Location Scouting: The Tricks of the Trade

Whenever you’re shooting outside the confined walls of a video studio, you’re shooting on location. And whenever you’re shooting on location, you must deal with site-specific circumstances – – circumstances of lighting, power, noise, people, furniture, pets or anything else that might help or hinder your video efforts.

That’s where location scouting comes in. Location scouting is the process of visiting a site before you shoot, and taking stock of all the conditions that might affect your shooting in order to prepare for potential problems or exploit the potential benefits of the site. It also involves the selection of locations when there’s a choice to be made between several sites.

Location scouting doesn’t have to be an elaborate process. It can be as simple as looking around, listening and jotting a few notes on paper. For both the weekend video hobbyist and the would-be professional videographer, this article will give hints and advice on the location scouting process. By the time you’re done reading it, you should have a clear idea of how to improve your own videos with these time-honored techniques.

Two Kinds of Locations

For video producers, there are two distinct types of locations, and the way we investigate them is necessarily different. The first type, the one we encounter most often, is the predetermined or fixed location: weddings, graduations, musical events and sports, for example. These events are held at places that have been picked by other people. Our job is to figure the best way to deal with existing conditions. We may be hampered by poor lighting, or helped by a great sound engineer. We may find ourselves backed into a corner behind the potted palm, or discover someone has removed a whole section of chairs for our convenience. But knowing what to expect is where location planning pays off.

The second type of location is the one we choose ourselves to create a certain aesthetic look, or to meet some dramatic requirement. For this type of location shooting, there will often be a story to be told–possibly a drama or a documentary. Our job in this case will be to find places that will work to convey the mood and look we require.

Let’s first consider the fixed location: assume we know a couple that would like to have their wedding videotaped. They ask their wedding coordinator, Elaine, to call Jim, a local freelance videographer, about doing the job. Although we’ll be using a professional video producer for our example, the procedures outlined below are equally valid for an amateur–a friend who wants to videotape an event, for example.

Jim and Elaine talk and he assures her that he is capable of such an undertaking. Since Elaine is in charge of many of the festivities, she becomes his contact person. It is important to find a contact person right away. Your conversations will be more informative when you talk to the same person each time. Jim first asks for a schedule, along with the location, date and time of day.

While looking over the schedule, Jim notes that a rehearsal and fully-programmed dinner party are planned. He realizes that being on hand for these events will add greatly to the finished tape. He marks these dates and times on his calendar also. The schedule tells Jim the wedding will occur on a Saturday at 4:30 pm and will be held outdoors at a country club. He wonders how the low afternoon sun will affect the camera, and knows that he must not be positioned facing the sun. He decides to go to the location on a Saturday at 4:30pm. That way, he can see conditions similar to the ones at the actual event.

This type of planning is the key to a relaxed and pleasant shooting experience. From this initial inspection, Jim will make two checklists. One will be a location list and the other will cover the equipment. By now, Jim has a good idea of what to expect. He has found out where the bridal party will stand and where the processional will begin. Elaine tells him that in case of rain, the ceremony will be moved into the club’s multi-purpose room, and Jim makes a mental note to give that location a thorough inspection.

The First Investigation

Jim packs his camcorder, a notebook, a compass, earphones, his wireless microphone and other items he feels he may need, then heads out on his investigation. His first priority is to locate electrical outlets, and determine whether they will be useful to him at his shooting location.

Jim finds that the nearest electrical outlet will be near the sound mixer–only about 75 feet away. An extension cord will reach easily. He decides that he will need to tape the cord to the outlet box to keep it from coming unplugged part way through the event. He jots down duct tape and an extension cord in his notebook.

Jim looks back across the lawn and realizes his car is a long way off. Bringing a wagon or handcart might be a good move. He powers up his camcorder, plugs in his earphones and listens for noises that the ears normally block out. The camera’s microphone picks up a constant rumble of traffic noise that Jim hadn’t even noticed. He decides it’s a good time to see how the wireless mike works. He sets the transmitter some distance away and listens through the camera as he walks around his shooting area. Wireless mikes usually work well outdoors but it’s always smart to check for interference or dead spots.

Jim’s investigation is almost complete. He stands near his shooting spot and takes out his notebook. He makes a sketch of the site noting the position of the sun, electrical access, location of the sound board and his own shooting spot. He then makes a note to get in touch with the sound man. If he can get an audio feed off the board, he might get better sound than he could with his own setup.


Indoor Challenges

Next, Jim heads over to the multi-purpose room. Shooting video indoors requires a similar careful approach. Inside a building, there is a stronger possibility that the wireless mike may not work properly, due to greater interference and dropouts caused by the radio transmission bouncing off walls and arriving at the receiver at slightly different times.

Jim rigs the mike transmitter at the podium and discovers a large dead spot near his preferred shooting area. But by moving several feet to one side, sound comes through loud and clear. He sticks a small piece of duct tape on the floor to mark his exact location.

The next item on Jim’s agenda is power. He checks for the nearest power outlets, and notes that it only has two plugs. If he wants to set up a monitor other equipment, he may need to bring a power strip as well as an extension cord. Jim asks a maintenance person where the circuit breakers or fuse box can be found, to be prepared for potential power problems.

After telling him where the circuit box is located, the maintenance person tells Jim that the sound board will be very close to his camera, so Jim makes a note of the type of connector and cable he will need to pull sound right off the board. It always pays to check this out very closely. Accidentally pumping speaker voltage into the camera’s mike-level input will be sure disaster.

Jim notes that the stage is bathed in a strange pink glow; the flourescent lights illuminating the stage have a very strange tint to them. Our man Jim likes to come prepared: a trip to his car produces a small portable TV that he plans to use as a shooting monitor. Running a cable from his camera to the TV confirms his suspicions. The white balance cannot cope with this weird light. He tries the outdoor and indoor presets and decides in this case he will have to manually white balance the camera. Zooming in on a piece of white paper will produce a true white and Jim is relieved to see natural colors reappear on his monitor.

Jim’s location research is complete. He has created a checklist, investigated the sound and light characteristics of both the indoor and outside spaces and has talked with people in charge of the event. When he gets home, he will put it all down in order in his notebook and calendar. No surprises and a fun day are what a methodical investigation of location is all about.

A Location Of One’s Own

The second type of location work involves finding a site for your own project. Here you will be on the lookout for dramatic backgrounds, colorful street scenes or mysterious old houses. When you first begin imagining what your video will look like, you can get an idea of what sort of mood or setting you want to create. This time, you get to pick your own location to match the look you’re after.

Often, it’s a good idea to have at least a written treatment of your script idea before you begin scouting locations. Writing a treatment has been covered in detail in other issues (see Put it on Paper First in Videomaker‘s November 1997 issue), but in a nutshell a treatment is a short piece that tells what the video is all about. So if the treatment says the camera follows three people through dry grass to an old barn, you know that scene will have to be found. Similarly, if the treatment tells you that later on these people are involved in a heated discussion in a gloomy tavern, you will have to locate such a place and get the owner’s permission to shoot your video.

So step one in location research is determining what actual places need to be found. But first–do you really need to go somewhere to shoot your video, or could you create a set in your own house or backyard? Maybe you already have footage from another time and place that you can cut into your production to suggest a location.

Out in the Field

When you have determined that you need to go out in the field, it’s best to make a list of shots you need. In the previously mentioned story, suppose the three people walking through dry grass toward the old barn discover a perfectly preserved but dusty old car. The video centers on the discovery of the car, the subsequent disputes over its ownership and how the three agree to work together to restore it.

For this sequence, you need a barn, an old dusty car and a house with a garage. Let’s fast forward to the barn, and concentrate our research there. It goes without saying that you have first obtained permission to use this site. Since this barn has been deserted for many years, you’ll need a generator to supply your own electrical power. You should also plan to bring plenty of fully charged batteries for the camera.

If your shooting script shows several scenes in the barn. Your checklist must then include changes of clothing that go with the different scenes. You want to get all the barn shots the same day. This means planning everything that will be needed at the location, including food and water. Since daylight will be streaming in the big doors, you will be faced with a mix of daylight and artificial light. Putting gel filters on the lights will equalize the two kinds of light. Or it could be possible to achieve an unusual effect by allowing the two kinds of light to interact. Whatever the circumstances, it’s best to be prepared for any eventuality.

The same goes for all location shooting. Try to think of the things that will be needed on shooting day and keep your lists from one project to another. With these ideas in mind, your next location shoot will be a success.

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