Finding the right locations can elevate the aesthetic appeal of your film but more importantly, the kind of locations your characters appear in says a lot about them. Just as the places you go to in your day to day life say a lot about you. Would you find a vegan at a meat pie-eating competition? Probably not and even if you did, the story behind it would be enough to fuel a great screenplay.
One of the lessons I’ve learned whilst working on more involved projects is that your film will make more sense to you, your crew and the audience if everything in the scene is there intentionally. Say it’s a surreal story about a Halloween party on Mars, you could put an otherworldly spin on your Halloween props to help them add to the setting.
If we’re seeing the inside of a character’s home, then it would only make sense to reflect their habits and personality. Locations can also contain subtext about the character. It’s these less obvious details I love and to implement them in a non-obvious way is a skill in its own right. A character with a fear of technology wouldn’t just remove technology from their home, they’d likely remove anything that reminded them of it as well. That means we wouldn’t find any computer magazines in the living room.
The million-dollar question is of course, how does one find great spaces to shoot in? This article will provide some things you can use to leave you feeling prepared and perhaps a little bit inspired for your next location run.
Be real about locations
It’s often good practice to make sure you haven’t set yourself up to fail by looking at all the locations in your story and considering how you’ll pull it off. If you’re a beginner filmmaker with little funds to spare, you will be locked out of certain options for now, such as hiring a mansion to shoot in (unless you already have access to one).
Of course, your network can be extremely helpful. Reach out to other filmmakers, creative communities, friends and family because they either have a location you can use or will recommend somewhere they know. With a very small network and budget, your opportunities will be limited so this is where you’ll have to think carefully about how you execute your script. You may realise there’s no way you can access the kind of locations you want and sometimes that means going back for a rewrite or shelving it and starting fresh until you’ve got something more realistic.
Even with a small budget, it’s easy to feel tempted to want to spend just that little bit more when you find the perfect fit but that’s when it’s important to think things through. You can create a spiral into hell for your film by overdoing any component of your budget. Keep in mind that locations are one component of the filmmaking process and other elements like set, dressing, costumes and cinematography make up the overall look of the film. It’s possible that a cheaper location can be dressed and shot in a way that’s closer to your vision.
Use Visual References
You’ll want to have reference images of the kind of location you’re looking for to share with the crew. A good visual reference is as close as possible to your vision to allow others to find accurate recommendations for you. It’s helpful to use images that show the time of day you’ll be filming in as the look of a location will vary based on the time it’s photographed.
If you want real assurance that a location is going to be on your side when the rubber meets the road, go and see it in person. It’s easy to see a picture of a location, get excited and send everyone and their gear on their way but that’s a pretty big gamble in the unpredictable world of filmmaking. If you work on enough projects, you might have the experience where you’ll immediately know the seemingly awesome filming spot isn’t going to work. It’s certainly easier to go for places you’ve already been to but there are still some practical things you’ll want to think about regardless.
Depending on where you film and how big your production is, there may be permits involved. If you are filming outdoors in a forest or park, you can usually discover who you’d need to attain the permit from by contacting the local council the location belongs to.
A tech scout is when the department heads on the production gather during pre-production to inspect the location and form an understanding of how filming would be carried out in the chosen spot. This article doesn’t go into depth on how tech scouting is conducted at the professional level. Instead, many of the variables that are brought up during tech scouting are mentioned below.
Visiting a hazardous location by yourself is one thing but bringing in your actors and crew is another matter. I advise you not to put your team at risk. If I can’t find a way to make it safe then I’ll simply move on to another location. Safety is not just about the really obvious things but the not so obvious things that can sneak up on you and cause enormous problems for the production. For instance, filming in a car park will have cars moving in and out, getting permission to section off an area for filming would be the best way to avoid accidents.
The best way to tackle this is to bring a list of safety criteria to the locations you visit. Here’s one I prepared earlier you can use.
Avoid Parking Pickles
It’s another hassle you don’t want to end up devoting large chunks of time on the day of filming. Check what kind of parking is available from your location, how far it is from where you are filming, what the parking fees are if any and consider that being a long distance from the location will slow you down if you have anything heavy that will need to be carried to set.
Give yourself space
Having filmed in very small locations, it can be very challenging when you’ve got a chunk of people and gear with you. If your filming in a small bedroom, you’ll be able to divide the team across the rest of the house rather then trying to cram everyone in one room. This is where a good A.D can be a game-changer because they’ll be able to help coordinate how the set is run. A great location will also need to have enough space to store your equipment. Don’t overlook this one because a cluttered space will slow you down.
As sundown doesn’t occur at the same time in each part of the world, you’ll need to know when it’s happening for coordinating your shoot. You can check this information on a handy site called time and date.
Great locations can be found, literally
If none of your crew can get to where you are shooting, well, what use is it? Some filming spots are notoriously difficult to locate. If you have to choose between a findable spot and a not so findable spot with similar aesthetics perhaps this factor will make the decision easier.
Managing onlookers and the general public
Filming amongst the public (especially in cities) has to be one of the biggest curveballs reality will throw at you during filming. Not only are there legal variables but any events occurring near your filming will likely have an impact on the process. You might have onlookers staring at the camera or behaving in such a way that doesn’t fit with the story. This can delay you getting the shots you need but it’s also an inevitable part of film production so give yourself a bit more time for these scenes.
Things happen so be prepared to use an alternative location. By scouting multiple options, you’ll know where else to turn should you lose access to your first option. It might not be as close to the original but it’s going to save you enormous strain.
Don’t forget about sound
Maybe you’ve discovered the perfect fit but it’s across the road from a construction site or a factory. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to replace all of your audio in post but this isn’t always possible. So prioritise good quality sound when choosing locations. You can identify potential disturbances by investigating the site through Google Maps.
The benefits of cheating
Be faithful to your partner but not to your locations. Cheating is disguising one location to look like something completely different. You can turn a living room space into an office quite easily if you’re creative enough. The advantage of cheating a location is that it can provide you with incredible flexibility you wouldn’t otherwise have. Good cheating can allow you to film your character waking up in bed in the morning and arriving at their office desk all in one place. That’s time, money and energy saved. Of course, there are limitations to this. It can just as easily become obvious, ridiculous and can start to take your audience out of the story.
Spending time on locations is a worthwhile effort for your film. To be able to start a shoot knowing you’ve got it handled, including a solid list of alternatives in the face of change, you’ll have many problems solved already. In a sense, finding great locations is akin to finding great actors, once you’ve got the right match for your project, it takes significantly less work to get what you want. A great location feels like it belongs in the film, it clicks into place when you see it. Money can be an obstacle in getting there but that’s where a great creative team can turn things around.
If this was helpful to you, check out this article on efficiency in filmmaking to learn how to get yourself moving on that next great project.
Tim Gardner Creative holds no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this document. The information provided is of a general nature and is not a substitute for personalised or professional advice. While the content here is intended to be as helpful and precise as possible there are no guarantees of holism, completeness, accuracy, usefulness or timeliness.