Filming in Private Locations

It probably makes sense to start with the most black-and-white rules first: if you’re standing on private property, you need the owner’s permission to be there—as well as the owner’s permission to film there.

Keep in mind that a lot of the places people might casually call public are actually private property. When your significant other advises you not to wear sweatpants in public, for example, their definition probably includes venues like shopping malls and retail parking lots, which are most definitely privately owned. Similarly, property refers to more than just solid ground you can stand on; intellectual properties like logos and music are also protected against recording.

If you live in a populated area like New York City—or, really, any area more populated than Death Valley—this can feel limiting. How can you go anywhere without capturing private property on camera? (E.g., skylines of privately owned buildings, joggers in privately owned running shoes, passing cars playing privately owned music.)

That’s where one word becomes important: standing. You need permission to record while standing on private property; however, you don’t generally need permission to record aspects of it observable to the public—provided they’re captured incidentally and from a distance (meaning they become part of your background, not your subject).

The key concepts: always get permission and don’t peer over fences, and you should do fine.


Filming in Public Locations

As a kindergarten-level rule, filmmakers have the green light to record in public. What you see is what you can film—provided you follow a few kindergarten concepts like staying where you belong and respecting people’s privacy.

(Privacy, for non-history-buffs, is an ancient concept that primarily existed prior to smartphones, tabloids, and reality television.)

You see, people have an expectation they’ll be viewed when they go out in public, just like they expect their property to be viewed; however, they also have an expectation not to be showcased or exhibited, no matter how far removed they might be from private property.

If someone’s face is going to be readable on film, you should probably obtain a readable release form. Likewise, anything they would reasonably want kept private (e.g., suggestive body parts, the contents of an unzipped bag, trips to so-called public restrooms) should stay private.

The key concepts: stay outta people’s grills and don’t be creepy.


Filming in Sensitive (and Insensitive) Locations

Even if you’re shooting from private property across the street—and filming them incidentally—certain subjects are off-limits for security reasons. This includes military installations, government buildings, and certain aspects of mass transportation (e.g., airports, tunnels, and train stations). Always look for signs that prohibit photography or recording devices, and don’t be afraid to reach out to the affiliated media relations department, in advance of your arrival, if unsure.

On the other end, high-profile figures like celebrities and politicians enjoy fewer protections against being filmed. When public figures voluntarily operate in the public eye, they waive a certain degree of their privacy, which is why paparazzi footage of stars sunbathing and taking out garbage is a thing—and one that doesn’t require release forms.

Still, people have a right to control how their likeness is used. Paparazzi footage of JLaw taking out her trash is kosher as long as it’s documentarian and without commercial slant. But use that same footage in a commercial endorsing Hefty bags, and you might have a problem . . .

The key concepts: avoid barbed wire and be nice to JLaw.


The topics above are excerpts from our free eBook, “The VideoBlocks Field Guide to Film Rights,” available for download by entering your email below.