What you need to know about location scouting

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. This is why location scouting is an essential part of the pre-production process.

Location scouting is the process of visiting a site before you shoot, and taking stock of all the conditions that might affect your shooting 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. 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.

Writing a script may help

Often, it’s a good idea to have at least a written treatment of your script idea before you begin scouting locations. 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.