Clearance guidelines for reality TV and documentary films.

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Two cameramen filming up a tree

The following are general guidelines for producers, camera operators, release coordinators, PA’s, Post Supervisor, Editors, and others to whom these apply.

These were developed for a network reality show being shot at public schools in Florida, where a lot of kids would be seen on camera.  Even though we were attempting to obtain releases for all the kids at the schools where we were shooting, we didn't have them all in hand and knew that in fact there are many we didn’t have released.

There were other clearance issues to be aware of as well, so these were developed for the local crew (and the office crew) to keep these in mind when shooting / editing.

Camera and A/Cs and Art Department

Please be aware of the clearance issues in framing your shots.  A lot of trouble can be saved by being aware of what goes into a shot, and moving or removing things (artwork, photographs, people, logos, brand names) that might pose a problem later.

Keep in mind this list of what's copyrightable:

  • Writings
  • Visual art
  • Music
  • Choreography
  • AV works
  • Maps

Although LOGOS are not a copyright issue, they can imply endorsements and can mess up ad sales departments at the networks (they are trying to sell Starbucks commercials and you have a scene shot at the Coffee Bean - big problem).  See more at National Brands, below.

Framing a shot with a work of art in the background that is not cleared can make the shot unusable.  Same with music married to the audio track.

Appearance releases

The general rule is that anyone who is recognisable in a shot, should be released.  Be aware that your footage in its low-res state might not show someone up clearly who in an up-res’d version of the show might be very visible.

The safest thing is to release everyone.  There are some rare situations where not everyone can be released with a personal release, just physically impossible.  In those rare cases, “area releases” (signage) can be used, as described below.

In particular, there are a few situations where it is absolutely vital to have signed releases, that is where someone is FEATURED AND FOCUSED in a shot, or where you have a minor.

Featured and focused

The rule is:  Anyone on whom you focus, or who you feature, must always sign a release or the footage cannot be used.  This doesn’t mean that you can freely use anyone else.  It means that you have some leeway in other situations (wide shots, establishing shots with people in the background).  

Those can be blurred, or you may not have people recognizable due to editing.  But if your camera focuses on anyone, or you feature them visually or in an interview of any kind, they must sign a release, or you will have to blur the shot, or the footage is unusable!

Whereas people in public places don't have an expectation of privacy, they can come forward later and ask for compensation and that is what you are trying to avoid.  The only real assurance is a signed release. Being incidentally or unrecognizably in a shot minimizes that risk.  Being focused on...maximizes the risk.

Releases for minors

Releases for minors should be signed by the minor AND a parent.  (Not just one or the other). Area releases (signage) doesn’t protect you where a minor is concerned. In scenes where you are shooting kids in school, you should make sure that every kid appearing in a scene is released.  Kids that aren’t released shouldn’t be shot.  If they are recognizable in the footage, they need to be cleared.

The release coordinator should list on the tape log the time code and the scene, and then every kid in that shot.

For scenes in hallways and common areas, like cafeteria and gym classes, the camera can focus on a group or table of kids which has been cleared (all names noted and releases obtained, per the above).  Editing can then crop the shot or soft blur the background if necessary.  

Camera should be aware of who the cleared group is.

For establishing shots, very wide shots should be used.  Camera can also follow the backs of a group of students, or shoot someone from the neck down (if trying to capture some fat kids for example, or just establish a crowded hallway or other crowd scene – shoot backs, feet, etc.).

Release coordinator should use a digital or Polaroid camera to take pictures of the group that is being shot (in the above examples:  the hallway, the cafeteria).  The coordinator can then attach that photo to a sheet with the names of the kids for later ID purposes.

Authors note:  

The above comment about "fat kids" sounds terrible out of the context of this show, which was about getting a group of VERY overweight kids in Florida to lose weight!  They were all morbidly obese... so our crew was often trying to establish that a lot of the kids in school were fat, and how widespread that situation was, by shooting overweight kids walking down hallways, etc. 

Well, you can imagine that when coupled with really disparaging v/o about the rate of obesity in kids today, how bad it would be to focus on a particular kid who was overweight!   So, I was really emphasizing why we needed to clear these kids!  And not show their faces with defamatory v/o.  This also clarifies the reason that releases can be so important in reality and doc making, and why parents must also agree where a minor is concerned.

And of course, one way to get around this is to not shoot faces in establishing shots... if you want to shoot overweight people at the beach, you can establish this just as well shooting them from behind, or from the neck down.  That's the point.  There are creative ways to get a shot without potentially running afoul of peoples' rights, or risking a later lawsuit or claim. 


Producers and camera operators need to be aware of background artwork on the walls in homes, offices, etc.  Don’t frame shots (particularly interview shots) in front of artwork! You can end up with a big blur in the background if it’s a piece of artwork that you are not going to be able to clear.

If in doubt, just move the artwork or the interview subject.  Be aware of the frame of your shot.

If it is an original piece of art done by a family member, have the family member who made it sign a materials release for it.  Do NOT have a family member sign a release for a piece of artwork that they didn’t create.  In that case, they cannot release it.  It must be moved out of the shot or blurred later, which you want to (of course) avoid.

Or, your shot may be lost.

Photographs in background

If there are photos in the kids’ homes or other locations with people in them, these can be caught in shots and if you don’t have releases for the people depicted, you might have to blur the photos.

So, the same not on artwork applies here.  Don’t frame shots in front of photos, or focus on family or other photos unless you KNOW the person in the photo is cleared.  Also, you need to get a materials release signed for the photo.

NOTE:  If it is a professional photo, not taken by a family member, it shouldn’t be in your shot.  The family cannot sign a materials release for a photo that they didn’t take, nor can they sign a materials release for a piece of artwork that they didn’t create.

Area releases

This refers to signage you put up that warns attendees at an event that shooting is in progress.  The exact language should be obtained from production, and signs should be large, visible and prominently posted at the entrance to the venue.  (Like bright yellow signs with bold black print).

The signs should be shot by the camera operator:  shoot the venue, pan to the sign, back to the venue.  Note on the tape log the time code of the signage shot for later reference.  

Release coordinator should be responsible for this.

Note that area releases are usable for large, public areas where people don’t really have an expectation of privacy, and they are of the age of consent – not minors.  Minors should get released.  If you focus on or feature anyone in a crowd scene, get a signed release. Do not rely on an area release for these people. This applies to minors as well. Use written releases to shoot minors, always.

Music issues

Any music, whether on the radio or a jukebox, whether sung by someone on-camera, must be cleared.  Music is costly to clear, so you want to avoid any and all outside music.  

The way to get around that is as follows:

Use only our library music if needed in a scene.  (Kids dancing, singing, to replace jukebox music or any ambient music.)  Get a CD of our library music and use it, instead.  Producers should note clearly the tracks used and time code so that post can be notified.

If someone needs to be singing or ad-libbing music, there are PD songs you can use for this.  PD means public domain, songs that are not copyrighted. 

Original music (if written and composed by the person performing it) needs to be released.  The performer/composer – in addition to signing the appearance release – must also sign a release for the music, itself.  (Might be best to contact a clearance professional if this situation arises as the music license may be a bit detailed.)

If you are in a situation where music is playing, and you are shooting scenes with dialog, turn the music off, or you will end up with dialog married to music and you may lose footage that way.  If you must have music playing, then use library music always and only.

Location releases

A location release must be signed for every location where you shoot.  If a permit is required in an area (a municipal area, park, etc.), these should be obtained in addition to the location release being signed.

The release must be signed by the owner of the property (not a renter) or other authorized representative for the business.

The location release should be signed before you shoot at the property.  Insurance certificates should also be provided where requested as a condition of signing the location release.

The Release Coordinator should get and keep all location releases, and log the locations and keep track of any outstanding releases.

Materials releases

For any material that appears in the show, such as someone’s written creation, photographs, artwork, or any other original creation or composition, you must have a signed materials release.

Family photographs, if appearing on-camera, should have a signed materials release (see additional notes below on photographs).  Note that this only gives us the rights of the person taking the photo, not the people appearing in the photos.

Any photos of friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, or extended family, ex-husbands, ex-wives, cannot be used without the permission of the people appearing in the photos.  That means they must sign an appearance release, in addition to the person who owns the photographs signing a materials release.

Musical compositions must also be released, but please contact Clearances on this as it may be more detailed than a simple Materials Release.

National brands

The network wants us, in all cases, to avoid national brands like MacDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, Coke, Toyota, GAP, Old Navy, Verizon… etc.

These conflict with their ad sales alliances and can make shots unusable, or require blurring.  Do not shoot in national brand chains (MacD’s, Burger King, etc. etc.)  Use local joints and get location releases, of course.

Greek signage and logos where possible.  If you are shooting at a track and there is a big Nike logo on the wall in a shot, greek it or re-frame your shot if possible.

Logos and Artwork (on Clothing)

Last but not least!  Do not allow your kids and adults to wear clothes with logos, or artwork.  Get them to wear plain t-shirts or patterned or otherwise plain clothing, no logos or artwork.  That includes shirts promoting bands, or sports team jerseys.  

This is particularly problematic for anyone featured in a shot.  Please be very aware of this and have replacement clothing on-hand in several sizes just in case.

Written by

Keith Relkin, president and CEO, has clearance experience spanning two decades, working for Disney in the areas of TV and film production, theme parks, home video and consumer products.
© Copyright Keith Relkin