Producing: Location Tips

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Write an idea on the back of a till receipt, grab your DSLR, phone your friends and go out to shoot film. It is quite simple, isn’t it? You may be able to upload it to YouTube before the day is out. With a DSLR and Rode VideoMic Pro you can film virtually anywhere; the city, the beach, the local park.

In any of these circumstances a city official or park, the warden would just see a group of teenagers with a DSLR clowning about. Now let’s change the situation. You’ve been writing this short film for a few months, it’s a period piece, you want to enter it into festivals, so you hire out some pro audio equipment, maybe even a freelance sound recordist. Your DSLR isn’t going to cut it, so you grab a Sony FS700 for the weekend. Now when that warden sees you filming, you are no longer just a bunch of teenagers shooting videos for YouTube. You look like a fully-fledged small filmmaking crew, and he might have a problem with you guys shooting there without paying.

How important is a location to film? Very. There is a reason why locations have their own fully fledged department on a film, or that some people solely work as location scouts. You may have heard how important casting is, and that the wrongly cast actor can break your film. Imagine somebody else playing the Joker in The Dark Knight! Locations work in the same manner. They are characters in their own right. They can make or break your scene.

Therefore, before you go out to shoot let’s have a look at some variables you may need to cover. It should be noted that this article is targeted towards DIY and no-budget filmmakers. Rules will be broken.

Do you need a permit to shoot at the location?

As stated at the start, a lot of the time if you’re just shooting with a DSLR, and there’s 3 to 4 of you. The likely hood is that nobody is going to start asking questions. But if you’re going to be at that location for a prolonged period or there is going to be a large crew of people you may need a permit, especially if you’re shooting on government/council owned property. Many city councils have a film department that can assist you in acquiring a license. Location permits can quickly deplete your budget. The cost will often vary depending on the project you are working on and if it’s for profit.

A project I was once working on required a scene to be shot in the local woodland, unfortunately, for us, the warden’s lodge was relatively close, and we decided that it would be the smart idea to ask for permission as the scene was quite remarkable. I spent the day on the phone trying to sort something out, and after being transferred to various departments and listening to numerous Music on Hold tracks, I was finally speaking to the right person. The man I talked to was all right with me filming in the local forest for free and all I had to do was to ring him on the day of filming; he was even going to set up road cones for us.

In another situation, I was not so lucky to have such a comfortable ride. We were filming in a very prestigious piece of land, nothing drastic, only a walking scene, but the warden had asked for £500 an hour. Which was the actual filming fee. I explained to him on the phone that we were just local students and to spend that type of money was a dream. He didn’t buy it. We still proceeded to film on the land but as a precaution, we set our set area to look like a few guys fishing, as that was allowed.

That is no-budget filming for you. This leads onto the next section.

Will the landowners allow you to shoot there?

You should always ask a land owner if you can shoot on their property. As with my case a lot of the time they are happy to have you film there. I once needed to film in an old barn which could pass off as a barn built in the 18th century. We found one and asked the farmer if we could film in it, he agreed but to one condition. He wanted to have a small cameo in the scene. There was no place for him in the script, but we obviously couldn’t turn down the offer. With a quick rewrite of the scene, he had his first ever cameo as a farmer. He didn’t even have to change clothes.

If your project is for profit, it is more than likely you will have to pay to use the property. This is the one area you cannot lie about. If you convince the landowner your project is not for profit, and it is, if he later finds you were lying, there can be some heavy legal ramifications.

In a fictional circumstance, we are going to take a look at a condition where you are on a paid project, perhaps an advert for a local car dealership that will be played on TV. You will need to pay the landowner (unless he waives it of course), which could take a big chunk out of the budget. So how can we keep the cost down?

Ask yourself these three questions

  1. Can you find a similar location for cheaper the price?
  2. Do you need the exterior and interior?
  3. What is the distance from your base of operation?

These three questions need to be asked so you can help keep costs at a minimum. You may find a fantastic Tudor house which suits your needs, but it might not be the only Tudor house in the town. It would be the same if you were buying a car; shop around. There’s always a cheaper deal somewhere. If you only need the interior of a location and not the exterior, would it be cheaper to build a set mimicking the location? You could shoot an establishing shot of the exterior then always go to a more reasonable location. Always take into account the distance from your set-up to the location, when you pay to use a location you are also paying the travel fees to get there. If you have a large cast and a lot of equipment, you will need a means of travel to the location. You may have to hire a van, and this comes with buying more fuel money.

What problems can you run into at a location?


These four factors also can dig into your location budget if you’re not careful.

The noise in question isn’t just the sound of traffic or people. But sounds from refrigerators, air conditioning fans, if your location is in an office will you have access to disable these sounds? You may be filming in a field, away from any civilization and you may think that your sound will be the least of your worries, but is your location in a flight path? I had one peculiar scenario. The location was a coastal road near a shore front. It was directly under a flight path, so we decided to shoot on a Sunday as the planes were more irregular. There was a skate park about 50 meters away, so we decided to shoot at 08:00, so the park would be empty. However the oath was also near a lake and on Sunday mornings the local miniature boat society took their boats out into the lake. The sound of multiple petrol fuelled boats = Awful Sound.

What about the space of your location? Will you be able to set up all of your equipment in that location as well as the actors and the crew? Are there enough parking spaces for all of the vehicles? Fully research the entire area. In my hometown, the BBC often use the local Sports Centre as a means of parking their trucks.

If you’re shooting a piece in a London street, and the location has the right look but the scene is set in America, you may have to remove signs and have road markings removed. To have them physically painted is going to cost a lot of money or could you remove them in post? Finally, will your location have enough resources? If you’re shooting in a rural village house will it have enough power sockets for your equipment? You may have agreed to pay for the electricity used but will the house even supply enough power needed for your scene?

These are all variables you have to take into account when scouting for a location. By no means is this a complete list, but it’s a good foundation to start on. Do you have any tips you would like to input or do you have any location nightmare stories? Let us know in the comments.


About The Author

Lewis McGregor is an aspiring filmmaker, photographer and online content creator from Wales.

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  • uma martinez

    I recently arranged to film on a polo field. After many emails I got permission. The film day arrived and no one told me that there would be a construction crew on the field setting up an ad hoc stadium for a concert. (A spontaneous decision by field management that never made it to me.) It was for a music video, so noise was not an issue, but bulldozers and trucks and workmen etc 500m away…. ?! It was a field in the middle of nowhere that had never had any structures in over 50 years or more. A reshoot was planned. As it was for a non-profit social awareness video, initially no fee would be charged. While organising a reshoot this came into question and field management and the landowners differed in opinion. Accessibility seemed to depend primarily on the field manager’s mood… which fluctuated on a regular basis. Amongst other things wind, horse shit and the actress’s light sensitive eyes were additional challenges.