Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Location, Location, Location: Scouting Tips

Submitted by Scott Spears

Just like in real estate, when you leave the studio (if you were ever in one) one of the biggest factors to a good shoot, is location, location, location. I’ve been location scouting many times and have seen some great locations and some not so great locations. One of the biggest things when seeing what looks like a great location is you have to think will it work logistically. The factors to locations are cost, sound issues, power, and logistics. We’ll break those down in a minute.

First, who should go on the location scout? As many crew people as possible. It’s not feasible to take the entire crew to each location (unless you have a small crew), so you need to pick department heads, the director, cinematographer, first assistant director, art director, sound mixer, and production/location manager. I like to bring my gaffer if possible. These people all look at locations in different ways and will have different and valuable input. When all of these people aren’t there, then somebody on the scout should be looking out for them. Sometimes when it’s just me and the director out scouting, we both have to wear different production hats and not just consider picture needs.


This is the easy one, either you can afford the location or you can’t. A good producer might be able to wheel and deal a better price. Sometimes you have to use some imagination with a place that doesn’t quite work, but is affordable. This is where the director has to envision the shots he will need. There’s a famous story from Akira Kurosawa when he was asked how he achieved a “perfect” frame for a period film he directed and he said, if I had panned to the right there was a modern factory and if I panned to the left, there were power lines, so the frame was set. I’ve been on scouts where people have said the location wouldn’t work because of some factor, but after talking with the director, we realized that element would never be on camera.

Sound Issues

Here’s a line I like to use on sound mixers (please sound folks, don’t take a offense, I’m joking), “they’re called motion pictures, not motion sounds.” It usually gets them riled up, but seriously, you have to not just look at a location, you have to listen to it. Is it on a street with heavy traffic? Is there construction nearby or the potential for it? Is it in the path of an airport? Do a bunch of college party kids live next door who will throw the world’s biggest party ever in the middle of your intimate drama? If it’s a multi-story building, who lives upstairs? Somebody who stomps around in combat boots? There are hundreds of noise factors that can slow or grind your production to a halt, so be on the lookout.

If you start to like a location and think it will be high on your list, take a moment and stand silently. Listen for hums and buzzes. Find out if they can be eliminated. You should visit it again at a different time of day to make sure there isn’t some factor that changes. Say you visit an apartment that looks perfect in the morning, but it sits above a bar that at night cranks up the music, well that would be a sound killer. Some smaller airports cut back on night flights, but during the day your location will have a flight overhead every two minutes. In general, try to think when you’ll be shooting and seek out any sound factor which would slow or halt shooting. Sometimes these things can come out of nowhere and cannot be predicted, but you should do your homework.

As a side note, refrigerators are the bane of sound mixer’s life, humming back to life in the middle of takes thus ruining the sound. The solution is to turn them off during the shoot, but often times they don’t get turned back on after the shoot and the production gets a bill to replace the spoiled contents. Here’s a clever way to avoid that. The person that is assigned be the last person to leave the location, be that the assistant director, the location manager, or a production assistant, should put their car keys in the fridge, that way when they go to their car and pat their pockets for the keys they will remember they put them the fridge for a reason and will remember to turn it back on. This was taught to me by a wise assistant director. I love tricks like this.


A nightmare for gaffers is lack of power. If you need a shaft of sunlight pouring through a window that is created by lighting, not the sun, and the production can’t afford a generator, then you need lots of power. Older buildings should be given special inspections. I’ve shot in apartments that had only two twenty amp circuits which means if you plug in more than four lights, you’re going to start blowing breakers. We ended up borrowing power from an apartment two stories above and just dropped cables out the window to feed our lights. Not ideal, but it worked. Does the place have plenty of outlets? Where are the circuit breakers? You should know where they are so if you blow a breaker you can get at it to reset it. I’ve had hour-long production delays because a fuse box was locked in a closet and nobody could find a janitor to open it. Get to know whoever’s in charge of the keys to all the doors in a building and make them your best friend.

Another side note, here’s the Scott Spears lazy man math formula for calculating power needs for lights. Say you want to use three 1000 watts lights (1Ks for short) and a 500 watt light. You take the watts and add them up which makes 3500 watts, then you divide that by 100 (I know it should be 110, but that’s why I call it a lazy man formula) and that will give you the amps you’ll need, which in this case will be 35 amps. Most houses have 20 amp breakers, so you’ll need at least two dedicated breakers for your lights. Total watts divided by 100 is the number of amp you will need.


Locations bring their own set of logistics, just like people. There are a lot of things you don’t think about as you walk around a cool location lining up shots and thinking how you’ll use the space, but there’s a lot more to a location than that.

Where the heck are the cast, crew, and equipment vehicles going to park? A film production takes up a lot of space so there better be parking. How do you get all the gear to the location? Are there elevators or is the crew going have to drag a ton of equipment up four flights of stairs? Exterior locations have these same concerns. I’ve had to hike about a mile uphill for a shoot with gear on my back and in each hand which isn’t fun, but you have to do what you have to do. Do that six times to start and end your day and you’ll think twice about that location.

Don’t forget about changing rooms for cast and a make-up area as well. Here’s a biggie, are there enough bathrooms? Nothing can get you booted from a location faster than having thirty people trying to use one bathroom and to have the toilet overflow.

Now that you and your stuff are on set, where do you put people and extra gear when they’re not working? All the grips and cast not on camera need someplace to hang out while shooting is underway.

Do you have a place for the cast and crew to eat? Is there a large space so everybody sit together and eat? That’s a great way to build camaraderie (as long as the food is good, but that’s a whole other topic). If you don’t feed people on site, are there restaurants nearby. Be careful letting cast and crew loose on the world because they’ll all come staggering in a few minutes late with the excuse that the waiters were slow or there was some other problem.

Some locations have special requirements, like no shoes, cover the floors, or be out at a certain time. Make sure everybody respects these rules or you may be looking for a new place. If a location throws on too many restrictions off the bat, you may want to look elsewhere because once you’re there, life may get even worse with more rules and complaints about even minor infractions.

Final Thoughts

I’ll close by saying my rule is to try to and leave a location better than you found it. Don’t leave a mess because eventually that reputation will catch up to you and you’ll start getting locked out of places.

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