Pre-production is very important to any movie, and a location scout’s job is one of the more important parts of the pre-production process. Before you head out for your shoot, you need to know where you’re going and what to expect when you get there. This is exactly the responsibility of the location scout.
Although you won’t need to go to a special school or take any college courses to become a location scout, you will need a very specific skill set to do the job well.
1. Carry a Notebook
The first skill that you will need is an acute attention to detail. The best location scouts take notes almost everywhere they go, whether they are there for work or even on a family vacation. Carry a notebook, pen or pencil and a camera — a cell phone camera will suffice — wherever you go. Take notes of where the location is, the approximate size and take pictures from multiple angles, as you never know what you may need the location for in the future (note: Videomaker does not recommend taking pictures and measurements inside of – or anywhere near – secret or restricted government locations). Take notes of nighttime locations, too, whether they are in an office building or a nightclub or even in a field. Just as a casting director wants to keep as many actors in her notebook as possible, the location manager wants to keep her notebook filled with different locations, both indoors and out, replete with pictures, camera angles and approximate dimensions. Also, get the information on the owner of the venue or their representative. It won’t do you any good to have the information on a location if there’s no way to reach the people who could rent it to you.
2. Get Ready to Negotiate
Negotiation skills are mandatory! Once you’re hired to be a location manager, you will need a copy of the script and the budget. Read through the script and go over these items with the producer and the assistant director because you want to make sure that everyone’s on the same page. Discuss camera angles at this point; the reason will be explained shortly. You’ll want to know what the budget is for each location and the details of what must be included in the rental of the space. As the location manager, it will be your job to negotiate with the venue’s management — after you get approval from the producer; this is why good negotiation skills are also requisite. You’ll want to get the best price that you can for each place; after all, you’ll want the producers to use your services again and recommend you to their friends. You’ll also need to know when to walk away from the table and look elsewhere. Once you have agreed to the price, it’s time for you – yes, you – to sign the contract. Be sure that all details are in the contract:
- Dates and times of shoot
- Payment amount and when it will be paid
- Do your best to avoid extra fees, such as overtime fees and cleaning fees, although it is your job to make sure that the venue is at least as clean as it was when you first arrived.
Don’t forget to figure in the cost of permits when making offers.
3. Secure Permits
Make sure that you get permission from the location to do some pre-shoot scouting. In a permit-obsessed state or municipality, make sure that it is clear that you won’t be filming on that day, just scouting. This may sound like crazy advice, but at least one production that I know was hit with an extra bill because their location manager was at the location a week before the shoot to take photographs and make sure that everything was in order. Do your best to know the time of day that you’re going to shoot at each location and ask yourself if the light is appropriate for your needs. Of course, getting precise with this information is impossible; shoots can spend an entire day in one location.
Make sure that you are legally allowed to be shooting in an area before you sign any contracts.
You will also need to check with municipality for permits, police, and EMT requirements. If you need to close off a street, you will need to talk with the police or local government officials about having them cordon off the area during your shoot. This is called a “neighborhood lockdown.” Make sure that you are legally allowed to be shooting in an area before you sign any contracts. Local and state film offices can also assist you with these issues. Try to maintain a list of film offices that you plan to work with and the people who work in them. The IFTA’s website, www.locationexpo.com and the Creative Handbook are also resources for this information.
4. Be Prepared to Deal with the Public
Once you’ve received permission, you’ll want to canvass the neighborhood, handing out fliers and inserting them into neighbors’ mailboxes in time to let them make any necessary plans. Although some people are incorrigible, the fact that a permit has already been legally obtained will prevent most others from making an issue of it. Besides, people often love to watch movie shoots in their neighborhoods and tell their friends how their ‘hood is going to be in a movie. There will be times, however, when the elderly neighborhood cat lady gets her panties in a ruffle about the shooting schedule — and it will always just happen to be the day she needs the streets cleared as her aides are supposed to get her to the rheumatologist. Here’s a hint for that one-in-a-hundred meanie: show her the fine craft services truck and let her enjoy a tasty treat from it.
5. Revisit the Venue with the Shoot in Mind
Be sure to revisit each venue at least a few days in advance. Whenever possible, visit at the time of day that filming will take place. This will ensure that ambient light will be the same as it will on the day of the shoot. This holds true for indoor shoots, as well as outdoor shoots — unless you’re going to be shooting in a dungeon that has absolutely no windows — even if you’re going to put gels over the windows.
Bring a camera with a full battery – and flash if shooting in a darker location! This can’t be stressed enough. Take copious pictures and do your best to get photos from the location where the video camera will be shooting from. After the pre-shoot inspection tour is over, print the pictures at full resolution and go over them with the assistant director.
You’ll also want to bring a light meter – and your trusty notebook. Take light readings from the location(s) where the actors will be. This is another reason why you want to be at the location at approximately the same time of day that the filming should take place. Write your readings down in your notebook and be specific. You don’t want to show up on the day of the shoot and not be able to understand your own notes.
While you're scoping out the venue in advance, you absolutely must check for sufficient power. If you’re not using a soundstage or a factory, then most likely the location will have insufficient power and you’ll need to order a truck to bring the power. In fact, if you’re shooting at any residential location, you can start working on ordering that van right now. Also, you’ll want to make sure that the truck has an accessible place to park that is close enough to run cables but far enough that the generator won’t be heard in the shot. Parking is also to be taken into consideration, not only for the gaffer equipment, but there needs to be sufficient parking for cast, crew and gear vans/trucks. Make sure that the location has room for you to set up a Video Village, too.
And on that note, listen for sounds. Listen for echoes, ambient sounds, such as crickets and other wildlife. Bring a recorder or set your phone or digital camera to video so that you can go back and listen to the sounds in the quiet of your den. Go over any problem sounds with the location sound people and see what can be worked out before the shoot. Don’t leave anything to chance on shoot day, because that would be a very expensive mistake!
Location scouting really is a lot of fun. You basically get to shop with other people’s money, negotiate contracts and get to travel quite a bit!
Tina Hoffman is a producer and location scout for Never Say Cut Productions. She can be reached at Tina@NeverSayCut.com and she works for a director who thinks he’s Stanley Kubrick.