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Monday, 01 November 2010 17:50

On the Hunt for Locations

Written by  Nathan Hoturoa Gray and Dyana Carmella
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1FeatLocScoutingGregBabcockOne of the key requirements for the successful making of any film is the ability for the director to have access to the right locations. This sounds so easy: Look at the script’s shoot requirements and then get in your Ford Falcon and hunt down an ideal picturesque spot that requires minimal aesthetic alteration. However, there’s more than meets the eye to location scouting. This vital preproduction role is an art form that’s rapidly evolving, given the vast changes in cinematographic technology over the past decade.

 Some location managers simply cold scout regions that have been negotiated as the most financially viable place to shoot. Others utilize the local knowledge of film commission databases and specialized location agencies, such as Reel-Scout.  These sources offer a dearth of location photos, setting descriptions and useful contacts that can save hours of scouring the state. Film commissions, such as the Oklahoma Film & Music Office, have websites utilizing Reel-Scout offer viewers an opportunity to preset their own locations onto the Reel-Scout website to make the locations database even more comprehensive.

 The Colorado Office of Film, Television & Media is one of many film commissions in the U.S. and overseas that provides location database facilities on their websites, offers a small sampling of state locations in its photo database and a “Production Inquiry Form” that enables staff to help find the perfect location for specific queries not covered on the site.

 2FeatLocScoutingProductionStillfromWingsPikesPeakinBackgroundThe California Film Commission (CFC) has an online database called CinemaScout, which features California locations available for filming. It also offers an onsite Location Resource Center with personalized assistance for visitors in search of locations. The CFC’s access to a network of over 50 regional film offices provides detailed location information and facilitates the permit process (including free online permits for all state property, such as state parks and beaches, freeways, roads and government buildings). And if you’re looking specifically for location properties in California, MNM Locations in Playa del Rey is a location scouting service that offers an extensive location library of over 600 Southern California properties.

 The best location scouts and managers have all their location information accessible on personalized websites for when producers and directors come knocking on their doors. But these professionals also need the creative ability to see what a script is trying to portray. With the whole production in mind, their job entails marking out each potential setting and securing an underlying sense of the director’s overall cinematic vision. Thus the capacity to think on one’s feet is vital.

 Location Manager Ilt Jones has been in the business for 17 years working on blockbuster features, such as Inception and three Transformers films, and TV hits like HBO’s “Big Love.” As he travels the globe, he has learned how to push his craft to next level to make a director’s vision into reality. Currently at work on Transformers 3, directed by Michael Bay, Jones takes note of the impact new technology has had on scouting. “We were desperately searching for an abandoned apartment building that would double for one in Chernobyl,” Jones recalls. “A bunch of us spent days combing the Web and eventually [Location Manager Jonathan] ‘JJ’ Hook came up with a brilliant option in Chicago on Google Earth, which was the [option] we shot. Whilst the aforementioned technologies are, for the most part, a tremendous boon, they are also double-edged swords. Because everyone is at heart an instant-gratification junkie, productions expect feedback from scouts almost instantaneously because they know how fast we can produce locations and images thereof. So this speed of information transfer has made a rod for our backs because we are expected to produce results at dizzyingly improbable speeds. But then I suppose there was the same kvetching when they invented the wheel too.”

 What Jones enjoys is the creative side of the job in helping the director and designer shape the film. “I am not one of those location managers who shows a ton of files somewhat indiscriminately in the hope that if they throw enough stuff against the wall, something will stick,” he explains. “I believe in quality not quantity. I pretend I’m the director and imagine what I would like to see up there on the screen. I’d rather show just one file that works than five or ten that don’t.” On the Transformer films, Jones took on some big challenges and admits to being intimidated at times: “When we were prepping Transformers 2, Michael Bay said he wanted to film at the pyramids and asked if I had any suggestions for other cool stuff in the region. Luckily I had been on a FAM tour to Jordan the year before, so I suggested the lost city of Petra and also Wadi Rum, where they shot Lawrence of Arabia. As soon as he saw my pictures of these places, he said, ‘We’re shooting there. No question.’ So that was fun.”

 3LocScoutingFeatDaveComer2As for productions in L.A., Jones says the biggest obstacle is that 90 percent of locations have all been shot before. “The trick is to present them as lateral solutions to creative issue, [such as] use locations in a different and fresh way,” Jones explains. “Use office buildings as hotel lobbies rather than just scout hotel lobbies. On Inception, the script called for a van to crash down from the top of a parking structure into a river. Since we were shooting in L.A., which is not exactly blessed with lots of rivers, let alone parking structures next to rivers, I suggested crashing the van off the Commodore Heim Bridge on Terminal Island. Chris Nolan liked the idea and that’s what ended up in the movie.” For his dedicated work and insightful ideas on Inception, Jones is now a COLA (California On Location Awards) Location Professional of the Year (Features) nominee.

 “With [the] sorts of films I have been doing for the past few years, people assume that I am going to want to blow their location up as soon as I, or scouts working for me, walk through the door,” Jones jokes. “However, there always have been obstacles and there always will be. If it was easy, anyone could do it! At the risk of sounding like a masochist, it’s the challenge of overcoming the obstacles that make it fun. I also worked on After the Sunset in the Bahamas, which was most notable for me getting thrown in jail for allegedly trespassing on a military base! Not an everyday occurrence for me. Thank God!”

 As a veteran location manager, Jones knows what it takes to be a key component of the production process. “We have to be jacks of all trades and masters of as many of them as possible,” he notes. “In a sense we are in the service business providing parking, security, traffic and pedestrian management, as well as the more glamorous aspects of the job, like dealing with overflowing porta-potties. We are the bulwark between the production and unscrupulous merchants and neighbors, as well as the WD40 that eases the production in and out of delicate situations and locations. We are called upon by all other departments to help them, and we are expected to understand their needs instantaneously and respond accordingly.”

 FeatLocScoutingtIltJonesLocation Manager Kent Matsuoka is a Location Professional of the Year nominee at this year’s COLA as well, for his work on a Ford Super Duty commercial. With 15 years of experience on films like the upcoming Due Date (starring Robert Downey Jr.) and Burlesque, Matsuoka is currently working in Hawaii on the new TV series “Hawaii Five-O” for CBS. “Scouting an island isn’t much different than scouting on the mainland, as you’re still looking to tie locations together to make your day and limited to where you can support your company,” says Matsuoka. “But managing is a lot more difficult, as you have a limited crew base to draw from, and if you forget a crucial piece of equipment that's not available on the island, if needs to get shipped in.” While daily challenges can include budget limitations, logistics issues, locale availability and scheduling around events that conflict with the shoot, the task of hunting down disparate locales has also led to exciting and unusual events: “I’ve had all sorts of interesting experiences –– from scouting offshore oil rigs and being paid to ski down mountains to find the perfect park –– but I’d say getting chased off a location at gunpoint that I later learned was the site of an underground meth lab to be the most bizarre thing to have happened.”

 Over the years, Matsuoka has adopted the technology that has changed his profession. “When I started, we still shot on film [and then] took the film to a lab for processing, pasted it all together and ‘FedExed’ it to wherever it needed to go,” he says. “You needed to map everything out before leaving because once on the road, you didn't have Google on your iPhone to look something up or the ability to get schedule changes via email to take a camera phone image to send to the director. Now, you’re available 24 hours a day, and because we’re able to get and send emails instantly, producers don’t understand why you can't scout, send images back to the office and pull your permits all at the same time.”

 Dave Comer has been location scouting for over 20 years, beginning in New Zealand and extending to over 35 countries worldwide. Currently doing pre-preproduction for The Hobbit, he is easily the best location manager in Aotearoa and intimately involved in a list films that include The Lord of the Rings trilogy. “Old-fashioned instinct, intuition and curiosity top the list when it comes to scouting the right places, along with some basic detective skills,” Comer states. “We also use aircraft a lot here, especially helicopters. New Zealand is lucky to have some of the best pilots in the world, and the nature of the terrain in the most interesting parts of the country dictates that helicopters are the most efficient means of scouting such remote locations.”

 Indeed, location settings in close proximity can be very important in securing the ideal spot for today’s productions, as well as helping cut down on the costs associated with transporting equipment. Comer agrees that this plays an important part in how final film locations are chosen. “It is often commented that the diversity of locations in New Zealand are a real draw-card, and the extreme differences within relatively short distances are a point of difference from some countries I’ve worked in, where it can be days travel to get a significant change of landscape.”

 Comer also points out that he has witnessed extreme changes in technology during his many years in the business. “When I started we didn’t even have cell phones,” he notes. “For remote communication I had a massive HF radio system with a huge aerial mounted on the front of a Range Rover. For scout photos I had to shoot film, find somewhere nearby to get it processed, [and] then find the nearest courier to send mounted prints to the director. As cellphones came on, then email and digital cameras, it simply accelerated the whole business. Production schedules have become more and more compressed, sometimes to the point of absurdity, so the need to adapt has been vital. I currently find mobile Internet together with Google Earth very useful for scouting, and software like Apple QuickTime-VR has been invaluable in some situations for presenting locations in an interactive way, if it is necessary to give that much information.”

 Apple iPhones have totally implemented the sort of scouting tools that location managers find necessary to deliver, given the hectic schedules of today’s directors. For locations where the shoot is going to be inevitably dependent upon natural light and the angle of the sun, the use of compasses and sun-position locators are often needed. Sun Position is an iPhone application that allows fast determination of the azimuth and altitude of the sun for any given place and time worldwide. Other relevant information is also accessible, including sunrise, sunset, hours of daylight time, shadow-length ratio and even an inclinometer.

 GPS applications, now common on most iPhone applications, help to confirm the Wi-Fi user’s location, as 3GS Internet systems become accessible in many areas globally. Google Maps allows for step-by-step instructions to help production scouts and teams get to desired location settings, along with the ability to switch from a map view to a satellite, hybrid or street view. There is also an option to input keywords to find nearby businesses, bus and train schedules, live traffic information and public transit directions (although one must beware of countries that have recently changed their one-way roading systems as the technology may not have accounted for such changes!). These ever-evolving technologies not only help to keep location scouts well informed, but help production teams to more seamlessly control the shoot, particularly when organizing traffic blocks and rerouting systems to block out traffic noise and other potential disturbances.

 Jared Connon is arguably the second-best location scout in New Zealand behind his boss Dave Comer. He started in 1993 and really cut his teeth in the feature film industry after scouting for The Lord of the Rings and later spending a few years working on features in the U.K.  Realizing that it would require at least a decade of hard graft to get consistent work in top feature films in the U.K., he headed back to New Zealand to start up his own company where he could be in direct correspondence with the producers coming on board. This led Connon to be intimately involved in some of the bigger films shot in the country, including 10,000 BC, The Lovely Bones, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the upcoming The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

 Currently assisting Comer on the prepreproduction of The Hobbit, Connon says that the change of working styles –– due to technological advances of location scouts working from film to digital formats –– certainly makes it easier to share locations with the world. “But to be frank, it’s meant less work for people in my profession, as now our images are shared so easily that you only have to type a word in a search engine and you will find an image relating to what you need,” Connon explains. This is compounded by the increase in purely digitally fabricated shooting scenes, given the advanced technology that films like Avatar now use –– taking location scouts out of the overall picture. “Having said all this, I still tromp out each day with a camera, pen, notebook and raincoat and get on with it,” says Connon.

 LocScoutingFeatJaredConnon1Connon has accumulated some of the most spectacular photos of New Zealand on his location scouting database, and what keeps him essentially going in the job is the people. “I have worked amongst some of the most beautiful people you could ever imagine,” says Connon, “and the thought that tomorrow I may meet another amazing person, whether it be a quirky location owner, a conscientious park ranger, a humble location assistant or an honest producer, that’s the real reason I enjoy my work so much. Also, the government agencies work hard to ensure we have access to some of the most amazing landscapes in the world when needed for that ‘special’ project.

“I take photos of amazing landscapes and architecture throughout New Zealand, and have a mental database of every visual nook and cranny in this country,” Connon continues. This is a vital prerequisite for any successful location-scouting venture and it keeps him being rehired by Filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson. “You also have to have the ability to plan a military-style operation under extreme sleep deprivation,” he notes. “It all adds to the overall excitement.” Connon has an enormous enthusiasm to share the creative fruits of his photographic talent. For a taste of his location database, go to http://exitlocations.smugmug.com.

Greg Babcock, one of Colorado's most experienced location managers with over 30 years in the industry, has similar sentiments regarding the changes technology has made to his profession. “It is nice, after a day of scouting, not to have to run to One-Hour Moto Photo to get your six rolls of film processed, [and] then run home, paste all your panoramas on legal files and then drive like the wind to catch the last FedEx,” says Babcock. “The bad part is now there are no FedEx deadlines, [so] you can 'paste' your digital pans to your website for six hours after a day of scouting for ten hours ... yet there is an attitude that since you’re shooting digitally, they should be able to see locations immediately.”

Much time is spent editing one’s photos and organizing them to make overall sense to help inform the creative vision of the director. However, Babcock’s biggest concern is that budgets have dropped dramatically, especially in commercials, and production no longer wants to pay for scouting. “They can have an office P.A. do web searches and expect location scouts to offer a vast wealth of locations from their libraries free of charge,” Babcock dismays. “The contradiction of this is [that] a lot of locations are discovered while scouting something else, which adds to scout libraries ... yet production doesn’t want to pay us to scout.

“It is also sad for me to see the mentor/apprentice process that the studios and the industry in general had for so long, being dissolved in the trade for profit,” Babcock adds. It seems that the necessity for “cheap and fast” has really changed the overall playing field, and yet there’s still a striking demand for top location quality. “There seems to be little interest in treating the below-the-line crew as craftsmen and women, and with trade unions having negotiated away so many concessions, especially in commercials, crews work as long as the director wants with no regard to turnarounds, overtime or meal penalties,” he notes.

Despite all the challenges and obstacles these location scouts and managers face in today’s ever-changing cinematic environment, they’re all firm in their belief that when you’re on an exciting shoot, there’s no better job in the world.

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