Managing Filming in Historic Houses: Guidelines 

The advantages

Filming and media practices such as photo shoots are a great way to bring in income for historic house owners and managers and can raise the profile of a property through additional direct and indirect advertising. At the same time they are risky activities and it is vital that the risks are minimised if the historic house assets are to be preserved.

The guidelines

The guidelines below highlight some of the areas that need to be planned for during such events. The guidelines are not intended to be fully comprehensive and focus on the protection of collections and historic surfaces. It is important to consider carefully as many aspects as possibly in advance of a film crew arriving on site. Some things will inevitably change on the day, but changes can be greatly reduced through careful planning and assessment in advance, reducing the potential for confusion on the day.

Conservation Support

Filming is carried out in many historic houses, both organisational, such as the National Trust, and privately owned homes. There are conservators who have experience of providing support to organisations during filming. Their involvement can include help with planning; moving collections; inspection of props for condition and active pest infestations; being on site during the film company's technical reconnaissance visit; assessment of collections to be moved/ protected; protection of historic surfaces and supervision and watching brief for the safety of the collections during setting up, filming and re-rig.

Filming shoots, particularly for feature films, tend to be long days. The film crew have a vocabulary of their own and having a conservator on site who is familiar with the nature of the work can be of great benefit.

The risks

The risks are great and only a few are listed here to indicate the range and to illustrate why careful planning in advance is crucial.

The risks will often be proportional to the size of the production. A small one day shoot with a couple of people and a hand held video camera will be immeasurably less risky than a full scale feature film. The latter may take weeks to film, have hundreds of people in terms of crew and actors/extras, use special effects, candles, animals, installation of scenery and lots of props. There can be security risks arising from having a large number of people on site and props can be very good quality and difficult to distinguish from items in the collection. There is the potential for physical damage to collections and historic surfaces such as floors and doorways, both from people and from technical equipment. There is also the risk of possibly alienating some visitors if they are unable to access the building or part of a building during their visits. Others of course may be delighted to be on site at such a time.

Managing the risks

Understanding the process will help you manage the risks and having thought in advance about what type of filming you are happy takes place and where in the property will help you stand your ground when unexpected requests are made on the day.

Assessing your site

There may be a number of buildings within an historic estate and some may be more robust than others and better able to withstand large numbers of people and equipment.

Identify in advance those areas which are less fragile and where you would be happy for filming to take place. You may decide that filming can take place in some of the more fragile areas, such as those with fragile collections/surfaces, such as gilded furniture or rooms with walls with fragile wall hangings, or rooms which are densely furnished or have inlaid wooden floors. Filming in these areas will require far greater preparation, protection and supervision all of which will need to be taken into account in the planning stages, the preparation time and should be reflected in the negotiated fee.

Individual buildings and rooms within buildings can be assessed for their suitability in terms of size of film shoot [small, single camera plus 2-3 people; medium for example , up to 20 people small TV drama; large full scale feature film} you are able to facilitate in a given space. Consider too where a film company would be able to park their vehicles and mark this on the site plan. Other considerations are vehicular access to the site and if there are any restrictions; is there a room which could be set aside for film use during small shoots, for make-up etc., where would the film crew provide catering facilities; are there sufficient lavatory facilities; are there obvious routes for cable runs and how will access for emergency vehicles be maintained? Where ever possible it may be better for film companies to provide their own facilities for make-up, catering etc.

Assessing the suitability of a room

There are a lot of things that need to be considered when determining the suitability of a room for filming and some of these are described below.

  • The fragility of the contents and whether any would need to be moved/protected during filming.
  • The fragility of historic surfaces and whether any would require protection during filming. Floor loadings where these may be limited.
  • Whether it would be appropriate to have open fires/ candles and precautions required
  • Access to the room and whether there are external doors; and whether you would allow access through these doors.
  • Suitability of the room for film equipment such as lights/track and dolly (to mount camera) and ideal location for cable runs. Can lighting be projected in from outside if required? (Need to assess external areas.)
  • The maximum number of people, (crew, actors, staff supervision) that the room could accommodate safely.
  • Space near-by where equipment could be kept when not in use or where actors/technical staff can wait until called and entry exit routes for film personnel.

Mark on site plans and floor plans areas where you are happy for filming to take place, and consider grading it small/medium/large and low/medium and high risk areas.

Consider too the location of loan items which may require the permission of the lender before being filmed.

The Process – the Initial Phase

You may initially be approached by the Location Manager for a film company looking for a suitable venue for a given project. At this stage you may want to ascertain the type of film that is to be made and whether you feel it would be appropriate for your historic house. The location manager takes photographs and meets with the Director and Art Director.

The Technical Recce

At the technical reconnaissance visit the film crew and technical heads of department such as lighting visit and assess how they would like to use the location and matters such as cable runs, set construction, props, including food and drink, lighting, special effects and equipment to be used. At this stage it is important to gather as much information as you can about the film company’s proposals and to say where you will be able to accommodate their requirements and to state firmly if there is something you do not want them to do or areas that you will not be able to allow access to. It is also important to get an idea of how long will be required for setting up, filming and de-rig. For small productions you may agree an area for storage of equipment and additional rooms for resting etc. For larger film shoots it is better to stipulate that the production company provide their own external facilities. Agree areas for parking and setting up location vehicles, having determined the number of vehicles that will be on site.

Contract negotiations

Within the contract agree: areas to be filmed, timetable, collections to be moved, location for film company vehicles, equipment to be used, permitted constructions (sets etc.) props use of candles, special effects permitted; length of days; area for finishing off production of scenery (ideally outside), etc. Ensure when agreeing any fee that you have taken into account staff time and additional support such as conservation/project conservator time and expenses.

Project conservator

A project conservator for filming/ photo shoots is a conservator who has experience of filming, in this context, in historic houses. They can provide support during planning, the technical recce, filming and de-installation. They can facilitate the filming process and reduce the potential for any conflict or misunderstanding between those responsible for historic houses and film crews. A role profile for such a conservator can include duties such as: documentation, moving, protection and storage of collections; planning protection of historic surfaces; supervision; monitoring the environment; watching brief during filming; temporary revision of emergency plan and other duties.

Preparation

When preparing for filming consider the actions that are required and plan these in advance. For example:

  • Appoint a project conservator and ensure that there will be an adequate number of staff/ volunteers on site to facilitate what may be long days of filming
  • Assess how long will be required to move collections and in- stall protection and how long to re-instate.
  • Obtain risk assessments, method statements and COSHH assessments from the film company for any activities and materials that require them.
  • Move and protect collections and revise emergency plan
  • Install protection for entrances etc. Floor protection is often supplied by film companies if stipulated in advance in the contract. Consider taking images of areas vulnerable to damage.
  • If drinks and food are to be used establish a spillage kit so that any spills can be dealt with quickly.
  • Prepare briefing notes for staff and volunteers and brief so that they know what to expect and are able to protect the collections and maintain security.
  • Draw up a schedule for activities from the initial preparation to the time the production company leave site.

Setting up

This is the time the film company will need to set up their props, scenery, equipment etc., and will require careful supervision by those responsible for the historic house and collections.

Filming and de-rig/de-installation

During filming the Location Manager will be the principal point of contact with the production company. It is good to similarly appoint one person to be the point of contact for the historic house. It may be possible to brief the key members of the film crew on good working practices in historic houses. It is quite possible that those who arrive on site will not have received a copy of the contract and may not know what and what hasn’t been agreed.

Very careful supervision will be required throughout filming and de-rig. After the film shoot is finished it is likely that the film crew will be keen to remove any scenery (sometimes referred to as flattage), equipment and other items as quickly as possible and careful monitoring at this stage is crucial to prevent damage to collections and surfaces.

Security and Health and Safety

It is vital to maintain security of the collections and the buildings through the process. Ensure wherever possible that film crew are invigilated and escorted. Agree in advance areas that can be accessed by the film crew. If possible lock other areas, but ensure that emergency exit routes are never compromised. Ensure that the film crew wear identification and check this on entry to the building. Maintain an attendance log, recording who is present on site.

Ensure that risk assessments, method statements and COSHH assessments are provided in advance of filming. If candles/ lit fires are going to be in use ensure that all requirements have been met in terms of fire safety, including numbers of people in a given space and additional fire extinguishers if required.

Post filming

Review how the filming has gone, identify areas where procedures could be improved and revise procedures. Ensure that everyone has an opportunity to state their views. Keep a log of title, where, and within which rooms, filming has taken place and when, for how long and how many film crew were involved and how much staff time was used during preparation, filming and re-dig/re-instatement. If damage has occurred log the damage on a separate form.

Acknowledgements

While preparing these guidelines the author (Fiona Macalister) has drawn, in part, on guidance she was a key contributor to when employed by the National Trust.