Location Scouting for Filmmaking: A Basic Guide

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Most of the time with small-budget pieces, shooting on location is a necessity, and all too often the choice of location is made from among what is available. I know the feeling well, although I’ve had a few instances where that restriction benefited the production. For example, I once used the subway tunnel walkway under 14th Street, in Manhattan, to shoot the POV of a patient for a medical commercial. Another time, I shot an entire scene on 35mm film using the light bouncing from a window on a building across the street from outside the location to create a silhouette. It was a very short work day, since we only had an hour or so from load-in to shooting the master shot.

However, the most important reason to shoot on location, as opposed to on a set, is that the location matches closely what the script calls for and will be less expensive than building it yourself. For example, in the reboot of Star Trek, instead of building a massive engine room, the producers shot those scenes on location at a large-scale brewery. On the other hand, for The Empire Strikes Back, the scenes on Dagobah were shot on a sound stage. This choice was probably made because flying the cast and crew to shoot on Dagobah would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention the centuries it would take to get there and back. Remember that Mark Hamill had a commitment to play Conrad in The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, in 1981, so that would have posed a conflict.

However, for most of us, shooting on location is often the only choice we have to get that tenement feeling for our film about the struggling, soon-to-be superstar. So, finding a location that requires as little set dressing as possible becomes important. Hiring a good art director to get your location all the way there is a good start, and don’t be afraid of painting the location (just get permission, and paint it back when you are finished).

What kind of scout?

There are two basic kinds of scouts: there is the location scout, and then later, a tech scout. 

Location, location, location

Although there are no fixed rules regarding what a location scout is, you are really scouting different spaces to see which fits your script best and will provide you with the most cinematic opportunities. Sometimes you will start by looking at location options from a book, with pictures of locations, before doing a physical scout. Those who work as location scouts are always taking pictures anywhere they go and, if you are a filmmaker, it isn’t a bad idea to grab a few snaps of any particularly interesting location you stumble upon. Just remember to record where it is so you can find it again. Once you’ve made your selections, it is time to check them out in person. 

This trip tends to include the Director, a Location Manager—if you have one—plus the DP and Production Designer. Your Sound Designer (Recordist) is going to want to come along. Your AD will probably want input, as well, and can be a valuable addition to the scout if they are available. Each person is looking at the space from an aesthetic standpoint as it relates to their job, with a nod to technical considerations. Is it a big open location, just what is called for in the script? Great, except that the shot of a beautiful vista looking out over the park for your romantic drama isn’t going to happen at this location because of the brick wall with a neon sign just outside the window. Maybe for your crime film it might be a better location? 

Remember to do your location scout during the same time of day that you plan to shoot there, no matter what the time of day it is in the film, especially if you are combining your location and tech scout together. For example, your location may be fine during the day for long dialog scenes, but perhaps it is above a bar that hosts rock and roll bands at night, the time you plan to be shooting. Good luck recording dialog then!

Tech scout

The tech scout involves your DP, Gaffer, Grip, Sound Recordist, and AD, if available. The grip/electric crew will be concerned with power availability and distribution, as well as staging and storing any equipment and dealing with windows and how to manage creaking floors during dolly moves. The Sound Recordist will be concerned with the environment and where stray sound may come from. It is a good idea to check for proximity to airports or highways. The AD will be planning the shoot day. As previously mentioned, if you don’t have the luxury of doing a separate location and tech scout, you are going to have to combine them into one.

What to bring

Remember to bring a camera and take lots of pictures of the location so you can share and reference them. Bringing a tape measure couldn’t hurt. You need not bring any of your actors—just a few bodies who can stand in for your actors if you have some specific blocking to test.

Technical considerations when scouting

Sun position  You may think this is only important for exteriors, but I’ve used reflected sunlight bouncing from one building to light a beautiful silhouette inside a hallway. It was risky, but worth it. Sun-tracking software or apps are a good investment.

Access/transportation  How are you getting your cast, crew, and equipment to and from your location?

Holding  This is often overlooked, but it is actually pretty important because actors tend to like peace and quiet. The noise on a set can really knock actors off their game. Plus, if you are going to have some extras, it is better that they be off set and not underfoot while you are setting up your shot.

Staging  Where are you putting your equipment? Once you’ve got your gear in the location, is there a place to stage it so that it is easy to access, yet not in the way? If you have to store it outside the location, you are going to need to hire a PA for the mind-numbing task of watching the gear so none of it walks away.

Power  Will you have enough power for everything you need? Besides lighting, the Hair and Makeup departments tend to draw quite a bit of power, especially for hair dryers. It used to be that the AD department would bring a portable copier, but nowadays there is a plethora of laptops and a printer.

Sound  Are you in the path of an airport? Are there freight trains that rumble by every 15 minutes? Is a rock and roll band going to be playing downstairs while you are shooting? What about the room sound—how is the reflectivity; are there any compressors that are going to be starting up (this happens all the time when shooting in bars)?

Bathrooms  It is extremely important to figure out the bathroom situation when scouting exterior locations—EXTREMELY IMPORTANT.

There is always something new to think about when location scouting, something that has never been an issue before. I hope this article helps get you started. Please feel free to share any of your own suggestions and experiences in the Comments section, below. 

5 Comments

nice, but why not to recomend apps that help, like Celtx Scout ...

Hi Ferzinho, thanks for the comment. Truth be told, I am only comfortable with recommending things I'm familiar with, and as an AC, gaffer, D.P. and Director I haven't used a lot of location software. I wanted the article to cover some of the situations that come up when location scouting, a basic what to look for and look out for when scouting. Things that have bitten me, and I've seen get other filmmakers. There is a tremendous amount of software out there for tracking sun position, planning travel routes, even pre-viz software that can tell you if the gear you are planning to use will physically fit in your location when making that shot. But that is outside the scope of this article, although perhaps worth a follow up.

Thanks for your comment, I appreciate the feedback.  Best

Great breakdown Steven. I would check out this tech scout checklist which helps identify logistical concerns when scouting :) https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/downloads/location-scouting-checklist/

you can added some note for the location scouting, parking area, a place for your genset (because its very noisy), and if you shooting in Indonesia, you have to give some money for civilian area. they are very important to save your movie making :D

I would agree that the most important point from above is scouting the location at the same time you plan on filming for the unplanned rock bands and location of sun that you mentioned. I would also add that while you are taking pictures, you might as well take video too. You never know what B-Roll you might get and I found it very helpful when I was running out of footage choices for my final edit of the film.

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