The Ultimate Location Scouting Cheat Sheet for Producers and ADs (with free checklist)

The Ultimate Film Location Scouting Checklist - Featured - StudioBinder-min

The film location scout has found the ‘perfect’ place for next week’s shoot. Sure it may fit the scene, but what if they’ve overlooked some important considerations that could potentially ruin a shoot day? It’s your responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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We’ve put together in-depth film location scouting checklist to help you identify whether a location fits a production’s many technical and logistic needs.

Follow along with our film location scouting template.

Below, I will outline everything you need for a thorough location tech scout for film.

By the end of this post, and with our location scouting checklist sheet handy, you’ll have everything you need to determine the viability of any location.

Shooting Location Tech Scouting Checklist - Stacked - StudioBinder

You can download free location tech scouting checklist here.

1. Story: It all starts with the storyline.

The most important element to consider when scouting locations is the story.

First and foremost, see if the site under consideration matches the scene and advances the film’s story.

Even great location scouts might think of the location as just a setting for the action, and lose context.

Location scouting is an opportunity to not just support the story, but to advance it. Make sure both you and your location scout have read the script.

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Location scouting is an opportunity to not just support the story, but to advance it. #filmmaking #filmmakers

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For example, should you sprinkle this sci-fi dystopia with pristine, modern architecture? Does it fit the vision the director established?

Does it clash with any established visual elements for the scene?

Don’t get so mired in securing a site when location scouting that you forget to consider story.

So how can you tell that the location scout has considered the story?

Check for anachronisms.

Does the setting fit the time period and story location?

Are you shooting a Victorian period drama in a park full of electric lights?

2. Sight: Visualize the shots.

Imagine what the camera will see when scouting locations.

There are universal visual questions you must ask when location scouting:

  • What will we see in the frame?
  • How wide are you shooting?
  • Are you just shooting into a corner, or will you need complete coverage?
  • Are the important establishing elements all visible in a single frame?
  • Can you create a clear frame with appropriate background objects?
  • How much effort will it take to transform the space into what you need?
  • Do the shots contain commercially owned properties that need clearance?

You can usually make a space work in a pinch, but sometimes it’s just not worth the effort.

Is this the best use of time, money, and manpower to transform a so-so location into the perfect location?

If not, don’t be afraid to move on.

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PRO TIP: Further reading

To understand what the film will look like, first check the breakdowns, shot lists and storyboards provided by the director and the rest of the production team.

Shooting Indoors. Enough Space?

First, check if your indoor space is big enough. Can you get the camera, lights, boom, and people, far enough away from the actors to realize the frame for the shot?

If you are shooting a night scene indoors, during the day, select a room without windows if possible. Otherwise, plan to give your gaffer extra time and spend extra money blacking out the windows.

Shooting Outdoors? Think about the sun.

All good location scouts know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west!

Your location is affected by sunlight differently over the course of the day.

If you examine the perfect spot in the afternoon, don’t forget to consider what it looks like a few hours later or earlier in the day.

VFX can help.

I’ve filmed medieval epics with wonderful castle vistas, but the only ones available to our location scouts were full of power lines. Our visual effects artists were able to save the day by removing the offending lines.

It shouldn’t be your first plan, but in a pinch, VFX can work wonders.

Here’s a before and after example from one of my films:

The-Ultimate-Film-Location-Scouting-Checklist---Sight---VFX-Before

When the location scout selected this castle, there was consideration for whether post-production would be able to transform it into the final film.

Check with your VFX team to make sure they can work with any visual limitations of the space. Just bear in mind when location scouting that every power line or billboard removed will eat into your post-production budget. It adds up quickly.

3. Sound is 50% of your project.

Location scouting for sound is often overlooked, but don’t forget that it ultimately accounts for 50% of your project.

Being able to record clean dialogue is one of the most important requirements for a smooth shoot. The last thing you want to hear every other take is “Hold for sound!” just because you missed something important when tech scouting the location.

When you’re scouting a location, listen carefully for any noises that could become problematic.

We’ll cover some of the most common offenders below.

Refrigerators and HVAC

You can sometimes do some cleanup of your sound in post-production. But it will never be as good as getting clean sound during production.

White noise appliances like refrigerators and HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) are the top killers of clean sound.

Make them a priority consideration when location scouting.

I have often been let down by promises from location scouts that a space was cleared for perfect sound. In one case, a humming refrigerator could only be shut off by flipping circuit breakers…which by-the-way ended up also cutting the main power to the entire space.

We’ll review electrical considerations further in this post, but when it comes to HVAC and refrigerators, here are some things you should consider when you’re tech scouting your location:

  1. Check all sources of noise and how to turn them off.
  2. Make sure you have the owner’s permission to do so.
  3. Make sure shutting sound sources down does not affect other systems.
  4. Don’t take anyone’s word that you’ll be able to do it on the day. Test it out before shoot day.
  5. Air conditioning systems do not always turn on and off instantly. Flip switches and time how long it takes to go silent.

Reverberation

Adding reverberation in post is a piece of cake.

Taking it away, not so much.

If you shoot in a large or reverberant room, check with your sound department to see if they need extra time to dampen the space.

If you can’t easily resolve it, consider shooting closeup coverage in a matching smaller space.

I was once hired to do sound on a shoot in a locker room with eight shirtless characters talking in all different parts of the locker room, so it was impossible to use lav mics.

On top of that, we shot very little closeup coverage, so shotgun mics couldn’t get close enough to compensate. We had to scramble last minute to dampen the space with as much padding as we could find. It helped, but we could have solved the problem more comfortably if there was advanced planning.

4. Mind your surroundings.

Recently, I tech scouted a location. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and everything seemed great.

However, when we arrived to shoot the following Monday, the situation was completely different. All we could hear were joyful screams of schoolchildren playing in the schoolyard next door! Not great for shooting clean dialogue.

The whole thing could have been sidestepped if we had minded our surroundings more carefully during the tech scout.

In other words, don’t forget to take shoot day and time into consideration for locations as sound conditions change frequently.

Always Mind Your Surroundings - Batman Begins - StudioBinder

Nothing beats walking around the neighborhood during the days and times you plan to shoot, but Google Maps can also be your best friend when planning a tech scout.

Here’s how to use it on a location scout for film:

First, zoom in on the map view of the neighborhood and check out all of the surrounding buildings.

Are there any busy roads, schools, airports, factories, playgrounds, gas stations, post offices, warehouses, train stations, train tracks, or any other spaces that might have human or vehicle traffic patterns that could affect the shoot?

Identify them:

The-Ultimate-Film-Location-Scouting-Checklist---Surroundings---Map_New

Check it again on Street View. Digitally “walk” around the block and look for anything potentially problematic. Note them and things to scope out when you’re physically tech scouting the location.

The-Ultimate-Film-Location-Scouting-Checklist---Surroundings---Street-View_New

I once shot near a river. We scouted on a day when no shipping boats were passing through. But on the shoot day, 10 minutes wouldn’t go by without a shipping horn blowing.

Air Traffic

Everywhere on Earth is affected by flight-pattern noise.

The Ultimate Film Location Scouting Checklist - Sound - Airplanes

If your local airport has a tool for tracking flight patterns, take a look and see if that might be a serious concern for you. LAX has this nifty tool.

The-Ultimate-Film-Location-Scouting-Checklist---Sound---LAX-Flights_new

Scouting locations for airplane noise can be tricky because flight patterns can vary by the day or hour. Extra traffic can result in flight-pattern changes for an airport.

The LAX tool lets you look at historical data. Check for similar tools in your region.

pro-tip-studiobinder

PRO TIP: Location scouting urban locations

When examining urban locations, don’t forget to consider underground subway noise.

Where to Stage Gear and Departments

When you’re excited about a location that works for story, it’s easy to forget about all the gear that needs to go somewhere. It takes a lot of stuff to make a film!

You’ll need to sort out where you’re going to put everything before you get to set. Otherwise, you waste precious shooting time solving space issues that could have been solved earlier.

On your location scouts, make sure you have a place for these things:

  • Craft Services
  • Catering Serving Tables
  • Dining Tables
  • Parking for Crew
  • Parking for Talent
  • Parking for VIPs
  • Parking for Background Talent
  • Hair
  • Makeup
  • Wardrobe Staging
  • Wardrobe Changing Rooms
  • Camera / Lens Staging
  • Art / Production Design Truck
  • Art / Production Design Staging
  • Props
  • Grip Truck
  • Grip Staging
  • Electric Truck
  • Electric Staging
  • Generator(s)
  • Production Office
  • Talent Staging
  • Background Staging
  • Sound Staging
  • Any special equipment such as:
    • Stunt Pads / Stunt Rigging
    • Special / Practical Effects
    • Cranes / Jibs
    • Armory
    • Pyrotechnics
    • Live animals

Don’t want to forget anything? Download this location scouting checklist and take it with you to when tech scouting.

Section off a Dedicated Space for Talent

You cannot just slam actors in with the rest of the crew.

They need their own private space to focus. If actors are distracted, they can’t memorize lines or get to the correct emotional place to do their work.

And the film will suffer.

Good location scouts know that they are contractually obligated to give SAG-AFTRA performers personal space and a bathroom separate from crew. It’s a good idea, even for non-union actors.

So make sure you have an eye on where you’re putting each actor.  

Will they have their own rooms?

Will you be parking a ‘Star Wagon’ (actor trailer) nearby? Where?

Where will you stage background talent?

Your location needs room for all of these things.

Don’t Forget About Parking.

The film location scout has found the ‘perfect’ place for next week’s shoot. Sure it may fit the scene, but what if they’ve overlooked some important considerations that could potentially ruin a shoot day? It’s your responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

5. Think like a weatherperson.

Despite your magical organizing powers, weather is outside of your control.

But slight changes in geography can have a big impact. Consider avoiding valley hotspots or precipitation pockets on the sides of mountains when possible.

The Los Angeles area is known for microclimate variation. Locations a few miles apart may vary in temperature by 30 degrees or more.

The-Ultimate-Film-Location-Scouting-Checklist---Weather-Map_new

Even if your film location is indoors, take weather into account. Consider the impact of rain and wind on sound or available light.

A beautiful, glass-covered space can turn into a rain amplifier and ruin your sound for the day if a storm hits. Wind blowing trees outside can make for a distracting background.

6. Stay on top of power.

Here’s an all-too-familiar situation: Your film location scout sends you a message. “Look at this beautiful ballroom. Perfect for the elegant dance scene. Outlets everywhere!” Great! You check power concerns right off the location tech scouting checklist.

….But on the day of the shoot, the breakers flip every time you turn the lights on. This is yet another reason why tech scouting is so important.

The Ultimate Film Location Scouting Checklist - Power - Breakers

Checking for outlets are not enough. Here are some power considerations to check off:

  • Check for Outlets. Identify how many outlets are available, and where.
  • Check the Breaker Box. Make sure there is enough power to run lights, camera, hair, makeup, sound, craft services, and the local production office.
  • Label outlets and breakers. You don’t want to scramble to find out which breaker controls which outlet in the middle of a shoot day.
  • Involve the Electrical Department. Be clear with the electrical department about production needs. Your electrical department will want to know that outlets are properly grounded. No surprises on the shoot day. I’ve even seen great location scouts visit potential locations with an outlet tester to make sure wiring is properly done.
  • Secure Access to the Breaker Box for the Shoot. Be sure your location manager has access to the breakers. Nothing kills a day faster than having to call location owners to figure out how to get into a locked breaker room. Remember, you may also need to reach breakers to shut off HVAC or other sounds.
  • Use Separate Circuits for Some Departments. Find out if any other departments on your shoot have special electrical needs. The most common power snafu I’ve encountered happens when your hair and makeup crew are using the same breaker as your lights.

7. Confirm you can access the facilities.

After a great start, you call your first, “take five!”

Forty cast and crew all head toward the one single-occupancy bathroom on set. Five turns into fifty. While everyone waits in line, you realize you’ll be spending the rest of the shoot coordinating everyone’s bathroom breaks.

I like to secure locations that offers at least one bathroom for every fifteen people.

It is also useful to ensure you have access to water, gas, and other plumbing shutoffs in case of an emergency.

8. Secure location contracts for peace-of-mind.

The Ultimate Film Location Scouting Checklist - Contracts

Your film location scout most likely uses a release to secure your locations in advance.

Make sure these contracts are signed, explicitly arranged, and include flexible options for extending time on location whenever possible. For example, if you’ve shot three days and the director really wants to pick up a fourth day, the location owner has a lot of power to ask for anything they want.

Unless you’ve already stipulated in your contract how much additional days cost.

Make sure your film location scout has prepared the agreement and the owner for the unexpected.  

Also ensure that your insurance coverage will include the shoot location. A film-savvy location owner will usually ask for insurance paperwork to prove their space will be protected.

Need a Location Release Agreement, download one for FREE here.

Wrapping Up

A good location scout for film will make your job easy and provide you with multiple options for each location.

It’s your job to review the locations, scope it out in person, and decide the best location for your budget and production needs.

Double-check whether your location fulfills all the most important logistic requirements by downloading a free Location Tech Scouting Checklist below.

Whether you’re a location scout or a 1st AD tech scouting, the checklist is a handy printout to help you think out all the logistics of a location.

Just download and print out the checklist below, and you’ll be ahead of the game!

Download a FREE Film Location Scouting Checklist here.

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Michael Epstein
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Michael Epstein

Filmmaker at Launch Over
Michael J. Epstein is a Los-Angeles-based filmmaker, musician, and writer. He has written, directed, and produced three horror and sci-fi feature films in collaboration with his wife, Sophia Cacciola. Their films and music have won numerous festival awards and have been featured by such outlets as TIME, USAToday, SPIN, Curve, Starburst, Famous Monsters, Sci-Fi, and Fangoria. He will probably just keep making genre films until they let him write for Star Trek.
Michael Epstein
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