Location Scouting 101: Preparing for Your Next Film or Video Shoot 

Location scouting for film is an often-unsung profession in the entertainment industry. Imagine trying to capture the perfect scene for your next project without the right atmosphere surrounding your subject. Good location scouting can mean the difference between shooting among a bland assemblage of vegetation and filming in a lush landscape that ignites your audience’s imagination. 

Before you shout “Lights, camera, action!” it’s important to know what location scouting for film shoots entails, why it’s important, and what steps to take for successful film location scouting.

What Is Location Scouting?

Location scouting is the art and science of finding the perfect place to capture your film or video. It involves searching for and selecting suitable locations to shoot scenes or capture images for film, TV, commercials, and other video projects.

However, location scouting is about more than aesthetics. Location scouts must also juggle logistics, budgets, and legal issues as they endeavor to find the perfect setting for a scene. Because locations often have to be locked down long before a shoot, these professionals are typically onboarded early in the production process.

Why Is Location Scouting Important?

While writers, directors, and actors create the life of a scene in their imagination, location scouts are the cornerstone of shifting that fantasy into a reality. Proper location scouting provides several significant advantages:

  • Authenticity: Authentic locations add credibility and depth to the narrative, making it more immersive for the audience. Audiences viewing “Game of Thrones” arguably wouldn’t have believed in the reality of Westeros as much if it weren’t for the stunning filming locations in Ireland, Croatia, and Iceland. 
  • Visual impact: Location profoundly impacts the visual aesthetics and mood of a project. It sets the stage for the narrative and conveys emotions, themes, and an overall atmosphere before words are even spoken.
  • Logistics: Location scouts help ensure the chosen locations are practical and accessible for the cast, crew, and equipment. 
  • Legality: Different locations have specific requirements and legal issues that must be addressed. Location scouts help to secure and manage bureaucratic necessities like permits. 
  • Cost efficiency: Finding the right shooting location can reduce the need for costly construction, set dressing, and post-production alterations. Additionally, a location scout oversees permits and regulatory compliance, thereby mitigating the risk of filming disruptions and expenses related to non-compliance. 
  • Time efficiency: Location scouts know the ins and outs of selecting and prepping the perfect place to film while sticking to a set timeline. 

When dreaming up a story, you can dream as big as you want, but when it comes to the reality of bringing your imagination to life, location scouting is key to making that happen.

Understanding the Script’s Needs

Time period, mood, character actions, scene description, practicality — all of these come into play when deciding the location needs for a given scene. 

First, consider the scene descriptions in your script. Most often, a script will describe a place’s physical attributes or atmosphere. If the scene descriptions aren’t clear enough, try to glean the mood of a place by reading the dialogue. Do the characters mention their surroundings, or is there an overall apparent mood that your location can help to express visually?

If you’re location scouting a period piece — a story that’s set in an earlier time period — you’ll want to know what things looked like in that specific era. Filming in a friend’s old-looking house and trying to cut the modern touches out of frame probably won’t help create the authentic look and feel that enraptures audiences.

Naturally, certain practicalities are involved, too. You need to get to your location easily enough so that your crew and equipment can arrive safely and have the appropriate amount of space. Of course, some scenes may only involve sitting and talking — but if there’s dancing, fighting, cooking, or any other physical activity, you’ll need to consider those, as well.

Researching Potential Locations

Researching and discovering new sites is what most people dream about when they think of location scouting film sites. While this sometimes involves travel to beautiful destinations, it also requires plenty of work.

You can start your research by exploring online location databases, platforms, and resources for creators dedicated to film location scouting. Websites such as IMDb, LocationsHub, and The Location Guide are good places to begin your search for filming locations worldwide. Determining the big-picture requirements of your scene — whether it’s indoors or outdoors, modern or in the past, urban or rural — can also help you narrow your search.

A seasoned location scout will likely have their own database of locations they’ve gathered through years of research. However, if you’re just getting started in location scouting, you may have to get creative. For example, check real estate listings for potential locations if you’re looking for a house. Or, if you already have a spot in mind, contact the local municipality. Popular cities may even have a local film commission that assists with production.

As it goes with many things in creative industries, establishing a network of connections is also helpful when looking for ideas for great filming locations. 

Visiting and Assessing Locations

Once you have a short list of locations, you’ll want to visit them to make sure they can accommodate your visual and logistical needs. Of course, you’ll want to know if a location matches your vision, but you’ll also want to take notes on weather considerations, accessibility, parking, and bathroom facilities. When you go, take plenty of pictures to better illustrate the full scope of the location’s potential to other production staff members.

During this time, it’s also wise to schedule an appointment with anyone who oversees the location to inquire about permits, what your production can and can’t do in the location, and any other vital information. For example, the National Parks Service has specific permit requirements for commercial filming and location access. Researching and understanding what regulations you must follow can spare you from future complications. 

Costs and Budgeting

When it comes to deciding which production resources to use, cost is always a concern. Establishing a budget for your location expenses will streamline and expedite the location scouting process.

Here are some factors to consider while setting your budget:

  • Location rental fees: The cost of a location varies based on popularity, size, duration of use, and whether the location is public or private.
  • Permit fees: Determine the complete list of legal permits you’ll need to film and all associated fees. 
  • Set dressing: If your location needs additional set items to make it look unique to your production, be sure to incorporate those costs. 
  • Location access: Consider any costs for getting the cast, crew, and equipment to your location.
  • Insurance: Many production companies carry insurance policies that cover potential damages to locations during filming. For most locations, it’s a requirement. 
  • Security: Depending on the location, you may need to take certain security measures to protect equipment, props, and the safety of the cast and crew — or, perhaps, just to keep the public out of your shot. 
  • Utilities: These can include power needs, providing restroom facilities, and access to clean water. 

Securing the Location

You’ll need to go through several administrative steps to secure a location, including:

  • Negotiating a location agreement
  • Getting a location release form signed
  • Acquiring your filming permit
  • Verifying your insurance
  • Coordinating with a location contact

Your location contact will be crucial when it comes to filming. They will be the person you stay in contact with to ensure your filming needs are met and all contractual obligations are fulfilled.

Respect and Etiquette

In video production, location scouting often falls within the domain of the art department, which is led by the production designer. The location scout reports to the location manager, who reports to either the art director or directly to the production designer. For a seamless shoot, every department member must know who they report to and demonstrate professionalism in communicating their thoughts and ideas.

Additionally, demonstrating professionalism and consideration throughout the scouting process is essential not only for securing locations but also for fostering goodwill and ensuring future access to desirable settings. Be sure to treat property owners and managers with respect and courtesy.

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Location Scouting: Final Thoughts

Location scouting is a delicate balance of creativity, logistics, budgeting, and respect for all stakeholders involved. When done effectively, location scouting brings your creative vision to life and ensures a smooth and harmonious production experience for everyone. 

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