9 Things to Consider when Scouting a Movie Location
Apart from the actors, everything else in the frame of your movies is a set, prop, or a location, or sometimes even a Visual Effect (virtual background).
Now a set (or a virtual set) need to be constructed, dressed, and lit, which is expensive and labor intensive.
But the right location, although it might not be free, can be a place to shoot your movie that is almost a turnkey operation. You show up, you put the actors in the frame, and you roll the camera.
When scouting a movie location, the first thing I look for, whether it’s an interior or an exterior is how much work it is going to take to make it camera-ready. If I’m looking for a grungy alley, I want to find a grungy alley. I don’t want to find a clean alley and have the art department spend time and money making it look grungy.
The Benefits of a Location Scout
If you’re working with a decent budget, the “location scouting” is usually done by a professional scout. They’ll have a camera and knowledge of the area, and possibly, if you’re lucky, a library of pre-scouted locations. So before they go out you can see what they have and can discuss what works for you and what doesn’t.
It’s important to get on the same creative page as your scout so they don’t shoot a bunch of locations which don’t fit the aesthetic of your movie. I always ask them to take wide angle photos to show the location because they won’t necessarily understand the specifics of what I’m going to shoot there…or what lens I’m going to shoot it on. A good location scout will also not show you locations which are impossible to shoot at.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with production companies that didn’t want to pay for a proper scout and have sent out a Production Assistant with an iPhone. They come back with pictures…which I then fall in love with…only to find out that it’s impossible to get a permit or that the owner of the property never allows filming.
Before my shoot day, I always visit all the locations in person, preferably at the time of day that I am going to shoot there. I shoot picture of the specific angles I intend to shoot, with the lens I plan to use.
It’s amazing to me sometimes when I look at these pictures that, just like actors, there are some locations that the camera loves and others that it does not. So even if I like a location in person, the proof of the pudding is how it photographs.
Apart from the creative aesthetic of the location there are other equally important characteristics to consider.
9 Things to Consider when Scouting a Movie Location
1. Distance from your production center
In Los Angeles you can have the crew drive on their “own time” if your location is in the (30 mile) Studio Zone. If you stay in this zone, this can save two hours of shooting time per day.
2. Ease of control
Too many pedestrians? Rush hour traffic? Controlling a location can take a lot of P.A.s with walkie-talkies if it’s too busy. This can really slow you down.
3. Ease of getting permits without too many restrictions
Depending where you shoot, you can run into multiple restrictions. I’ve come across all of these in the past.
- Need cops (sometimes multiple) on site at all times.
- Need a fireman on site at all times.
- Have to be finished by a certain time…usually because of the neighbors.
- Need to get signatures from neighbors that they don’t mind you shooting.
- Can’t block traffic or specific public areas.
- Can’t shine lights into buildings.
- No firearms allowed on site, not even fake ones.
There’s an urban legend that, if you don’t put a tripod down on the sidewalk, you don’t need a permit. I doubt this is true, although I’ve done it many times.
4. Access to good parking
If your crew has to park at meters they’ll be late to work. They’ll keep running out to pump the meters, and they’ll be mad as hell when they get a ticket. And it’s amazing how many extra people will show up for a shoot that you didn’t account for.
Also, your actual camera position should be as close to the parking lot as possible. Any time spent lugging equipment, moving, and setting up will cost you shooting time…and time is your most precious commodity.
5. Availability of cast and crew bathrooms
I can tell you how many shoots I’ve been on when no thought was given to this at all. It can be a disaster.
6. Sound problems in the vicinity
Like being close to a construction site or on “final approach” to a big airport.
7. Proximity to the “next” location.
This is particularly important when you have more than one location in a day. Moving from one location to another is called a “company move.” Company moves are very time consuming, mostly because no shooting takes place during this dead time.
The company move includes the time it takes to pack everything up in the trucks, drive to the next location, and set it all up again. When you are able to eliminate this move entirely, you pick up a lot of shooting time. So, very often when I’m scouting a location I look around for a “two for one” shooting situation. That’s a camera angle where I can shoot… then pan the camera around 180 degrees… and shoot another scene in the other direction.
8. Nearby facilities
Don’t forget to know, and announce on the call sheet, where the closest emergency room is. You never know!
9. Hire a location manager
This one is more of a tip that will help you work through the first 8 points! I always like it when the original scout is also hired as the Location Manager. This means that when they’re scouting they will pay extra attention to the logistics of a location, because later on they will be responsible for its smooth operation.
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