The Art of Location Scouting

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A few years back I did some journeyman work on Man on Fire, the 2004 Tony Scott re-make of a novel set to shoot in Mexico City and its immense suburbs.

The Locations Manager, Janice Polley, a long time Scott collaborator, was my boss for the few weeks I worked there and I have to say her chemistry with Scott was something for the ages, but I'll come back to Janice and Tony and what I learned from them in a bit.

As live action production for series and film grows, in the case of Mexico City an almost 25% increase from last year, the role of Location Managers and Scouts becomes more precious and valuable, and from my experience, a lot of Producers, Directors, Cinematographers and even the Locations crew themselves don't give it the relevance, preparation and even formal education, it requires.

Of course, here we come to a hard fork on the road: on one side, the blockbuster, super-budgeted, mega summer hits, heavy on VFX, shot mostly on, or around green and blue (sometimes purple) screens, where the term "live action" is heavier on the action than on the live, being mostly made of animated, highly realistic characters and scenarios, and they are a lot of fun, for a lot of people, making a lot of money, serving their entertainment purpose, driving some "not so hidden" advertisement in the shape of product placement, and I'm a fan, both of working on them, as well as watching them and stand amazed at the cult like following they can generate.

In a way, they're big, they're expensive, but they still have to watch costs all over, and Studio Accounting Departments are large and strict about it, but they pretty much can make the back of your house look like the gorgeous skyline at Pearl Harbour, or Hong Kong at night.

On the other, independent flicks, smaller scope TV and On-demand produced content, as well as documentary, which are far from having the liquid resources necessary to fund lots of VFX, even at the cut-rate prices offered by some post houses, that desperately need to use practical locations as they are, with as little as they can spend on set dressing, crowd control, business interruption fees and still give us the quality product that audiences demand today.

There used to be a third tier, from the mid 70s, maybe all the way through the mid-to-late 90s, a "middle-ground", the kind of movie or series that spent a lot of money on shooting and post, but not quite that much, and since VFX was still in diapers, and we called it "opticals", or "matte-paintings", done with huge Oxberry animation stands on steroids, they had to dress up a lot of practical locations and traveled around the world.

These productions have sadly dwindled, but some still solider on, and the need for practical locations is equally relevant for them.

The cost involved in making VFX believable, not only to audiences, but also directing actors on what are essentially vacant plots of blue fabric, and managing them so they can transmit some sort of emotion, keeps driving production away from studio back-lots, while the search for authenticity and an element of "the exotic" makes them shy away from "luke warm" locations, in a search for the most interesting, authentic background they can find.

This means that one of the most important pieces of the "filmmaking machine" of our time is the Location Scout, beyond the camera hanging from his neck, or the beat up boots, past the mud-covered old jeep, the mind and eye behind the first contact a film makes with reality should belong to one of the most capable, cultured, visually brilliant person on the crew, who should also have a direct, open and even line of communication with Director, Cinematographer and Producer.

Sadly, many productions set the value of a Location Scout as low as an intern with an iPhone and some photo editing software, even worse, they pay dearly for this in mistakes, insurance costs, overtime, and leaving behind a trail of acrimonious and destructive "film industry-neighbourhood relations" which usually mean that other productions looking for locations will have to avoid the places touched by people who don't place the right value on hiring and listening to solid professionals.

A Location Scout, a good one at that, must have, at least in from my experience, a solid visual education. I never enjoy working with crews who are not "savvy" in film, but I can understand how it could be irrelevant to the average generator operator to have seen the latest Jim Jarmusch, or attended an exhibit on Kubrick's personal artefacts at their local Cinemateque, but when it comes to the person who is, in essence, looking for the sets where the film is going to be shot, one should expect, and demand (and can happily find, I must say), someone in touch with the visual trends of our time, who has an idea of framing, lighting and composition.

Some knowledge of architecture, at least related to script period or background is also quite useful, including an eye for set dressing. The amount of money an Art Department can save working close to a good Location Scout or Manager is enormous. You can repurpose blinds for electrical dept., ask for access to a garage next door to your location to do some "on-site-painting", all sorts of ideas and opportunities arise while collaborating.

And returning to my story about Janice; recently she got the Lifetime Achievement Award from her peers, the Location Managers Guild International, the speakers referred to her career as impressive, which it is, but all of them pointed out something I was too thick to notice in those early morning meetings at the Four Season's Hotel in Mexico City in 2002, she had the drive I saw in her, that burning fire, and that unrelenting eye, because above all, she thought and behaved like a director, and that passion is something wonderful to see if you're close to it, but something quite amazing when it's your turn to take the torch.

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