Location Scouting Tips
Just like in real estate, when you leave the studio (if you were ever in one) one of the biggest factors to a good shoot, is location, location, location. I’ve been on many a location scout and have seen some great location and not so great locations. One of the biggest things when seeing what looks like a great location is you have to think will it work logistically. The factors to locations are cost, sound issues, power and logistics. We’ll break those down in a minute.
First, who should be on the location scout? As many crew people as possible, but it’s not feasible to take the entire crew to each location (unless you have a small crew), so you need to pick department heads, the director, cinematographer, 1st assistant director, art director, sound mixer and production/location manager. I like to bring my gaffer if possible. These people all look at locations in different ways and will have different and valuable input. When all these people aren’t there, then somebody on the scout should be looking out for them. Sometimes when it’s just me and the director out scouting, we both have to wear different production hats and not just consider picture needs.
This is the easy one, either can afford the location or you can’t. A good producer might be able to wheel and deal a better price. Sometimes you have to use some imagination with a place that doesn’t quite work, but is affordable. This is where the director has to envision the shots he will need. There’s a famous story from Akira Kurosawa when he was asked how he achieved a “perfect” frame for a period film he directed and he said, if I had panned to the right there was a modern factory and if I panned to the left, there were power lines, so the frame was set. I’ve been on scouts where people have said the location wouldn’t work because of some factor, but after talking with the director, we realized that element would never be on camera.
Here’s a line I like to use on sound mixers (please sound folks, don’t take an offense, I’m joking), “they’re called motion pictures, not motion sounds.” It usually gets them riled up, but seriously, you have to not just look at a location, you have to listen to it. Is it on a street with heavy traffic? Is there construction nearby or the potential of it? Is it in the path of an airport? Do a bunch of college party kids live next door who will throw the world’s biggest, noisy-est party ever in the middle of your intimate drama? If it’s a multi-story building, who lives upstairs? Somebody who stomps around in combat boots? There are hundreds of noise factors that can grind your production to a halt, so be on the lookout.
If you start to like a location and think it will be high on your list, take a moment and stand silently. Listen for hums and buzzes. Find out if they can be eliminated. You should visit it again at a different time of day to make sure there isn’t some factor that changes.
Say you visit an apartment that looks perfect in the morning, but it sits above a bar that at night cranks up the music, well that would be a sound killer. Some smaller airports cut back on night flights, but during the day your location will have a flight overhead every two minute. In general, try to think when you’ll be shooting and seek out any sound factor which would slow or halt shooting. Sometimes these things can come out of nowhere and cannot be predicted, but you should do your homework.
(Here’s a side note: Refrigerators are the bane of sound mixer’s life, humming back to life in the middle of takes thus ruining the sound, so the solution is to turn them off during the shoot, but often times they don’t get turned back on after the shoot and the production gets a bill to replace the spoiled contents. Here’s a clever way to avoid that: somebody is assigned be the last person to leave the location, be that the Assistant Director, location manager or a PA, they should put their car keys in the fridge, that way when they go to their car to leave and pat their pockets for the keys they will remember they put them the fridge for a reason and will have to return to the fridge and will remember to turn it back on. This was taught to me by a wise Assistant Director. I love tricks like this.)
A nightmare for gaffers is lack of power. If you need a shaft of sunlight pouring through a window that is created by lighting, not the sun, and production can’t afford a generator, then you need lots of power. Older buildings should be given special inspections. I’ve shot in apartments that had only two twenty amp circuits which means if you plug in more than four lights, you’re going to start blowing breakers. We ended up borrowing power from an apartment two stories above and just dropped cables out the window to feed our lights. Not ideal, but it worked. Does the place have plenty of outlets? Where are the circuit breakers? You should know where they are so if you blow a breaker you can get at it to reset it. I’ve had hour-long production delays because a fuse box was locked in a closet and nobody could find a janitor to open it. Get to know whoever’s in charge of the keys to all the doors in a building and make them your best friend. Buy them doughnuts or coffee because the best way to some people’s heart is through their stomach.
(Another side note: Here’s the Scott Spears lazy man math formula for calculating power needs for lights. Say you want to use three 1000 watts lights (1Ks for short) and a 500 watt light. You take the watts and add them up which makes 3500 watts, then you divide that by 100 (I know it should be 110, but that’s why I call it a lazy man formula) and that will give you the amps you’ll need, which in this case will be 35 amps. Most houses have 20 amp breakers, so you’ll need at two dedicated breakers for your lights. Total watts/100= amps needed. 3500/100=35)
Locations bring their own set of logistics, just like people. There are a lot of things you don’t think about as you walk around a cool location lining up shots and thinking how you’ll use the space, but there’s a lot more to a location than that.
Where the heck are the cast, crew and equipment vehicles going to park? A film production takes up a lot of space so there better be parking.
How do you get all the gear to the location? Are there elevators or is the crew going have to drag a ton of equipment up four flights of stairs? Exterior locations have these same concerns. I’ve had to hike about a mile uphill for a shoot with gear on my back and in each hand which ain’t fun, but you gotta do what you gotta do. Do that six times to start and end your day and you’ll think twice about that location.
Don’t forget about changing rooms for cast and a make-up area.
Here’s a biggie, are there enough bathrooms? Nothing can get you booted from a location faster than to have 30 people trying to use one bathroom and to have the toilet overflow.
Now you and your stuff are on set, but where do you put people and extra gear when they’re not working? All the grips and cast not on camera need someplace to hang out while shooting is underway.
Do you have a place for the cast and crew to eat? Is there a large space so everybody sits together and eat? That’s a great way to build camaraderie (as long as the food is good, but that’s a whole other topic.) If you don’t feed people on site, are there restaurants nearby. Be careful letting cast and crew loose upon the world because they’ll all come staggering in a few minutes late with the excuse that the waiters were slow or some other problem.
Some locations have special requirements, like no shoes, cover the floors or be out at a certain time. Make sure everybody respects these rules or you may be looking for a new place. If a location throws on too many restrictions off the bat, you may want to look elsewhere because once you’re there, life may get even worse with more rules and complaints about even minor infractions.
Everybody hates paperwork, but make sure to release forms signed well ahead of the time to shoot at your great new location. If you wait until the last minute, like when you have all your crew standing outside waiting to get to work, then the owner my find some “unknown” reason for jacking up he price, otherwise known as they’ve got you over the barrel. Have proper forms and photo releases for the location.
I’ll close by saying my rule is to try to leave a location better than I found it. Don’t leave a mess because eventually that reputation will catch up to you and you’ll start getting locked out of locations. Also, you may have to come back for re-shoots and if you leave the place trashed, you’re not getting back in.
Scott Spears is an Emmy winning cinematographer and owner of Production Partners Media which provides video production in the Columbus, Ohio area. You can learn more about him at www.productionpartnersmedia.com