Tips for Film Location Scouting
Perfect video doesn’t just happen. Whether the camera is moving in a complicated arc through a nightclub, capturing a kayaker blasting through whitewater at sunset, or slowly dollying into the face of a CEO as she outlines next year’s corporate strategy, these shots all begin with a thorough location scout. Knowing the characteristics and conditions of the space prior to the shoot is critical to ensuring a successful production effort, and film location scouting is important if you’re trying to find the perfect exterior vista or scouting client provided spaces. Let’s consider a couple of the overriding aspects of interior or exterior location scouts, and then delve into the details.
First, based upon the creative brief or script, a location scout’s job is to find the perfect place to shoot. Having an intimate knowledge of the local area is critical but searching online and using satellite imagery are also great tools. Ultimately, finding and acquiring the perfect location boils down to seeing it in person and speaking directly to the responsible property owner or manager. It can also involve acquiring permits from a designated authority.
Second, understanding that just because a location appears perfect on first sight, doesn’t mean that it is. If you are conducting an interview outside, for instance, location scouts have to be aware of ambient noise. That construction site across the street – even though you don’t see it or it may not be currently active – might just kill your interview audio. Location scouts must take a wholistic view of the area, and not simply find a place that looks good.
With this in mind, let’s consider a few of the most important aspects of location scouting.
1. Aesthetics – What does the location look like? Is it visually interesting? Does it convey the right message, the right “look and feel?” These are the first questions a location scout must answer. If the location does aesthetically meet the creative brief, that’s a significant advantage and the location scout then begins to dig further into other details of the space.
2. Suitability – Is the space big enough to accomplish what needs to happen including both what’s in front of the camera and what must happen behind it? Does the location offer opportunities to accommodate the variety of ‘looks’ or camera angles required? Is the location properly furnished? Will it support all required departments such as make-up and wardrobe, grip and electric, and craft services? These are questions a location scout must answer.
3. Access – Does the location require a location permit or a location fee to acquire access? Knowing who owns or manages the space is the first step in acquiring a permit or in negotiating a location fee.
4. Ambient Noise – Location scouts must also consider ambient noise when judging potential locations. Is the space quiet or does noise from unseen sources infiltrate through the doors and windows? Unwelcome noise may originate from exterior sources – leaf blowers or lawn mowers are particularly egregious – or from conversations down the hall or telephones or doors opening and closing, or even from white noise generators. Controlling or eliminating noise completely is not always possible, but being aware of it and the extent to which it may infringe on critical audio – dialogue or interview statements – is crucial to understanding the suitability of the space and informing the sound recordist prior to the shoot.
5. Power requirements – With today’s lower-demand fluorescent and LED lighting fixtures, having the requisite amount of electricity to support a shoot is less of a concern. Electricity is still important, however, and understanding the location of available outlets and the distribution of electrical circuits remains a consideration for our location scouts.
6. Windows – As an element of the suitability and aesthetics of a space, the presence or lack of windows can be a consideration. If windows are present, what is the anticipated angle of the sun when filming and how will it change over the course of the day? What is visible outside of the window and how might that affect the shoot? Will the Director of Photography want to use the window as an aesthetic feature or for the ambient lighting it offers? Will light from the window need to be controlled? These are a few of the issues a location scout must explore.
7. Load-in/Load out – Getting cartloads of equipment into and out of a space is not always trivial. Determining where ramps are located can be helpful. A conversation with the maintenance folks during a location scout may provide access to the loading dock and freight elevator. Or, in spaces not so equipped, the production team can plan to pack gear to ensure it fits through doorways or onto smaller elevators. And at the actual shoot location, determining the position of gear is important to ensure a safe and efficient shoot.
8. Security – These days, many facilities require production crews to go through security screening prior to entry into secure buildings. If so, speaking with the security team prior to showing up for the shoot can be informative in terms of the screening requirements – what gear needs to fit through the x-ray machines, what might be visually screened, and what personal information on crew and cast is required for background checks.
1. Setting and Aesthetics – As with interior location scouts, finding, scouting, and obtaining access to the perfect exterior location requires knowledge of the local area, diligence, application of a variety of online tools, and time spent on the ground. Of course, the key facet of any location scout is determining whether a location meets the creative brief or script, and what camera position and lens captures the desired field of view.
2. Time and Ambient Lighting – When scouting exterior locations, it’s critical to assess the ambient lighting and the position of the sun at the scheduled time of the shoot, in addition to understanding the time of the year and how the changes in foliage may affect the shot. Applying tools such as sun seekers can be very helpful to track the position of the sun during the day.
3. Weather – Of course, when shooting outside, there is always a risk that inclement weather may infringe on the ability to shoot. Bright, clear blue skies may be the goal, but direct sun may have to be controlled. Rain, wind, snow, excessive cold or heat, or uneven cloud cover can detrimentally impact a shoot, and location scouts need to be aware of weather predictions and patterns when making recommendations. Having a ‘Plan B’ for inclement weather is always important when scouting for time-sensitive shoots.
4. Power Availability – While cameras and sound recording equipment, monitors, and lights can all be battery powered, it’s always helpful to have access to electrical power. A location scout must assess power availability and judge whether to bring in power generators. Of course, generators bring in noise, which can be a concern.
5. Noise – Uncontrolled noise on location can be a real problem. Airplanes, traffic, squeaky brakes, construction, landscaping equipment – these things outside of the view of the camera can create real headaches for sound recordists. Location scouts must pay attention to these impacts and be aware of what is happening not only in front of the camera, but outside its field of view.
6. Parking and Load-in/Load-out – As with all production efforts, determining parking for crew, clients, and cast and access for an expeditious load-in/load-out are key elements to explore when on a location scout.
7. Permits – Shooting on public or private lands may come with a requirement to obtain permits. In Washington DC, for instance, the city is amenable to video production on city streets and permits are easy enough to obtain. However, it’s important to know exactly where you want to position your cameras and talent and request permits from the responsible organization. Sometimes, whether you shoot on the grass, on the sidewalk, or on the street, you might need to obtain permits from different law enforcement organizations, even though camera position may only change by a few feet.
8. Public Access – Obtaining a permit to shoot in a public location does not mean you always have complete control over the location. In public spaces, the public may still be able to wander in. Obtaining a restrictive permit is a more difficult prospect, though it can happen. Typically, what happens is that the production team works with the location management to both accommodate and control the public, ensuring a successful shoot.
We hope these insights give you a strong background into the details and importance of thorough location scouts prior to any production effort. If you’re planning a production that requires interior locations, exterior locations, or both, Rock Creek Production’s seasoned, professional location scouts can help. We’ll make sure we take every aspect of the location into consideration when scouting and making recommendations and production plans.