Getting Location Access for Documentary Makers

Gaining access to people or places is one of the main challenges documentary makers face when making their movies. These tips should help you find your way.

Video Transcript

Step number three to creating an informative and entertaining documentary is having the access to pursue your project. There are three different levels of access when creating a documentary, the first of which is the unlimited stage, meaning complete free range to do whatever, however and whenever the creator chooses to. This is obviously the best-case scenario and takes the challenge of working around restraints and obstacles away from the director. A good example of this would be the current reality TV trends since participants are forced to work with the shows and give them what they need when they need it. Therefore, the lack of B role and interviews to use is not the main priority of the creator.

The next level of access is known as the limited stage. This is the category that most creators fall into. The restrictions provide a barrier to how the piece ends up looking in the end. Restrictions that may come into play are time limitations, shooting on location issues, preapproval of questions, strict policies that must be followed and legal issues.

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Part of creating a good documentary is actually having the on-camera time to follow the character development. When time restrictions are put into effect, the rushed pace generally places the creators in a must-use scenario, whether or not they can truly represent the story well.

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Depending on where you shoot, every location may require that specific policies be followed which can harm the production. This could lead to restrictions as far as capturing the true elements that define the subject.

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If there was ever a way to dilute the reality of a documentary, rehearsed and preapproved questions are it. This also eliminates a lot of creative vision from the director. Without being able to ask what you want when you want to the piece begins to lack the multiple complexities that creates the dramatic arc and drives the characters development.

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This can create many difficulties when shooting on location or shooting specific people. Policies create limitations in how the subject is captured and can lead to a lot of details being missed, therefore taking away from the true cinema verite element of the piece.

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Legal issues can affect the outcome and certain points that the creator are trying to make by not being able to use necessary footage to better tell the story. This also puts restrictions on what can and cannot be covered, lowering the importance of the subject.

Shooting with constraints can be used as a portion of the pierce, such as in this example of the Michael Moore film Sicko.

The hardest level to work with is the restricted stage. Here the creator has the toughest task ahead, due to the limitations brought on by waivers, insurance, little to no on-location allowance, heavy time restraints, shooting licensing and editorial review of the final cut. Many aspects of your footage can be limited in many ways. Often celebrities or people who think they are celebrities will require submission of the questions in advance as well as approval of the end product. They may also require their own hair and makeup people and they may come with a technical writer that includes anything from a star trailer to certain snacks and beverages.

Sometimes you get only limited access to the location where you are going to shoot. You may have time restrictions, such as only 15 minutes to set up prior to the shoot. Always adhere to these demands. Many people will be very specific as to where you can and cannot shoot at their house or location. If you shoot any supporting video, such as personal photos and letters, make sure that you get a release for their use. If your subjects provide you with newspaper articles or magazine articles, you must go to the source and get the release to use them. Even if you only use an excerpt from an article, you still must get the permission of the publisher to use it.

Many locations will require you submit a certificate of insurance and will usually state the level of coverage required. If you are using a production house to help you shoot your footage, its production insurance can usually cover this insurance requirement. This usually does not cost the production company anymore money, it just requires a phone call to the insurance carrier so that it should not be passed on to you as a substantial cost. If no one is carrying production insurance, you can apply for a certificate of insurance directly from a carrier for a charge.

Even though we see that the access isn't always allowed, some creators use that element as a way to point out the serious nature of the documentary.

Not every subject can be captured easily. The idea is to grab the one that you have the most access to, maintaining its realism and being able to thoroughly entertain your audience.

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