Producer Sandy Northrop's Diary
Tips on Shooting in Vietnam
Wind & Stars Production Credits

Sandy Northrop at MIA site - click to enlargeProducer Sandy Northrop's Diary.
I first heard about Pete Peterson when the balloting on his confirmation for the Ambassadorship was coming up in April, 1997 as I was packing my bags to move to Vietnam. His story intrigued me. I met him that August, my second week in Hanoi, when he invited a few journalists to accompany him to an MIA site. I was curious to see if all the press and hoopla about him was true. Could any man--especially a former POW--really be this sincere--this committed--to reconciliation. The answer was yes. I knew that day I wanted to document his story.

I approached Ambassador Peterson in October, armed with a short proposal, a production reel and a resume detailing my 24 years in television production. My pitch was straight forward: since I was residing in Vietnam, I could capture his routine over an extended period of time. Peterson agreed. Four months later--after some fairly lengthy discussions with the State Department over what could and could not be filmed--I started.

I had worked in the film business for over thirty years, as an editor, an associate producer, a producer and director. I was going to be the cameraperson this time and I was terrified--I hadn't shot a film since using a hand-wind Bolex for my thesis film at Stanford's graduate program. Friends at National Geographic had convinced me to buy a Sony's DCR VX1000 digital camera before I went. At around $4,500 it seemed to me I couldn't lose--even if it just became a tourist camera. I fell in love with the camera, and, more importantly, I fell in love with shooting. For years I had been trying to explain to cameramen exactly what I wanted shot, and batting fifty percent. Now, I was on my own. The camera's ease of use, its enormous versatility in low light conditions and the "steady shot" feature were enormous pluses and I learned quickly.

Tran Le Tien shoots Peterson's return to village where he was captured in 1966. - click to enlargeAbandoning the traditional three-man crew when I was with Ambassador Peterson allowed me to establish a one-on-one relationship with him. The camera's low profile made it possible to be inconspicuous when I filmed him as he worked. When we went on long trips together, I would turn on the camera and do impromptu interviews. That's the most important aspect of the camera--its low profile. No one notices it. People go about their business. This was true with Peterson, diplomats, and people on the street. I was always amazed with what Tran Le Tien, who shot all the street activity and Vietnamese interviews for me, could get away with

For equipment, we worked primarily with the Senneheiser shotgun mike that came with the DCR VX1000. On "sit down" interviews we used Azden WR -PRO wireless mikes. During most of the shooting a Kenko Video wide converter remained on the camera. A versatile three-light Dedo kit, which worked in 110 or 220 currency, fit the bill for lighting. The extremely low wattage insured I didn't burn down any locations.

Tran Le Tien shoots Pete and Vi on Hanoi's crowded streets - click to enlargeThe camera's light weight was another important factor. One day I accompanied the ambassador to the two MIA sites shown in Assignment Hanoi. What the television audience doesn't see is that to get to the first MIA crash location, 972 steps, dug into the side of the mountain by and for six-foot marines, had to be climbed. At one point during the climb I accidentally bumped against the camera and pushed the record button. Later in the editing room, I relived each breathless step up the mountain.

The editing took eight months. (I was fund-raising at the same time.) Fifty one-hour mini cassettes were transferred to Betacam SP tapes and then brought into the Media composer at the lowest possible resolution. The editing was done on an AVID 5.8 Media Composer with 18 G of memory. I expected to have all kinds of computer crashes and equipment problems, but I have had far fewer problems than in the States. The computer is plugged into APC surge protectors. During the entire editing process, there was only one "Fatal Error." With other equipment breakdowns, a call to the local television produced several competent technicians. They not only were good, they charged about $9/hr.

When the fine cut was done, I backed up my Avid bins/lists on a JAZ drive, packed up over 100 tapes and headed back to Washington. The final online, graphic design and audio sweetening was done at Interface Video, Washington DC.


Pete Peterson: Assignment Hanoi has been made possible in part by grants from PBS - Nike, Inc. - United Technologies - The Family of Mildred Wooden - The Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation - Cargill Limited Vietnam. A complete list of funders is available from PBS.



Requests for Visas & Permissions to shoot can be sent directly to the Press and Information Department with a letter detailing your proposed schedule, people to be interviewed and a copy of your proposal or script. Alternately, the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, DC or the Vietnamese Consulate in San Francisco can forward your request to them. Visas cost $65. Permission to shoot takes eight-twelve weeks, but can take longer. Be Patient.

Contact: Press and Information Department
Tel:  84-4-845 5401
Fax: 84-4-824 3137
Add: 7 Chu Van An St. Ba Dinh District, Hanoi

The Foreign Press Center is responsible for all journalists/ film crews coming to Vietnam. They will meet you at the airport and accompany you throughout your stay. The FPC will get you the Press/Film permit you require, make all arrangements with central and local authorities, arrange transportation and provide a guide/interpreter. Their charges will depend on duration of the shoot and the specific extras you require. Negotiate these in advance.

Contact: Do Cong Minh, Foreign Press Center
Tel:  84-4-823 0705
Fax: 84-4-823 0709
Add: No 8 Khuc Hao St., Ba Dinh District, Hanoi

Crews and equipment:
There are many talented and experienced cameramen in Vietnam. Tran Le Tien, who works with the Press Center, is one of the best. Although most cameras in the country are PAL, NTSC equipment can be rented, both in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Other equipment such as lights and mikes are also available --not to mention the crews that accompany this gear.

Archival Research: There are several film/still photo archives spread out over many ministries; their material often duplicates each other and is often third or fourth generation. But there is some gold in those reels, if you are prepared to wade through the bureaucracy, letters to be written, delays, bad dubs, and overcharges. People needing NTSC are advised to get it on PAL and have dubs made in the States.

The Central Scientific Documentary Unit
Mr. Nguyen Van Nhan, Director
Tel:  84-4-832 6224
Fax: 84-4-832 6133
Add: 465 Hoan Hoa Than St., Ba Dinh District, Hanoi

Vietnam Film Institute
Mr. Dinh Cong Hiep, Deputy Director
Tel:  84-4-834 3451
Fax: 84-4-834 9193
Add: 115 Ngoc Khanh St., Ba Dinh District

Shooting in Vietnam: You will be overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people--not to mention their beauty. Avoid tipping for shots. It's not the custom.

Taking Film out of Vietnam. The government will review all your tapes before you leave the country, then seal them with an official stamp. Be sure to allow at least a day for this review or you will miss your plane.

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