Location, Location, Location: Scouting Tips
by Scott Spears
Just like in real estate, when you leave the studio (if you were ever in one) one of the biggest factors to a good shoot, is location, location, location. I’ve been on many a location scout and have seen some great location and not so great locations. One of the biggest things when seeing what looks like a great location is you have to think will it work logistically. The factors to locations are cost, sound issues, power and logistics. We’ll break those down in a minute.
First, who should be on the location scout? As many crew people as possible, but it’s not feasible to take the entire crew to each location (unless you have a small crew), so you need to pick department heads, the director, cinematographer, 1st assistant director, art director, sound mixer and production/location manager. I like to bring my gaffer if possible. These people all look at locations in different ways and will have different and valuable input. When all these people aren’t there, then somebody on the scout should be looking out for them. Sometimes when it’s just me and the director out scouting, we both have to wear different production hats and not just consider picture needs.
This is the easy one, either can afford the location or you can’t. A good producer might be able to wheel and deal a better price. Sometimes you have to use some imagination with a place that doesn’t quite work, but is affordable. This is where the director has to envision the shots he will need. There’s a famous story from Akira Kurosawa when he was asked how he achieved a “perfect” frame for a period film he directed and he said, if I had panned to the right there was a modern factory and if I panned to the left, there were power lines, so the frame was set. I’ve been on scouts where people have said the location wouldn’t work because of some factor, but after talking with the director, we realized that element would never be on camera.
Here’s a line I like to use on sound mixers (please sound folks, don’t take a offense, I’m joking), “they’re called motion pictures, not motion sounds.” It usually gets them riled up, but seriously, you have to not just look at a location, you have to listen to it. Is it on a street with heavy traffic? Is there construction nearby or the potential of it? Is it in the path of an airport? Do a bunch of college party kids live next door who will throw the world’s biggest, noisy-est party ever in the middle of your intimate drama? If it’s a multi-story building, who lives upstairs? Somebody who stomps around in combat boots? There are hundreds of noise factors that can grind your production to a halt, so be on the lookout.
If you start to like a location and think it will be high on your list, take a moment and stand silently. Listen for hums and buzzes. Find out if they can be eliminated. You should visit it again at a different time of day to make sure there isn’t some factor that changes.
Say you visit an apartment that looks perfect in the morning, but it sits above a bar that at night cranks up the music, well that would be a sound killer. Some smaller airports cut back on night flights, but during the day your location will have a flight overhead every two minute. In general, try to think when you’ll be shooting and seek out any sound factor which would slow or halt shooting. Sometimes these things can come out of nowhere and cannot be predicted, but you should do your homework.
(Here’s a side note: Refrigerators are the bane of sound mixer’s life, humming back to life in the middle of takes thus ruining the sound, so the solution is to turn them off during the shoot, but often times they don’t get turned back on after the shoot and the production gets a bill to replace the spoiled contents. Here’s a clever way to avoid that: somebody is assigned be the last person to leave the location, be that the Assistant Director, location manager or a PA, they should put their car keys in the fridge, that way when they go to their car to leave and pat their pockets for the keys they will remember they put them the fridge for a reason and will have to return to the fridge and will remember to turn it back on. This was taught to me by a wise Assistant Director. I love tricks like this.)
A nightmare for gaffers is lack of power. If you need a shaft of sunlight pouring through a window that is created by lighting, not the sun, and production can’t afford a generator, then you need lots of power. Older buildings should be given special inspections. I’ve shot in apartments that had only two twenty amp circuits which means if you plug in more than four lights, you’re going to start blowing breakers. We ended up borrowing power from an apartment two stories above and just dropped cables out the window to feed our lights. Not ideal, but it worked. Does the place have plenty of outlets? Where are the circuit breakers? You should know where they are so if you blow a breaker you can get at it to reset it. I’ve had hour-long production delays because a fuse box was locked in a closet and nobody could find a janitor to open it. Get to know whoever’s in charge of the keys to all the doors in a building and make them your best friend. Buy them doughnuts or coffee because the best way to some people’s heart is through their stomach.
(Another side note: Here’s the Scott Spears lazy man math formula for calculating power needs for lights. Say you want to use three 1000 watts lights (1Ks for short) and a 500 watt light. You take the watts and add them up which makes 3500 watts, then you divide that by 100 (I know it should be 110, but that’s why I call it a lazy man formula) and that will give you the amps you’ll need, which in this case will be 35 amps. Most houses have 20 amp breakers, so you’ll need at two dedicated breakers for your lights. Total watts/100= amps needed. 3500/100=35)
Locations bring there own set of logistics, just like people. There are a lot of things you don’t think about as you walk around a cool location lining up shots and thinking how you’ll use the space, but there’s a lot more to a location than that.
Where the heck are the cast, crew and equipment vehicles going to park? A film production takes up a lot of space so there better be parking.
How do you get all the gear to the location? Are there elevators or is the crew going have to drag a ton of equipment up four flights of stairs? Exterior locations have these same concerns. I’ve had to hike about a mile uphill for a shoot with gear on my back and in each hand which ain’t fun, but you gotta do what you gotta do. Do that six times to start and end your day and you’ll think twice about that location.
Don’t forget about changing rooms for cast and a make-up area.
Here’s a biggie, are there enough bathrooms? Nothing can get you booted from a location faster than to have 30 people trying to use one bathroom and to have the toilet overflow.
Now you and your stuff are on set, but where do you put people and extra gear when they’re not working? All the grips and cast not on camera need someplace to hang out while shooting is underway.
Do you have a place for the cast and crew to eat? Is there a large space so everybody sit together and eat? That’s a great way to build camaraderie (as long as the food is good, but that’s a whole other topic.) If you don’t feed people on site, are there restaurants nearby. Be careful letting cast and crew loose upon the world because they’ll all come staggering in a few minutes late with the excuse that the waiters were slow or some other problem.
Some locations have special requirements, like no shoes, cover the floors or be out at a certain time. Make sure everybody respects these rules or you may be looking for a new place. If a location throws on too many restrictions off the bat, you may want to look elsewhere because once you’re there, life may get even worse with more rules and complaints about even minor infractions.
Everybody hates paperwork, but make sure to release forms signed well ahead of the time to shoot at your great new location. If you wait until the last minute, like when you have all your crew standing outside waiting to get to work, then the owner my find some “unknown” reason for jacking up he price, otherwise known as they’ve got you over the barrel. Have proper forms and photo releases for the location.
I’ll close by saying my rule is to try to leave a location better than I found it. Don’t leave a mess because eventually that reputation will catch up to you and you’ll start getting locked out of locations. Also, you may have to come back for re-shoots and if your leave the place trashed, you're not getting back in.
BUYING YOUR FIRST CAMCORDER
By Scott Spears
Ok, it’s finally time to stop moaning about how lousy the movie you watched on DVD last night was, get off your butt and make a movie. The only problem is you don’t have a camera. Where do you start? First you have to determine how much you can afford. A useable DV camera is going to be at least $300 and climb up to $6000. If you don’t have $300 or somebody who will buy you a camera, then borrow one from a friend, rent one from a rental house or head to the local public access.
WHERE TO BUY?
You can try any of the major electronic chains, Best Buy, Circuit City, HH Gregg, Good Guys, Frys, etc... The prices are ok at these places, but the selection isn’t that great.
Next you have mail order via the internet or magazine ad. Be very careful here. There are some good places and some very sleazy dealers out there. The rule of thumb is “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.” This means, if the price is amazingly low, then most likely there’s a catch. First, it’s a rip off and you’ll never see the camera, period. Second, they’ll try to stick you with over priced accessories and when you don’t buy, they’ll send you the camera and that’s it. No manual, battery charger, accessories or warranty card. Sometimes it will be an open box that is a demo or a returned item. You could end up with what’s called a “gray market” camera. This is a camera that was intended for sales over seas, but was routed to the USA. These cameras have no warranty and often the manuals aren’t in English. You can risk it, but if anything goes wrong on the camera, the $30-100 bucks you saved will be eaten up in repair costs. A good way to check up on resellers is through www.resellerratings.com. Don’t shop without checking here. A very reputable dealer is B&H Photo/Video. They’re prices aren’t the lowest, but you get great service.
How about Ebay? There are deals to be had, but I’m always nervous about buying used electronics. You have no idea how used or abused the camera may be. Or how many hours are on the heads (where the video is recorded in the camera)? I’ve had buddies spend many thousands of dollars with good results. My advise, be careful and check feedback on sellers.
Have you ever considered refurbished items. Me? I love em’. Think of it this way. When you buy a camera brand new, it’s probably been checked out once right before it was boxed up in the factory. Refurbs are cameras that have had some small, usually easily fixed thing wrong with them that have been checked top to bottom. You can save from 20-50 percent off the original price. Some sites I’ve checked out are: www.refurbelectonics.com and www.refurbdepot.com. There are many more out there.
WHAT DO YOU NEED IN A CAMERA?
What are some features you should absolutely have?
External mic jack is a must. The built in mics on cameras are getting better all the time, but still aren’t very good except for picking up ambient noise and the camera operator breathing. Look through the spec sheets for either external mic jack or audio input. This is not to be confused with A/V in and out. That’s for dubbing tapes, not recording field audio. It will most likely be a mini-plug. Higher end cameras will have professional XLR connectors that start at $2000 and go quickly up in price. With the external mic jack you can plug in a shotgun mic for professional sound.
I don’t want to talk too much about audio and shotgun mics, but they run $150 range and up. Azden and Audio Technica makes some decent inexpensive shotgun mics. The king of shotguns is Sennheiser which cost $500 and up.
Manual White Balance – Ok, this isn’t a must, but you’d like to have the ability to control the color of your image. White balance is the function of the camera that tells the camera what kind of light you’re using to shoot your scene. It can be sunlight, household lamps, tungsten movie lights or whatever is available. Most DV cameras have an auto white balance function where it will attempt to adjust the picture to make it “normal” looking. Most of the time this is fine, but if you have a scene that you want to be orange, like at sunset, the camera will try to make it look normal, thus defeating that look. If you can over ride this feature you can create all kinds of effects. If you camera has manual white balance and you want the scene to be warm, orange like sunset, you can point the camera at something light or medium blue and manual white balance. They camera will try to make the blue turn white which will shift all the colors to orange, giving your picture that sunset look.
The reason I say this isn’t a deal breaker is that a lot of software will let you color correct the image later. Being a cinematographer and control freak at times, I prefer to do as much on the set as possible to control the image.
Manual Exposure – Now this is important. You can live without manual exposure, but you’ll have much less control over your picture. All DV cameras try to give you an average, home movie look, but in your movies you may want a dark feel or a strange blown out look. If your camera doesn’t have manual exposure, you’re stuck with what the camera gives you. Some cameras don’t have full manual exposure, but have exposure adjustments which lets you change the exposure up and down some. It ain’t great but any control is better than none at all.
A classic case of needing manual exposure is when you have people in front of a window. The camera will see the bright window and close down, leaving your actors dark outlines. That’s when you can kick into manual exposure and adjust so you can see your talent.
CCDs – What the heck are CCDs? They’re charge coupled devices, otherwise known as the chips that see your image. Most low end cameras come with one chip. Also, these chips are different sizes and in this case bigger is better. The bigger the chip, the more information it records and the better your picture quality. CCDs start at 1/6th inch which is pretty darn small and go up to 1/3rd or even ½ inch. A 1/6th inch chip is ok for exteriors or well lighted interiors, but the picture will suffer with graininess and noise on dark scenes, especially night exteriors. As chips grow in size, the less grain you’ll get.
How about using multiple chips to improve the picture? Great idea and that’s why there are 3 CCD cameras out there. They divide the picture into its’ basic color values with each chip handling a color. The old adage three heads are better than one applies here with three chips. The drawback is that the more chips, the higher the price, but there are some 3 chip cameras that are breaking the $1000 barrier. Usually, they are three small 1/6th inch chips, but again, three small chips are better than one.
These are newer chips which are progressive chips. Again, the bigger the better and more is better. The only draw back to CMOS is they are less sensitive than CCD chips which are being phased out.
Firewire – It’s tough to find a camera that doesn’t have a built in firewire (IEEE 1394), but I have seen a few that didn’t have it. Usually they are older models that stores or resellers are trying to clear out at a low price. Without firewire built into the camera, you can’t digitize your footage into your computer. Now in the age of files on storage cards, this isn’t a must.
A note on using your camera to digitize tape footage. Unless you’re poor and can’t afford another device, don’t use your camera to dump scenes into your computer. It will wear out the tape transports. I own a Panasonic DVX100 which cost over $3000, but I use a $400 Canon ZR 40 to digitize my footage. I look at the ZR as a deck that just happens to take pictures. Also, I take it on location scouts and use it to document the behind the scenes stuff. I know some of you can barely afford one camera, but as soon as you get some spare money (yeah, like indie filmmakers have spare cash) look into buying a digitizing device. Recently, I was at Fry’s and came across a little DV camera with firewire for $200. You can check out refurbished sites for low cost cameras too.
One of the first things you’ll need for your camera is a case. You really shouldn’t be dragging your camera around in a sack or the cardboard. Cases can start at around $20 and go up into the hundreds of dollars. Remember to get a case big enough to hold extra accessories, like microphones, headphones, battery chargers, etc...
A friend of mine, Peter John Ross of www.sonnyboo.com fame, found a great metal case at Lowe’s for around $25. It looks like a little metal briefcase and has plenty of room for your extras.
The next item is a tripod. Indie projects are plagued by too many handheld shots, so spring for tripod and change that trend. They start at $40 and go up into the thousands of dollars range. My advice is don’t buy a cheapie tripod at Walmart. I’ve found that they fall apart. Get a fluid head for smooth camera moves. These are heads which have a hydrolic liquid which makes the head move smoothly. You can find a decent tripod for $100-150 to start out with. Some good brands are Bogen/Manfrotto, Miller, Sachtler, Vinton and many others.
How about a lens hood or matte box? These are great extras if you’re really serious about your videography. They can keep light from hitting your lens and causing lens flares which can be distracting. A matte box will allow you to add filters to control your images (more on that later). Box boxes can start in the $150 range and go up from there.
A good accessory to have is a wide angle adapter. Most DV cameras have just an ok wide angle. If you’re shooting in tight quarters, it may be hard to fit your cast members in one shot, so that’s where one of these comes in handy. Pop it on and presto, you’ve got a wide angle lens where everybody fits in the shot.
Filters are where shooting gets fun, but they shouldn’t be used indiscriminately. The first filter I would recommend you get is a:
- UV/haze filter It doesn’t do much to the image, but it protects your lens from getting hit by flying debris.
- ND: Neutral Density. These are filter which will knock down your exposure without effect the color. Most cameras have them built in, but occasionally you may need more ND and sometimes you may want to drop the exposure to effect depth of field.
- Pro Mist: They soften the image. These come in two types, white and black. White tends to make the blacks go milky and are generally used for flashbacks to days gone by. The black pro mist keep your blacks nice and dark. I prefer the black pro mist. They come in grades starting at ½ and up to 2, with 2 getting pretty fuzzy. I like the ½ and 1. Also, there’s a variation called a - - Warm Pro Mist which adds some warmth to the image.
- Polarizer: A great filter for eliminating glare on windows and making a blue sky darker.
There are tons of filters out there. Check out www.tiffen.com for more info.
If you’re still shooting tape, which there a still a lot of you out there, you gotta have tape stock, but where to buy? To save money, you can look on the web.www.edgewisemedia.com and www.evsonline.com Both carry a full line of tape stocks. Many people recommend that if you start with one brand of tape stock you should stick with it. If you own a DVX100, use only Panasonic tape stock. The tape uses a dry lubricant which will not gum up the record heads. The key to tape stock is pick one brand and stay with it. So if you pick Sony, stay with Sony. If you pick Panasonic, stay with them.
WEB SITES FOR CAMERA INFO
www.epinions.com – User reviews of cameras but take them with a grain of salt
www.amazon.com – A place to buy which also has user reviews.