You can have the most incredible, dedicated cast and crew in the world, the best equipment, and an Oscar-worthy script, but if you don’t have places to actually film, none of that matters. Luckily, it can be easier than you might realize to scrape together adequate locations to bring your concept to life.
First, a reminder from my column about pre-production, relating to the considerations you should keep in mind when scouting potential locations:
Have you seen the location during the time of day you will be filming? Scouting is so, so important, meaning that you take your director and, preferably, your sound person and DP, on a tour of the location to get everyone on the same page and to experience what a day of shooting might look like. Sometimes, a location is great, but there isn’t enough space for a tripod, or there’s a particularly loud exercise group nearby at the exact time you’d want to film your scenes.
How easy is this location to get to? How close to public transportation is it, or is there sufficient parking availability?
Is there ambient sound that will cause problems? This means everything from crowds to a refrigerator you can’t turn off, to traffic, to a construction site nearby.
Is there enough space for the camera and crew? Remember, there will be quite a few people behind the camera as well as in front of it, all of whom need to be hidden from view. Sometimes these problems can be addressed if you’re able to move the furniture around to accommodate, but if the space isn’t yours, ALWAYS ASK.
Where is the nearest bathroom? This is especially a concern for outdoor shoots.
Is there another area nearby you can use for “holding?” Holding is just an area, preferably away from where the actual filming is taking place, for cast and crew to hang out when they’re not needed. Even during breaks, try to take them away from set, otherwise, you risk production design or continuity.
Will this location be available again for reshoots or for multiple shooting days? You’ll frequently end up filming multiple days in a single location, so you need to make sure a location is available for as long as you actually need it.
How much control do you have over the space? Can you control lighting/rearrange furniture/put up posters and set decorations? Can you redirect traffic or tell people in other rooms to pipe down? Does one need licenses or other approval for outdoor scenes? Do they need to be prepared to lie to cops? The more control you have over the variables, the better a location is going to be. Otherwise, you better be good at improv.
Make a list
location: my main character's dorm, aka my actual bedroom
Before you start your scouting adventure, sit down with your principal production people, the people most involved in the planning and organizing of the shoot, and make a list of all the locations you already have available to you for free. This list will usually include:
- Everyone’s apartments/houses (remember to clear shooting dates with roommates to avoid trapping people in or out of the house who aren’t involved in the project)
- Everyone’s backyards (if you live somewhere where people have backyards)
- School or university classrooms and exteriors
- Nearby public parks or quiet streets
Then, start thinking a little more creatively- are you a regular at a local establishment, like a restaurant, bar, or cafe? Do you think you could sweet-talk the owners into letting you film there for a little while, perhaps in exchange for using their logo in the project? What about where you work- can you ask your boss if you can come in early or stay late in order to use the office, or an underused conference room, or the parking lot?
You should also ask friends and trusted cast members for use of their apartments. Don’t ask cast members you don’t know as well, because sometimes talent can see this as a mark of an unprofessional production. But if your BFF is one of your actors, no reason you can’t ask for a favor!
Next, make a second list of locations that may cost a little bit but still won’t break the bank. Many creators utilize AirBnB because you can often find a variety of places for small daily fees- just make sure you let the renters know that you’ll be filming.
Once you have this list, it becomes a lot easier to develop new projects, as well as start to match scenes in your script to potential filming locations.
Location: grad school hallway, dressed to look like it went through an apocalypse.
You’d be surprised how a little bit of furniture rearranging, creative production design, and a slightly different camera angle can turn one room into a variety of seemingly different locations. Especially when you’re short on cash, time, and resources, turning one location into several will make your job so much easier.
For instance, Kate Hackett @HackettKate , creator and star of Classic Alice, used a single AirBnB location for most of her episodes, even though the characters were allegedly in a variety of different bedrooms, apartments, and even houses. Similarly, Jules Pigott @threeminutesfast , creator of Like, As It Is (based on Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”), Twelfth Grade (or Whatever) (based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”), The Uncanny Upshurs, and The Emma Agenda (based on Jane Austen’s “Emma”), has used her bedroom at her parent’s house for every single one of her shows, rearranging furniture and adding different production design elements to mask this. She also uses other rooms in the same house to fake dorm hallways, dorm kitchens, and other interior locations.
Sometimes, though, it’s as simple as turning the camera around, pretending one half of the location is a bedroom and the other half is a living room. As long as you stay along a 180-degree axis, the audience is never the wiser.
Get Guerilla With It
Location: Prospect Park. Guerilla filming made us a new friend! A gross worm.
When you’re shooting in public, you’re supposed to pay for insurance and for permission. This is “non-negotiable” and it’s “extremely irresponsible” to skip this step, even if your project is funded entirely on passion and dreams.
Stareable and myself are by no means liable if you get in trouble, and we take no responsibility for how you choose to proceed, but here are some tips if you, in fact, choose to skip this step.
As long as you’re careful, out of the way, and not blocking traffic, crowds, or other activities, you can film basically anywhere. This comes with its own problems, of course: you’ll have less control over the area, there will be more sound issues, people will constantly be walking into or near your shots that you might not want, etc. But it’s not impossible, and you’ll probably get a lot of production value out of filming away from your bedroom.
Some rules of thumb:
Be careful where you use/ if you use a tripod. Some locations and cities have laws again “sticks on the ground” in terms of filming, meaning that if you’re holding the camera, you’re in the clear, but as soon as you put down the tripod, you’re technically breaking a law. If you’re far enough off the beaten path or away from foot and vehicle traffic, you’re usually fine, but it’s definitely something to research.
Pack as light as possible, because you’re trying to be discreet. You probably won’t need lighting equipment, and you might not even need a tripod and have a dedicated person to look after the bags somewhere nearby so you can run-it-and-gun-it.
Scout in advance, and try to take note of when the busiest times are so you can avoid them. For parks, try not to film on weekends, or if you have to, find the areas of the parks that are usually quieter and aren’t on the way to or from anywhere.
Get there early. Earlier than you would usually show up, since you aren’t scheduled to be there and have a bit more time flexibility, just in case. When filming the pilot for my show, thank god we arrived early, because a bike race was taking place exactly where we’d planned to film an apocalypse scene, and we had to do some quick re-scouting to ensure we’d still get our shots.
Be respectful. You’re using these areas for free, without permission, and other people have as much right to be there as you and your crew. If you need to ask someone to be quiet for a shot or to move their family reunion two feet to the left (yes, this actually happened), do it kindly and with the understanding that you might have to move or wait, not them.
Do you have any tips I missed or words of wisdom to impart? Let me know so we can continue spreading the love!