Much like sculpting or painting, gaining access to locations is an art form. It requires clever maneuvering, good relationships, and sometimes just plain old luck. Even so, knowing as much as you can about location access can make a huge difference in getting your story told.
Getting access to locations is not a science, much less an exact science. However, getting access to the right locations can lend your story credibility and interest. To make it a little easier for you to gain access to places you need to shoot, we'll look at the types of access you'll have to deal with, how to manage locations and when you'll need location releases. With this information to draw from, you'll be able to get the shots you need.
Assuming you'll have access to all of the places you want to film is fodder for embarrassment, legal troubles, and wasted time and money. As such, you'll want to find out what type of access your location has well before you even hit the record button. There are three common types of location access: unlimited, limited, and restricted.
Unlimited access locations are areas in which anyone can shoot video without the need for permits or scheduled times. These kinds of locations include public streets, parks, and of course any land or buildings that you own. This is the most ideal shooting situation since you can set your own hours and won't have to explain your project to multiple authorities. However, unlimited access locations may still require a permit if you will be interrupting traffic or will be shooting in a congested area such as a city.
Limited access locations are areas in which an owner controls whether or not shooting can occur. These kinds of locations include corporate offices, places of business, people's homes, and entertainment venues. In more sensitive locations some owners may even ask to pre-approve questions from your documentary and insist on supervising the shoot. Though it can be a nuisance, making sure the owner is happy should always be your highest priority. Next to unlimited access, this type of access is preferred since it usually involves less paperwork and complications than restricted locations. Even so, it is always a good idea to make sure you have location releases filled out with owners or PR reps before shooting begins. This way the owners will know what to expect and won't give you a tough time when filming.
The last type of location access is restricted. Restricted access are areas that require several levels of approval before shooting can begin. Typical restricted access areas are government buildings, jails, hospitals, schools, and large businesses. Since so many people need to sign off on these locations before shooting begins, you'll want to make sure you start the approval process as early as possible so your shoot doesn't get delayed. It's also a good idea to make sure these locations are open to you while in the planning stage of your documentary so that you can change your focus in case access isn't granted. Oftentimes these kinds of locations will only give you a limited amount of time to shoot, will not allow a lot of movement, and may even ask to review your final edit before they grant access. As such, these locations should only be used sparingly in order to make sure you have the freedom that you need to make your story work.
Even if you've gotten access to a location, your work is not done yet. You'll need to be able to manage both the people and equipment at the location. The first thing to remember when shooting on location is to be timely and make the owner happy. If the owner or PR rep for a location is on your side, they'll quickly become one of the most helpful people on the shoot. They can direct you to the best shooting locations, interview subjects, and can give you better insight into a part of a story you may have missed. Also, if the owner or PR rep asks you to follow some rules of their own, make sure to do everything in your power to adhere to them. You really don't want to burn bridges in your local community for both you and other documentary filmmakers. After shooting is over, it's always a good idea to give the owner a thank you card or gift and to invite them to the screening or send them a free copy of the finished product.
If there's any possibility that the location you are filming at isn't public, you'll need a location release. Without a location release you could get arrested for trespassing - an embarrassment at best and a criminal record at worst so you don't want to leave this up to chance. (A location release is a binding contract between a production and an owner which grants written permission to shoot at their location. When drafting your location release, make sure it also has a section which outlines the inability for an owner to sue a production for filming at a location and to get compensation for access. Unless you are a legal expert it is best to either get this document written by a lawyer or to get a template online. Also, though it is often easier to get a verbal confirmation to shoot, having an agreement in writing is preferred since it is easier to prove.
Location access is a tricky business - but it is one every documentarian needs to learn well. By knowing how to legally get access to a location, you can make sure that your documentary is riveting and well told.