Sometimes projects with little to no budget have a limited choice when it comes to location shooting. Choosing to quickly get the shot and move on, without getting the permission might seem to be their only choice. When permits could range from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars for only a few hours. Guerrilla film making seems to be more common than we think. The main benefit of guerrilla style shooting is that you can save a lot of money by avoiding permits and the insurance that goes with it. The other benefit is the amount of time you can save by avoiding weeks waiting to receive your permit. So overall, the biggest advantage is saving money and time.
But the biggest issues facing guerrilla style film-making is that you can get shut down. Which basically means the police asking you for your permits, and if you're unable to provide it then you receive a very large fine. The rules and regulations differ depending on your location.
Noam Kroll has written an interesting blog about Shooting Guerrilla Style and provides 8 Tips You Need to Know.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, “guerrilla” shooting essentially means shooting your film in public with no permits and in most cases, no permission from any property owners for that matter. This may sound to some like a completely unprofessional way of shooting (and in some cases it very well can be), but there are some very notable examples of films shot entirely without permits. One of the most famous examples is the Oscar winning masterpiece “The French Connection” which was shot in New York City with a sizeable crew and no location permits whatsoever. Another recent example was the film titled “Escape From Tomorrow” which was amazingly shot inside of Disney World without any permission at all. Pretty amazing for a feature film with many shooting days!
There are also countless television shows (mainly reality/lifestyle) that shoot nearly everything without permits. Even larger scale productions shoot without permits fairly regularly, although in most cases they do so for a select few scenes or shots, as was done with the film “Black Swan”. In their case, the subway scenes were all shot without permits on a Canon 7D.
Before we go into some advice on how to get away with shooting this way, let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons:
These are pretty obvious. The main benefit to shooting guerilla style is that you can save a lot of money by avoiding permits and the corresponding insurance that you need to obtain the permit. To put it in perspective, here in LA, even if you just want to shoot a small scene with a single actor and a camera operator on the sidewalk (without blocking traffic), you’re looking at a minimum permit fee of $700 or so. On top of that, you are required to be insured which will likely cost another $600 – $800 as most film insurance companies set that range as their minimum. So right off the bat, you’re looking at paying somewhere in the range of $1500. Should you choose to go Guerrilla though, that number quickly drops down to $0. The other big advantage to consider is the amount time that it can save you. On a tiny production, every last second counts and getting permits does take time. It can often take several days, or even weeks to successfully get your permit and during that time you need to provide the city or permitting office with the appropriate forms, information and insurance certificates. Multiply that by the amount of locations you have and you can quickly add up how much time you may spend just dealing with permitting. So all in all, the biggest advantages here are saving money and time.
Again these may be pretty obvious to some, but the allure of shooting without permits sometimes draws attention away from the realities of doing so. The biggest issue here is that you can get shut down. Getting shut down in a worst case scenario, literally means having the Police ask to see your permit, realizing you have no permission to be shooting, writing you a very large fine, confiscating your equipment and sending you on your way. Depending on the city or state that you’re in, the rules and regulations differ, so depending on which city you’re shooting in, this may be a large concern. If you’re shooting Guerrilla, but still have union actors for instance, you now have to pay your actors for a full day of work even if you get shut down 5 minutes in. You will also need to pay your crew of course, and it’s just a downright bad situation to be in. With that said, if you’re smart about how, when and where you shoot without permits – the likelihood of this happening isn’t huge.
So on to the fun part. Now that you’ve decided to go ahead and take your chances shooting without permission, here are 8 tips for getting away with it:
#1 – Keep Your Crew As Small As Possible
Probably the most important item on this list, hence why it’s number 1. The bigger your crew, the more attention you’re going to draw. The general public loves to gather around and watch a movie getting shot. In fact for whatever reason most people seem to be fascinated by it. The more your team looks like a film crew, the larger the crowd will be that starts surrounding you. And for any business owners, police, residents, etc. in the area that take notice of this, they are going to approach you and ask what’s going on. This is a big red flag as generally anyone that needs to be aware of shooting being done in the area will be made aware as a result of your permit, and you’re very likely to get shut down if you shoot with a big crew. Keep it as small as possible. Have only the actors, director and DP visible (I’ll touch on audio later on). Anyone else that is on your crew – PA’s, Makeup, Craft, etc. absolutely needs to be out of sight. They can hang back by the car or production van and when you need them, call to them – (On a cell phone by the way, not a radio, that’s another dead giveaway). The more you can make it look like a single guy or girl holding a camera shooting their friends, the better.
#2 – Shoot on a DSLR
Or any other inconspicuous camera. The Blackmagic Pocket Camera for instance would be a great camera for guerilla shooting as it has an extremely stealth form factor. The point here, much like number 1, is to draw as little attention to yourself as possible. When I am out shooting on my GH3, the average tourist walking down the street has a larger camera than I do. Even a T3i or equivalent is going to look the same or larger to the average person, and people are used to seeing anyone and everyone walking around with one. The more you can blend in, the better. And the smaller your camera is, the less likely you are to get hassled. If you start walking around with a Red MX rigged up and expect not to get noticed, you’re playing a very risky game. Even on professional sets when I shoot with a DSLR, I’ll often have producers question the quality of the footage. Put that out on the street where you blend in with everyone else, and the average public with think you’re just another tourist filming your friends hanging out.
#3 – Hide The Audio
Probably the biggest giveaway that you are shooting a semi-professional production is a big boom mic swinging around. A group of actors, a camera, and a couple of filmmakers hanging around could easily be disguised as friends trying out a new camera. But once there is a pro-looking boom mic being run into a recorder or mixer – there is no fooling anyone. Your best bet for audio is to get some really great wireless lav mics and have your audio recordist hide his or her gear. What many filmmakers will do is have the audio recorder in a car, or a backpack with the recordist hanging around near by. They can easily control the recording inconspicuously without being right in the midst of all of the action.
#4 – Avoid using a Tripod
As painful as this may be for some (especially if you hate the handheld look), another big issue for guerilla filmmakers is the tripod. In many cities where film permitting is strict, one of the things that can give you away is your tripod. Once you have sticks on the ground, the production starts to look larger and more suspicious. Ideally you want to opt for a monopod or very inconspicuous shoulder mount. The smaller the better.
If you absolutely need to shoot with a Tripod, than go ahead and do it, but be very careful and take extra care to ensure that you…
#5 – Choose The Right Locations
Some locations are much easier than others to shoot in. For instance, in Los Angeles, filmmakers often shoot in the downtown core without any issue, but in an area like Beverly Hills, you are much more likely to get asked for a permit. Every city is different and every area has different regulations and policies on film permitting. But if you do your research you’ll quickly be able to figure out which areas are the most “filmmaker friendly” and can choose your locations as needed. The other thing you may find as you start to look into this is that many cities have areas where you don’t need permits or where permits are free. On my last film for example, one of our best locations was completely free. We did still need to provide insurance and go through the paperwork process to get the permit, but it didn’t cost anything to do so. If your production can make use of free permit areas like we did, it may end up being worth your while to get the insurance you need and then save on the permits. After all, if you do get shut down, your fees and extra expenses will far exceed what the insurance would have cost you. Assuming you opt to shoot in true guerilla style though, make sure to…
#6 – Work Quickly
The longer you are on set, the longer you are being exposed to the general public. If you need time to rehearse, do makeup, get audio levels, or anything else for that matter, make sure to do this first in a different location. Even if it’s around the corner. When you’re ready to go, move to your shooting location, get what you need and get out as quickly as possible. If you’re smart about how you manage your time and avoid lingering around on “set” when you don’t need to be there, you will greatly reduce your exposure and increase your chance of success.
#7 – Don’t Forget To Plan
Going hand in hand with Working Quickly, is planning. Some locations may be very easy to shoot at during the day, but not at night. Or the reverse may be true. Some locations may be easy to shoot at during a certain point in the day, but the lighting isn’t right until later. The point is that you need to do your homework and plan as much as possible. Go out to the locations you want to shoot at with your camera and take some test shots. Scope it out and see where the least conspicuous areas are to shoot. Don’t just show up and go. By planning properly you are not only making certain that you have the right location, but you will also be able to work more efficiently by arriving on set prepared. A big part of planning also involved what to do in a situation where you do get shut down. If you’re on a location that is particularly risky, you may want to shoot on smaller media cards and run them to the car every few minutes to make sure if anything gets confiscated, at least you have some of your footage. And if all else fails -
#8 – Tell Them It’s A Student Film
At one point or another you are bound to get asked about your shoot. Normally, people are actually very nice about this and aren’t too concerned about permitting unless you’re in a high traffic area. Most often, people (including local police) may just want to watch or are curious as to what you’re doing. But you will have those times when you’re approached and asked for a permit and you get someone who is just in a bad mood. There are a number of responses you can give, but one of the more effective options is “It’s a student film”. If your crew is small enough, and young enough, this may just work. If you want to go the extra mile here, you may want to get a “student producer” on board who can be on set with you every day for this very reason. Another option is to say you’re shooting still photography. Again this would work if you’re shooting with a DSLR and with hidden mics, but not with a full blown set up.
If you’re careful about it, you can get away with shooting guerrilla just about anywhere. The largest and smallest of productions have all done it, and with the right mix of preparation, minimal gear and stealth crew members, you can very well get away with shooting with no permits. If you do choose to go down this path though, it can never hurt to look for free permit areas that will allow you to have longer shoot days without the hassle or worry of shooting guerilla style. And depending on how your production is set up, you may want to invest in some production insurance regardless, as even if you are shooting guerilla and don’t need it for that reason, it can save you a lot of money down the road if something goes wrong in another way.