Film 101: Location Scouting

by | Aug 27th, 2009 | 11:05AM | Filed under: Film 101

When we asked redblog readers what they’d like us to cover in future Film 101 installments, “Nick” let us know that he was curious about the location scouting process, and specifically how certain buildings come to be in movies.  He mentioned the beach house in Weekend at Bernie’s as an example.  I did manage to track down the history behind Mr. Lomax’s first-rate digs, Weekend_berniesbut, as with almost every aspect of the filmmaking industry, there’s really not one specific way that location scouting works.  What was done for the 1989 dark comedy in question doesn’t apply to all other films.  So I’ll just stick with explaining the process at a high level, and then maybe in future Film 101 installments we can cover some of the details about location scouting if people are interested in learning more.

Before we go any further, however, I know you’re just dying (get it?) for the story behind dearly departed Bernie’s beach house, so here it is: although the antics in that movie were said to have transpired in the Hamptons, the shoot actually took place at a state park in North Carolina, and the beach house — with all of its winding staircases for Bernie to tumble down — was built specifically for the film.  After production wrapped, it was disassembled and the entire area was returned to its original state, as that was part of the deal made with local officials.  That may seem like quite a waste, but it’s a common occurrence in the movie-making business.  All of those magnificent sets built for the Lord of the Rings films in New Zealand, such as Edoras in The Two Towers — which took six months to construct atop the wind-ravaged Mount Sunday?  Completely gone now.  In fact, the only proof left of the trilogy’s shoot is a stripped-down version of Hobbiton, which I discussed back in January in this post about the various film locations I’ve visitedEdoras3

Here’s a more recent example for you… a Rob Reiner film called Flipped, due out at some point next year, was recently filming in my friend’s neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She said the film crew built a house in a nearby park and it was there for a few weeks… and then it just disappeared.  She later learned that they’d transported the entire structure to another location to possibly use again in the future.

The construction of sets and the selection of already-existing buildings comes pretty late in the location scouting process, however, so let’s back up a bit and begin at the beginning.  Once a film has been funded, contracts have been signed and pre-production commences, a combination of people — usually including the director, producer and possibly the screenwriter — determine whether or not all filming can take place on a movie studio set or if some scenes will need to be shot “on location.”  Now, “on location” is a misleading term, because it doesn’t mean that a movie whose story is set in New York City was actually filmed in the Big Apple.  Rather, all “on location” means is that filming was conducted outside of a controlled sound stage. So, to use Weekend at Bernie’s as an example once again: it was shot on location in Bald Head Island, North Carolina.

After The Powers That Be determine that a studio environment won’t be able to meet all of their needs, the hunt for appropriate locales begins.  That’s where a Location Manager comes in, and he or she will oversee a team of people who try to quickly assess what their best options are to satisfy the requirements for the look of the film, and, of course, stay within their budget.  States and cities around the world compete heavily for movie industry dollars, with most locations offering significant tax breaks for production.  To see what I mean, just check out the Film Office web sites for Chicago, British Columbia, Hawaii, Berlin and Madrid.  Pretty much every major city has such a site, because with film production comes jobs — jobs for freelance set designers, location scouts, extras in the cast, and so on.

As a matter of fact, USA Today ran an incredibly interesting article just last week about how my home state of Michigan has successfully wooed Hollywood over the past few years in order to attempt to offset the incredible number of jobs lost in the flailing auto industry.  With tax refunds of up to 42%, it’s no wonder Clint Eastwood was quoted as saying, “Michigan will be the new film capital of the world,” during his Gran Torino shoot in the Great Lakes State.  Everything from Whip It! to Youth in Revolt to Up in the Air has been shot there over the past year (the HBO series Hung is even set at my old high school!) — which accounts for film revenue for the state skyrocketing from $2 million in 2007 to $125 million in 2008.

Be it Michigan, Hawaii, Vancouver, London or thousands of other options across the globe, once a location is decided upon, next comes the task of working with local officials to block off street traffic when filming is taking place, securing the appropriate permits, and deciding if sets need to be designed or if existing spots will do.  We’ve already talked about how it sometimes makes more sense for a crew to just build a house rather than search for one that meets their needs.  But when it comes to choosing already existing buildings or homes, that’s where the local film offices and location scouts really help out.  Many film offices have a database of locations to assist this process — here’s North Carolina’s, for example.   In other situations, the decision may be fairly easy.  In a city like Chicago with so many architectural marvels, it wouldn’t take too long to match a building with a director’s vision.  For example, the looming tower used as the backdrop in the poster for Public Enemies, the HQ of Wayne Enterprises in Batman Begins and again as the dramatic site of Batman’s showdown with The Joker in The Dark Knight was my old place of employment, the Chicago Board of Trade.  Those nail-biting tunnel chases in the Batmobile?  They all went down on Lower Wacker Drive — a precarious, winding shortcut that runs underneath much of the Windy City’s downtown area.  Pretty much a no-brainer.

So are you starting to see how much goes into location scouting?  I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface!

Stay tuned for more installments of Film 101, and as always, let us know what you’d like us to cover in the future, we’re all ears…

8 Responses to “Film 101: Location Scouting”

  1. Nick
    Posted on August 27, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Great article – thanks for the info!

  2. Locke Peterseim
    Posted on August 27, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    What amuses me is that each city has it’s go-to scenic location that represents the city with one easy brushstroke.
    Here in Chicago, it’s the river view of Wacker. If you are in a movie set in Chicago and something dramatic, romantic, or comedic happens, chances are good it will happen to you in a building along the south bank of the river between the LaSalle St. Bridge and the Columbus Dr. Bridge. And if you WORK in Chicago in a movie, you will ALWAYS have a corner office overlooking the river at Michigan and Wacker, preferably with either the Tribune Tower or the Wrigley Building in the background. (Last year I actually did some freelance work at an office where my view was exactly that–I kept waiting for someone to either fall in love with me in front of the window or take the whole floor hostage.)
    So I’m curious, folks living in other big cities, what are the cliche locations in YOUR town that ALWAYS end up in every film set there? If you’re a director or location scout, where do you go in your city to tell the audience “You are HERE”?

  3. Rebecca
    Posted on August 27, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    I live in a suburb of Kansas City on the Kansas side of the state line. Although a few things have been filmed around the area, very rarely does that occur, since, let’s face it, most people think visiting Kansas is less exciting than watching paint dry. (Even “Smallville” and “Jericho,” TV shows set in Kansas, don’t/didn’t have any parts of their shows filmed here.) And, let’s face it, would you be keen to visit the place where parts of Michael Landon’s 1990 made-for-tv movie called, no lie, “Where Pigeons Go to Die,” had been filmed?! But to be more optimistic, KC does have a film commission office that appears to offer fairly enticing incentives in both Kansas and Missouri. So maybe one of these days someone will say, “Kansas City will be the new film capital of the world.”

  4. millar74
    Posted on August 27, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    I live in Nashville so anything dealing with country music is featured. Of course The Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, Music Row and maybe the Blue Bird Cafe if it’s a period piece. We have a unique skyline but i don’t think it’s been a feature in movies of late.

  5. Mindy
    Posted on August 31, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Ugh, Seattle. Always ferries and the view of the skyline with the Space Needle from Kerry Park – better known as the ‘Frasier’ view. I’m not gonna lie, it is gorgeous there (I even got engaged there) but what bothers me is that characters live there and then go to school or work in the most random places super far from there. For example, the opening shot in “10 Things I Hate About You.” Julia Stiles and Larisa Oleynik live on Queen Anne (the hill with Kerry Park) but go to school at Stadium HS in Tacoma. Uh, I don’t think so unless you like riding the school bus for an hour and a half in traffic. I realize it’s all about budget and looking right, but to those of us that live here, it makes no sense. And ferry shots – hello “Disclosure” “Enough” and “Double Jeopardy.” It also bothers me when films are shot in Vancouver, BC and take place in Seattle. I know it’s cheaper in Vancouver, but c’mon, we know the difference! Just say you’re in Vancouver! That being said, Seattle is a beautiful place to live and to visit, just be aware that if you are visiting movie locations, you will have to do some driving. (And no, I don’t know which house was Kurt Cobain’s.)

  6. Deborah
    Posted on October 28, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    Erika, After 25 years in the automotive advertising business – color separations working with art directors on their vision – looking to “retool” into location scout. Good photographer with creative eye.I know the jewels of the city as well all around Michigan,work hard and great at getting things over the finish line. Any suggestions on where to start?
    Thanks, Deborah

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    Seems to me that if I were the producer or the bank if you will I would be seeking more shot on location situations than having to hoist every little minscule part and peice abroad to build a set. That’s just me. Seems like it would be more profitable too.

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