Shooting with Permits (and hey…isn’t that Julia Roberts?)


There’s a story behind the shot you see above of one of my all-time favorite actresses, Julia Roberts.

Before I left for New York, I had applied for a permit for RC Concepcion and I to shoot with tripods (gasp!) at Grand Central Station. After doing a little digging on the Grand Central Station Website, I found instructions on where to apply for permission to shoot with a tripod (or other professional gear) inside the station (I found this in their FAQ section).

They did want to know what the purpose of our shoot was, and I told them it was for images to be used in my upcoming book which deals with digital photography, and they approved my request. They wanted specific times, dates, etc. but they were very friendly and helpful, and let us shoot right around dawn on Sunday, which I hoped would give us less foot traffic in our shots.

As RC and I are coming down the escalator into the main concourse, I turned to RC and said, “Doesn’t it seem kind of bright down there for 5:45 in the morning?” and when we reached the bottom of the escalator we were surprised to see it lit up like it was 3:00 pm in the afternoon, with literally hundreds of people all standing around the terminal, talking but not moving. We realized in seconds that we had stumbled right into the middle of an on-location movie shoot.

They spotted our camera gear (and tripods) and an Assistant Director was on us in about 30-seconds. I told him we had a permit to shoot the architecture of the building, but with their flood of lighting, and cameras, and equipment we knew our shoot was toast. He was nice enough to let us hang around during rehearsals, and told us they were shooting a movie called “Duplicity” starring Clive Owen. He was totally cool, and told us when the cameras start rolling, just to duck out of site, but he let us take photos the whole time (which we did, for about three hours of taping).

It was really fascinating watching the process, and seeing how the extras were cued in groups, and each extra on the set had a precise path, starting and ending point for the scene. We were there for so long we starting talking with some extras, and one extra pointed out that the woman posing on the walkway right above us was a stand-in for Julia Roberts, and that Julia Roberts herself would be here later for the actual taping.

After a few hours, and some real takes, they started pulling down the lights on one side of the concourse, so RC and I started heading out, but we noticed that the end where we were previously (and where Julia Roberts stand-in was posed), was still lit, and all the extras were still in place. I turned around and started heading back that way, when I noticed the extra had her wig off, and when I looked about 20 feet to her right, I saw what I thought was Julia Roberts.

I told RC and he said, “Dude, shoot her!” so I stopped and cranked off about 30 high-speed shots (at 1600 ISO), and then we walked across the terminal until I was about 20 feet from her. I zoomed in tight with my 200mm f/2.8 VR lens and sure enough—it was Julia Roberts. I cranked off another 20 or so shots at high speed, until a different assistant director came over and told us we couldn’t shoot. We very politely tried to convince him that we had been shooting in there for hours, but he was pretty adamant, so we let it go (after all—I already had the shots, right?).

We stood there and just watched her talking to whomever it was she was talking to (we don’t know if it was another star, an extra, an agent, the director, etc.) but just from watching her facial expressions and mannerisms, she seems very genuine and friendly. Suddenly, she looked over at RC and I and started screaming, “Tripod! Tripod!” and in seconds two guards had tackled RC and I to the ground. I heard the sound of my f/2.8 VR lens crashing against the concrete floor, and as I looked up a police officer was on us with a can of mace, and… (you’re not buying any of this, are you? Because everything from the word, “Suddenly” on was made up. I had ya there for a second though, didn’t I? Aw come on, admit it, I had you for at least a second or two, right?)
Anyway (back to the real story), she seemed really nice, and we headed out because I had to get back to my hotel, grab my gear, and head over to Lou Manna’s workshop, but although we didn’t get to shoot in Grand Central until the following day (they were kind enough to honor our permit the next day, due to the circumstances), but we did have a ball watching the filming, and coming home with some unexpected shots of Julia Roberts. Ya know, in person she was a very Pretty Woman (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

In other permit news: We applied for, and were granted, a permit to shoot with a tripod and one small light on the streets of New York (Public sidewalks only; no parks—that requires a separate permit from the Parks Dept.). I wanted to shoot Times Square at night, but they wouldn’t approve of that because that weekend there were two movies shooting in different parts of Times Square.

I tried to get a permit to shoot the interior of the Guggenheim museum, and despite having the contact info (found on their site for just such a purpose), and trying to contact them several times, they never responded to our requests. Also, we were turned down to shoot from the observation platform called “Top of the Rock” at 30 Rockefeller Center. They gave their reason as “the photos would be used in a book, and we don’t grant requests for any images to be used commercially in any way.” Hey, it’s their roof, right?

So, to finish up; some quick suggestions on getting permits:

  1. Start early. Don’t wait until the week before your trip; you’ll have a better chance of success
  2. Know exactly when you want to shoot (they’ll want a specific time). Not “on Saturday.” More like; “From 2:30 pm to 3:45 pm”
  3. Know exactly where you want to shoot. They want you to be very specific here as well. Don’t just say “The inside.”
  4. They will want to know exactly why you want to shoot there, and what you’ll do with the photos.
  5. It really helps to have a “Kathy Siler.” Kathy is my executive assistant, the reigning queen of permits and permissions, and is amazing at pulling all sorts of things off like this. Given enough time she could probably “McGiver” me into the situation room at the Pentagon, or “the room with all the big plasmas” out in Langley. She once got me a pass to shoot out at Area 51, and when our handler had to take a call, we ducked into this one room that was supposed to be totally off limits, and as soon as we opened the door, our jaws just dropped…..(OK, I know you’re not falling for this twice, so I’ll get back to the permit stuff).

So, that’s the scoop. Start at the Web site of the facility, city, etc. where you want to shoot; do a little digging around, ask for the PR dept., and be really, really nice. It goes a long way (not just in getting permits, in life in general). Hope this helps a bit.

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