Shooting Permit Requirements in
New York City Subway System
Lights, camera, action - please stand clear of the closing doors. Huh? Yes, you heard right. That's the type of direction you can expect to hear in the New York City subway system, where film makers and television producers have come for decades to add depth, texture and realism to any story that takes place in New York.
With its sets and soundstages, Hollywood can pose as anywhere U.S.A. but only
New York City can pass as, well, New York City. And if a film is shot here, there's a good chance that there is at least one scene set along the tracks and stations of
MTA New York City Transit's immense and scenically diverse subway system. Add to that the impressive number of music videos, television commercials and shows lensed in New York City, many of which require at least the occasional subway shot.
The responsibility of overseeing special events at NYC Transit falls to the
Film and Special Events Unit of the Department of Corporate Communications. Corporate Communications Vice President Paul Fleuranges believes NYC Transit offers an invaluable resource to the film industry and by extension provides an economic benefit to the city.
"Production requests often call upon us to exhibit great creativity, flexibility and energy, but knowing that we here at NYC Transit play such a vital role in fostering movie making in New York City is truly gratifying," he explained. “And besides contributing to the authenticity of productions viewed world wide, we help keep the economic benefits that flow from movie making (and commercials and music videos) right here at home."
Over the years, some memorable celluloid moments have occurred in or around the
New York City subway system. Remember Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle chasing an elevated train through South Brooklyn in The French Connection? Or, how about the train-jackers who took the Lexington Avenue Local for ransom in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three?
Both Eddie Murphy (in Coming to America) and Paul Hogan (as Crocodile Dundee) proposed to their brides in the New York City subway, presumably living happily ever after. And who could forget King Kong, Fay Wray in hand, wrecking the Sixth Avenue Elevated in preparation for his climb to the top of the Empire State Building? Well, technically, it didn't really take place in the subway; it was a scale-model set of an elevated railway but everyone got the idea.
The very first motion picture shot in the system was the Thomas A. Edison film of 1904. The cameraman mounted a camera on a train and followed the Lexington Avenue Local along its route. The grainy film was absent sound and short on plot, but it started a tradition. And the camera has been in love with New York City's subway ever since.
More recently, Jennifer Lopez boarded the No. 4 train in the Bronx and rode to her job in a swank midtown hotel in hit film Maid in Manhattan and a few years earlier, she, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson teamed as Transit cops in Money Train. Harrelson returned for an encore when he and fellow cowpoke Keifer Sutherland transferred from horseback to a Brooklyn-bound B train as it pounded across the Manhattan Bridge in the climatic scene of The Cowboy Way.
"New York City is like our back lot and filming in the subway system is one of the high points of working in New York City," said Gary Martin, President of Production Administration for the Columbia/Tri-Star Film Group. "Through Alberteen Anderson and her staff, NYC Transit has been extremely accommodating. We began the process for the feature Money Train a year before filming actually started and they worked closely with us to make it happen."
All shooting in and adjacent to the New York City subway system is overseen by the Special Events Visual Production Unit, which was created in order to facilitate filming on New York City Transit property. Headed by Anderson, the unit handles the needs of scores of production companies from site scouting to picking a specific type of
In fact, they'll even help arrange the purchase of subway cars such as they did for the producers of Money Train and Die-Hard With a Vengeance, whose productions just happened to coincide with NYC Transit's scrapping of a fleet of 40-year-old cars.
Of course, buying a subway car isn't quite as simple as picking up a used Toyota at the corner lot. "The director and producers traveled to the Coney Island Maintenance Facility to meet Chief Mechanical Officer Richard Sowa who helped identify several obsolete cars available for purchase," Anderson explained. "After the cars were chosen, they had to be abated for asbestos, inspected by the State Department of Environmental Protection and then prepped for shipping to California. It was all part of the process of making these projects happen."
Additionally, the Special Events unit has catalogued an impressive list of film-friendly stations and lines. One popular location is the Grand Central-Times Square Shuttle during the off hours and another is the Church Avenue F Line station in Brooklyn's Kensington section, which boasts express tracks on the upper level and non-service tracks on the lower level.
"A major reason subway scenes are included in many movies filmed in New York City is to add a genuine feel of a city that pretty much lives as a result of its subway system," explained Anderson. "Also, with its hundreds of stations, miles of underground and elevated track and a diverse car fleet, directors don't have to work particularly hard to get unique looking shots."
Gary Martin concurred with Anderson's assessment. "In New York City everyone relates to the subway," he added. "Of course Chicago and Los Angeles have subways, too, but nothing can take the place of New York's system."
From Motion Pictures to Music Videos
Several types of productions are handled through the office, including commercials, television shows, music videos and major motion pictures. Shoots can require virtually anything from the use of a subway sidewalk grating, to a station platform or stationary rail car or involve using a stretch of subway line and a full, moving New York City subway train.
Jobs can last for a couple of hours or production crews can shoot in the system over the course of several months. Shooting a production in North America's largest mass transit system is a cooperative effort among several divisions and units of the Department of Subways, the Department of Buses, the Executive Vice President's Office and the Division of System Safety.
The process requires teamwork and coordination. Working along with the Visual Production Unit, the General Order Unit is notified that a production company wants to shoot at a particular location and time. At that time it is determined whether or not a train or station is involved, and the type of shooting they would like to do.
A technical meeting is scheduled at the desired location. Representatives from Government Affairs, the Divisions of Stations, Car Equipment, the Department of System Safety, Contract Inspections, the Electrical Department and Rapid Transit Operations assemble to scout the location in order to make certain the shoot is feasible and there are no safety issues.
Charges are figured to the last penny and they take into account, how long the production will last, how many NYC Transit employees will be needed for the job and how long the job will take. The rental of a subway train includes the crew (train operator and conductor), a train service supervisor and sometimes officers of the NYPD.
Learning to Walk the Walk
Anyone who walks along NYC Transit subway tracks must take an eight-hour Track Class. The instruction educates newcomers to the dangers of working in the vicinity of moving trains and a live third rail. The classes, similar to the one given to NYC Transit employees, are aimed at keeping everyone safe and raising the comfort level of folks who probably aren't accustomed to working around 400 tons of moving subway train.
They are also required to take a test upon class completion. Everyone who takes the class has to stand in a clearance area along the tracks as a train passes.
Of course, with safety always being a prime concern, all productions using NYC Transit property are required to take out liability and railroad insurance policies of at least
$2 million each.
As important as it is to make the system accessible to producers, the primary role of the subway system is to move people. If a production calls for shooting in a normally busy location, that project will be done during the overnight hours when impact on the public is minimal.
While most production personnel are repeat visitors and understand what it takes to keep the system running smoothly, a small number of location managers just don't get it. "Unfortunately, sometimes you will get a location manager or director who wishes to shoot in a busy station at the height of the rush hour," Anderson explained. "As important as their production is, our customers come first."
It's a complicated process to set everything up to the satisfaction of all sides. After all, while NYC Transit does its best to accommodate the industry, the authority also has
4.7 million subway riders to move each day. Does everything always roll smoothly? Well, no. At times Transit has to put its collective foot down and say no to a project.
Filming in the New York City subway system will always present challenges and opportunities. The next time you see a film, television show, commercial or music video that includes shots of NYC Transit's subway system, remember a lot of work went into making it look just right.