(Article published in StudentFilmmakers Magazine. Above photo from the film, “Skimmers.”)
The Art of Location Scouting
Look, Access, Schedule and Control
By John Klein
Location scouting is an often-overlooked aspect of micro-budget filmmaking. Filmmakers are content to rely on either their own apartments or their friends’ houses or that bar down the street that your cousin’s former roommate owns. And hey, if it works out, great! But too often, you’re walking into a situation you can’t control, without any regard for the aesthetics of the space or the power distribution or where the windows are or if the location has bathrooms nearby. (Seriously.) It’s available, so you got it.
But if you want your film to stand out, especially when you don’t have the money to spend to build the set or trick it out with all sorts of production design and lighting, odds are you’ll have to do some location scouting, even if you may have written the script with a specific location in mind.
That means looking for answers to a variety of questions, each centered around one of four variables: look, access, schedule, and control.
Does this location match the feel of the film? Are the colors and textures right? Are there logos or artwork on the walls we may have to remove? Is it a large enough space or does it look like an 8×8’ room? Does the money still show up on the screen (i.e. does it look like the film cost a million bucks)? Where CAN’T you look?
Where can we park? How do we get into the space? If it’s a building, are there elevators, or will you be hauling gear up several flights of stairs? Does the elevator run on Sundays? Are there extra fees involved? What’s traffic like at the times you need the location? Are there enough “staging areas” – places where you can store your gear or feed your crew – or will you run afoul of other people who use the space?
When is it available, and for how long? Are they only available on weekends from 2-5pm? Is the owner or manager flexible with your needs and understanding of how filming schedules can change? Can you get in the night before to drop off any gear or props?
What direction is the sun coming from? Can you black out the windows? Are all the chairs nailed to the ground? Is there a Pee Wee football game across the field that will cause sound issues? How many outlets are there, and where and how many lights can you safely plug in?
This is where the art of the compromise comes in. You may have the perfect restaurant location, but it’s only available for a very short window in the morning or costs several thousand dollars to rent; by contrast, your friend’s restaurant may give you unfettered access, but it doesn’t quite have that high-end feel your characters or story demand. It’s up to you to decide which is more important by the end, but that’s why it pays to scout as many locations as possible and give yourself multiple options!
Other tips to maximize your efforts when location scouting:
- Create a lookbook before going in, so you know what you’re looking for. You can always adapt, but better to plan and change your mind than rely solely on instinct.
- Take pictures, both wide and close, from every angle. Use cloud-based apps like Dropbox or Google Drive to sort them by address and scene.
- Have production insurance. It may not be cheap, but even basic liability insurance will open so many doors for your film, and it’s also the right thing to do for your company and crew.
- Bring your cinematographer, production designer, and your sound mixer along. They’re looking for things you may not notice on first glance or at all, and the tech scout (when key crew survey the location for more specific needs) may be too late to fix it.
- When you’re pitching your project to the location, try to find ways in which your production can help out that business. If it’s a bar, say you’ll hold a screening there or that you’ll plug them on your social media feed. If it’s an office, maybe volunteer to take stills of their space. Bartering is a time-honored part of low-budget filmmaking.
There’s a real art to location scouting; a whole part of production on larger sets is dedicated to location scouts and managers. But in the micro-budget world, it may be just you and your wits. The right location can sell your movie. It can elevate every aspect of your film’s world, from the cinematography to the production design to your actors’ performances. So make sure you give location scouting the time it deserves!
John Klein (www.windycitycamera.com) is a director, cinematographer, and producer in Chicago. His directorial work includes the award-winning short horror film, “Cry It Out,” and the feature films, “Happily After” and “Chrysalis”, and he’s lensed projects of all shapes and sizes, from the micro-budget web series, “Young Couple” to the Lifetime movie, “Nightlights”. He also teaches film production at DePaul University and Flashpoint Chicago.