The Heritage Film Set: A UK Perspective on Caring for Historic Filming Locations

By Special Contributor posted 02-21-2017 15:53


By Clare Flynn

Hogwarts, Winterfell, Downton Abbey, the First Jedi Temple—the images that spring to mind when one considers many of the iconic settings from recent films and television series are not of fictional or imaginary places, but rather of the real-life heritage sites that represent them on screen.

Location filming has been a part of the film industry since its inception, but in the current “Golden Age of Television,” the amount of filming in historic locations may be increasing as high-budget, original content providers—such as HBO, Netflix, and Amazon—continue to proliferate and expand. In the United Kingdom, all of the major heritage governing bodies have established filming departments or formal filming procedures within the last 10 years—with the exception of the National Trust, which created its Filming Office in 2003—to manage the growing demand for historic locations. However, similar filming departments are absent from American heritage organizations.

A sign in the village of Bampton indicates the location used as the hospital in “Downton Abbey.” | Credit: Clare Flynn

Taking part in filming can offer considerable benefits to historic properties. Exposure through a popular film or television series may lead to increased public awareness, visitor numbers, and sources of funding that can facilitate the ongoing care and preservation of a featured property. Alnwick Castle in Northumberland reported a 230 percent increase in visitors and an estimated £9 million benefit for the local economy since 2011 thanks to productions shot there, which include the first two “Harry Potter” films. The Oxfordshire village of Bampton, used as the fictional town of Downton in “Downton Abbey,” has raised funds to restore its 17th century library building thanks to donations from tourists attracted by the series.

On the other hand, film productions introduce a high degree of risk to historic properties and become more dangerous as they increase in scale. Weighing the potential benefits against the chance of irreparable damage is essential in determining whether to approve an application for filming at a historic property.

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, United Kingdom. | Credit: Clare Flynn

The Risks of Filming at Historic Sites

Film shoots are physically intrusive events that introduce serious threats to the historic built fabric of the properties that host them. Because no two sites or film shoots are alike, the range of potential risks varies. Nevertheless, it is useful to understand some of the unique threats that filming can present:

  1. Fire caused by candles, naked flames, or heat-emitting or malfunctioning equipment;
  2. Physical threats caused by the movement of people and equipment, high structural loads, redecoration like repainting or removal of original fabric, or special effects like stunts and pyrotechnics;
  3. Chemical threats from food or drink; makeup and hairspray; or special effects like artificial smoke, haze, blood, or snow;
  4. Light, specifically high-intensity lights like UV or tungsten halogen; and
  5. New technologies such as drones.

All of this begs the question: How can the physical integrity of heritage sites be maintained and protected when filming takes place in materially vulnerable locations?

Protective Plastazote foam cover installed over a doorknob at Alnwick Castle. | Credit: Clare Flynn

Risk Mitigation

The mitigation of these threats begins with thorough communication, risk assessment, and planning, followed by proper site preparation and trained onsite supervision. Clear and efficient communication between the production team and property staff is of the utmost importance in creating a positive filming experience. It is essential that both parties are forthright about their needs from the beginning in order to develop a well-informed and mutually satisfactory plan. Such a plan will often include the following components:

“On Location” film tour at Alnwick Castle. | Credit: Clare Flynn

  • Filming applications and “recces.” Assessing the risks of a film shoot begins with the initial inquiry and filming application, which gathers the basic facts about a production’s needs. After this, key members of the production team tour the proposed filming location during a series of scouts or “recces.” Recces are an essential part of preventing damage during filming because they are the primary time for the production team to ask questions and discuss their plans in detail with property staff. During this planning period, staff may need to conduct tests, consult specialists, or request method statements and product information sheets in order to determine the safety and feasibility of specific filming requests.
  • Location agreements. These negotiations culminate in the signing of a location agreement—a binding contract between the production company and filming location that provides the legal framework for the protection of the location during filming. It establishes the precise timing, terms, and conditions of use; details location fees and footage rights for the shoot; and specifies that the property has the right to immediately stop filming if any of the terms are broken. It also stipulates that the production company is liable for any damage that may occur.
  • Site preparation. Successfully preventing damage may also require physically preparing the site, often by removing vulnerable items and installing protective materials on floors, doorways, staircases, furniture, and other areas of high traffic where the movement of people and equipment is most likely to cause damage.
  • Supervision. Inevitably, circumstances will arise once filming begins that pre-written agreements and physical protections did not anticipate. It is therefore imperative that a system of onsite supervision be in place to monitor filming activity and respond to unforeseen changes. In many cases, the property’s permanent staff may perform this role. However, recognizing that site staff often cannot perform their normal duties on top of overseeing a long day of nonstop filming, the National Trust in England, English Heritage, and several private properties in the United Kingdom employ freelance project conservators with specialized knowledge of the filmmaking process to supervise filming on their sites.

The impact of filming activity on historic sites and properties is a globally relevant topic that deserves closer attention, particularly as a specialized concern within the field of historic preservation. Best practices can help historic sites and properties reap the benefits of filming without sacrificing their historic integrity, though it will be important for them to evolve alongside filming activity.

Clare Flynn graduated from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland with a master’s degree in Architectural Conservation in November 2016, and this is a summary of her 2016 dissertation findings.

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