Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Earlier today, Filming in Brooklyn ran a piece about I Hate Valentines Day which is currently...filming in Brooklyn. One quote from the post is:

I don’t know how these assignments are divvied up, but movie and TV shoots always seem to get the nicest, funniest cops.

Hey, it just so happens I know how those assignments are divvied up. The NYPD has just under 40,000 officers working in more than 115 precincts, Transit Districts and various other units like Aviation, Marine, Emergency Services, etc.

In 1966, when the Mayor's Office of Film, Theater & Broadcasting was founded, they also established an NYPD Unit to oversee filming in the city. Since then, it has been in the Tactical Patrol Force, then the Special Operations Division. Now, its official designation is the Movie-TV Unit and they're part of the Traffic Control Division. (For a brief time their designation was MTV, but that got dumped for obvious reasons.) The unit varies in size, but usually consists of one Lieutenant, four Sergeants and 20-25 officers.

Regardless of what they've been called or which division they're under, their services have always been free. I suspect that this policy was initially a guard against corruption (we're talking about the days leading up to The Knapp Commission), but over time, it was found to be a great system. Everywhere else I shoot, I either hire off-duty officers or reimburse the city for the officers' time. Guess what? When I'm paying for a police officer to be there, I expect him to do pretty much anything I want him to.

The Movie-TV Unit is immensely helpful to productions, but one of their Prime Directives is that they don't work for us. They work for the City! This means that an out of control production will find itself reigned in pretty quickly. We get our permits from the City and it specifies what sort of traffic control we have permission for, what kind of stunts or special effects we're planning to do, etc. But the cops from the Movie-TV Unit usually have the last say.

If you want to do something that's not on the permit, you ask the cop on set. If he/she thinks it's fine, they'll ok it. Conversely, if they decide that something on your permit is being performed in a dangerous manner, they'll shut it down in a heartbeat.

They make sure that any minors working have the proper permits. They inspect every weapon that's going to be used. They deal with traffic (both holding it so we can get a shot and telling us we need to wait before shooting another take so any backed up traffic can be relieved). If we're doing driving shots, I'll usually be in the police car relaying what we're doing so the Officer can help us get where we're going, (usually in circles).

Here's some things they won't do:
  • Appear in your movie (you need to hire extras with uniforms).
  • let you put the police car in a shot (there are plenty of picture car companies that will rent you police vehicles).
  • hold traffic for sound (i.e. you're not filming the street but traffic is making noise that's screwing up the dialog).
Most anything else, you can get a permit for. Some things are more complicated, and might require you to pay for Traffic Agents, but this city and the Movie-TV Unit mostly bend over backwards to help you get your shots. They're just not going to let you totally screw up the city to do it.

Another good thing about having this unit is that I get to know all of them and they get to know all of us. This means that they might show up on a set and immediately know that they're in for a clusterfuck...just by seeing who the Location Manager is. I like to think I have a reputation for playing it straight with them. Also, they know what we do and how we do it. I don't have to explain that two actors are going to come out of a building and have a dialog scene as they walk down the sidewalk. I say, "It's a walk-and-talk over there" and they know what I'm talking about. And don't get me started on how great it is to work with a cop who already understands how we do driving shots. I've done them with cops elsewhere, who I'm sure are great cops...they just almost got us all killed because they had no idea how to escort a process trailer (That's a truck towing a trailer with the car you're filming mounted on it). Process trailers are long and wide and have a ton of lighting and camera equipment and crew mounted all over it...and they're dangerous as hell if everybody doesn't know what they're doing.

So anyway, here's a shout out to the NYPD Movie-TV Unit. It was a great idea when the City started it and it continues to be a great idea 40 years later.


vince said...

It's always good when you have people that understand what you're trying to accomplish and can work with you. And another great peak into what you do and how you do it.

I love working with computers, but I think I want to do what you do in my next life. Not because it's easy, but because it seems to be an interesting and usually non-boring line of work.

Nathan said...


I like my job more days than I hate it, but most days really are "Same old, same old".

I think the tiredest conversation I have over and over and over again is the one where I laugh politely and explain that I only find the places that will be in the movie...not the people.

MWT said...

Neato. :)

I like these glimpses into the moviemaking life.