The craft and logistics of location scouting changes depending on the kind of project you’re working on, the size of your budget and crew, and the area of the world you’re looking to film. There are, however, some basic, universal steps that every location scout has to go through to find and deliver that diamond in the rough.
Before you get started, an important thing to keep in mind is that you’re not just looking for a place where you can take a cool photo. You’re scouting for a place to film a specific scene or series of. A beautiful mountain peak that requires a 30-minute hike to reach is likely not a logistically sound choice to bring 50-100 people and thousands of pounds of grip and electric gear.
By the same token, a high-class law firm is probably not the best place to stage a scene where a car drives through a wall. You have to have permission to film on the property — which means that finding and building a relationship with the owner/ management of the location is just as important as spotting a cool-looking place.
John Michael McDonagh’s film War on Everyone had us scouting for weeks to find a location that would allow a car to crash through the front door. We eventually settled on a recently-closed bar with a glass facade that could be taken out and replaced with set walls for the stunt.
Step 1: Research
Your first step in every scout starts with research. Depending on what you’re looking for, you may use different websites, programs, and methods. If you’re familiar with the city or area in which you’re searching, use whatever contacts and personal knowledge you already have.
Many states have a film-office website with listings of film-friendly locations. This isn’t a bad place to start, and the local state, county, and city film commissioners can be great assets for leads to film-friendly properties, especially government-owned properties. These film offices can also walk you through the film-permitting process of the municipality.
Aerial satellite map programs such as Google Earth and Google Maps can be very helpful in finding everything from sand dunes to cornfields to mansions with a pool. Back in the early days of film, this process sometimes involved expensive and time-consuming helicopter rides. Now it’s pretty much free and takes a few minutes. Once you’ve found your location, Satellite imaging is also great for finding a nearby place to park trucks, trailers, and crew vehicles.
The gypsum mine on Zia Pueblo in New Mexico has been used for various productions over the years, including John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.
Houses can be notoriously hard to scout because simply driving by them never tells you exactly what they look like on the inside. Also, people aren’t always home when you stop by, and it may take multiple trips to a house before you actually see the inside and realize it isn’t what you’re looking for. Local real-estate companies and vacation rental websites such as Airbnb are good places to start before simply knocking on doors. These websites provide pictures to give you a sense of the space (you’ll still want to take your own scout photos), and there’s always contact information to get you started talking to someone about renting the property.
Most businesses and organizations have their contact information online, which is easy enough to find, but when looking for an abandoned warehouse or a patch of desert in the middle of nowhere, it’s not always obvious who you need to talk to. County Assessors Office websites and Cities with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Maps can help you track down who owns various properties.
Sometimes the only way you can find the phone number of a property is to be there and read it off of the “For Sale” sign in the front yard. Other times, you’ll need to knock on the doors of neighbors who might know them. If you’re still stuck, you might just have to leave a business card with a note at the front door and hope for the best.
The cliffs overlooking the old Jemez Canyon Reservoir are owned and operated by the Pueblo of Santa Ana. In wide-angle shots that showcase vistas, placing someone in the scout photo can help with a sense of scale.
Step 2: Making Contact and Building a Relationship
Depending on what part of the world you’re scouting in, the people will be different, and you may need to find different ways to approach them with the idea of filming in their house or business — but there are a few things that are essentially going to be the same wherever you go.
First, you need to be confident about the fact that your production will be able to restore the location to its original state after filming is finished, or at the very least pay the owner for any unforeseen damages. If the production you’re scouting for can’t guarantee to buy insurance for the property while you’re filming there, then it’s unfortunately not a production that you want to be representing.
When first approaching a property owner, they can sometimes be uneasy about letting a stranger into their home or the back rooms of their business. Some may wonder if you are a scam artist or thief. Don’t take this personally. If you have already connected with the local film commission, you can refer the owner to that commission to help back up the fact that you really are just interested in filming something on their property. Also, a business card really goes a long way in this situation.
Property owners will have a lot of questions, so it’s good that you try to know the answers before asking to rent their property. They will want to know what the story is about and if it fits with their morals. They will want to know why you picked their property. They will want to know about dates and times. They will want to know about pay. Almost always, they will want to know if there are any big movie stars that will be coming. Sometimes you can only give them a ballpark of possible dates and rental rates (more on that later).
A recent production starts construction of a set at New Mexico’s Spaceport, which is jointly managed by the State of New Mexico and Virgin Galactic.
Step 3: Taking Reference Photos
This is the part of the job most people are familiar with. I’m not going to go into the craft of photography too much, but always make sure your photos are in focus and have the proper exposure.
When taking scout photos, you can save yourself some time later by shooting them in the order that you’d like to present them. If you’re scouting a house, try to take photos of every room, whether it happens to be in the script or not. Sometimes in a script revision, a kitchen scene is switched to a living room or a back patio. These extra photos will also add to your ever-growing database of scout photos, and while this production might not be interested in the basement, the next one might.
In general, try to take as many photos as you can. You want to take a variety of angles and points of view for both a reference of the size and shape of the space and an idea of how the scene might be filmed. Re-read the script before you go in to take photos and think about how you would shoot it if you were the director. Knowing how to stitch together a panorama photo is also a good skill to have.
The Santa Ana Stone House has been used on many New Mexico productions, including Breaking Bad, and requires hiring a snake wrangler during the warmer months due to an incident where one crew member was bitten by a rattlesnake.
Step 4: Sealing the Deal
Depending on the production you’re working on and the position you have, you might not be involved in this step. Typically, in feature films, television shows, and other commercial productions, the Location Manager negotiates rental rates, and a production lawyer provides a standard Location Agreement that will need to be signed. On short films and student projects, this job usually falls on the producer. But if you find yourself in a situation where you are sealing the deal, then the following information may be helpful.
To be honest, every production has different needs and means — as does each location. So as much as people would like to hear what the standard rental rate for a location is, there unfortunately isn’t one. A California beach mansion is going to cost more than a one-bedroom cabin in New Mexico. Filming in a restaurant or bar on their busiest day of the week is going to cost more than on a day that they’re closed.
Usually, the more inconvenience you cause, the higher the price will be. Filming on someone’s front lawn doesn’t put them out as much as filming in their bedroom. When working out a deal with someone, listen closely to what their needs are, and communicate precisely what you’re going to need from them. Negotiating a low price doesn’t help the production if it ties your hands from doing the things you need to do to film the scene, and deceiving the property owner about your true intentions only leaves you open to professional and legal liabilities.
In some instances, sealing the deal doesn’t involve a property owner. For instance, closing down a road to do a driving scene will involve proper permitting from the governing body in charge of the road. Sometimes this is the city, sometimes the county, and sometimes it’s the Department of Transportation. Permitting road closures can be a complex process that involves traffic-control plans, barricading, police escorts, and public consent. Every permitting situation is different and each governing body involved has a different process that you must follow. The best general advice is to allow yourself as much time as possible to dig through whatever red tape you might encounter.
This photo was taken during a tech scout at a scrap yard in Albuquerque, NM. The scrap yard has been utilized by a number of productions including Breaking Bad.
As you continue to scout, you’ll find what works best for you and your area. You’ll pick up your own tips and tricks along the way, but making friends with other location scouts will end up teaching you a lot. In the meantime, good luck and happy hunting!
All photos courtesy of Matt Toplikar. Matt started location scouting in New Mexico in 2012. Before that, he was a location assistant for three years. He has worked on movies and television shows including Breaking Bad, In Plain Sight, and Captain Fantastic, and graduated with a B.G.S in Film Studies from the University of Kansas.
Top image: Remnants of Star Wars movie set standing in the Tunisian Desert by Perszing1982