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Shooting Guerilla Style (At Your Own Risk): The 8 Tips You Need to Know

Shooting Guerilla Style (At Your Own Risk): The 8 Tips You Need to Know

L.A.-based filmmaker Noam Kroll is currently working on his second feature.  He keeps a production blog at his website NoamKroll.com
out Kroll’s blog
here, and his production company post-production house Creative Rebellion here

Disclaimer: Before reading this it’s important to
note that if you choose to shoot Guerrilla style (without permits) you
are doing so at your own risk. Depending on how and where you shoot, you
may be subject to fines, fees and other legal complications. Take my
tips below with a grain of salt and know that should you choose to start
shooting without permits, any complications that may arise are solely
your own responsibility.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, “guerrilla” shooting
essentially means shooting your film in public with no permits and in
most cases, no permission from any property owners for that matter. This
may sound to some like a completely unprofessional way of shooting (and
in some cases it very well can be), but there are some very notable
examples of films shot entirely without permits. One of the most famous
examples is the Oscar winning masterpiece “The French Connection” which
was shot in New York City with a sizeable crew and no location permits
whatsoever. Another recent example was the film titled “Escape From
Tomorrow” which was amazingly shot inside of Disney World without any
permission at all. Pretty amazing for a feature film with many shooting

READ MORE: How the Director of ‘Escape From Tomorrow’ Made a Crazy Guerrilla Movie In Disney World – And Got Away With It

There are also countless television shows (mainly reality/lifestyle)
that shoot nearly everything without permits. Even larger scale
productions shoot without permits fairly regularly, although in most
cases they do so for a select few scenes or shots, as was done with the
film “Black Swan”. In their case, the subway scenes were all shot
without permits on a Canon 7D.

Before we go into some advice on how to get away with shooting this way, let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons:

These are pretty obvious. The main benefit to shooting guerilla style is
that you can save a lot of money by avoiding permits and the
corresponding insurance that you need to obtain the permit. To put it in
perspective, here in LA, even if you just want to shoot a small scene
with a single actor and a camera operator on the sidewalk (without
blocking traffic), you’re looking at a minimum permit fee of $700 or so.
On top of that, you are required to be insured which will likely cost
another $600 – $800 as most film insurance companies set that range as
their minimum. So right off the bat, you’re looking at paying somewhere
in the range of $1500. Should you choose to go Guerrilla though, that
number quickly drops down to $0. The other big advantage to consider is
the amount time that it can save you. On a tiny production, every last
second counts and getting permits does take time. It can often take
several days, or even weeks to successfully get your permit and during
that time you need to provide the city or permitting office with the
appropriate forms, information and insurance certificates. Multiply that
by the amount of locations you have and you can quickly add up how much
time you may spend just dealing with permitting. So all in all, the
biggest advantages here are saving money and time.

Again these may be pretty obvious to some, but the allure of shooting
without permits sometimes draws attention away from the realities of
doing so. The biggest issue here is that you can get shut down. Getting
shut down in a worst case scenario, literally means having the Police
ask to see your permit, realizing you have no permission to be shooting,
writing you a very large fine, confiscating your equipment and sending
you on your way. Depending on the city or state that you’re in, the
rules and regulations differ, so depending on which city you’re shooting
in, this may be a large concern. If you’re shooting Guerrilla, but
still have union actors for instance, you now have to pay your actors
for a full day of work even if you get shut down 5 minutes in. You will
also need to pay your crew of course, and it’s just a downright bad
situation to be in. With that said, if you’re smart about how, when and
where you shoot without permits – the likelihood of this happening isn’t

So on to the fun part. Now that you’ve decided to go ahead and take
your chances shooting without permission, here are 8 tips for getting
away with it:

#1 – Keep Your Crew As Small As Possible
Probably the most important item on this list, hence why it’s number 1.
The bigger your crew, the more attention you’re going to draw. The
general public loves to gather around and watch a movie getting shot. In
fact for whatever reason most people seem to be fascinated by it. The
more your team looks like a film crew, the larger the crowd will be that
starts surrounding you. And for any business owners, police, residents,
etc. in the area that take notice of this, they are going to approach
you and ask what’s going on. This is a big red flag as generally anyone
that needs to be aware of shooting being done in the area will be made
aware as a result of your permit, and you’re very likely to get shut
down if you shoot with a big crew. Keep it as small as possible. Have
only the actors, director and DP visible (I’ll touch on audio later on).
Anyone else that is on your crew – PA’s, Makeup, Craft, etc. absolutely
needs to be out of sight. They can hang back by the car or production
van and when you need them, call to them – (On a cell phone by the way,
not a radio, that’s another dead giveaway). The more you can make it
look like a single guy or girl holding a camera shooting their friends,
the better.

#2 – Shoot on a DSLR
Or any other inconspicuous camera. The Blackmagic Pocket Camera for
instance would be a great camera for guerilla shooting as it has an
extremely stealth form factor. The point here, much like number 1, is to
draw as little attention to yourself as possible. When I am out
shooting on my GH3, the average tourist walking down the street has a
larger camera than I do. Even a T3i or equivalent is going to look the
same or larger to the average person, and people are used to seeing
anyone and everyone walking around with one. The more you can blend in,
the better. And the smaller your camera is, the less likely you are to
get hassled. If you start walking around with a Red MX rigged up and
expect not to get noticed, you’re playing a very risky game. Even on
professional sets when I shoot with a DSLR, I’ll often have producers
question the quality of the footage. Put that out on the street where
you blend in with everyone else, and the average public with think
you’re just another tourist filming your friends hanging out.

#3 – Hide The Audio
Probably the biggest giveaway that you are shooting a semi-professional
production is a big boom mic swinging around. A group of actors, a
camera, and a couple of filmmakers hanging around could easily be
disguised as friends trying out a new camera. But once there is a
pro-looking boom mic being run into a recorder or mixer – there is no
fooling anyone. Your best bet for audio is to get some really great
wireless lav mics and have your audio recordist hide his or her gear.
What many filmmakers will do is have the audio recorder in a car, or a
backpack with the recordist hanging around near by. They can easily
control the recording inconspicuously without being right in the midst
of all of the action.

#4 – Avoid using a Tripod
As painful as this may be for some (especially if you hate the handheld
look), another big issue for guerilla filmmakers is the tripod. In many
cities where film permitting is strict, one of the things that can give
you away is your tripod. Once you have sticks on the ground, the
production starts to look larger and more suspicious. Ideally you want
to opt for a monopod or very inconspicuous shoulder mount. The smaller
the better.

If you absolutely need to shoot with a Tripod, than go ahead and do
it, but be very careful and take extra care to ensure that you…

#5 – Choose The Right Locations
Some locations are much easier than others to shoot in. For instance, in
Los Angeles, filmmakers often shoot in the downtown core without any
issue, but in an area like Beverly Hills, you are much more likely to
get asked for a permit. Every city is different and every area has
different regulations and policies on film permitting. But if you do
your research you’ll quickly be able to figure out which areas are the
most “filmmaker friendly” and can choose your locations as needed. The
other thing you may find as you start to look into this is that many
cities have areas where you don’t need permits or where permits are
free. On my last film for example, one of our best locations was
completely free. We did still need to provide insurance and go through
the paperwork process to get the permit, but it didn’t cost anything to
do so. If your production can make use of free permit areas like we did,
it may end up being worth your while to get the insurance you need and
then save on the permits. After all, if you do get shut down, your fees
and extra expenses will far exceed what the insurance would have cost
you. Assuming you opt to shoot in true guerilla style though, make sure

#6 – Work Quickly
The longer you are on set, the longer you are being exposed to the
general public. If you need time to rehearse, do makeup, get audio
levels, or anything else for that matter, make sure to do this first in a
different location. Even if it’s around the corner. When you’re ready
to go, move to your shooting location, get what you need and get out as
quickly as possible. If you’re smart about how you manage your time and
avoid lingering around on “set” when you don’t need to be there, you
will greatly reduce your exposure and increase your chance of success.

READ MORE:  How to Shoot with Natural Light: 10 Tips

#7 – Don’t Forget To Plan
Going hand in hand with Working Quickly, is planning. Some locations may
be very easy to shoot at during the day, but not at night. Or the
reverse may be true. Some locations may be easy to shoot at during a
certain point in the day, but the lighting isn’t right until later. The
point is that you need to do your homework and plan as much as possible.
Go out to the locations you want to shoot at with your camera and take
some test shots. Scope it out and see where the least conspicuous areas
are to shoot. Don’t just show up and go. By planning properly you are
not only making certain that you have the right location, but you will
also be able to work more efficiently by arriving on set prepared. A big
part of planning also involved what to do in a situation where you do
get shut down. If you’re on a location that is particularly risky, you
may want to shoot on smaller media cards and run them to the car every
few minutes to make sure if anything gets confiscated, at least you have
some of your footage. And if all else fails –

#8 – Tell Them It’s A Student Film
At one point or another you are bound to get asked about your shoot.
Normally, people are actually very nice about this and aren’t too
concerned about permitting unless you’re in a high traffic area. Most
often, people (including local police) may just want to watch or are
curious as to what you’re doing. But you will have those times when
you’re approached and asked for a permit and you get someone who is just
in a bad mood. There are a number of responses you can give, but one of
the more effective options is “It’s a student film”. If your crew is
small enough, and young enough, this may just work. If you want to go
the extra mile here, you may want to get a “student producer” on board
who can be on set with you every day for this very reason. Another
option is to say you’re shooting still photography. Again this would
work if you’re shooting with a DSLR and with hidden mics, but not with a
full blown set up.

Bottom Line
If you’re careful about it, you can get away with shooting guerrilla
just about anywhere. The largest and smallest of productions have all
done it, and with the right mix of preparation, minimal gear and stealth
crew members, you can very well get away with shooting with no permits.
If you do choose to go down this path though, it can never hurt to look
for free permit areas that will allow you to have longer shoot days
without the hassle or worry of shooting guerilla style. And depending on
how your production is set up, you may want to invest in some
production insurance regardless, as even if you are shooting guerilla
and don’t need it for that reason, it can save you a lot of money down
the road if something goes wrong in another way.

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