Find below a quick overview for the key legal requirement while on production. If you are unclear on your agreements, have a look at the Development Produce Basics [link] and Agreements [link] sections. Please note that the info and advise offered does not constitute legal advise and if you are uncertain about your rights and obligations, seek professional advise from a solicitor…
If you want to show your work publicly, you will need your contributors to sign a personal release form. This legal document sets out the terms and considerations under which the contributors agree to ‘release’ their image, voice and other personal content, such as images of artifacts, letters etc. This should be done in writing – see our templates available for download below – but it can also be done on camera as a legally recognized agreement. Just get the contributors to state their name and address and that they agree to be recorded for the purpose of your project. This technique is used mostly for vox-pop interviews or streeters done on the run, but you still should get their names and address in writing and get a release form signed as soon as possible.
It is really important to clarify this BEFORE you start recording, ideally you have sent out the forms to your contributors or third parties during pre-production. We usually aim to receive the signed forms on or before the first day of production, to make sure that we have clarity, who is agreeing to share publicly with us.
This is always a negotiation and as such based and depending on the tension between trust, power of influence and pubic status. For example, a compassionate contributor on a social justice documentary will have no issue to sign a form, as they see the benefit of getting their side of the story heard and to push what they believe to their agenda. As person sitting in an influential but private position may try to hold your release form as a kind of ransom to assert some kind of editorial control or’ sign off’ right over how they are represented.
A public status figure, like a politician, doesn’t have that kind of right, their opinions and contributions, as long as they are quoted and used in their role as the politician, are covered by a clause of public interest.
However, it is prudent to get a release signed from all of them, upfront, based on the merit of your proposal and the relationship you have managed to build with them.
This is where it becomes clear that legal issues are always ethical issues, negotiating the power of influence. As an artist and filmmaker, especially as a documentarian, you should resist attempts to have your narrative audited and controlled by outsiders.
This is always a grey area and can be a difficult conversation that you nevertheless need to have with your team and contributors. Our rules of thumb are:
Get everyone on a level playing field - no favours, no exceptions, all releases signed upfront.
Act responsibly as a guardian of the trust that people have vested in you – if someone may get seriously in danger as a result of being exposed in your work, negotiate with them to take them out – but always on your terms, after they have signed.
Don’t give powerful people unilateral rights – they are likely to exercise them, they are in power for a reason after all, and if they can’t trust you now, why not? And why would they suddenly trust you later? Remember that you are investing heavily into this work, you will spend weeks of your life dealing with the stories during the shoot and edit – make sure that you have control over your work.
Having said all this, we acknowledge that in real life we all will make compromises and bend our rules all the time. But you need to be able to make well informed decisions about where to draw the line, where to abandon a relationship and where to press on. Who benefits? What can go wrong? What is your Plan B?
Property law is a slightly different thing, but requires a similar release, including insurance coverage and clauses that you won’t damage anything when you use someone’s private building.
Remember that everything in life is negotiable - or at least should be… check our location agreement template and tailor it to suit your needs.
Agreements should be just that – a document that both parties can truly agree to, not some half baked compromise.
We usually recommend to get a location release signed, if you are using a recognizable location, where the owners may have reason to interfere with your work at a later stage, like a commercial business location or a building/ space of significance that will have a visual impact on your work and narrative.
If a location is not identifiable or just someone’s living room, you can include this in your personal release form to be covered.
Please check with your local council on their requirements for shooting in public places. Usually local authorities have no problems with any smallish projects that take no longer than an hour and don’t interfere with the public, pose any hazards etc. Once you need to stop traffic or disrupt everyday life, you may want to get official permits. We can’t advise otherwise, but most documentaries are made on the fly with the shoot first ask questions later approach… in any case, make sure you have a good insurance policy for public liability [or work with a partner organisation who has such cover].
Be careful when you enter malls and other privatized ex-‘public’ spaces, they often enforce their rights physically with security officers who can be difficult to deal with. In any case, we recommend to get legal advise before you enter into tricky territory: what ever you do, never agree to hand over your footage or gear. When in doubt, demand the police to be called, as these firms don’t have the right to detain you, or interfere with your person or personal belongings. Think these things through before you act, however worthy your cause, do a risk vs benefits analyses and then follow the maxim, nobody harmed, nobody hurt…And have fun doing whatever you need to do to make a great work of art!
By now you should have agreements with your crew – budget or not – to clarify, how long they are willing to work on location, what their needs and requirements are [per diems, accommodation, travel allowance, incidentals].
Don’t make the mistake to disregard this just because you don’t a budget, most art projects are made on deferred fees or in kind arrangements, but you need clarity veen more when no cash changes hand, as everybody is putting valuable time and effort in and has a right to know how this exchange is understood and considered. These ‘considerations’ can be as simple as an credit listing [which is very valuable if someone wants to climb the career ladder in the media industry and your work happens to screen at a major festival or go to TV] – or a fully fledged crew agreement with fee structure, overtime, leave loading and other bells and whistles.
Rule of thumb: treat your crew better than yourself – and treat yourself well! Make sure you allow for enough time for tea breaks, buy good lunches and be generous when it comes to hotel rooms, dinner and after-hour socialising. A few dollars will go a long way; everyone wants to feel respected and cared for.
And during the job – resist micro-managing every little detail – you got them involved because they can do the job, so let them do it. Communicate clearly and friendly, assert your vision and support your director, but then step away and hand over control to the people doing their job. They will feel more empowered and engaged if they can control their environment.