Location scouting for film production is an underrated and surprisingly complex discipline. Successfully scouting locations is not only a matter of production logistics. It can make or break the entire reality of a commercial, movie, or television series.
That’s why we’ve put together this television and film scouting guide. In this post, we’ll tell you how to find filming locations, explore how to become a location scout yourself, and even provide a location scouting template to help you ask the right questions on your next set scout.
Let’s get started.
Before we talk shop, take a second to download our free location scouting checklist.
This checklist covers the essential questions you’ll need to ask on your next scout. You can use it in combination with this post to form a detailed location scouting template and get the most out of your next scout.
Location scouting for film and television is the art of finding real places in order to conjure a fictional world. It’s a critical pre-production process that must unite a director’s aesthetic priorities with a production’s logistical realities.
To that end, scouting locations means not only conducting set scouts for places that will appear on-screen, but also finding film locations that can handle everything a production requires off-screen.
Depending on the project, TV and film location scouting can be massive jobs that require dedicated personnel. Professional movie location scouts are the vanguard of a production’s locations department. They’re experts at sourcing, troubleshooting, and managing film shooting locations.
The location scouting checklist divides the essential questions you should ask on your next scout into five basic categories. Below, we’ll break down the concept behind each category, so that you can easily modify or expand our checklist to best meet the needs of your next production.
The first category our checklist covers is the aesthetics of a location. The questions within this category ask whether a location meets the requirements of your project’s story and your director’s vision.
Aesthetic questions cover a mixture of abstract and concrete points. On one hand, your team needs to consider topics like the “tone” of your location, how well it matches the intended feeling of your movie. On the other hand, your team also needs to consider more mundane topics, like sightlines and VFX requirements.
The logistics category of our checklist focuses on the physical realities of filmmaking. Working through this category presents an excellent opportunity to both plan and troubleshoot your production.
Do you have dedicated space for everyone? What will load-in look like? Will the location require significant travel or a company move? The goal is to form an understanding of your production’s movement into, within, and out of a given location.
A location’s logistical implications are critical. For better or worse, they will impact your production schedule.
The logistics category dovetails into our location scouting checklist’s infrastructure category. Infrastructure questions are designed to capture the physical details of the location itself.
What does the location provide? What does the location not provide? Areas of interest could range anywhere from power limitations to parking to lunch spaces and beyond.
Keep in mind that a location’s infrastructure could have a serious impact on your budget. If a location does not come with bathroom access, for example, you’ll be forced to rent port-a-potties or a honey wagon for the day. Similarly, an inadequate power supply could force you to rent an extra generator. A lack of space for parking or crew lunches might force you to rent a secondary location.
Depending on your budget flexibility, unexpected expenses can add up fast.
The potential challenges category is a catch-all category for difficulties that a given location might present.
Is there a noisy airport nearby? Will the location strain your production insurance? Could the location expose you to weather hazards or vulnerabilities?
You can think of this as the “cons” category, but don’t be overly pessimistic about it. Remember that potential challenges can often be overcome by creative solutions.
Last but not least, the potential advantages category is a catch-all for the unique “pros” of a location. Use this category to identify opportunities for your production.
Could the location double or triple for multiple sets? Does the location offer any noteworthy facilities? Is the property owner particularly amenable to filmmakers?
Perhaps more than any other category, the potential advantages of a location are dependent on the unique characteristics of your production and the location itself.
Now that we’ve covered the kinds of questions you’ll need to ask on your next scout, let’s dig in.
Location scouting for film and television require productions to consider each location from multiple angles. A typical film location scout is a delicate balance of trade-offs, and calculated risks.
In other words, location scouting for film or TV is a huge task. It’s no surprise that your first movie location scout can seem daunting.
To help your production get off on the right foot and scout locations as efficiently as possible, our film scouting guide breaks the movie location scouting process into four essential steps. We’ll point out a few useful tips along the way and follow up with a breakdown of our location scouting checklist.
By the end of this post, you’ll have formed a comprehensive location scouting template for your next shoot.
The first step on any TV or film location scout is to figure out what you want from each location. You can draw up a quick location scouting brief.
The screenplay and an initial script breakdown will provide the first clues to building this brief. Notes or references from the director and the production designer will then help to round it out creatively. If there’s a particular atmosphere or tone that the director wants, for example, then you need to note that.
However, it’s important that the production team also provides early input for location scouting. The constraints of a project’s budget and shooting schedule will have heavy influence over what locations are realistically feasible. If you have a price limit or specific space requirements, for instance, you need to make that clear upfront.
No TV or film location scout should proceed without at least a general awareness of the production’s challenges and limitations.
Once you have a strong idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to start finding film locations that fit the bill.
When working with a professional film location scout or film location scouting company, identifying locations to scout is relatively easy. The production will pass along its location scouting brief and manage a few conversations. The TV or film location scout will then do the legwork of finding potential locations for the production.
Part of learning how to become a location scout is building a network and database to facilitate exactly this task. Any professional film location scouting company will have a database of tested locations and their assets. Within a matter of days, a professional film location scout will deliver a breakdown of potential shooting locations.
Of course, if you’re location scouting for an indie film, figuring out how to find filming locations is slightly more challenging. The production team will have to do the same legwork that a professional TV or film location scout would typically handle. Plus, they’ll have to do so without a pre-existing foundation of location scouting resources.
If this describes your situation, don’t worry. You can do this. We’ve got your back.
The first act of finding film locations without professional help should always be to hit up your network. Chances are that someone you know either knows a place or knows someone else who knows a place. While your network might not be as specialized as that of a professional TV or film location scout, it’s still one of your strongest location scouting resources.
By the way, if you’re planning to shoot out of town, this is another great reason to hire local crew. They’re more likely to have connections within their community and will give you an insider’s perspective on scouting locations in the area.
One of the most common mistakes of an indie film location scout is not getting enough options before physically scouting locations. On paper, your director might fall in love with one location right off the bat.
In reality, that location might prove completely infeasible. Maybe the parking is insufficient or the nightly shooting hours too restrictive. If you don’t have any back-ups, you’ve effectively wasted a scout day.
Try to have at least three legitimate options for any scripted location before scheduling physical scouts. It covers your rear-end and could save you time and money in the long run.
Next, you’ll want to hit up the internet.
Vast and infinite, the net offers more location scouting resources than you’ll use in a lifetime of shoots. The challenge is that they’re not always easy to use.
On one hand, there are dedicated location scout websites like Giggster and Set Scouter that strive to make finding locations as easy as possible. State filmmaking organizations often maintain similar databases, like the California Film Commission’s CinemaScout tool.
On the other hand, to find locations that are more unique or less frequently used for shooting, you may need to expand your approach. Obviously, resources like Google and Google Maps are not explicitly intended for scouting locations. However, they can offer a clear opportunity to discover locations that might not otherwise cross your radar.
The term “digital scout” refers broadly to the practice of gathering as much information about a location as possible through the tools available on your phone and computer. TV and film location scouts tend to take place within tight time limitations. Digital scouts, however, can be performed at your production’s leisure.
Checking out maps, photos, and other digitized data can help you troubleshoot a location without the stress of a tight schedule. In this way, digital scouts offer a major advantage to the modern filmmaker.
Once you’ve prepared a list of potential locations, it’s time to prepare for the scout itself. You’ll need to set scout dates and times with relevant property owners as well as your department heads. You‘ll also have to arrange any logistics necessary for the scout day (i.e., transportation, crew meals, paperwork, etc.).
After that, you’re ready to jump into the core activity of location scouting for film and television.
Physically scouting locations is a straightforward process, but it requires that the crew in attendance be as meticulous and thorough as possible.
Your project’s creative vision is the primary area of concern when scouting locations for the first time. Your team needs to figure out if and how a location might work for your project’s story.
At this stage, it’s important to keep an open mind. The first scout is all about exploring creative opportunities and solutions, not issuing judgments. It’s wise to game out each location that you visit, even if it seems less appealing than other options at first glance.
You might find that apps like the Helios Pro sun tracker or the Artemis Pro Director’s Viewfinder give you a leg up in exploring each location’s creative potential. These apps are primarily designed for cinematographers, but they can help virtually anyone on the crew as an early foundation for more advanced pre-visualization.
Parallel to a project’s creative concerns, the production team should also pay attention to a location’s logistical implications. We’ll cover this in more detail when we dig into our location scouting template, but the basic idea is to troubleshoot each location. You need to assess how well the location suits the physical requirements and limitations of your production.
Property owners tend to set scouts within a relatively short time frame. While you want to be as thorough as possible, it’s often difficult to do so within only 15 or 20 minutes. To ensure that you get all the information you need, take photos and video whenever possible.
Location scouting photography does not need to be award-winning or Instagram-worthy. The idea is to build a series of images that can act as a visual reference point. This reference point will prove invaluable both as you plan your production and as you communicate that plan with the rest of your crew.
The crew members present during any initial location scouting for film or television are limited to creative keys. This group usually includes:
Depending on the production’s budget and creative needs, this group might be expanded to other crew members with specialized areas of interest. A VFX supervisor, for example, might attend the initial location scouting for films planning to rely heavily on CGI set expansion.
Keep in mind that this list is just for the initial scout. Later in pre-production, many other crew members will attend the production’s tech scout.
A tech scout is a secondary location scout that happens after a production has already selected its locations. Its purpose is not to find shooting locations but to figure out exactly how to make pre-selected locations work for the production. In other words, the tech scout is where each department turns ideas into detailed plans.
For now, we want to focus on the process of finding and selecting locations. Let’s move on to the final step of scouting locations for film and television.
Before you begin filing permits or paying property owners, the final step of location scouting is to review your options. Scouting locations means collecting an overwhelming amount of information. This review stage is when you get to sift through that information as a team.
The goal is to prioritize your selections. Which locations did your team like best? Which did they like least? Which works better for production logistics? Which are the most affordable?
In the end, you want to calculate a mixture of locations that best satisfies your project’s aesthetic needs without busting its budget or schedule.
When location scouting for film and television, take a moment to think beyond the perimeter of each potential location. You’ll find that the activity around a location will often influence your shoot as much as the location itself.
A series of quiet dialogue scenes in a restaurant could be ruined by the sound of planes landing at a nearby airport. You can easily avoid that disaster by driving around the block or simply checking a map online.
However, there’s also a more subtle, secondary goal at work during this stage of location scouting. When reviewing scout data, you’re also working to get your team on the same page. By the conclusion of this review meeting, everyone present should be operating from a point of common knowledge and mutual understanding.
Let’s take a moment to consider a tangential question. Let’s talk about how to become a location scout.
While hiring a professional location scout is ideal, doing so is not always possible on an independent or low-budget production. In such cases, producers must figure out how to become a location scout for themselves.
As we noted at the top of this post, the craft of scouting locations is surprisingly complex and requires a great depth of expertise. The steps described above will provide a procedural foundation for conducting the scout itself, but you’ll have to shore it up with other skills if you’re managing the entire scout process on your own or with a small production team.
Fortunately, there are a few basic principles that can help get your scouting game up to speed.
First, remember that knowledge is power. If you want to location scout Los Angeles, for instance, an in-depth understanding of the city’s geography will be essential. You should learn as much as possible about permitting processes and related regulations. To help you get started, the Wrapbook Blog has put together series of permitting guides for major U.S. production hubs:
Second, remember that your network is everything in the world of production. Even if you don’t normally work as a location scout, you can activate your own professional network to help solve location scouting challenges.
The volume and variety of individual professions within the production industry is staggering. Take advantage of the broad, eclectic nature of your filmmaking community. You might know a professional scout willing to give you a few tips. You might know a key grip who just worked at the perfect location for your next shoot. You might know another producer who's been in your exact same position.
If you activate your network with an open mind, the possibilities are practically endless.
Scouting locations is critical to production planning. Though its effects may not be immediate, a poorly managed scout can negatively impact a production’s schedule, budget, and even its morale.
If you haven’t properly considered a location’s logistics, you’ll waste valuable hours figuring out the most basic production tasks. If you’ve overestimated a location’s infrastructure for electricity, you could very well end up losing an entire day of shooting to power loss. And if your location doesn’t match your story, you’ll have created an aesthetic problem that can only be solved with expensive reshoots.
That’s why it’s so important to see location scouting for films and television shows as an integral part of the creative process. Scouting locations must be approached with the same spirit of creative problem solving that you’d find within any other filmmaking task.
When it comes to location scouting, problems must be acknowledged. As a producer, you should not ignore an inadequate power supply or parking capacity. You should, however, choose to deal with them as challenges. By applying creative problem-solving skills to scouting locations, you can bring the world of your project to life without breaking your budget.
Scouting locations is both an art and a science. By combining our location scouting checklist and your own imagination, you can make your next scout more efficient than ever before.
To learn more about working with locations, check out our breakdown of the location release form or our in-depth ebooks on L.A. film permits and NYC film permits.
At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.
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