You have heard that they key to success in retail, and real estate is your location. Well a lot of the same can be said for filmmaking. There is no substitute for a great location. Unfortunately many great locations never live up to their full potential on screen due to a poor location scout. In fact, it is amazing to me how many people don’t scout locations at all.
I feel pretty strongly that in order to execute a script, design camera blocking, execute lighting, and spec gear packages, you must have at least a basic understanding of where you will be shooting. Now obviously some shoots require much less scouting than others, and it is up to you to decide how much time investment is warranted. However, as a general rule of thumb most people fall to the side of being under prepared in location scouting. Investing just a little bit of time and energy on the front end will pay off dividends on the shoot day. So grab your backpack with the items below and lets hit the road!
Items You’ll Need:
* Notebook and Pencil
* Graph Paper (For room layouts)
* Compass (For plotting sun paths)
* Digital Camera
* Tape Measure (Laser tapes are great options)
* Directors Viewfinder (To experiment with lens choice)
In reality different departments would be responsible for different areas of scouting depending on the size of the production. For example your gaffer or electrician would be more likely check electrical and circuits, as well as load in and out points. Your Assistant Director or Unit Production Manager would perhaps want to find out about bathroom locations and staging areas to use for green rooms etc. In this article I’ll treat the scout as a smaller production where the Director and DP will be handling most of the work themselves. So you have arrived at your first location, where do you start? For the sake of simplicity we will refer to locations as independent geographic locations. (Example: Warehouse, Restaurant) We will refer to smaller areas within the same location as spaces. (Office, Loading Dock, etc…)
First and foremost remember that you are on any location by the good graces of the owner, it is their home, or business, and you are the guest. Keep that in the forefront of your mind while you work. Treating their property and the people around you politely and with respect will help ensure a welcome return for your next project. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t ask to inconvenience them, and certainly don’t be afraid to do what you need to make the shoot successful just do it respectfully.
One of the first things after arriving on location I like to do is introduce myself to the manager or owner of the facility. Get all of their contact information, as well as alternate contact information. At this point I also like to check and see if there is a building engineer, or head of maintenance in charge of the facility. Get direct phone numbers, names, and a cell number if possible. This person can be an invaluable asset helping answer questions regarding electrical circuits, or maybe killing HVAC for sound. Having their direct contact information will make everything more efficient on the day of the shoot. I have a location scouting report that I keep for each location that has a few photos and all the contact information for both the owner, and building engineer. I also keep all the notes I make throughout the rest of the scout on this form.
When talking to the owner make sure and fully disclose your plan for shooting. Make sure and include anything you feel may be an inconvenience to them, or their customers if you are working at a business location. While it may be tempting to just show up and shoot, fully disclosing what your plans are isn’t just common courtesy. Full disclosure will help you and your production in the long run. If the owner has any problems with your strategy then it is best to discover that now. At this point there is still time to devise a new plan of attack or line up a new location. If you just show up and start doing something that the owner was unprepared for they may well shut you down. Not only is this costly with everyone already standing around waiting, its just plain unprofessional. Fully disclosing your plans ensures everyone is on board with your plan from the beginning.
Generally I prefer to start with the spaces I think I want to shoot in and begin working outward from there. So once you locate the room or space you want to work, start wide and move in. Start wide by taking photos 360 degrees, and don’t forget to shoot back behind you. You never know when you’ll need to shoot that way, or know what is back there. Several times in the past it is the one angle I need to shoot that I don’t have a photo of. Don’t forget to shoot the ceiling as well. It will help planning so you know what color it is. How it will reflect or absorb light? Are there any rigging points you can use? Are there any overhead light sources that may work as practicals? Make additional notes on all of these details on your scouting report.
At this time take rough measurements of the room. A laser tape works great for this, allowing you to quickly and easily rough in an entire room from one spot. Don’t forget to measure ceiling height and any potential bottlenecks for gear or rigging. Make notes of everything. As you measure make a quick overhead sketch of the space on your scouting report. Look out for any potential problem spots. Use your ears, listen carefully to your surroundings. Are there any noise issues for sound? How about high foot traffic areas that should to be controlled? Can they be controlled? Now is the time to ask and find out, not after your crew is standing around waiting only to be told, “I’m sorry but there is no way we can shut down this hallway, its simply to critical to our operation here.”
Once you have the big picture done, move into locating the general angles you would like to shoot. Take a few photos to get some ideas. If you will be shooting with a camera that uses prime lenses or removable lenses, you will want to get an idea of what glass you’ll need. Take your directors finder and rough out the range of angles and shots you think you might like. If you are a DP consult with your Director at this point about what he is looking for. Make good notes on what focal lengths will be needed or what restrictions the space may have.
Now is the time to make use of that contact information you received earlier from the building engineer. Ask him where the circuit breaker box for the space you are working in is located. He may even be able to help you trace circuits. Locate the breaker box and make notes of the breaker sizes, and circuit numbers for the space you will be working in. Optionally you can use a circuit tracer make a quick diagram of the wall outlets associated with the circuits in the box. This will help you know what your power draw can be and help keep your power evenly distributed. For smaller shoots with not much electrical requirements you can just overlook this step. I would still get an idea of the breaker layout for the room so you know what you have to work with. Always know where the breaker box is, tripping a breaker can be a real pain if you have to hunt down the box and flip the circuit. Taking a quick photo of the box will let you know which breakers they keep off and which ones you may have tripped. Accidentally resetting the power to an important piece of medical equipment is a mistake to be avoided. Additionally its a good idea to just quickly test outlets using an outlet tester just to ensure they are working properly. This is especially important when working in older buildings where power is somewhat unstable. A good rule of thumb is, “Never assume anything”, when it come to electrical this is especially true.
Working With The Sun
Take out your compass and get an east and west bearing for any rooms that have windows. This information will be helpful later when calculating optimal shooting times and lighting conditions. Take a bearing for any exteriors as well. Note all this information on the overhead layouts. This information will allow you to know when you are going to killed by the sun just raking through a window or when it might be acceptable to shoot in that space.
A Sound Idea
Also learn to develop an ear for potential audio problems, this especially important if you are not scouting without your sound engineer. Close your eyes, what do you hear? Is it excessive, if so can it be dealt with? Now is the time to find out, remember that maintenance guy’s number you wrote down? Why don’t we call him up and see if its possible to stop that exterior AC unit. If its not possible then we may have to consider another location. A larger part of location scouting is finding workable locations. Even though it may be the best location in the world, it isn’t worth the risk of blowing your day try to wrangle audio issues that weren’t taken into consideration during a scout.
Outside the Box
When working on exteriors all of the previous rules apply. Take photos starting wide, and work your way in. Especially important in exteriors, remember to take good compass readings as stated above. In an exterior environment pay very close attention to the background. Often times opening up the space and shooting in a wider exterior means you also risk uncontrollable variables. Do you need a way to limit foot traffic in your frame? How about vehicles? Ask yourself all of the same questions as before. On Exteriors I really like to play with my potential angles and my directors finder or digital camera. The nice thing about exteriors is that they open up your options to be able to move around. So make sure you move around and explore your options in the scouting process. Remember, the goal here is to prepare yourself for shooting. Take the time to gather enough information so that when you show up to shoot you can walk to a spot and start setting up. Don’t forget to factor in where the sun will be when you actually shoot. You may be scouting at 3:30pm in the afternoon but planning to be shooting at 9:00am in the morning. This will drastically change your lighting conditions. Use a software such as Sun Path or visit a website such as http://solardat.uoregon.edu/SunChartProgram.php to get the data for free. Armed with both the compass bearing and angle you can use of a compass and clinometer to figure out where the sun will actually be when you will be shooting. Another great tool for calculating sun position is your iPhone. You can use the Helios Sun Calculator and a 3Gs iPhone with a the magnetic compass to quickly and accurately calculate the future position of the sun’s bearing and azimuth.
Explore the Options
Unless you absolutely have no time, I rarely stop with scouting the pre-identified shooting spaces on a location scout. I like to just walk through the location and take photos of additional areas I like. You never know when you’ll find a better space than your original one. This process also allows you to log additional locations for further shoots. The biggest advantage is this gives you a backup plan for the shoot day if something unexpected comes up. You can pull from your secondary spaces if something ruins your plan for the original spaces. I once did a corporate shoot that I scouted additional rooms for. Sure enough I showed up a week later to shoot and they had booked the rooms I had originally scheduled to shoot. I immediately pulled my scouting reports with attached photos and selected three new spaces and secured them within 20 minutes saving my shoot. There is never such a thing as being over prepared. Think through weather possibilities as well when possible plan a cover set. A cover set is a location that you can shoot in if your exteriors get rained out or otherwise destroyed. What other interior options are there and how can you make them work?
If this shoot involves any size crew at all don’t forget the basics. Where are the closest restroom facilities? Where can the crew park? Identify the best staging areas for gear. Are they secure? What is the best way to load in and wrap out? How about a location release, surely you secured that right? Is there an area that be secured as a green room for talent and makeup?
If you just cannot justify the time for a location scout for a straightforward production, then may I suggest an alternative solution. If you just cant swing a scout then factor in a compressed scout at the head of your shooting day, just schedule it in. Take about 90 mins at the head of the day to familiarize yourself with the possibilities, electrical, sound issues, sun positions etc…Once you have accumulated your data sit down and make a game plan for the day. You can do this before your crew arrives that way when they get there you can issues marching orders and have everyone working at maximum efficiency. Again, this should not replace full location scout unless absolutely necessary. While there is some definite leg work involved in the scouting process, done correctly you will find yourself armed with a wealth of knowledge. Used properly this information will allow you to show up to shoot with game plan and ready to play ball.