Wherever you go, there you are. But are you prepared?
The term “on location” sounds sexy, conjuring up images of Africa, Paris or other suitably exotic places.
But in reality the location you need could be right outside your studio’s back door, if you have a studio. If
you don’t have a studio, then you’re always “on location.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. If
location shooting is all you do, you’re always shooting at a place that is most suitable for your video. For
event videographers, shooting anywhere besides the actual location (such as weddings, graduations, etc.)
would be pointless and could border on the ridiculous. (“All right, mother of the bride, please move closer
to the stack of crushed cars. Best-man, two steps back toward the giant electromagnet. Everyone in the
back row jump up onto the wrecked Chevy. Perfect.”) Of course, such a method could also be viewed as
daring and innovative, depending on how well you pull it off.
However, as a businessperson, there are certain aspects of shooting on location that have the
potential to cause you grief. Do you have permission to shoot at your chosen location? Have all the people
who will be in your show actually agreed to be in your show–and have they made this agreement
in writing? If someone gets hurt while you are shooting, will you be paying for their stitches out of your
own pocket, or do you have insurance to cover medical expenses now and legal expenses later?
You may never run into a problem while on location. But you should be aware of the risks
involved so you can decide if these risks are worth taking. Considering that your business and your
potential future earnings could be at stake, this information may be important to you.
With Your Permission
The most basic question about a location is: “Do I have to get permission to shoot here?” The law is
full of gray areas. If you’re taping a public event, like a parade along Main Street where everyone is
snapping snapshots and home videomakers are videomaking, you can shoot as well. At first glance, this
would appear to be obvious.
But it’s a good idea to be cautious. If there’s any possibility that the event you’re covering isn’t a
public one, find out who has the authority to allow you to shoot video at the event, and get that person’s
permission to do so. If you ask for permission verbally, he or she might say, “Sure, go ahead. No problem.”
But make sure you then ask for permission in writing. If there really is no problem, written confirmation
should be no problem, either.
Why get permission in writing? Well, suppose you’re at your location and a policeman asks what
you’re doing. You explain that you are shooting a video (which explains the camera and crew), and then he
asks who gave you permission. You say, “Mr. so-and-so in the such-and-such office.” This might be all
you need, but the officer might ask for written confirmation, or ask you to wait while he contacts Mr. so-
and-so to check and see if you are telling the truth. If you have your permission in writing, the officer
might delay you for 30 seconds while he looks over this document. If not, the delay could conceivably last
several hours while the good officer tries to contact Mr. so-and-so.
Video Red Tape
In some cities, you need to go through a lot of red tape to get a film permit before you go on location.
If that’s the case and you want to stay in business, get used to doing paperwork. And do it well in advance
of the shoot, because bureaucracies aren’t very speedy in processing such documents. Budget for your time
and any processing fees so that you can pass these costs along to your client.
If you want to shoot at a privately owned location, you have to get in touch with the owner and
get his or her permission in writing. If you don’t get permission, you can be arrested for trespassing–an
embarrassment at best, a criminal record at worst.
It may be worth your while to do some research and see if your area has a film commission or a
similar government office. If you work in a large city or an area that actively woos the major film studios,
you may be in luck. To make it easy for film producers to choose a location, a film commission will often
put together a list of locations and take care of the paperwork involved in making contacts and obtaining
permission to use the locations. Why does the film commission do this? Because having a major film shot
in their area means lots of money flowing through the local economy: rented hotel rooms, food catering,
hardware and lumber for on-location sets, and all the other goodies that movie crews need.
The film commission might set up locations for your project if you can prove that you have a real
video business and you need this service. Some areas actually pay for this service with money collected
from a tourist tax. Gotta love them tourists, even if they do drive slow.
If you’re creating an industrial video (such as a sales tape or training tape) for a business and
you must shoot on their property to get the footage you need, then you shouldn’t need to get any more
permission than their sign-off on the script. The company representative knows you’ll be shooting, and will
probably even be with you during the shoot, so in all likelihood you have what is called implicit
Please Release Me
“Aha,” you say, “but what about talent releases?” A pertinent and perceptive question. As you
probably know, a talent release is a short form that must be signed by anyone who is recognizable on
screen in one of your videos. The word “talent” refers only to the fact that the person is on-screen; he or
she doesn’t have to actually have talent to be “talent.” The release form gives you permission to
use the likeness of such persons in any way you see fit (depending on the language of your release form).
But if you are on location at, say, the July Fourth parade, you will have a lot of people in your
video that have not signed your release. For a public event, you probably don’t need releases, just as you
probably didn’t need a permit to shoot at the event. To be on the safe side, you might want to post public
notices announcing your intention to videotape the event and stating the purpose of the video. If anyone
doesn’t want to be in your video, they can contact you and tell you so.
When you have control of the situation and are using the footage commercially (creating a video
for sale or producing a video for a client), then you should get a signed talent release from anyone who
appears on camera and is recognizable. If you only see the back of the person’s head, or the person is so
small in the frame that you can’t tell who it is, you don’t need a signed release.
If you’re creating a video to be shown on a broadcast or cable network (The Discovery Channel,
for instance), you’ll be asked for signed releases on all talent before your show will be aired. A word to the
wise: these releases are much easier to get during the shoot than they will be a year later.
Although a talent release can look intimidating, with phrases like, “I agree that you may use my
likeness for any legal purpose without restriction,” you’ll find that most people will sign them without a
whimper of protest. That’s the glamour of video for you.
There’s a story about a video created for a county school system. Long before shooting began, the
producer sent a talent release to the student’s parents to sign. The producer made it clear that students
whose parents didn’t sign a release form couldn’t appear in the video, and he assigned the teachers the job
of collecting the signed releases before shooting began. This was a bit difficult logistically, but you can
imagine how much more difficult it would have been for the producer to get the releases after the fact.
Accidents Will Happen
Accidents happen. Of course we don’t plan for them to happen. That’s why we call them accidents.
But as a business owner, you have to plan for the unexpected. Because the unfortunate truth is: if someone
gets hurt on one of your shoots while you’re on location (depending on the circumstances), you could be
You are responsible for the safety of your employees and clients. If a light stand falls over and hits
your client on the head–smashing the bulb and jabbing little pieces of glass into his bald pate–you are
liable for the damages. If, while rolling down the highway, the back door of your production van flies open
and cases of equipment bounce out and knock over several prize heifers, you are liable for the damages.
To protect yourself in such dire times, you may want to consider taking out liability insurance.
These policies cover losses resulting from bodily injury or property-damage claims, expenses for medical
services needed at the time of the accident, investigations, and court costs.
You might say, “Well, there’s insurance for everything and I would go broke trying to cover it all,
so I’ll just take my chances.” This will work until you try to get permission to shoot at a large corporation
and they say, “Well, of course you may shoot at our facility. Just contact your insurance company and send
us proof that you have liability insurance.”
Most companies realize that if you’re shooting at their location and someone gets hurt and you
don’t have liability insurance, the injured party may sue the company where you’re shooting. Look at it
from the injured party’s perspective: whose fault is it that your light stand fell over and buried shards of
bulb in someone’s noggin? Not the owner of the noggin. It’s a litigious society we live in.
A Capital Idea
Even with insurance, a large lawsuit could wipe out your business. This is one reason that
incorporation is an attractive way to set up your business.
If you’re a sole proprietor and someone sues you and wins, he can take your house and your
savings and everything else. This is because, as a sole proprietor, you have unlimited liability. It’s
a scary thought.
But if you set up your business as a corporation and you are sued and they win, they can take your
company and all your assets in the company, but they will leave the rest of your life alone. Once the smoke
clears, you can continue to be a useful member of society. Unless, of course, there were criminal charges
Location, Location, Location
Shooting on location can be manageable and profitable. Just make sure you follow the considerations
we’ve outlined above. Take the time to research the locations where you shoot, and do so far in advance.
Make sure all on-screen talent personnel sign release forms. And make sure you have the right kind of
insurance, and enough of it.
Remember: before you go there, prepare.