It’s one of our greatest technological advances, and one of the greatest things to ever happen to filmmaking, as it allows us to travel across the country for a shoot in mere hours.
However, it’s easy to lose sight of that greatness when you’re at the airport and realize that your bags are overweight, it’s going to cost you $200 extra, and your external hard drive is smothered in less than 3oz. of shampoo.
The ever-present crying babies, the sassy but still not very funny intercom speeches, the tiny cups of water, the movies you never thought you’d be paying $8 to watch. On top of all this, as a filmmaker you’re traveling with a ton of precious cargo and if it breaks you’re kind of screwed.
But, as the great Louis C.K. is quick to remind us…
He’s absolutely right. Flying is a privilege, and while there are certainly things we could complain about along the way, it’s really pretty amazing that we can fly through the air across the country while sipping a complimentary ginger ale, wrapped in the arms of a zebra-print neck pillow.
As filmmakers it is so crucial that we pack our gear wisely and understand just how much easier our lives can be when we do.
Somewhere in the world, right now, a Stillmotion team member is probably on an airplane. We’re always flying for our work, and over the years we’ve actually picked up a lot of know-how about the process of traveling with cameras, lights, audio equipment… the whole loot.
Recently airlines changed their policy on bag size and we had to deal with how much fun that was, and in the process we thought about how there really is so much to know about flying with gear and how it effects filmmakers… and it’s always changing. For this reason, we’ve put together the first annual Stillmotion Ultimate Travel Guide, where we cover all the stops on the itinerary of airport knowledge.
How heavy is too heavy?
What are the new size requirements?
How much does it cost if my bag is overweight or oversized?
But gear is so heavy… how can I make sure my bags aren’t overweight?
How do I get status?
What the heck is Star Alliance?
Which airlines are the good ones?
…and the list goes on.
We’ll answer all these questions and more, so fasten your seat belts until the seat belt light is no longer illuminated.
The Big Three: Weight, Size, and Safety
When you’re packing for a shoot, there are three major things you need to consider: the weight of each bag, the size of each bag, and how safely you’re packing your beloved equipment.
We’ve broken each section down to include our tips for conquering each area of focus, but if there’s something specific you’re curious about, be sure to ask and we’ll do our best to answer you.
1. What are the weight requirements, and how can I conquer them?
Ok, the first thing you want to think about with your bags is weight.
The requirements for weight are strict and airlines are sticklers for the rules, as you’ve probably experienced if you’ve ever tried to bring tweezers on the plane. Everyone can bring 2 carry-on bags at up to 15lbs. each, and for checked bags the requirement is usually 50lbs. per bag without paying overweight fees.
Internationally the requirement is usually around 44lbs. but it’s best to check with your carrier to confirm.
If you’re within the weight requirements, the cost per bag can range anywhere from free to $35 per bag (for up to 3 bags), and beyond that it’s going to cost you more, so it’s crucial to pack accordingly to maximize what you can bring with you.
These numbers all change when you have status with the airline, and we’ll get to the details of that later — but those with higher status, Star Alliance members, for example — can usually get up to three check-ins at 70lbs. each for free. If you’re employed for a network and can obtain media credentials, you can get even more overweight bags at a free or lowered rate.
However, one thing to note is that regardless of frequent flier status and airline, bags over 100lbs. will never be accepted for check-in.
So how do you minimize the weight of your bags?…
There are several things you can do to minimize the weight of your bags, you just need to believe in yourself and your ability to leave some things behind.
Rule #1: Less is more.
Bring only what you need to the shoot. Every single pound really does count, so don’t bring extra weight if you don’t have to. Usually this means those things you think you “might” need can stay at home. Bring the stuff you know you’re going to use, and since you’re a Stillmotion Storyteller and you’ve planned out your entire shoot ahead of time… you know exactly what you need to bring for the story.
Rule #2: Get it locally.
As you’re packing, prioritize you gear by what is crucial to the shoot and work backwards from there. If you’re maxed out on weight with camera and camera support… consider renting from a grip house for lighting and/or grip.
You’ll also want to go through a grip house for things like c-stands, sandbags and modifiers. These items are big and heavy, and they’re relatively cheap to rent so it’s a win-win.
If you’re flying internationally it’s a really good idea to rent your lighting locally so you don’t have to deal with converters and power issues with 110V vs. 240V lights.
Rule #3: Go lightweight.
Invest in things like carbon fiber tripods and collapsible flag sets to help keep the size and weight issues to a minimum. We have mini-lightweight grip heads, nano stands for modifiers and Litepanels vs. aftermarket Brightcast ones. Although the weight difference may only be a pound or two for each piece individually, the cumulative weight difference is substantial. You’d be surprised how much more you can pack in if you save a few pounds here and there.
Rule #4: Get a scale.
It’s a grab idea to invest in a travel scale so that you can weigh out your bags before heading to the airport. We didn’t always do this and it caused major problems when we had to pull gear out of a bag at the check-in counter.
Dangers of pulling gear out of the bag at the counter:
-The piece of gear is no longer with its counterparts.
-It’s no longer in a protected environment.
-You may have to pay for another bag or fees (noooooo!).
-You might have to leave the gear behind, leaving you without crucial gear for the shoot!
The biggest thing we can stress when it comes to weight is that every pound counts. Take an excess item out here and there, source something heavy locally…. and boom, you’re just under the weight requirement rather than over, and you’re not paying a $150 fee.
2. How long is too long?!
The size thing is rather simple, in that there are no extensions to size requirements for frequent fliers: carry-on bags cannot exceed 45 linear inches, and check-ins cannot exceed 62 linear inches.
If your bag does exceed 62 linear inches, you’ll be fined, and if it goes over 115 linear inches it’s not going on the plane!
So, to sum up the weight and size requirements:
Check-ins: 50lbs/62 linear inches
Carry-ons: 15lbs/45 linear inches
Star Alliance Gold: 3 x 70lbs/62 linear inches
Bags in excess of 100lbs or 115 linear inches will not be accepted.
3. How do I keep everything from getting destroyed?
Packing to protect can make or break (literally) your shoot.
The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you have a dedicated space for everything. We mean everything! This includes small items like adapters, cables, and accessories. They should all be packed together with their corresponding items, so the bags will function as self-containing units.
Back in the day we didn’t always do this — we’d pack some of our gear in with our clothes but it would result in broken gear, missing gear, or unusable gear because one part of something was left in the hotel next to our socks.
The last thing you’d want is to have two cameras and batteries in one case and the chargers in a lost check-in, so now you don’t have a functioning camera. This system is also just going to make it easier to find things in general because you won’t have stingers and gels in with your audio gear or lenses in with your light stands.
For safety we also recommend gaff taping the lid and/or the compartments with an itemized list of the contents so that everything gets put back in its proper place after the shoot. You’ll know right away if anything is missing when you see an empty slot at the end of your shoot.
Do You Fly Frequently?…
If so, you’ll want to get frequent flier status! It makes everything we’ve discussed a little easier…
Frequent fliers are the people who zoom past check-in and security lines, because they’ve stuck with one airline long enough that they’ve built a relationship and have attained status.
What are the perks?
Well, we’ve already mentioned the waived baggage fees (stewing!), but in addition to that and being at the front of the line for everything, you can also earn free award miles — this means you can use them to purchase tickets for those last-minute flights that would normally be horrifically expensive.
You’re also more likely to be upgraded to first class seats. The more miles you have under your belt, the higher up on the totem poll you are, and the more chances you have of being upgraded. Some of us fly so often we’re upgraded to first class on almost half of our domestic flights! And when you’ve got a 30-hour travel day ahead of you… there’s nothing like flying first class.
So how do you get status?
The big thing is to stick with one airline and/or its affiliates whenever possible, even if it means paying a little more for some flights, because in the end the benefits far outweigh the fare differences.
We fly United Airlines because it’s part of the Star Alliance network — this is one of the biggest networks worldwide that allows you to fly just about anywhere and still accrue status miles. You can read more about Star Alliance on their website, but long story short: if you’re flying a lot, you’ll want to become a member!
Where you’re located in the country will often influence which airline you choose to go with. At one point we were based out of California, where United has a hub — so it made sense for us to go with them purely for the flight options.
If you’re based in Atlanta consider Delta, if you’re in Orlando consider American Airlines, and if you’re in Seattle go for Alaska Airlines. Overall, though, it doesn’t matter so much which airline you go with so long as you are loyal to them and stay with the same airline.
Wait! There’s more!
We say to stick to one airline primarily because your status is determined by the number of miles you fly each calendar year (this is not to be confused with award miles, aight? Got it?) — and they restart on JANUARY 1ST each year.
What does this mean? You’ll re-qualify for status each year and the tier you reach (gold, platinum, cubic zirconia, whatever) is based on how many miles you traveled the previous year.
A few years ago, on a cold December evening, the legendary Joyce Tsang was a mere 1200 miles shy of 1K status. While some would simply say “ah darn,” and move on, Joyce wasn’t about to take “1200 miles” for an answer. What did she do? She picked a day in the last week of December and just chilled out on a round trip to Chicago.
Some might call her crazy, but nobody laughed when Joyce spent the next year flying in style at Premiere 1K status which got her 6 additional international upgrades and put her way ahead on the upgrade list for countless other domestic flights.
TLDR: Get yourself in a long term relationship with one airline, and don’t stray.
Every airline has its pros and cons, and by now we’ve managed to determine which has what. We figured it might be nice for you if we highlighted which ones are ideal for different reasons, so we’ve got a few awards to give away: the most comfortable, the most economically wise, and the best frequent flyer perks.
If you’re going on a long flight and have the opportunity to fly Virgin (and you’re not tied down to one airline already) — go for Virgin. Their planes are by far the most fun to be on, with “club” lighting and hip flight attendants, as well as a convenient system for ordering food… Virgin takes the “Best Comfort” award easily.
They’re a smaller airline, however, so they won’t end up being one you want to commit to long term as they often won’t be offering a flight where you’re trying to go.
If you’re looking to get the cheapest flight, it’s often going to be Southwest. They offer simple, cheap fares and usually bigger discounts for flights and unpopular times like 6AM.
It is, however, a cattle call. Their system is set up for all the passengers to get in line and board the plane in an unorderly fashion, so if it’s comfort and guidance you’re looking for… might want to choose a different airline. But if you’re looking to get from A to B at the cheapest price, go Southwest.
United boasts on their website that they have received the award for having the best loyalty program for 10 year in a row (or something), and they’re our airline of choice, so we had to give this one to them.
Since we’ve remained loyal to them, we haven’t really experienced the program at other airlines – but United is quick to waive fees for us and bump us up to first class all the time, so for the most part we experience the benefits of the program all the time.
Again, the important thing to remember about frequent flyer perks is that they come about when you stick with one airline.
Other Cool Stuff To Think About…
Another thing that you can do when it comes to traveling with gear is apply for a carnet. This is basically a gear passport or document that allows you to travel to other countries with your gear while avoiding fees and taxes.
We don’t really use carnets anymore, even though they are considered the “proper” way to fly with gear. Honestly they just caused a lot more problems for us than they were worth, but as we said, they’re said to be the correct way to travel with gear so it’s worth looking into.
There’s this thing called Global Entry from the US government that allows pre-screened, low-risk international travelers to bypass the lines at Customs when returning from an international trip to the US. It’s similar to Nexus (which Amina has…it’s for Canadian peeps), where you don’t have to see a grumpy customs officer (and skip the long lines). You can just scan your passport and fingerprints at a kiosk and off you go.
- You apply via their website.
- The government does a background check on you.
- You go to some government building in a city near you for an in-person interview.
If you don’t act shady at your interview and you’re legit, you’ll be cleared for Global Entry Status for 5-years.
In addition to that, all Global Entry holders automatically get accepted into the TSA Pre-Check program which means you:
- Bypass the regular long security lines at US airports domestically…even without frequent flier status with any airline.
- Don’t have to take off your shoes/jackets, take out your laptop and liquids and all that crap.
And the kicker? People who have Premier Platinum status with United Airlines get a complimentary coupon code for the $100 application fee to the Global Entry program. YES.
Dirty Flying Tips That Stillmotion Does Not Condone…
The thing about airports is that you always have some wiggle room, and there are lots of ways to bend the rules if you know what you’re doing.
We are good people here at Stillmotion, and we fly by the rules… however, there are some strategies for squeezing through various steps of the process that we’ve heard are rumored to work. We might know some people, though we aren’t naming names, whom these strategies have worked for.
1. Lean The Wheel
It is rumored that when weighing your bag, leaning one wheel off the back of the scale (though risky) can work if you’re in a busy line and the attendant is not paying close attention. Attempt at your own risk.
2. “I’ll just take this out.”
If a bag is too heavy, remove something with the promise of relocating it to another bag. Keep it under your arm, whatever, and once you’ve passed the weighing area just put it back in. We’ve heard many success stories about this one from people who are shady enough to try it.
3. Technical Difficulties.
The ol’ technological glitch. It is rumored that when you’re faced with a long line to board, you can simply walk up to the attendant at the kiosk and tell them that the machine is not printing your boarding pass. They’ll generally just print it and send you on your way all at once, rather than making you go through the process of waiting in line.
4. “It’s exactly 48.7 pounds.”
Saying the exact weight of your bag is said to be a very successful method for avoiding the weighing process altogether. This is ESPECIALLY true if you actually know the weight of your first bag, say it to the attendant, and when they see you’re correct they will not bother weighing the others. The key here is to say a very specific number, so that it’s more believable. Or so we’ve heard.
5. Curbside Cash.
There are always people waiting curbside when you pull up to the airport that will take your bags and weigh them for you. These people don’t work for the airline, and if you are good to them they will be good to you. Lead with the money — a $10 or $20 will do depending on how much you have. Hand them a fat tip right away and say something to the effect of “I really appreciate all the hard work you do…”
Curbside will tag your bag without weighing it, or mark it as medical equipment. This strategy definitely works.
6. Be A Storyteller.
You got this. Chat up attendants as they’re weighing your bags about why you’re flying and the cool shoots you’re going on. If they’re having fun with you, they’re not going to be such sticklers for the rules… they’re going to smile and laugh with you, and move you along.
7. Carry That Weight.
The weight requirement for carry-on luggage is 15lbs, but we’ve heard of some studios carrying up to 40lbs in their carry-ons. Why? Because the airline almost never weighs it.
Again, we do not necessarily condone any of these shady activities as they are against the rules and we here at Stillmotion have hearts of gold.
Now Spread Your Wings!
Phew… who knew that one production company could ramble on about airline travel for this long.
But hey, we spend a good portion of our lives up in the air and we know how crazy it can be.
Storytelling is about being present on a shoot, problem solving, and putting story first. It’s easy to let flying get to you… but only if you really let it. Do everything you can to avoid those headaches, and you and your crew are going to be much happier people with much better work in the end.
What are your strategies for flying with gear? Tell us ’bout em!