Modern Location Scouting: Tips and Technology Guide
A location scout is a professional researcher for film locations. Digital location research tools are now better than ever. This post is a collection of tips that help make the job of location scouting a little easier through technology.
There is no school where you can go learn location scouting and many times the director or DP will be responsible for the job in small budget films. This guide is not designed to tell you how to be a location scout, it’s simply here to give people who are new to scouting tips on how to apply some helpful digital tools to the trade. The more efficient you become the more rewarding finding great film locations can be.
How to use this guide
Location scouting is a process. This guide breaks down the process of modern location scouting into several steps and then provides ideas on how to improve each step using technology. The steps are as follows:
Ideation and Research
This section outlines the very early stages of the process that occurs directly after you finish reading the script.
Here we will explain some techniques to get the most out of location scouting online with Google Maps.
This section provides some helpful tips for when you actually get out in the field including how to create a location checklist.
Getting film permits to shoot at a particular location many times falls to the location scout or manager, here we give some advice to help streamline this process.
Being able to present your findings well is sometimes just as important of a factor as actually finding a great location, here we show you some tools that can help.
Getting started with location brainstorming and research
As you know, the locations department is one of the first ones to get to work on a film. Many times, location scouts are solely responsible for taking what is in the script and translating it into a living, breathing location.
Locations are arguably one of the most vital parts of any production. Without a great location, emotional highs would fall flat and things in the world wouldn’t feel right. Could you imagine the Lord of the Rings trilogy being shot in New Mexico? There are two main things that all location scouts should think about when starting a new project. How does the script make you feel? And What have people done in the past?
How does the script make you feel?
A script will make you feel something, learning to understand that feeling and then how to look for it in the physical world is something that can’t be taught. Location scouts need to have a strong sense of what the script is trying to accomplish before they start looking for locations. Talk to the director, talk to the writer, talk to the producer, anything you can do to get a lead on the feeling you need to convey with a location.
What have people done in the past?
While you should never blatantly copy the ideas of past movies, it would also be wrong to ignore what they have done for the industry. This could be as simple as working on a mob movie and taking the time to look at the general areas where other mob movies have filmed as a start.
The same could be said for period pieces, other films might have already laid the groundwork of finding great locations. Beyond that, movies are a great resource for creative ideas, just look at how the locations in the original Blade Runner (1982) have influenced science fiction film locations to this date. Doing your research can put you on creative paths that you wouldn’t have gone down otherwise and you might find yourself scouting a cathedral built in 1670 for a film set in 2670.
Brainstorming ideas to learn what to look for
It’s almost impossible to search for something if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Brainstorming can be a great way to get on the right track to a successful in-person location scouting session.
There are many tools out there designed to improve brainstorming, but we recommend Brainsto.io. The tool is great because it forces you to categorize your ideas and come up with multiple iterations until you get something really valuable. Brainsto.io has many collaborative features as well that allow your friends or colleges to join in and generate even more ideas.
Location Scouting Remotely with Google
Using Google to search for things has become second nature. While there is no way to eliminate scouting in-person; the search for filming locations in 2018 should always begin online. It’s unreal how much information about an area is available if you just know how to search for it.
The Google suite can provide you with everything you need to explore, plan, track, save, and share filming locations anywhere in the world. In the following section, we’ll walk you through how to leverage these powerful and free tools from Google to find incredible locations without ever stepping foot outside your house.
Start with a plan
Every remote location search needs to start somewhere. Before you start using a tool like Google maps to search for locations you should draw on the ideation process in the last section and ask yourself some simple but important questions:
What are you looking?
If you have determined that you need to have a cathedral location in a city, then you already have a great start. Do you have a specific look in mind when you imagine your ideal location? Try to formulate what you want out of a location into a few words and use that as a starting point. EX “Cathedral with stained glass” if you know that you’re movie is shooting in New York, then you can narrow things down even further.
What’s important to the script?
Think of things that would eliminate a location and make a list of these traits. If the scene requires that you be able to see the sunset through a stained glass window then you should make a note. As you think more about the important elements that a location needs, you’ll develop a list that will make qualifying spaces remotely much faster.
How to Effectively Use Google Maps to Scout Locations
In the beginning, the 3D feature was treated as a novelty and was too low resolution to be used for anything serious. The 3D maps feature has gotten better over that time and has finally become accurate enough to be used as a reliable location scouting tool.
From the Maps search bar, if you enter a well thought out search term you’ll get some good results you can explore. The other method would be to start with a view of the whole area and then look to see which spots are the most promising.
Google maps allows you to rotate and zoom in on a location in 3D to be sure that it will meet all your requirements. Here is a link to an article from Google that explains how to use all the features in Google Maps correctly.
Simply the act of casually browsing in Google maps can unveil some great opportunities that you should go scout. You have the option to enter street view at any time and explore further as well. Here is a great video about location scouting with Google maps from the guys at TheBuffNerds if you want a quick visual.
The speed with which spaces can be found and vetted online now is unprecedented. Scouting work that used to take days can now be done in hours. All the possibilities of digital location scouting are yet to be uncovered, but no one will argue that a good portion of the job has moved online.
Add research from online photography catalogs
There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to location scouting, if there is a good place to film in an area, then somebody has probably already posted a picture of it online. A helpful thing to do is to look at sites like 500px or Flickr for a more visual perspective on an area. Photo sharing sites like these can give you some great insight into popular filming location in any given city.
These platforms allow you to search by location, address, or content. The sky is really the limit when it comes to what you can find and searching in this manner can be a great compliment to looking on Google Maps.
Mapping multiple locations
Google Maps has a great feature called “My Places” that allows you to save or “pin” multiple locations on a single map. This feature becomes a useful way to see all the different locations that you have digitally scouted in a given area and how they relate to each other. You can create custom maps in the tool that let you organize different locations and projects.
You could create one map that has all your possible rooftop scene locations, one has all cathedral scene locations, and one that has all factory locations. The best part about using Google over another tool is these maps integrate with all your other Google tools like Gmail and your calendar. When you’re ready to start scouting in the field then you simply click a pin to get directions.
The maps that you create in Google are saved for later, and they can be shared with the crew. As a location scout, you know locations that don’t work for one project might be perfect for another. The custom map feature lets you save your work so you can go back and access them when the need arises.
Making a Checklist for In-Person Location Scouting
Building a location checklist is a prerequisite of scouting. If you’re getting ready to go out into the field then you need have an organized way to judge the quality of a location. A checklist allows location scouts to take what is needed from a location and quantify it. Some location scouts go as far as assigning values to each checkpoint and giving each location a suitability score for a particular project.
What’s on your checklist?
The answer to this question will vary from project to project, but there are some fundamental items that should exist on every location scouting checking. Below we have included an example list of basic questions that need to be included on any checklist.
Does it fit the script?
A location needs to match your script. It’s a good idea to include a section that helps you determine how closely a space matches your story. Let your experience drive how you create this section. Think about what the director has mentioned to you about the mood of a scene or the emotion they wish to invoke. Customize each list item based on the type of action that will be taking place in the scene as well as the general emotional state of the characters.
Can you film effectively there?
Once you know the scope of action for a given scene, you have to decide if a location can accommodate it. There are literally hundreds of possible considerations here that will vary from project to project. You need to provide the director and DP with an understanding of the type of equipment they are going to need to bring to effectively light and shoot the scene.
List items can be as simple as:
Is the space usable from multiple filming angles?
Or they can be as complicated as:
Can you legally fly a drone for aerial shots?
If you already have a shot list or storyboard then you should use that as a template for what needs to be checked in this section.
What will it look like on camera?
Every location is unique when it comes to lighting and visual aesthetic. A good location scout will visit a promising location at many different times of day to document what effect changing light conditions will have on a space.
There is only so much that can be done with artificial light and a place that is perfect with PM light might be unusable with light from the AM. We recommend using the PhotoPills to get a complete understanding of the sun and natural lighting conditions in any given area.
Take lots of high-quality pictures as well. Location pictures are used in many aspects of a production and are arguably the most important work that a location scout preforms. It takes a strong understanding of both photography and film to take the right type of pictures and is what separates a professional scout from an amateur.
Can you capture sound there cleanly?
Beyond a space looking right, it needs to sound right. The world is a noisy place and your checklist should include a list of possible sound issues. Things like AC units, refrigerators, plumbing, lights, or squeaky floors can all produce noises that will make a location unusable.
Beyond local sound pollution issues, the immediate area needs to be checked for environmental sound problems as well. That means things like cars, planes, ships, nearby factories, and entertainment venues all need to be accounted for.
Many location scouts will go as far as to test the acoustics in a space to determine what dialog will sound like there. Every noise issue should be documented along with whether it can be compensated for or not. We recommend using an app like Decibel X to gain an understanding of the noise levels at a particular location.
What’s the weather like?
Something as simple as frequent rain can make a location unusable. The weather in a location will inform everything from costume practicality to equipment lists. This section will include the specific weather requirements of a given scene as well as what season the location becomes ideal for filming.
What type of power is available on site?
Depending on the size of the production being scouted for, power requirements of the different departments can vary widely. A location scout will know from the gaffer on the project how much electricity the production will need to run all the equipment.
If the power is not available then generators can be used, but this option will add a considerable cost to using a location. Other things that can be included in this section are an average price per kilowatt for the location as well as breaker panel access.
Can the location support the production?
Film crews need facilities like bathrooms and enough parking to operate effectively. Things like the proximity of local amenities including hotels, hospitals, airports, and food services need to be taken into account here. Access to water should be considered as well. The facility needs to support the successful execution of every scene that is slated to be shot there.
Can the location be controlled?
The director needs to know how much control they will have over the location and who can access it. Some locations are impossible to fully control and have an element of unpredictability that will need to be accounted for.
The ideal scenario would be that only people involved in the production would have access to any part of the shot, but it doesn’t always happen that way. All areas that cannot be controlled should be documented in this section as well as the feasibility of post-production workarounds.
Can it be reserved?
Professional location scouting requires securing multiple locations ahead of time to help insulate the production from issues that can’t be controlled. Script changes are a huge issue and happen in almost every production. When directors decide to add or alter a scene then the location scout needs to have other locations available to film quickly.
This section will list all the requirements needed to reserve the space like deposits and contracts. The Madstudios app is designed to help location scouts by centralizing all this information so that renting a location is fast and easy.
Keeping your checklists organized and secure
Location checklists have traditionally been done on paper, but there are many issues with this approach. Looking for location information that you have physically filed is not user-friendly or secure. There are plenty of ways to organize your checklists digitally, but we recommend using Notion, but Airtable also works well.
Notion is a highly adaptable project management software that allows you to create dynamic checklists that can then be shared with your team. If you’ve been in the location scouting field for any amount of time then have undoubtedly generated a list of qualities you look for in a location, Notion simply helps you manage that list better.
Having your checklist on an app like Notion allows you to increase the effectiveness of your location scouting efforts while saving you time. You can assign different levels of importance to each list item and even include due dates for yourself for when you need to find the item’s information by.
You know better than anyone that you don’t find out everything you need to know about a location in a day. By setting up reminders with Notion you can help yourself stay on top of deadlines and get your scouting projects completed on time.
Secure and Organize your Permits
Making sure that you have secured the necessary permits to film in a location that you have reserved is an absolute necessity. Permitting is almost always a local matter and the required permits for one location might be completely different from a location just across the street.
Determine what permits and permissions are needed
We suggest using Notion again here to create a task list of permitting based questions that need to be answered about each location before you seek permits. Questions should look something like this:
Where is it located?
This is a broad investigation of the town, city, county, and state that your location exists in. Every city will usually have some type of film office that handles all film permitting and is a great place to start. The film office can tell you what type of state and local permits you need to acquire before you can film in a given area.
Who owns it?
If the location that you want to film in is owned by an organization like the federal government, then you will have to obtain separate permits above and beyond your local ones. Every governmental body has a different film permit procedure and will need to be dealt with accordingly.
If the space is owned by a private organization like a college or a foundation then you will usually have to gain written permission to film there from that organization.
What will a permit cost?
Many times film permits will cost you money. Depending on the size of your project, and how disruptive it will be to daily life in a given area, a film permit can cost a lot. If it is possible to obtain estimates of how much a film permit will cost then this should be done as well. You should also know how far in advance you will need to apply for permits in a given area to ensure you have the proper permits in place for a specific production date.
Are there local film incentives?
While it’s true that many areas charge production companies to film, it is also just a common for cities to incentivize film production with grants and subsidization. Filmmaking can be a big boost to a local economy and many local governments want to encourage these types of activities as much as possible.
If these programs do exist then you will likely have to apply for them. Make sure that you have an understanding of the application process and estimate how much filming in a certain location can save over filming in another.
Use secure cloud-based document management
It’s extremely important that your permits are organized and readily accessible by the necessary personnel on the film crew at all times. Even if the permit process for a particular location is all done on paper you should scan the authorized permits and upload them to the cloud.
Managing multiple permits and permission documents for different locations can get extremely complicated. Using a cloud-based file management system will allow you to host permits online so you never lose access to them.
For compatibility reasons, we recommend using Google Drive for your permit management and hosting. You can create secure folders that have all the necessary permits in them and give access only to the people who need it.
Google even lets you control who can edit documents, meaning you can make it so everyone you share a document with can only view it and not edit it. Nobody likes to get asked for a permit by a police officer and not being able to produce one. Having your permits organized, accessible, and secure will streamline the use of a location while reducing stress among the crew.
Organize Your Findings
Now that you’ve gathered all the necessary information about each location you’ve scouted you need to organize it all in one place. This is yet another area where the project management software Notion excels and can make your work much more efficient.
Organizing location data
Each location that you wish to present should have all the information to allow the director and DP to make an informed final decision. You still may have more data than what we have listed below to add to your locations based on your specific process. Here are some basic examples of the type of information that you will need to include for each location.
You should always write a short summary of each location. In this summary, you can include more personal details that you noticed about a space as well as it’s history. You should always perform a location background check that will include research about the history of the area and specific place.
The easiest way to do a location background check is simply be Googling the address. Historical information can be used by the director and DP to get story ideas and possibly alter scenes so they fit better in a space that they like.
It’s a good idea to write a guide on how to use the space effectively for filming. This guide should include things like how to access the space, where to park, and the location of on-site storage. You should also include the contact information of the owners here if applicable. Share this guide with the crew via email or the project management tool that you are using.
The next thing you need to do is attach the location checklist that you have created for this location. You can include any additional notes in this section as well that can help you remember specific information regarding the feasibility of the location.
All the best photos you took should be attached and organized here. The production test photos should be separated into a different section from general production photos. You should also include satellite photos of the location as well as detailed photos of the surrounding area.
If you have all your permits and permissions documents hosted on a cloud service like Google Drive then you should link to them in this section. By having your permits linked to this list you reduce the time you need to spend looking for them later.
Showcase your findings with Notion
This is the final stage of the process and gives you the opportunity to share all the awesome locations that you found for the project with the production team.
The presentation process can take place in person or remotely so you need to prepare for both and select a tool that can perform well in both scenarios. We recommend using Notion’s gallery feature to create a showcase of locations to present, but you could use Google slides as well.
You can even couple a Notion Gallery presentation with a service like Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts and do a live presentation remotely. How you present your locations is almost just as important as what locations you’re presenting.
We hope you found this post helpful. Location scouting is demanding work, so anyway to make the process more efficient through technology is a welcome relief. If you have any questions about the topics discussed in this post please feel free to reach out to us. Madstudios is here to support film, music, performing, photography, and visual arts professionals with the spaces they need to create.