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Filming Chinese Government Officials: The Do's and Don't's

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

CNBC personnel and mayor wen
Joined by CNBC personnel and Guangzhou Mayor Wen Guohui (center)

A couple of weeks ago we had the honor of meeting the mayor and the vice mayor of Guangzhou. Our friends at 90 Seconds contracted us to do a full-day video shoot for CNBC Catalyst. We filmed a 60-second promo for Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta region. The mayor and vice mayor were on camera one at a time, delivering about three paragraphs of content each -- all in English.

At first I felt a bit intimidated, given that these two were the highest-ranking officials I had ever personally met in China. As director on this shoot, my job was to give both gentlemen input and feedback on their spoken lines. There's nothing like being responsible for telling someone far more important than yourself that he needs to smile more. Or that he needs to change his speaking tempo.

In the end, things went well. The office of the mayor was incredibly helpful, and the client was very pleased with the content in the end. How did we pull it off? Find out below!

Guangzhou City Mayor Wen Guohui (温国辉) sits down on-camera for CNBC.

Be Friendly

First of all, it's all who you know. Or, at least... it's all who you are friendly to. Had we come in with all our equipment and our team and started talking to the office staff like they owed us something, or had we acted entitled to some particular shot, we would have been met with friction immediately.

Instead, we were very careful to be as sensitive as possible to our surroundings: the furniture, the decor, the lighting situations... Ultimately we made sure the people from their office could tell that we were being sensitive to them.

For example: In the conference room where the interviews were to be filmed there were no less than 30 massive armchairs that comprised the seating arrangement of the room. For our shot we really needed about 12 of these monstrous thrones to go away completely, and I was worried about the trouble that was going to cause.

I asked our contact who was showing us around if perhaps one or two chairs might be able to be moved, in a very "I'm-so-sorry-this-is-such-an-annoying-thing-to-ask-you-for". And then I explained the shot I had in mind, pointing out the beautiful painting on the wall that we wanted to see.

He replied, "Oh we can take all the chairs out!"

"No, no, no," I replied, "That's overkill; no need to do all that..."

In the end? 12 chairs were moved.

Help Me Help You

That leads to the second "Do": If you need something changed, make sure the person who has the ability to change it understands not only your vision, but how it helps them too. They've got to see that what you've got in mind is for their benefit.

When it comes to filming Chinese government officials, nine times out of ten this interaction is going look something like this:

OFFICE STAFF: Why do you want _____[thing I'm asking for]_____?

ME: Because _[important government official] will look best on camera if _[I get the thing I'm asking for]___, and he'll like the video more when it's done.

Feel free to copy + paste the above dialogue and use it for your own purposes!

Guangzhou City Vice-Mayor Cai (蔡朝林) on-camera for CNBC.

Guangzhou City Vice-Mayor Cai (蔡朝林)

Speak Chinese!

After we finished up Vice Mayor Cai's segment, our contact came over to me and said, "You know, your Chinese is pretty good. I think that when we film Mayor Wen, since he's going to be really nervous on camera, you should definitely talk to him a lot in Chinese before we get going. It will help him feel more comfortable."

Problem? Suddenly I'm not feeling too comfortable. I mean... I'm confident in my Mandarin abilities. But you're basically telling me that the mayor's English delivery will be depending my Chinese? This white American suddenly does not feel so 舒服 .

Make sure you can communicate! Take some time the day before the shoot, thinking ahead of words you've maybe never needed to learn before. In my case, I had never had to address a Chinese mayor before. I made sure that I knew what to call him to his face when speaking to him in Chinese.

All About the Angle

A few hours later, after we had set up our lighting, Mayor Wen came in for his segment. We wanted to give him just a bit more of a regal feeling than Vice Mayor Cai's segment, since his is a higher position. So we had him sit, and we put the camera at just a bit of a lower angle, looking up at him. This gave him superior look, relative to the viewer's angle. (see below)

Another important trick was placing Mr. Wen's teleprompter just a little lower than his eye level. This ensured that he did not seem like he was talking to someone higher than himself.

Start Talking Early

One of the biggest factors for our successful shoot was that CNBC did a great job in their liaison work with the mayor's office. By the time our crew was hired for the job, all the connections that needed to be made had been made. The office staff were expecting us. They were friendly. They were incredibly accommodating.

As a director and cameraman, I can do a good bit on set to make things go smoothly. But relationships take time. Props to CNBC for doing their part well in advance, which really provided us with the best possible scenario for our shooting day.

More photos from the shoot


Do you have a high-profile video project in China? Tell us about it and how we might be able to help you out!

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