Chapter 6 Preparing To Shoot A Film On Location
Location scouting is an essential part of the video production process. It can be difficult to find affordable locations due to logistics, permits, and fees. The importance of these locations cannot be underestimated.
Many good locations don’t require a huge budget. Before you begin your location scouting, you should remember a few key points. In this chapter, we will be sharing some tips that will help you find and finalize the locations of your choice for your film.
6.1 Choosing areas for location scouting
Planning a film with locations in mind is key to a successful project. Without breaking the bank, you will be able to shoot in challenging places. With the proper planning, you will find yourself shooting on the top of the world’s tallest skyscrapers in Dubai or in a control room of a military submarine.
Before we get into the details of location scouting, remember that the area in which you are filming will affect which tips you will use.
You can expect someone from the city council to stop by your set and request your permit, particularly, if you are filming in a busy public area. The police can stop you from shooting if you don’t have a permit. In extreme cases, they can even confiscate your equipment!
However, suburbs within the outskirts of big cities are not “active filming areas”, therefore, formal permits and protections don’t seem as important.
Your producer should plan the film with locations in his/her mind. So, the first step is to determine if you are in an “active filming area”. Next, assess which tips might apply to you.
Other than location scouting there are many other steps that must be completed before the shooting can begin. To keep your production in order, we strongly advise using a production management tool (i.e https://www.studiobinder.com, etc.).
As you go scouting, make sure to save all your contact information and locations on the contact page of your management software. All the major web-based production management platforms allow you to create location checklists, shot lists, production calendars, and scheduling.
Each location has its own logistical considerations. These are the top questions you should ask yourself:
– is this the right location?
– are you able to control the location?
– is there a lot of noise from nearby highways or airplanes?
– do you have many visible trademarks or logos that could pose a problem in the production?
– are there the resources you require (e.g. Running water, toilets, power, crew parking, etc.)?
You can think of a film production on location as a mobile circus. A circus is a group of artists, vehicles, equipment, and assisting personnel setting up “The Big Top” on a field and then starting the performance. A circus might be present for many days or weeks while a film production may only be there for a day. It is important to set up this “tent” as soon as possible. Here’s a step-by-step guide for starting a shoot without any hassle.
6.2 Scouting with people you know
Always begin your location scouting by looking at the contacts of your production. Are you aware of anyone who has access to a location for filming that could suit your production? It’s more likely that you will get a positive response or at least a conversation from people you know than those you don’t.
Most people don’t know what is involved in the planning of a film shoot. So, your producer should explain to the owners of the location where you plan your shoot, what it means to film on their land.
This could be the first time your host has seen video production. It can seem overwhelming. Many people don’t expect a film production to take place in the manner it does.
If your studio doesn’t have any connections, you can find a database of location scouts that allows you to filter by countries and cities (https://www.locationshub.com, https://www.needafixer.com), production type, and cost.
6.3 The most important is the story
When searching for locations to shoot, the most important thing to remember is the story.
Make sure the location is appropriate for the scene. Location scouting is a great way to support the story and help it grow. Before you scout the location, ensure that the script is read by your location scout as well as all department heads. Is the site consistent with the vision of the film director? Is it in conflict with the visual elements?
Do not get so caught up in location scouting to secure a site, that you forget about the story.
Don’t be tempted by available resources. Maybe your relative has a vacation house he would be willing to lend you. But if his house is painted in pink and you are shooting a film about a criminal gang, it may not work. It doesn’t matter if this barbie house is free.
You can choose to turn it down or modify the story to suit the situation. You should not change the location in order to make it work for your story. Although this is a common Hollywood trick, it’s not practical for a small-budget film.
Make sure that a location of your choice has clear images on the location scout site. If there have been any changes since the last update, you should check them with the host.
6.4 Shoot the entire project in one location
Planning a film shoot in as few locations as possible is important. It is actually a good idea to shoot your entire project in one location.
Find locations that can be doubled for filming. It can be difficult in certain cases but it is worth your time. Such a location will limit the crews’ movements and makes the video production process more efficient.
On one of my shoots, two sets were required to produce a short film that I produced. It was a blessing to have a location that allowed us to film in a room with different walls. The colors and texture of the walls suggested different locations. We could then shoot one scene against one wall and then flip the camera around to capture the second scene with a different wall.
It makes logistics so much easier when scheduling your shoots and budget. Your production management tools (i.e. Studiobinder) will help you organize your scenes on a stripboard, so you can quickly assign your locations. Drag and drop each strip in order to plan the best schedule and work within your budget. Usually, it is a good idea to shoot as many scenes in the same place.
6.5 Keep in mind your crew’s needs
There are many factors to consider when it comes to location requirements. To ensure you don’t forget any crucial logistical details, you might want to have a checklist handy when you go to scout locations.
It is important to understand how to plan a movie within your local limitations. You must first anticipate the effects on your production and then adjust your budget, schedule, and crew accordingly.
6.6 Script breakdown is crucial
A script breakdown will give you all the necessary elements to get your shoot started. This includes all the actors, set dressings, and props required for each scene. An extensive breakdown report will be helpful in preparing you for location scouting.
These reports can be generated using film management software. It will automatically build the reports if you tag elements in your script.
Filmmakers don’t have to pick up a variety of sharpies or colored pens, highlight, and scribble by hand. Production planning is now a modern art form.
It allows you to easily determine what you will need at a certain location. This includes everything from set dressing to the equipment needed.
This will give you a list of requirements for each location. You can then discuss them with the owner(s) to make sure that the location in question will fulfill your requirements.
It can be difficult to find good locations without paying a fee, even if you are not in a major filming area. It is tempting to accept a location for free, but don’t! Always pay for what you can.
You can offer something if you are unable to pay for the location. Ask the owner if you can offer publicity, such as social media posts that feature your production at their location. Or consider offering your services, such as cleaning the location once a week, etc.
Your production will now depend on your agreement with the owner. What you certainly don’t want is for the owner to cancel the deal in the middle of your shooting.
Placement of product
It is a common practice, but I advise filmmakers to be cautious with brand and product placement agreements.
Let’s say, you speak to a cafe owner and ask him about filming a scene. He could ask you to include the cafe’s name in your film. You could even add an establishing shot to the scene! No problem, right? However, what if the cafe scene is cut completely from your film? As per the verbal agreement, the establishing shot was your “payment” to the owner of the site. What are you going to do to deliver that “payment” now?
Location owners can use brand placement deals to reduce location fees, particularly if they are not in a major filming area. However, they can put you into an awkward situation when it is time to integrate those brands into the final cut.
People don’t get the message that your short film will not make them famous if you offer it. They might be disappointed if they aren’t listed on the town’s “film locations tour” after your film is uploaded to video platforms.
Filmmakers wll find it increasingly difficult to secure a production if they fail to please enough location owners. This is why major filming areas, particularly in capital cities, have high prices for locations.
6.8 Set your agreement etched in stone
No matter if the owner of the location is a friend or not, you must lock in your filming location by signing your film location release form. It is important to understand the terms of this form and get help from a Location Manager if needed.
The location release form outlines the terms of your agreement with the owner. This helps everyone stay on the same page regarding your schedule and how you will be operating on the premises. The form will also give you permission to represent the location in your film as you consider it correct or appropriate to do it.
A signed release form from the location is a better way to ensure that your production doesn’t get stopped by worried or uneasy owners.
6.9 Got your permission?
Filming permits could easily be the subject of a book. These permits can be costly and the rules may vary from one place to another.
Los Angeles requires that you have a permit to film indoors and outdoors. FilmLA can charge you at most a few hundred.
Santa Monica is a few miles away and the rules are different if your entire production is kept in a private area. You don’t need to have a permit as long as there are no trucks parked on the street and your equipment isn’t blocking anything.
In Riverside County, just east of LA, most filming requires a permit. However, they are free! The county may also waive the location fee if you are filming on its property.
Two productions located just a few miles apart may have to meet very different permit requirements. You should apply for a filming permit as soon as possible. FilmLA usually turns permits around in Los Angeles within a few days, assuming that there aren’t any complications. But not all permitting authorities are fast.
“Run and gun” shooting
Filmmaking using the “guerilla” or “Run and Gun” style is possible without the need for any paperwork or preparation. However, you will have to adhere to the following rules:
– limit your footprint of production: bring as few people as possible to the site,
– don’t use water or power,
– don’t use lights or set down a tripod,
– don’t delay: get the shots you need and keep moving,
– don’t break any property, don’t mark anything,
– when you leave, take out your trash.
Admit what you are doing if you are approached by the authorities. Don’t play fools and make excuses. This is the price you have to pay to risk a “run and gun shoot”.
Where possible, apply for a permit to film in the area you are filming. In case of being kicked out, plan to have backup locations.
This is not the best way to film anything. If you can, you should avoid it!
Filming locations are a key element in setting the tone for your production. If you follow the right steps, your story, budget, and production will be fulfilled.
Take your time when you are doing location scouting and evaluate your options carefully. Pre-production is a time when you have to make big decisions.
When you start location scouting, keep the checklist close at hand. Consider how to secure the locations once you have found them. These steps will help you get closer to production on day one.
6.10 Imagine the shots
When you are location scouting, think about what the camera can see. There are certain visual questions that you should ask:
What will we see within the frame?
What is your shooting range?
Do you want to shoot into a corner or do you need full coverage?
Do you see all the important establishing elements in one frame?
Is it possible to create a frame that has the right background?
What effort is required to make the space work for you?
Are there commercially-owned properties in the shots that require clearance?
If the location is not perfect, will your effort to make it better be worth it? If it is not, move to another location.
Check first if you have enough indoor space. Are you able to position the lights, boom, camera, other equipment, and crew far enough from the actors, so that the desired frame can be captured?
If you have to shoot an evening scene indoors during the day, make sure to choose a darkened room. If you don’t have the extra money to black out windows, give your assistants more time.
The sun’s effects on your location will vary over the course of the day, so if you found a perfect place in the morning, you will have to consider what it will look like in the afternoon.
Every object within your set that shouldn’t be in your frame has to be removed, otherwise check with your VFX team if they are able to remove these objects in post-production.
6.11 Take the sound into account
It is easy to forget about the importance of location scouting for sound, but it may ultimately make up about 50% of your project.
Listen carefully to any unusual noises when you are tech scouting the location. A smooth shoot requires that you can record clear dialogues. Below are some of the most frequent ‘offenders’.
Air-conditioners and refrigerators
Sometimes, you can do some post-production cleanup to improve your sound. However, it won’t be as good as having a clean sound during production.
White noise appliances such as HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Heating) and refrigerators are the biggest killers of clean sounds. These appliances should be considered when you are location scouting.
These are some items to consider when tech-scouting your area:
Find out how to turn off all noise sources.
You must have permission from the owner to do this.
Be sure to not shut down sound sources that could cause damage to other systems.
Do not believe anyone who says you can do it. It’s best to test it before the shoot.
Air conditioners don’t always turn on or off immediately. You can flip switches to see how long before they go silent.
You should consult your sound department if you are shooting in large, reverberant rooms. They may need additional time to dampen it. It is easy to add reverberation in post-production. But it’s not easy to take it away.
If it is difficult to resolve, you might consider shooting close-ups in a smaller area.
6.12 Consider your surroundings
Once our crew scouted a location. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon and everything looked great. But the situation was quite different when our crew arrived to shoot at this location on a weekday. We could only hear the construction noise from the nearby industrial site. Not a great environment for recording clean dialogues.
If we had been more mindful of our surroundings during the tech scout, it could have prevented this whole mess. Also, remember to consider the time and day of your shoots as well as changing sound conditions.
When location scouting, be mindful of your surroundings. Walking around your neighborhood on the day and time you intend to shoot is the best thing.
Also, Google Maps is a great tool for planning tech scouts. Zoom in on the map to see the entire neighborhood. Next, check out the buildings around your site.
Are there busy roads, construction sites, schools, train stations or airports? Identify any other areas with human and/or vehicle traffic that can impact your shoot.
The Street View function in Google Maps, where available, will allow you to see it all over again. You can digitally “walk around the block” looking for any potential problems. Make a note of anything that may affect your shooting.
All parts of the Earth are affected by aircraft noises to a different extent.
Check to see if your nearest airport(s) have a system for tracking flight patterns.
It can be difficult to find locations that are safe from airplane noise because flight paths may change by the hour. Some airports will have historical data, so you should review them to assess a possible impact on your shoot.
Consider underground subway noise when looking at urban shooting locations.
Space for filming equipment and crew
It’s easy to get excited about a place that will work for your story and forget all of the gear needed to get there. Filmmaking is a complicated task.
Before you can set up, you will need to plan where everything will be placed on site. You will waste valuable shooting time when attempting to solve space problems that could have been resolved earlier.
When you are doing location scouting, ensure that you have an area for all these items: production office, talent staging, sound staging, parking for the crew, hair/makeup, wardrobe staging / changing areas, camera staging, art department trucks/staging, electric equipment, catering equipment.
Be aware of any special equipment or items that are part of the production, such as cranes, jibs, armory, or pyrotechnics.
You don’t want anything to go unnoticed. Review the location scouting checklist in the following section and bring it with you when tech scouting your locations.
Actors need to be able to concentrate on their own space. Actors, who are distracted, can’t focus or memorize lines. The film will suffer if they are not able to reach the emotional state required for their work.
Location scouts know that they have to provide privacy and a separate bathroom for SAG-AFTRA performers.
Also, keep an eye on where each actor is placed. Do they need their own rooms? Is there a “Star Wagon” that you will be parking nearby?
You need to have enough space for everything in your shooting location.
When location scouting, ensure there is sufficient parking for the crew, cast, trailers, production vehicles, and other equipment. It is possible that this will not be an issue your film location scouts will take into consideration.
You should comply with local laws and permits. Some councils do not allow street parking in residential areas for large crews.
Weather is beyond your control, despite your organizational skills. Even small changes in geography can make a huge difference. Avoid valley hotspots and precipitation pockets at the sides of mountains whenever possible.
Many big cities are known for their microclimate variations. Temperatures can vary by up to 20 degrees between sites located just a few kilometers apart.
Weather is important, even if you are shooting indoors. Think about the effects of rain and wind on sound and available light. If a storm strikes, your location can become a rain amplifier that will ruin your sound. Wind-blowing trees outside can be distracting.
Shooting locations websites and apps
There are websites and apps that will help your manager scout for the right shooting locations for your film.
SetScouter, which was recently acquired by Wrapal, allows users to search for vetted locations. You can filter your search by keywords, rooms, and size, as well as pricing. Just like on Airbnb, you can also get and receive reviews to improve your reputation for future bookings.
6.13 Keep your power under control
Here’s a situation that is all too familiar: Your film location scout will send you a message: “I found a perfect location. There are outlets everywhere!”. He gives the green light for this site in the location tech scouting checklist. On the day of shooting, however, you will notice that the breakers turn every time the lights are turned on.
It is not enough to check for outlets. These are some power considerations you should be aware of:
Look for outlets. Find out how many outlets you have and where they are located.
The circuit breaker box is worth a look. You must ensure that there is enough power for your lights, cameras, sound, hair, makeup, and local production offices.
Label outlets and breakers before the shoot. It is not a good idea to try to figure out which breaker controls which outlet during a shoot.
If you notice any potential problem, discuss your production requirements with your electrician. He will need to ensure that the outlets are grounded properly and there will be no surprises on your shoot day. I personally know experienced location scouts who visit potential locations with an outlet tester to verify that the wiring is correct.
You and your manager shot have access to the circuit breakers during the shoot. The worst thing that can happen is having to call the location owner to find out how to access a locked circuit breaker box. You may also need to access the box in order to turn off the HVAC or other appliances.
You can use separate circuits for certain departments. Consult with your electrician to see if there will be any special electrical requirements for these departments on the shoot day. The most frequent power problem occurs when your hairdresser and makeup artist(s) use the same power line with your lights.
6.14 Confirm your access to site facilities
After a fantastic start, you may encounter the following situation. The set has thirty cast members and crew, and they are all heading toward the only toilet at the site. The line of five turns into twenty and you realize that you and your manager will be spending the rest of the shoot organizing everyone’s bathroom breaks.
Aim for shooting locations with at least one toilet per twenty people. Your manager should also ensure that you have access to water, gas, and other plumbing shutoffs in an emergency.
6.15 Secure location contract
Most likely, your film location scout uses a release form to secure your locations. These forms should be approved by you and signed. Where possible, they should include an option to extend time on location. It is better to be prepared for unexpected circumstances.
Make sure that the conditions of your insurance cover the location. The location owners will often request an insurance certificate to be certain that their property will be insured.
6.16 Fill in your Location Scout Checklist
A location scout will help you make the job easier and give you multiple options for each location.
It is your responsibility to evaluate the potential locations and then visit the site in person to determine the best location for you and your production needs.
Download the Location Tech Scouting Checklist to double-check that your location meets all logistical requirements.
Narrative: Does the site meet the requirements of the scene and suit the director’s storyline?
Mistiming: Does the site fit the story and the time period?
Wide Shot Test: Can a large frame be acceptable? Are there any problematic visual elements within the frame?
Indoor staging: Do your crew, cast, and gear fit in the space? Any special production design needs?
Sunlight: Are there any considerations regarding sunlight? What time is it? Noon? Afternoon? Evening?
360 Test: Is there any questionable direction that should be avoided?
Clearance for Commercial Use: Are there properties that need commercial clearance?
VFX Requirements: Any objects will need to be removed or added in post-production?
HVAC: Are switches for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning units accessible?
Refrigerators: Are there any refrigerators or other noisy appliances that will be required to be turned off?
Reverberation: Can clean dialogues be recorded? Will echoes need to be reduced?
Roads and Traffic: Are there any traffic issues? Are pedestrians or vehicles causing noise or other continuity problems?
Schools: What is the impact of schoolyard noise? Will students be entering or leaving school during the shoot?
Playgrounds: How will sports noise or playground noise affect sound? Children will be allowed to play in the frame?
Factories/Warehouses: What noise is generated by machinery or vehicles in this area? Are there any road issues?
Fuel Stations: Are there traffic noise or continuity issues?
Post Office: Will trucks and moving vehicles be a problem?
Train Stations: Can train traffic to interfere with sound? Are trains going to appear in the frame of view?
Train tracks: Will trains interfere with sound? Are trains likely to appear in the frame?
Air Traffic: Is there any significant air traffic overhead? Is it likely to impact production sound?
Airports: Can noise from aircraft or other activities affect the sound?
Subway: Can subway noise impact the production of sound?
Boat traffic: Can you hear loud horns or engine noises? Will they be visible in the frame?
Staging Talent: Is there a quiet area for talent? Separate bathrooms?
Parking: Are there enough parking spaces for crew members, talent, and production vehicles? Will a permit be required?
Are there enough accessible outlets? How many? What areas?
Access to Breakers: Do the electricians have access to the circuit breaker box?
Breaker isolation: How many circuits are there? What rating do they have? Is the entire system rated?
Hair & Make-up isolation: Is there a space and breaker specifically for Hair & Makeup department?
Isolation of Breakers for Others: Are there any other departments that require isolated breakers?
Bathrooms-to-Person Ratio: How many persons are on site per bathroom?
Water shutoff access: Is there access to the water shutoff in an emergency?
Gas shutoff access: Is there access to the gas shutoff in an emergency?
Contract signed: Did the owner of the property sign a contract?
Insurance / Liability: Does the insurance policy cover this site?
Contingency plans: Does the contract allow the hire dates to be changed or extended?
Temperature: Is the temperature too high or too low? Can the temperature be controlled?
Rain/Snow: Can precipitation have an impact on the shoot?
Indoor Impacts: Can sound from rain have an impact on the shoot?