Ep. 21 – City Filming Permissions & Planning

With Sindy Campbell of Film Birmingham

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Being out on a filming location may seem like one of the most glamorous places to be! Exciting stunts and action, famous stars strolling around and classic landmarks altered beyond recognition. People very rarely consider the complex work done behind-the-scenes to ensure that the production team can shoot their scenes with the minimum of disruption.

Often going unconsidered are the local residents and businesses, who whilst enjoying the thrill of a Hollywood blockbuster filming on their doorstep may soon feel the effect of street closures and disruption. Local film offices are vital in protecting the filming locations for the locals, whilst assisting and enhancing the experience for the visiting film crew.

Whether you’re a student working on your final dissertation film, a corporate video producer, a prime time TV show or even Steven Spielberg if you want to film on the streets of a busy city you’ll need to get the relevant filming permissions and planning in place to do so.

Film Birmingham are a one stop shop for filming requests and production planning within the city of Birmingham in the UK. They liaise with the relevant departments at Birmingham City Council on behalf of production crews and provide permits to film in the city.

Now although this conversation with Film Birmingham will lean largely towards filming in the city of Birmingham these regulations and processes are also likely to apply in other major cities across the UK and beyond.

Backlight Podcast spoke with Sindy Campbell the manager at Film Birmingham.

Sindy Campbell of Film Birmingham

Scott Ledbury: Hi Sindy, can you give us an overview of the services that Film Birmingham offer and some of the benefits of productions linking up with the team?

Sindy Campbell: One of the benefits first off is our knowledge. We have a locations database, it’s not exhaustive but if a production gets in touch with us gives us a brief of what they are looking for then we are likely to be able to help them.

SL: Is that a locations database of private properties as well as council properties?

SC: Yes, it is private properties and public properties.  It also includes the streets of Birmingham alongside people’s homes so it is a mixture. We also have a crew and facilities database.

So productions coming to the city or local companies looking for crew we can find crew for them. In regards to our locations database we have access to public buildings, buildings that are owned by the council that nobody else will have access to.

SL: These are everything from disused cinemas through to places people don’t even know, is that right?

SC: Indeed, because of the different sorts of requests that we get, for some of the locations that we need to find, we are finding and adding new locations all the time. We have a vast array of different locations.

SL: What sort of productions do you support and what are the smallest production requests you might get involved with?

SC: Any production basically. We’ve got universities with media and film making students, production students in the city, so anything from student films up to Hollywood blockbusters.

Last year for instance we had Steven Spielberg here. It’s a range, we work with anyone who works as a filmmaker or in film and TV production.

Trailer for ” The Girl With All The Gifts”

SL: You’ve mentioned Spielberg there, what are some of the most notable productions you’ve been involved with in the city?

SC: I’ve been at Film Birmingham now for nine years, so there’s quite a range. I think the first major series (apart from Doctors – filmed at the BBC drama village throughout the year) was the BBC show Survivors in 2009/10.

Of course last year we had Steven Spielberg here which was of interest. To have such a filmmaker here in the city was immense. In terms of complex productions or scenes that we’ve had – I think I’d say The Girl With All The Gifts was probably the biggest. The streets of Birmingham, of the city centre were transformed.

On set production of “Ready Player One” in Birmingham

SL: Was there a lot of time required to prepare and dress the streets, even before filming begins?

SC: Absolutely. There were three different locations in the city centre that they had to prep all at the same time. If you stepped off Colmore Row down to Church Street it was like stepping into another world, with zombies lying all over the place. That took place in three different locations simultaneously.

SL: When you use the word ‘complex’ in terms of your position, what does that entail that makes it ‘complex’. It’s not just road closures is it?

SC: No, road closures can be complex. For The Girl with all the Gifts they were all city centre locations. The impact of having those roads closed, the people that need access to them, there was a building being renovated. There was the liaison required between those people and arranging different times quite closely.

That was a huge consultation. Then of course you’ve got residents that are in those areas, buses as well so arranging with National Express. And also letting people know what’s happening. I think it was quite obvious that if you walked into the area there was filming going on, the area had been transformed.

But for instance, years ago with Survivors, they filmed on a Sunday morning, we closed the area down completely. It was a learning curve with us, consultation wasn’t very wide so we had complaints. People were getting up on a Sunday, stepping outside their doors in the city centre and wondering what the hell was going on. There was rubbish strewn all over the roads, no cars – it was a little bit scary!

SL: Specifically, any interesting challenges that stick in your mind?

SC: Yeah, last year with Steven Spielberg we had to manage helicopters! Working with the aviation authorities to create an exclusion zone so that no aircrafts could fly into the zone and film what was going on. It was a first! To stop the press from getting shots of the filming.

“Last year with Steven Spielberg in town, we had to manage helicopters!”

On set production of “Ready Player One” in Birmingham

SL: The shoot was big news for Birmingham city, they couldn’t stop members of the public surrounding that perimeter and filming things.

SC: This was something considered from quite early on. This was Steven Spielberg so they knew that it would attract many people. Whether you were a filmmaker, whether you’d watched E.T. – I mean the amount of people who came down on their lunch to watch.

There was a great buzz in the city! This was discussed early on, and there were barriers that were quite high put up in some spaces. It was something that couldn’t be stopped but what they did was manage it.

SL: On the issue of filming permissions and requests, how are they issued and considered?

SC: Basically they all go through the same process, online we have a form that captures all the details that we need. If it’s straightforward we can just consult with the right people. We always consult with Highways, always consult with West Midlands police.

We also have ‘Streetworks’ who manage the infrastructure of all the roads in the city. If there is filming in the city centre, we consult with City Centre Operations. Depending on where you’re filming, there are different people to consult with. Filming in the city centre or on Colmore Row we would then add Colmore BID to the list of consultees.

SL: How does the BID [Business Improvement District] fit into this, what are their responsibilities?

SC: For instance, we have Colmore BID which looks after the business district. One of their responsibilities is looking after the businesses in that area and filming can have an impact. So we’ll work with them to make sure that they’re happy with the filming going on in that area on behalf of the businesses in that area. Other BID areas we have are Westside, Jewellery Quarter, Southside.

SL: In terms of alerting the police and other officials when using fake police cars, firearms, fight stunts. These are things that can alarm members of the public, so it’s very important that these things are disclosed in advance?

SC: Absolutely, on our online form, there are all those questions that need to be answered. Of course people fill them out, then forget things. You also put a brief description of what you’re filming and usually if there’s something missing, from our experience we can go back and ask further questions.

If the shoot is straightforward, one can go online, complete the form, submit their Public Liability Insurance (which is a minimum of £5,000,000). They also have to agree to our code of practice, which is just common sense things; if you’re shooting at night, don’t make too much noise. You need to take your litter and your rubbish with you. Don’t block pavements. All common sense things.

SL: Specially around fake firearms, that gets more complex, what are the special things that need to be done around that?

SC: That would be something the police would be very interested in. In our current climate, requests for filming with firearms have to be considered carefully. We work very closely with the police, there are different things that the police have around the city centre that alert them to certain things.

SL: Have you had to use your power to impact a script? If someone wants to film in the area, but is turned down because of unsuitability, have you had an occurrence when they’ve changed their script to accommodate you?

SC: No, not in my time at Film Birmingham.

Trailer for “Ready Player One”

“Productions – especially big productions – pay a lot of money to ensure the safety of their crew. “

SL: What must be undertaken by the production team before permission is granted, now you’ve mentioned the filming code of practice and insurance, the other thing is risk assessment? The risk assessment form is pretty important.

SC: Yes, that needs to be done as well. Not at the time they fill in the form, as the form is often filled out before even visiting the location. Later, they’ll go to do a reccee, take some of the key production team and they’ll assess their risks then. The main thing is to submit the risk assessment before filming.

SL: With a risk assessment the onus is completely on the production team, so Film Birmingham has to take what they’ve said for granted. Trusting that they’ve put the measures in place to reduce risk.

SC: Of course, we trust that they’re doing as much as they can to mitigate risk but also occasionally there things that we notice that haven’t been considered and we ask the production team to go back and assess that. Not very often. Productions, especially big productions pay a lot of money to ensure the safety of their crew and staff is the highest.

SL: In what circumstances might you refuse filming permission, what might the reasons be?

SC: I’ve pleased to say that their haven’t been many we’ve refused, but usually it’s a question of time. I remember a big feature film getting in touch, wanting to do a big scene with horse and carts in Victoria Square. It was a complex scene and they wanted to do it the following week.

There was no way it would have been possible, there wasn’t enough time. And the fact that they were asking for it with only that amount of time raised questions. It was too complex to put everything in place safely with the complex process of informing everyone and doing a whole consultation exercise.

SL: What sort of things should production companies look out for and consider when shooting in and around any city?

SC: I suppose for Birmingham, and I can compare it to London, you need to consider cost. Make sure that you’ve got a good crew base, workforce here. Depends on the production whether you’re looking for build space.

The great thing about Birmingham is that you can film scenes in the city centre that double for London and then you can be in the countryside in 25 minutes. You can actually film at three different locations in one day in Birmingham because you’re able to move a unit around. Cost, locations and your workforce. And of course, you’ve got Film Birmingham here, we are the one stop shop. When productions come to us, whether it’s any part of Birmingham, we’re here to make it so much easier.

“The great thing about Birmingham is that you can film scenes in the city centre that double for London and then you can be in the countryside in 25 minutes.”

On set production of “Ready Player One” in Birmingham

SL: How do you manage production Sindy, do you find that most businesses and residents are supportive of filming taking place? No matter how you dress it up, there is some level of disruption.

SC: The key thing is communication. When we did The Girl with all the Gifts we had three city centre locations where there were road closures and plenty of disruption. It worked because of communication.

Going around talking to residents, talking to businesses. Finding out what was going on in the area, and making sure everyone knew what was going on. There was face to face contact with most of the businesses, with residents when possible, but there were several letters sent round so everyone knew what was going on.

SL: Communicating the information, is that down to you or to the production company?

SC: Both. For The Girl with all the Gifts there were lots of road closures, lots of suspended parking bays – that does have an effect on businesses, people can’t come and park outside their businesses. There is a responsibility, for Film Birmingham, for the council to ensure that those consultations are done, but on the production as well.

SL: How is that figure calculated? Is this the spend the production brings in?

SC: Yes, everyone who films in Birmingham, after they’ve filmed there is a form they have to submit. That collects their information, their spend in the city anonymously.

SL: This is everything from hotels, cars, talent – everything?

SC: That’s right, everything. They are asked to fill in the form and that’s how it’s worked out. Unfortunately not many people return this form, so there’s a formula that’s used nationwide, agreed with the British Film Commission and Creative England that all film offices use in the absence of these forms to calculate the economic impact. Everything from employing local crew to staying in hotels, eating at restaurants.

“With productions that
we’ve had in the city, I
know it’s been great for
our profile on a national
and an
international level.”

SL: That’s how film crews can be useful, it’s almost like the circus coming to town, bringing people who spend money on facilities and services. In summary, why do you think it’s important for cities to embrace and support the film industry?

SC: It’s great for the economy, it’s also great for the profile of the city. With productions that we’ve had in the city, I know it’s great for our profile on a national and an international level. It also creates jobs, the creative industries contribution to the economy is growing. We need to support the creative industry and Birmingham City Council does support it.

SL: Thank you for your time today Sindy.

SC: Thank you.

* ‘Ready Player One’ photos courtesy of Dan Hunt