Guerilla filmmaking – What to do when you don’t have a permit

Shooting Tactics

Photo by: Josugg

It’s always less hassle to do things by the book, but as many broke documentary filmmakers will tell you… it ain’t always possible. At the end of the day, there’s only one golden rule when making a Down and Dirty documentary—get the shot. Here are some of my stealth strategies for overcoming common shooting obstacles.


Scout the location for security, the best shooting angles, and spots where you are most likely to go unnoticed. Talk and walk through your shots in a nearby location, out of sight, then go to the crucial location ready to roll. Save riskier shots for last. You don’t want to get kicked out before you shoot what you came for. Keep a producer on lookout nearby to talk and run interference with authorities if you get busted. (Ultimately, this probably won’t get you an okay to shoot, but it will buy you more time to finish getting your shot). Never get into a big ruckus with a cop, security guard, or other authority figure when you don’t have permits or permission. You have nothing to gain but unnecessary trouble once you’ve been busted. Just pretend you’re a clueless film student or hobbyist, apologize, and leave quietly. Find an alternate location or come back another time, when the coast is clear.


This means roll with a skeleton crew of two or three people max: a camera operator, a director/producer, and/or a sound recordist or PA. Use cell phones instead of walkie talkies to communicate with crew members. Wrap the camera up in a large towel for cushioning and use backpacks or gym bags instead of camera bags. Don’t take out the camera until you need it. Use breakaway cables if you have a separate sound person. Dress and act like the rest of the crowd.


Nothing attracts attention like an 8-foot pole with a mic waving around on the end. If you’re using a shotgun mic, try mounting it on the camera or on a pistol grip instead. This is a rare situation where you should avoid wearing over the ear headphones as they will attract too much attention. Instead, use professional sound isolating headphone earbuds or rely on the camera’s auto gain control (AGC) function, which will usually maintain an acceptable sound level for you.


Set your camera menu, record color bars, and do a test recording before you even get out of the car. (Make sure you disable or tape over the red recording light and turn off the recording beep in the menu.) Use auto functions for white balance, iris, gain, and sound. In this instance, you may also want to use autofocus if there is sufficient lighting. Keep the camera on and at the ready. Cradle the camera or hold it down low when walking. Avoid using tripods. Instead, use a monopod or whatever you have to work with to steady your shots. You can set your camera flat or nestle it in a towel or coat on top of a trashcan, mailbox, or car. If you must use a tripod, it’s best to use a portable lightweight model that can be quickly set up and moved.


The greatest asset a Down and Dirty filmmaker has is imagination. Where others see a Ferris wheel, we see a crane shot. Where others see a guy behind the wheel of a taxi, we see a location scout and production vehicle for B-roll. Anything that rolls, moves, lifts, flies, or has a great view that you can sneak onto with a camera could serve to add some free or inexpensive production value to your shoot. For the price of admission (and perhaps a generous tip for a cooperative driver or operator), you can shoot compelling footage, narration, and even interviews from double-decker sightseeing buses, cabs, tourist boat rides, Ferris wheels, rickshaw rides, observation decks, raised subway lines, horsedrawn carriages, helicopter tours, cable cars, public balconies, or even glass elevators. With a little imagination and creativity, the cranes, dollies, and jibs you need are all around you. If it has a dramatic viewpoint, you just need to get on it, bust out your camera, and shoot.


Even if you do all of the above, you still have a good chance of being shut down by “the man” if you don’t have permits or permission to shoot at your location. When this happens, make sure you’re ready with Plan B—an alternative location or something else you can shoot instead. Don’t let the whole day’s shoot go to crap because of a single setback. There will always be unexpected setbacks. Just be ready to roll with the punches, duck, and punch back.

Excerpt from The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production by Anthony Q. Artis, © 2014. Taylor & Francis Goup, LLC. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment
   Karyn Ellis said on November 4, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Love this! So sneaky. My heart’s pumping faster just reading this.

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