Deserts exist on every continent. The first question to ask is which desert will work best for the specific needs of your production. For US based productions, deserts in the United States and Mexico require less travel. If you are looking for rolling sand dunes, the Sahara or Gulf States have good options without having to overnight in the desert. Chile, South Africa, and Australia offer opposite season looks. Some locations can double for the desert such as beach sand dunes near Sydney that look like the Sahara desert. Farther south you can find the world’s largest desert, Antarctica. If you are looking for something beyond just the desert, Mongolia’s Gobi Desert is home to an interesting nomad culture. For something different, the spectacular Namib Desert of Namibia runs right into the ocean and is home to unique locations such as Sossusvlei and Kolmanskop ghost town.
Desert filming can be very dangerous and expensive without adequate preparation. Speak with locals and those who have filmed there before deciding on where to shoot.
Protect Your Crew
Plan for heat
Summer in the desert can see temperatures soaring up to 50’C (120’F). Crews work slower in the desert so allow plenty of time to get all of the shots you need. Heatstroke can lead to death. Avoid filming during the hottest part of the day. Use air-conditioned tents. Bring more water than you think you’ll need. Make sure crew have water close by so they hydrate regularly. Drink electrolyte-intense liquids. Cover up properly. Wear lightweight long-sleeved clothing in neutral colours such as pale blues and greens. Avoid wearing reflective whites. Protect against sun and wind. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses (or goggles), lip balm, and a bandana or scarf to keep dust out. Don’t forget your sunscreen… remember light rebounds from bright surfaces, including white desert sands, so apply sunscreen accordingly. Metal equipment can get very hot so bring gloves. Local knowledge is critical for planning a shooting schedule. Make sure to have an on-set nurse. In case of an emergency make sure you know evacuation routes, where medical facilities are located and how to access them. If you have the budget allow for a standby emergency aircraft. Buy appropriate insurance. If you are filming remotely, an emergency rescue will be expensive.
Plan for cold
Desert conditions can change quickly and temperatures drop sharply at night. Bring layers so you can change as the temperature changes. If you are filming in a very cold desert like Antarctica or the Gobi Desert, see here for more information.
Plan for other dangers
Deserts are living ecosystems that are home to animals such as snakes and scorpions. If your project requires you to clear the set of critters you will need to hire a professional wrangler. Depending on the size of the safe area required, the clearing process may take days, so allow plenty of lead time.
Plan to leave before it gets dark. Deserts become more difficult to travel by night so its best to avoid those risks.
Protect Your Gear
As far as equipment is concerned, travel as light as possible. Bring only the kit you need, but make sure to have spares, especially batteries and gear prone to stop working in desert conditions. Camera gear and lenses need to be protected against the heat and dust. As much as possible, keep gear covered. Space blankets, pop-up tents, and umbrellas for shade are recommended. Prevent dust settling in by cleaning gear at least once a day with a camel hair brush, vacuum, and compressed air. Garbage bags and gaffer tape is useful for covering up ports and edges when a dust storm rolls in. Use umbrellas to keep cameras out of the harsh sunlight. Avoid covering the camera body.
Be mindful of reflections. Don’t wear white and remove reflective watches and jewelry. To reduce glare on monitors, either rent hoods or fashion shades out of cardboard, cloth, and the like. Tilt down when slating to prevent reflections.
Contact us if you are looking for recommendations for desert production specialists including producers, fixers, directors, DoP’s, videographers, and photographers.