Location scouting on a budget: Top 5 tips…

Location scouting trip to treasure Island, San Francisco

San Francisco from Treasure Island

When we’re filming away from ‘home-turf’ it’s always difficult to judge locations. Location scouting can be costly, and a scouting trip beforehand can be even more expensive! Here’s my 5 tips on scouting out good shots!

1. Plan ahead. This one, at first, seems pretty obvious. You always plan your shoot, right? And doesn’t this incorporate all the tips? Well kind of, yes! But by this first tip I’m talking about specifically planning at the very early stages of the film. What sort of film is it? Who is the client? And what are they trying to say? There’s no point in getting shots of deer, and waves, and people riding bikes when the film is about cutting edge technology (generally speaking). Do you need to be filming in a big city? In the countryside? Do you need fast movement? Or long, lingering, relaxing shots? And once you’ve decided this, think about the type of shots. If it’s a fast-moving piece, you probably want a lot of movement in the cutaways, maybe some time-lapse, and plenty of choice in the cutaways. Don’t leave yourself short in the edit! To be honest, the mood and pace of the film probably changes throughout a lot of the time, but plan each section and know the kind of think you want before you start looking.

2. Research. It’s not always possible to get to a general location for a shoot. If it’s hours drive away, or in another country, it’s not always cost-effective, or possible to get there before you film. If you can, do. But if not, there is a wealth of information on the internet. There’s almost no where in the world that hasn’t been photographed, either by professionals, or just someone on their phone. Take a look at these, it’s always good to see what a location looks like through a lens. If a general search comes up with nothing, then Google maps shows up photos. Take a look at some, they may give you an idea. Looking at other people’s photos, even if they’re holiday snaps, gives you an idea of distance, framing, and can often inspire you. There are loads of good apps out there to check out also. Obviously Flikr is good to research other people’s takes on a location. Another great one I like is LightTrac. This is a tracking app for sun and moon trajectory. Great for timelapse, or any other sunrise, sunset shots.

Speak to other videographers and photographers. People are often really interested in talking to other professionals about their work and giving tips on location and equipment. If the general location isn’t near your base, you’re going to have to plan what cameras, lenses, filters, and other equipment you’re going to take at this stage.

3. Think about the environment. Where are you filming? What’s the weather going to be like? What’s the light going to be like? Some of the answers to these may well direct you back to tip 1. If there’s not much light, you may have to change the kinds of shot you’re getting. If the weather is often not ideal for filming, should you change your shot decisions, your filming dates or maybe even your entire location? Sometimes you don’t have much of a choice so learn to work with it and plan alternatives that are still achievable. The environment can also make a difference to the equipment you can take. We were filming in San Francisco earlier this year, and got some great cutaways from the Marin Headlands looking back at the city and the Golden Gate. Many of the locations for the shots were pretty inaccessible though. Hiking up a hill, or trekking back from a shoot in the pitch black through undergrowth and thick fog isn’t ideal if you have 6 foot tracks, 2 cameras and tripods, and only 1 head torch!

4. Don’t get caught out. I’m talking about permissions and permits and this works both ways really. Many times I’ve been asked for permits, or told I can’t film something or take a picture. I’ve been stopped by police asking what I’m doing (Quick tip: When you’re on Federal Property in the US and the police pull up to ask what you’re doing and ask you to not park there, don’t wave and immediately put your hands in your pockets whilst walking towards their car. They got worried and shouted, and I pretty much threw myself on the floor, face down with my fingers interlocked behind my head once I realised what I’d done!). Many times people are just interested, but sometimes people assume you can’t film something if they don’t want you to.

On the whole, you are fine to film anything. OK, don’t trespass, or film federal building in the US, and don’t look dodgy trying to film high-profile buildings. But as a general rule, you can take pictures of or film pretty much anything. Occasionally you will need a filming permit, and these can cost. Sometimes quite a lot. Having said that, film commissions – who usually issue the permits – can also be great location scouts for free! They know where people have filmed before, and they probably know the area well. But don’t go making costs for yourself. Unless you’re blocking a public place with tracks or jibs etc, no one’s really going to pay you much attention. If you start stopping traffic, and bring generators and trucks into a city people are going to get wary of you. For the most part – especially nowadays with DSLR cameras, you look like a really dedicated tourist. And that’s fine!

5. Try to give the viewer a new experience. Although I’ve talked a lot about checking out what other people have shot before, in photos, videos, holiday snaps, which all are a great way to get inspiration, it’s always good to try to give the viewer something they haven’t already seen. The locations you scout from afar can be a good indicator, but take a look around when you finally arrive, and you often find something new…something a bit different for your own shot. Even though most of us can’t afford a pre-shoot scouting trip, we can almost always afford 20 minutes to check out the area before we shoot. So don’t rush, explore, and above all, enjoy the location! If you do, the audience probably will too.

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