Any new location scouts out there? Check out our 8 steps to help get you where you’re going.
You already know that your location is more than a mere backdrop. As a matter of fact, according to film director Ridley Scott, it is a character in its own right.
That ideology is what compelled Baltasar Kormákur, director of Everest, to bring his whole cast to the mountain’s base camp, and cinematographer Salvatore Totinoto hang from cliffs to get angles that couldn’t be otherwise captured by crane.
So, how do you find the perfect location for an immersive cinematic experience? In this post, you’re going to find out.
How to scout locations in 8 steps
1. Read the script
Before you spring into action, dissect the script, take notes, and have extensive discussions with the film’s director or writer to understand their vision. This brief will help keep you on track while you’re on your quest.
Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for, the next step is research.
2. Do your research
Start your research online because it’s a good way to narrow down options. Browse through images and see if a particular location has the right vibe.
You could also use online location libraries to find suitable matches. Here are a few:
Film commissions, such as California’s, often have resources online that you can also check out.
3. Go on-site
Looking up pictures and videos of sites online is a good start, but it’s not enough. Visit potential locations at different times during the day to gauge how the site will function in the project both physically and emotionally. Analyze the textures, colors and mood. Take plenty of photos and record a few minutes of test footage.
Many folks use the free app Panascout to visualize what the site will look like on-screen. Another handy tool that helps with perspective is the director’s viewfinder.
4. Find local support and use your contacts
To land the perfect location, you’ll have to put yourself out there. Once you have a few sites on your radar, continue the research you started in #3 and get to know the people of that area.
Connect with the police and the local fire department, they’ll help you assess a location in terms of safety and provide support during the shoot, too.
While you’re out scouting, keep an open mind. You never know, you may find a place that would be perfect for some other project down the line. That’s what happened when Alex Goldstone, a location scout, went to meet up with a farmer he knew in the outskirts of London.
Gladstone was looking for sites where a portion of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan could be filmed. The location was an abandoned air base. It was in bad shape and wouldn’t be suitable for the movie, but Gladstone kept the site in mind.
Almost two decades later, he returned to the desolate spot. It served as the filming location for Annihilation.
5. Consider the logistics
Sometimes what seems like the ideal location turns out not to be ideal after all because of how difficult it would be to facilitate. Jared Cannon, a New Zealand-based location scout, experienced this when he had to search for an alternative site for The Revenant.
The movie’s shooting primarily took place in Canada, but winter didn’t last long enough to complete the project there. Production had to wrap up and resume filming somewhere else.
The film’s producer reached out to Cannon to find out if there was a suitable spot in New Zealand. But because of the challenges of bringing the crew in by helicopter and accommodating the horses, it was going to be impossible.
Consider limitations and assess whether a location can facilitate the entire movie crew. Holistic thinking will ensure that production goes smoothly.
With that in mind, here are a few critical details to consider:
- Accessibility and special needs
- On-camera releases
- Accommodating props and gear
- Travel, lodging, bathrooms, changing rooms
- Accommodating cast, crew, trainers, support crew and animals
- Backup or secondary locations
- Keep track of permits, permissions and location releases.
6. Think outside the box
Budget and site limitations often require a single film to be shot at multiple locations. Scenarios like this require creative problem-solving.
For The Age of Innocence, Martin Scorsese used several filming locations to replicate 1870s New York. The production shot mainly in Troy, New York. But for adequate world-building, a bit of filming was also done outside of Boston and Philadelphia.
Another example of out-of-the-box location scouting is the airport from Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal.
Airports were not willing to lend their facilities for the production. To get around this, a working set of an airport was built inside a hangar in Palmdale, California. All the exterior shots were from the Montréal–Mirabel International Airport.
7. Set agreements in stone and get permissions
Once you’ve selected your locations, always secure them in writing. Use a film location release form for this purpose.
Get all the required permissions and permits for filming ahead of time (look up your local film commissions to check permit requirements and how to get them).
Once all the legal stuff is out of the way, the cameras can roll without a hitch.
8. Take the new guidelines seriously
Filming in a COVID-19 world is complicated. Make sure you understand the industry guidelines as well as any requirements specific to the location, and with them in mind, ensure that the needs of the project can be met at the locations you’re considering.
Don’t forget to keep the ‘zone system‘, in mind as you go scouting.
And that’s a wrap
They don’t say “location, location, location” for no reason. Whether it’s an indie film or a big-budget production, finding the perfect sites for a movie is a monumental task. It literally sets the stage for everything that comes next.
Don’t get overwhelmed, though. You got this! Keep the steps we mentioned in mind as you go location scouting, and have a great adventure.