Some movies are shot on location because production companies believe a real setting will give their movie an added layer of authenticity. Most, however, have a much more pragmatic reason. It’s cheaper. Sets are very expensive to build, and renting studio space can be prohibitive. With a little creativity, almost any location can be used to stand-in for somewhere else, with second unit photography adding the appropriate filler shots. Doctor Zhivago, for example, was filmed in Spain. Most Vietnam War movies, from The Deer Hunter to The Killing Fields, were filmed in Thailand.
Location scouting is a profession and requires a trained eye (and ear) that only comes with experience. Finding a suitable location is a key step in pre-production, and knowing what to look for can save your budget from any number of perils once filming begins. Some of the things a good location scout considers include:
Airplane traffic, car traffic, train whistles, church bells, fire stations, factories, bus stops – all are potential problems and need to be assessed before finalizing your location. Scouting needs to happen at exactly the same time of day as shooting to get an accurate read on noise levels.
Shooting outside means checking light levels at your prospective location throughout the day to determine from which direction the sun will be shining at various points during filming. Nobody wants to deliver their lines squinting directly into the sun and lighting will eventually become a factor in developing the schedule.
If your location is near heavy pedestrian traffic or right next door to a popular tourist spot, you’re going to be dealing with some unwanted and potentially time-consuming crowd control.
Are there public facilities close by, or will you need to rent portables? Is there enough room on the lot to accommodate them?
Is there are area where you can feed your cast and crew, or sufficient restaurants close by that will cater to everyone’s nutritional foibles?
Will everyone be able to get to the set on time and not have to worry about getting towed? Is there enough space to park trucks, equipment, and trailers?
Cell phone service and power.
Is there good reception in the area and sufficient plugs for all your charging and lighting needs? Will you have to rent generators?
Once you’ve scouted a promising location, you need to get all the permissions and permits necessary to use it. For larger productions, this task is usually undertaken by the location manager. They will be looking at bylaws, rental agreements, insurance requirements, and any permits the police may require if you need to stop traffic or temporarily shut a street down. Residents aren’t always thrilled about having a production company move in next-door, so getting all your paperwork in order will be the first step to knowing what you can (and can’t) do while you’re on location.
Don’t fall into the trap of picking a location just because it’s free or meets all of your technical requirements. Your location needs to match the needs of your script, not the other way around. If you have to change your story to make it jive with your filming location, you’ve got a problem.
Also remember that you’re going to need to leave the place in the same condition you found it. Vacant locations slated for demolition are fantastic. It must have been easier to film Rock ‘n Roll High School knowing the building was going to be blown up after the production wrapped.
If you’re using a school auditorium, gym or church hall, you’re going to have to build a contained sound stage to fight bad acoustics. That’s easily done with rudimentary framing, sound blankets and foam sheets, but it all needs to come down again when you’re done.
Filming on location necessarily gives you less control over your physical environment, but you can mitigate the downside by choosing wisely and doing your homework. Every minute you spend in pre-production is said to save an hour on the set, so be sure to spend the necessary time and effort to find your perfect location.