Inspiration, Pro Tips

Filming ‘Abroad’: How to Save Big on Your Next Shoot with VFX


Audra Coulombe is the Marketing Manager for The Molecule, a VFX, Motion Graphics, and VR company located in New York and Los Angeles.
Oh, the challenges of shooting on location. First… the costs. The travel fares for the cast and crew (flights, hotels, per diems), the ginormous insurance price tag, hiring local crew, shipping equipment, fees to hold the location…

Then… the inaccessibility. The travel bans, the dangers that come with some locations (war, tigers), the bad weather (hurricanes, sub-zero temps), the logistical issues of shooting in 1776… And the time it takes! The hours or days spent schlepping your team to and from the destination, the shoot you need to reschedule when it rains the day of your sunny beach scene…

Don’t worry. There’s a reason why we say, “Fix it in post.” With a little creative “prep” you can save your team the money, time, and ibuprofen it takes to schedule a shoot abroad.

Happyish - Set Extension
In this set extension for Showtime’s Happyish, not only did we send the cast “abroad,” but also back in time, all on a local sound stage.

Saving Money with Set Extensions

On a recent pilot for network TV, we saved the production company 25% of their shoot budget by scraping their shoot on location in Trinidad in favor of a local stage and green screen.

Not only did we save on travel costs, but there are also some great advantages to shooting locally. Most states have tax incentives in place that give kickbacks to in-state productions. And it just feels good to put the money back into your local community.

With VFX, you can turn almost any location or well-lit green screen into your desired setting. There have even been times when we created a beach scene out of a sandy lot in Brooklyn.

Before and After of a beach scene shot in Brooklyn, NY for season 4 of Royal Pains
Before and After of a beach scene shot in Brooklyn, NY for season 4 of USA’s Royal Pains.

Saving Time with Local Shoots

Keeping crews local helps them get their project out the door faster. A local shoot scheduled on a sound stage helps keep the timetable more predictable, allowing the team to streamline its production and stick to deadlines. You’re also able to better manage environmental factors, such as weather and time of day. In particular, if the lighting is a central element to your storytelling, when you plan your shoot on a sound stage, you can light it to whatever time of day you need, giving you much more control.

For example, in Season 2 of The Affair, we needed to set a house on fire in the middle of a hurricane, and the chances of us pulling off a shoot in a real house in a real hurricane were slim. In one night, we were able to shoot the scene on a burn stage at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, and another night we shot the real house at dusk. Then, over the course of a few days, we added in the hurricane in VFX. The result was a highly controlled shoot that was delivered on time, and no crew members were harmed by either fire nor hurricane. It’s a win-win!


Using Stock Footage to Transport You Anywhere

When keeping down costs on any shoot, stock footage can be your best friend. Sometimes stock footage can become the entire background in a green screen shot. Sometimes, we add stock elements to footage that we captured ourselves. The possibilities are endless, and most of the time, much cheaper than shooting exactly what you want all at once.

In one recent show, the team wanted to track a car aerially as it drove along the highway. Instead of hiring an entire aerial team to shoot a practical car, we were able to find appropriate aerial stock footage and add in a CG car. And sometimes you don’t even need a 3D team to make your CG elements — you can take down CG costs tremendously by finding individual elements in a footage collection like Pond5’s.

Many times, a scene only needs a few subtle details to be added to make a location seem like the real thing. In this Royal Pains shot, the birds we added were the finishing touch that helped make a local beach feel more tropical.


The Dos and Don’ts of Planning for Set Extensions

DO try to find stock video as early as possible so that you can set up your shot angle and lighting with that element in mind. Making the stock footage sourcing a part of your pre-production plan will save you the headache of finding the clips with the perfect angle and lighting later on.

DO check that the resolution of the footage you choose is high enough to match the resolution of the finished shot. HD stock elements won’t work for 4K delivery, for example.

DO try to find a location that has a few physical similarities to your script’s location. You can keep the elements that you want, remove the ones you don’t, and add in little details that help finish the shot and “sell” your location.

DON’T forget to check and recheck your lighting angle and temperature. If needed, shoot the same scene with multiple lighting settings for different situations to allow you flexibility in post. Lighting is one of the most difficult things for a VFX team to fix, and sometimes it’s borderline impossible, so plan ahead!

DON’T underestimate the cost-savings of tight camera angles. First, start with an establishing shot, then cut in tighter for coverage. Fundamentally, you will believe where you are because of that establishing shot.

DON’T think you must always travel across the world for the perfect setting! Sometimes all you need is a location right around the corner, and VFX can add some strategically placed elements like palm trees, animals, or landmarks. Sometimes adding moving clouds or rippling water to a static backdrop are enough to sell your scene — and Pond5 has a huge selection of these elements in their stock video collection.

For more inspiration and ideas for when you can use Set Extensions in your own project, check out The Molecule’s set extension reel:

Explore some of the media assets available on Pond5 for your productions in this Set Extensions Inspiration collection:

Set Extension Inspiration

Top image courtesy of Showtime