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Picking Locations for Your Film

After you've locked down your script — meaning there are no more changes — comb through it and determine where you want to shoot your scenes. Some software programs, like Screenwriter 2000, actually break down your script for you by pulling out all your scene headings and generating a list of settings from your screenplay. Of course, you can also go through the script yourself and jot down all the locations without having to use a computer. After you have a list of the settings for your film, you can start looking for the actual locations that will fit your story.

You're casting your film with actors who have a lot of character, so why not find locations with character, too? Don't list generic locations like a bookstore or a restaurant; go with specific settings that will be memorable to your audience, such as a quaint boutique bookstore or a French café with a patio overlooking a park. Does your lead character live in a small, messy apartment or a lavish house on gated grounds with an Olympic-sized swimming pool?

Managing location scouts and managers

A location scout searches out the perfect locations for your film — this person is your "reel" estate broker. Anyone can be a location scout, but someone who does it for a living will be familiar with every type of location, saving you weeks or even months of searching for the right place. If you can't afford a location scout, you can hire someone who's eager to drive around, make phone calls, and search the Internet — or you can do it yourself. Finding the right locations for a film takes time. Contact your local film commission (if there's one in your city) and ask if it can recommend a location scout, or call your city permit office and ask if it can refer you to a location scout.

A location manager manages the locations after you've found them. He or she looks after getting the appropriate releases and permits for your locations and makes sure that the proper insurance is in place. Your location manager can also double as your location scout on a lower-budget production. If you go this route, make sure to find someone who is detail-oriented and persistent.

Most states have guides or directories listing production services available to filmmakers interested in shooting in their cities. The guides are usually put out by the state film commissions (which you can find by calling your city hall) to encourage productions to use local businesses to help the state's economy.

Don't forget to put the word out to friends, family, and acquaintances that you're looking for locations. You never know who may have a great location that you can use for one of your scenes.

Evaluating potential locations

Filming on a soundstage or in a warehouse is not always practical — you just may not have the budget to do it. Sometimes you can find a location at which you can film for free or for a price that's within your budget. By shooting on location, you don't have to start from scratch and construct sets for every scene in your film (not practical at all on a low budget).

Whether you're in Los Angeles, New York, or a small town in the Midwest, you're sure to find vacant buildings that can work wonders for your story and are just waiting to be razed or renovated. From an old restaurant that's been shut down to a bank that closed its doors, you can usually negotiate with the building owner or the government to film on this existing set.

When deciding on locations, make sure that they're appropriate for sound as well. You don't want a location that's too close to the freeway or a construction site. Here's a list of things to consider when scouting locations:

  • Is parking available for cast, crew, and equipment vehicles?
  • Is it near bathroom facilities (a public park or a local restaurant)?
  • Is it in a quiet location (away from traffic, train tracks [unless out-of-service], factories, and outdoor fountains)?
  • Is there available electricity to plug in your lights? (If not, you'll need a generator.)
  • If you're shooting out of town, are there overnight accommodations nearby?
  • Is there air-traffic noise if the site is on route to the airport?
  • Do you have space to set up a picnic area to feed your cast and crew?
  • Can you get permission to shoot there? Do you need a permit? Can you afford to film there?
  • Does using the site require the hiring of a police officer to stop foot or street traffic?
  • Is there a photocopy store nearby (for copying the next day's schedule)?
  • Do cell phones work in the area? If not, are there public phones nearby?

Finding the perfect location that works both inside as an interior and outside as an exterior may be difficult. Remember that you can film the exterior of a house and then use a different house's interior, or even construct the indoor rooms on a soundstage. Doing so gives you a more controlled environment.

Taking a picture: Say "cheese" and "thank you"

With the advent of digital still cameras, you can snap some great location pictures to show your cinematographer and other crew members what locations you have to choose from. And you can download the images to a computer and e-mail them in full, crisp color to whomever needs to see them — whether they're across town or across the world! Photos are also helpful in planning your shots after you choose the locations you want to use.

Sounding off about soundstages

Soundstages are a convenient way to shoot interior scenes mainly because you don't have to worry about unplanned sounds interrupting your takes. A soundstage is basically a soundproofed room. All exterior sounds are blocked out of an industrial soundstage after the doors are closed. A soundstage is an acoustic environment that has padded walls that absorb sound to prevent an echo or reverb in your dialogue, as would happen if you filmed in an uncarpeted room.

Another advantage of shooting on a soundstage is that you can set up several interior sets for different locations in your script without having to move your whole production team. You can have a courtroom, a cellblock, an apartment, a coffee shop, and an interior fast-food restaurant all on the same soundstage.

When you see an airport and airplane scene in a film, chances are it was shot on a controlled soundstage. Air Hollywood in Los Angeleshouses several airplane bodies that have removable walls and seats for convenient filming. Air Hollywood also has a full airport terminal that includes X-ray machines, a magazine store, and a bar.

A soundstage can also be a warehouse, a school gym, or a vacant apartment — any place where you can build sets and hold a decent-size crew. Remember that you have to deal with outside noises if the room or building is not soundproofed.

You can make your own soundproofed room, or at least cut down on the reverb, by putting up foam sheets on the walls, or on stands (outside of the camera's view) close to the actors performing their dialogue. These foam sheets will absorb reverb and prevent sounds from bouncing back. You can also rent sound blankets (the kind used by moving companies). Sound blankets also help to prevent echo and reverb by absorbing sound the way carpeting does. You can hang them outside of the shot or lay them on bare floors (when you're not showing the floor in your shot).

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