What is location scouting?

Widely considered an essential aspect of filmmaking, location scouting is the means by which a fictional world is brought to life by scouting for real locations that match the scenes depicted in a script. Although a location may not seem like much, they often help to heighten an actor’s performance by conveying a specific mood or feeling during the shoot. In other words, it creates a well-rounded representation of the fictional world the audience can believe in.

At which stage in production does location scouting begin?

As with anything in production, locations should be sourced as early as possible. So the process typically begins during pre-production; however, it can be subject to change depending on script rewrites or creative concept changes. Once the scriptwriters, producers, and directors have finalized the screenplay, they will then outline some general considerations for both the production and location departments during the script breakdown.

General considerations to factor in before location scouting:

Visual requirements

Setting the right look for a filming project is crucial for a director to bring their vision to life by conveying the right tone throughout a film. Oftentimes, they will define the visual requirements for each scene in the script and specify moods, genres, and landscapes that are integral to a specific scene.

So whether it's an idyllic spring cottage in England or an urban entertainment district in Los Angeles, having a detailed outline of the director’s ideas will aid a scout in their search for the right locations.

Discussing a budget

Budgets are always a huge point of discussion in any production, so it’s no surprise that it should also be taken into consideration when location scouting. Setting a clear budget that adheres to the financial costs of a production will help a scout narrow down their search for the right location.

However, it must be made clear that a budget should not be the only factor used to determine a location’s suitability. A scout may, more often than not, discover new unpopulated locations that require no specific fee or negotiate with property owners to get a good deal.

Obtaining permits/permission

Once a location meets the general requirements for a scene, a location manager or scout will be responsible for obtaining all the necessary permits and permission from the property owner to film at the said location(s).

Though a particular site may not belong to anyone, a filming permit will always be required to shoot as determined by the local government. But as filming permits are always handled differently for every city, state, or even local film commission, it’ll be important to prepare such matters well in advance before shooting can commence.

Logistics

Another major point to consider when location scouting is logistics. Once a location has been confirmed, a location manager will start preparing transportation vehicles for the filming crew, talent, and equipment.

They may ask themselves questions like: is the location suitable to drive to, and if so, how many transportation vehicles will be required for the shooting day? Is it within driving distance to the secondary location? Are road conditions even safe for travel? How far is the distance from base camp to the location?

A location manager will address such questions by devising a strategy to prevent or prepare for worst-case scenarios.

Infrastructure

If shooting is to take place in a space outside of a studio, questions regarding the infrastructure of the location must also be taken into account before filming.

In the instance that the location is based in a forest, how many light sources will be required for the scene? Will there be a power supply on-site, or will a generator be required? If a power supply does exist, how far is it from the location? Will an extension cable be needed? Etc.

The answers to these types of questions will determine the feasibility of a location, especially if the production budget is already tight.

Environment

Many things can disrupt a shoot when filming a project, but environmental factors such as the climate, season, weather conditions, ambient noises, natural light, etc. are all factors that a production must be prepared to circumvent.

For example, the quality of a scene can very well be affected by a natural light source If the scene is set in the fall or winter, the amount of natural light may very well be limited.

But for locations based on a busy street, town, or city different types of problems may arise: Will a shadow be cast on the actors from nearby buildings, or will the quality of the sound be affected by a busy intersection?

Even if the visual requirements of a scene are fulfilled, a location scout must always be prepared for unforeseen factors that could interfere with shooting. For this reason, an experienced scout will revisit locations at different times throughout the day, take pictures of the site from every angle possible, and research nearby roads, buildings, or establishments.

So who is responsible for location scouting?

A location scout is a professional with the right training and experience to search for real-world locations to shoot a production. They aim to find places that fit the director’s vision while staying within the production’s budget.

As mentioned above, a scout or location scouts will be responsible for carrying out the physical task of researching and sourcing suitable sites for the film. Depending on the size or scale of production, either an on-site location manager or a hired location scout will perform the scouting process.

Though it may seem like an added expense, hiring a location scout can have favorable outcomes for a production. They often play a crucial role in helping save costs and ensuring the completion of a filming project. A successful scout can even procure undiscovered locations without charge!

Typically, a scout will be on the hunt for indoor and outdoor spaces that fulfill a scene’s requirements. During the search, they may consult with local government officials or film commissions in the country where filming is to take place and obtain a list of available locations for filming that include: studios, indoor and outdoor spaces, private spaces, and public areas.

Types of locations and their specific requirements

Depending on the space, different types of consent or permission may be required to lock it down for a shoot.

Studios

Depending on the type of filming project, setting up scenes in a studio may be more cost-effective than sourcing real locations for a shoot. In the instance that a green screen is to be used, or if the story is to take place in a room for the entire duration of filming, productions can cut costs associated with sourcing locations. They can avoid the unnecessary hassles associated with weather or climate concerns, the logistics of traveling to and from locations, etc.

Unlike getting permission to film in real locations, renting out a studio may be more straightforward as it entails getting in contact with the studio owners. However, it will be important to factor in the length of filming as that can determine the overall costs of renting.

Private properties

Filming on any private property or the interior space of a building will always require consent from the owner, property manager, landlords, etc. Anyone with any involvement in the location will have a say on whether or not filming may take place. So to rule out any issues arising, a scout should always seek permission from all the parties involved when securing the space for a shoot.

Building exteriors

Filming the exterior of buildings may demand additional requirements. But it's important to note that this matter may be subject to change in accordance with local laws on filming, or it may even be dependent on the location itself; which may impose separate, stringent filming requirements in addition to a permit.

Filming the exterior of a skyscraper may not impose strict filming regulations, however, filming the illuminated Eiffel Tower will require consent from the SETE.

Public spaces

The same could be said for public or government-owned spaces, as they often require the necessary filming permits, and on some occasions, consent from the city.

Filming in any public space can be a rather tricky process, especially in prominent areas, as it often implies high foot traffic which can lead to unintentionally filming people or passersby. That’s why it is particularly important to take some extra precautions when contemplating shooting in such locations, as signs or a clear notice of intent to film will be required well in advance of the shooting day, release forms must also be prepared for the public, and signed consent must be gathered from all passerby, etc.

How the scouting process is carried out

Once a scout has determined the locations to visit they will perform the research by doing a personal inspection of the location, photographing it, reviewing and verifying that the site does indeed fit the description of the script, as well as the director’s vision. They may even utilize a shot list to visualize each shot, determine the right angles and time of day that works best for a particular scene, pay close attention to small details such as ambient noises, and research nearby areas (e.g. construction sites, schools, etc.) that could potentially interfere with the shooting process.

Incentives to arranging a tech scout

A pre-production scout, otherwise known as a tech scout, is one of the final steps in the scouting process whereby decision-makers (director, producers, etc.) will have an in-person walkthrough of the location ahead of shooting.

Thereafter, a “tech scout,” also known as a pre-production scout, will be arranged to walk through the location and finalize decisions to lock down the location for the film. The assistant director, production manager, director, and executive producer, will all be in attendance and come to an agreement on select locations.

The tech scout is typically scheduled a week before shooting at said location and is intended to give every department an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the layout of the space. They can prepare for all the difficulties it may bring and even make adjustments to a scene or rewrite the script to reflect the location's description as closely as possible.

Securing the location(s)

It will then be up to the production department to secure or “clear the location” and finalize the dealings with the property owner or agent, and provide all the necessary fees, permits and documentation to obtain a location release form. In preparation for filming, all neighboring properties will be alerted with a “filming notification” informing them of the scheduled duration and length of shooting in the area.