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Tales from the Set


Volume 1: Know Your Rights

25+ years of thriving and surviving in this wonderful and crazy business have given me a lot of stories.  While some of these stories are only fit for cocktail parties, many of them illustrate concepts that you will find useful.  These are the stories I’ll be sharing in my Tales from the Set posts.


In this tale from the set, I’ll show you why you should ALWAYS be aware of local ordinances regarding filming in public space.


During the late 1990s I got the kind of job we all dream of.  A client called me and wanted me to take one of their specialized vehicles and shoot a promotional video styled like a car commercial.  Even better—the shoot would take place in and around the Rose Bowl, since the vehicle would be parked at the Rose Bowl for the duration of the festivities.  Right away, I knew two things; First, no car commercial is complete without seeing the vehicle drive through beautiful settings; Second, their budget did not include big dollars for the location fees and permits we’d need to accomplish that.


Limitations have never stopped me from doing what needs to be done, so I called a friend in LA and had him scout  some potential locations for me.  After talking to him and looking at photos, I settled on an area that included a well-known and very often used LA County Park.  (You’d recognize this location if you’ve watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example.)  I thought shooting in the park without permits and location fees would be a long shot, but I also figured that if we got shots nearby, they might be equally compelling and free.


Cut to the day of the shoot.  The vehicle was detailed and ready to go.  We set out on the highway and gathered ample footage of the vehicle driving out there from using a convertible as a camera vehicle (that vehicle also doubled as my transport while down in LA—not a bad deal, I thought.)  When we got to the county park, we parked our vehicles and I instructed the crew to have the gear ready just in case I got a green light.  I walked over to the park rangers, introduced myself, and explained that we were driving by, noticed the beautiful location, and were hoping to capture a couple of quick shots if they didn’t mind.  To my surprise, the rangers said yes.


Quickly, we put the vehicle in position, readied the camera and started shooting.  We got shots at multiple focal lengths and angles and were just setting up for the final shot when two ATVs with LA County Sheriffs came over the hill.  I instructed the crew to roll the final shot, and ran to intercept the ATVs before they ruined the shot. 


When I got to the ATVs, the deputies dismounted and started in with the threats without any hesitation.  Did I know it’s illegal to film in LA County without a permit? Was I aware that they could confiscate all of my gear and footage and throw me in jail? I quickly let them know that I was unaware of any of that and that the rangers had told me filming there would be OK.  Certainly I had no intention of violating laws.  While one deputy stayed with me, the other one rode over to the ranger’s station.  Meanwhile, I looked down the road and noticed that the crew was packing up.  The final shot had been completed! When the deputy returned from the ranger’s station, she confirmed my version of events.  I apologized profusely and told them that, if there was nothing more, we’d be on our way.  We left with all the footage we needed in the can.

So what did I learn that day? I learned that the consequences of non-permitted filming vary greatly by location.  If the same thing had happened in another urban county, I would not have been facing jail time—maybe a fine or permit fee, at the worst.  In other locations, it’s entirely likely that the sheriffs would have come and asked me what I was doing and offered to help—permit or not.


If you’re planning a location shoot, take the time to learn the local ordinances, or, better yet, hire a local location professional who has all the knowledge and relationships to make your shoot go smoothly.