there to capture the humanitarian work of a group called Earth Water. They donate all of their profits to the United Nations World Food Programme, which helps fund food and school programs in the poorest places on the planet. The large portion of our filming work took place travelling near to the Afghanistan border, to a small Tajik village. We were with a UN convoy and we captured the very important work they do there.

How did you plan for this shoot?

It was somewhat of a two-pronged process. On the one hand, there was quite a bit of planning that went into the logistics of getting the crew and gear from Canada to Tajikistan, and then there was the planning that went into the filming itself.

For the travelling, a lot of coordination happened between us at Red Van Studio Inc., Earth Water International, and the UN World Food Programme. From our end, we had to send all of our travel documents, an equipment manifest, and make sure we had all of our insurances and vaccines in order. We were taking care of this for about a month before production started.

The pre-production for the filming itself was a little easier actually. For documentary style of filming you can only do so much planning. So, for starters I put a wish-list of

gear together, to see how it stacks up to the budget and then invariably par the list down to essentials. After that, I create a master shot list from the project brief. This helps in the field, especially in fast paced doc situations, where you want to be able to make sure

you are getting what you need for coverage. It also helps to make sure you aren't capturing stuff you don't really need. I see it quite often where people will shoot absolutely everything and have mountains of useless footage at the end. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that, but I find it wasteful of both time and energy.

What advice can you give regarding pre-production?

Well it's definitely important; making sure your budgets are accurate, your gear is in order, having your scripts or shot lists finalized. However, I would also say not to get too crazy with it all. You need to allow yourself and your production the ability to breathe and grow organically during filming. If you are too precise with everything and leave no room for spontaneity, your project will likely suffer. In short, leave room to relax and get into the moments that matter.

What equipment are you using on your shoots?

My 'A' camera at the moment is a Sony FS5. And my 'B' is a Sony A7S (Mk I). On those two cameras I mainly stick with a Sony FE Zeiss 16-35mm lens and a Sony FE Zeiss

28-70mm lens. For sound we had a Rode NTG-2, VideoMic Pro X, and a Wireless lav kit. We also had a Freefly Movi M5, and the new DJI Mavic Pro UAV (drone). And, of course, a set of sticks.

What kind of lighting setup (if any) did you use?

I primarily use available light when at all possible, and it usually is, or bring in a practical closer-in to get some more light on the scene. But often with natural light I need to think about negative fill by using whatever is on hand to add some shadow or diffusion. I

think there a couple main benefits. For starters, I like the look better. Natural light always looks more flattering and softer to me. Secondly, it's just that much less stuff to haul around when working remotely.

There are some drawbacks for sure, and some situations that become difficult to shoot in, but I work around that and change the shot, or think of something else. When you have only a 2 or 3 person crew, the less gear, the better.

How did you go about location scouting?

I'd usually carry out location scouting the day before or a couple hours before filming, depending on when we'd arrived. When travelling and filming documentary style there is often very little time to do any scouting at all, but if I have even a few minutes, I'll take

the time to figure out the best location or position around us and start from there. I find that we can usually get exactly what we need no matter where we are. Plus, it's fun and part of the challenge to make it work with what we have.

What were the challenges of this shoot?

For Tajikistan, the largest challenge was getting us all there. It was around 36 hours of travel time, through multiple airports, multiple customs agencies, and almost the exact opposite time-zone. Another challenge can be, and often is, the language barriers. In Tajikistan it's a blend of Tajik, Russian, and Persian, which I speak none of, but in this case we did have a UN interpreter with us to help facilitate local interviews and help us get permission to film certain things once we'd arrived.

What would you be your ideal gear setup if you could re-do the Tajikistan shoot?

I'm not sure that I'd change much. I have it almost down to a science for what we do and don't take on these kinds of shoots. The only addition that I'll have to work towards for future projects is to get more wireless lav mics. Having all of the main talent mic'd up for more of the time would have been better than relying on a boom mic.

What are the best tips/techniques you'd give to upcoming filmmakers and videographers looking to land their first/next client?

I suggest focusing on one or two aspects of filmmaking and get great at those before adding more. Often new filmmakers will want to do it all: music videos, weddings, commercials, indie movies, events, etc., but it's a lot easier to get new clients if you tell them that you specialize in 'x'. That said, try to avoid getting pigeonholed into one thing if you don't want to. If you don't want to be known as the wedding videographer, don't advertise yourself as a wedding videographer.

Also, following the old adage of dressing for the job you want, not the one you have, is important; meaning, being professional, polite, hardworking, and motivated, go a lot further than having the best gear or knowledge.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Frugal group and your involvement?

Sure thing! I've been part of the Frugal Filmmakers group on Facebook for a while and it's a fairly good community of people who are willing to help each other out with questions. There is also a good potential for collaboration because it's such a large group around the world. As a spin off from this I started the Frugal Film Festival ( where the idea is that anyone in the world should be able to enter a film festival with the tools and skills they have available to them. So, to keep things interesting and unique there is no entry fee, we supply the basic script you have to adapt from, and you only have a certain amount of time to complete it. We've partnered with a few great sponsors, like Filmstro, to supply some prizes, and last year the winner had their short film shown at the Winter Film Awards in New York, NY. Our next start pack will be coming out this July (2017), so everyone should definitely get involved.

Are there any new projects on the horizon you'd like to talk about?

For my next project I'm really looking to branch into the indie film market. My group has a few scripts in mind and we are looking to start production on one of them this autumn, so that will definitely be a new adventure. Beyond that, at Red Van Studio we are focusing on working with our overseas partners to promote more of the great humanitarian work going on around the world.

Check out their more of their work on Vimeo

You can follow Red Van Studio Inc. on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

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