Moonshine Moonshot Blog

The importance of getting consent from your film's participants

Mar 21, 2023

AKA: How to get permission to use the footage you capture!

Greetings movie-makers and welcome back to the fifty-seventh blog! That sounds like an opening statement for the Oscars!  This is part three in the production section of our Moonshine Moonshot series on how to produce a documentary (Woah, really puts into perspective how big of a job making a documentary is!). Luckily, all of the previous blogs are right at your fingertips and you can quickly skip back and revisit anything you’re feeling a bit uncertain of. 


Let's move on to your next big task!


Signatures, signatures, signatures 


With every exciting task, comes an equally important but perhaps not-so-exciting task. And this week it’s all about obtaining consent to use the footage you film. You’ll need a signed consent form from all of your talent to ensure they agree with participating in your film. 


I can’t stress enough how important it is to get this written signature on the day you film! If you’ve got a good relationship with your talent, they may just give you the thumbs up, or give consent to the camera. But, sadly this doesn’t cut the mustard for any of your distributors.  They want that signed document. Why?  Because unless is in writing your onscreen talent can claim they didn’t know you were filming them and they don’t want to be involved.  If you don’t have it in writing, there’s not much you can do. 


Yes, it sounds ridiculous that someone can sit down in front of your camera and then claim they didn’t consent to being interviewed.  But it does happen, not often, but it does. 


So in short, inform your talent and get their signature on the dotted line! Once you’ve done that, not only are you ticking the legal boxes, but it should also act as encouragement that your talent won’t attempt to drop out of the film once you’ve completed it. 




So what actually Is informed consent?


In short, it is informing your participant to the absolute best of your ability as to what your film is about and the role they will be playing in it. But this isn’t just a name and date on a piece of paper! That squiggly line doesn’t mean a lot if the talent doesn’t know what they’re signing. 


Ensuring you verbally explain the document and what they are agreeing to is vital to your participants being truly ‘informed.’ So, break down the film! What is it? Why are you making it? What are you going to do with it? Where will people see it? 


Anything and everything you can explain, explain! They’ll be all the more grateful for it and you can be absolutely confident you are receiving crystal-clear consent. 


Some people won’t need this level of explanation, but others will.  You have to remember that some people don’t read English very well, particularly if it’s a second language.  Or they may not speak a lot of English and you’ll need someone to explain the document and what they are committing to on your behalf.


And this includes explaining to people if you’re going to make a short film for Youtube and social media as well as a feature film.  Once it’s published you can’t easily (or at all) take it offline. The clearer you are about your intentions for the footage the more the participant will understand what they are committing to. 





Who should I be asking?


An easy rule of thumb - if someone speaks to the camera, then you need their permission to use the footage.  


If you’re filming a large crowd in public and nobody is really identifiable, you usually wouldn’t need signed consent. But, as soon as you’re in private spaces or on private property, that’s when you need to get consent. 


But whenever you’re in doubt, consulting with a production lawyer is always the best call. That’s what they’re there for! 


Trust and consent


A question that is regularly posed to me is ‘when is the right time to ask for consent?’


Understandably, many would argue that the time to ask for consent is before a second of footage has been recorded. But now having produced countless films, I would suggest that the best time is afterward. The reason is that it allows you to build trust and rapport with your talent. A trust that may not be there as soon as they arrive or sit in front of the camera. Once you’ve interviewed them, they know what you’ve asked and are more likely to feel comfortable signing a legal document.


Now of course, being an ethical and outstanding filmmaker you wouldn’t mislead them on your intentions for the footage! But I’m sure you see the logic that they may not know that until they’ve actually answered your questions. 


If your talent signs after the filming they know what has been recorded, they know what has been said and they know they are being given the choice to refuse. So if they then proceed to sign, you should be feeling pretty confident about their contribution to the film. 


What kind of filmmaker do you want to be?


Even though they have signed the consent, this won’t mean that ultimate power has now been handed over to you. It all depends on how you position yourself as a filmmaker and the ethics and codes you abide by.


For example, on our latest film at Moonshine Agency, we had participants withdraw their consent even though they had signed an agreement and we were well into post-production. The film was near picture-lock and we were incredibly excited about how the film was progressing and how the participants in question contributed to the piece. 


Regardless, for reasons outside our control, they had decided they wished to withdraw from the film. Their reasons had nothing to do with the film itself but with other life circumstances that meant they had to withdraw. Though this was difficult, time-consuming and somewhat frustrating, we accepted this, as we hold the belief that if a participant does not wish to be involved in the documentary, we need to consider the big picture. 


As a filmmaker you’ve invested time and money in obtaining the footage and all that goes with creating the documentary. So the better your process is around obtaining informed consent, the chances of a participant wanting to withdraw are reduced.  


And honestly, I think this has only happened 3 times in the last 15 years across the 8 major productions and hundreds of short films I’ve produced.  So my fingers and toes are crossed for you that you don’t have any issues. 


Consent is tricky, so making it as black-and-white as possible is the best way to ensure success. But if you’re ever in doubt, Moonshine Communications Academy is your best-friend and best-resource. 


In the next blog, our production journey continues! And we’ll be diving into all things cameras and tech. 


If you’re not already, be sure to check us out over on Instagram where we are regularly uploading helpful hints and guides to make sure your production goes smoothly. 


Alternatively, we can be found via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter  and carrier pigeon. 

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