Location, location, location.
A gaffer once told me he’d rather have one bare bulb to light a gorgeous location than a whole truck full of fixtures to try to make an ugly location look good. Since we’re talking about a guy who’s profession is to use a bunch of cool lights to make things look beautiful, that’s a powerful statement.
For a director, a location can make all the difference in your shoot. After all, if you and the actors don’t bring the magic, at least the audience can enjoy the pretty backdrop! Beyond that, a great location can create the opportunity for shots you might not have otherwise had, through framing objects, creating zones of color, tone, or texture, or giving new context to a scene.
It’s a shame, then, that independent productions often come up lacking in the locations department. I run into this problem often. Great locations usually cost money, and on independent films where too few people are doing too much without enough, locations have a habit of getting the short shrift—until a day or two before it’s time to start shooting. It’s not uncommon to find yourself walking onto a location you didn’t even know about the day before, let alone get to scout.
So if you find yourself shooting in a location you’ve never seen before, here are five ways to look like a pro and remind the producers why they hired you in the first place.
1. Find something that catches your eye and put it on the screen.
There’s probably some reason why this location was chosen, even last minute. Something looks like what the script calls for. If your location is a prison cell, maybe it’s the bars on the window. If it’s a pizza kitchen, perhaps it’s the ovens. Or maybe it’s just a great view, mural, or architectural feature. Even if the location only has one interesting thing about it, build your shot plan around it.
It amazes me how directors sometimes fail to use their locations to full effect. So pick that one feature you notice and put it in the scene. Put it in the background, put it in the foreground, put it between the actors. Treat it like a person in the scene and make the characters interact with it.
2. Recognize what doesn’t work for your seen and shoot around it.
No location is perfect–especially one that you just locked this morning. Most have at least one big glaring problem (BGP) that would ruin your scene. It seems obvious to say, “Don’t put those things in your shots,” but it happens all the time. The problem is often that the director will plan out some great master shot and maybe think about a close up or two–all avoiding the BGPs. But then when it comes time to shoot the rest of the coverage necessary for the scene, the BGPs start peeking into the shots–or else the shots need to be cheated so much that the scene loses its sense of geography. Usually, the director discovers the problem with his shooting plan on one of those last shots and has to find an inelegant way to solve it at the last minute.
The best solution is to try to think through all your shots before you paint yourself into a corner with a master. Take a few minutes to chart out your shots and check that the leading lady won’t end up delivering her lines with the BGP sitting on her shoulder.
3. When facing a tough location, figure out where you can shoot.
Invariably, the location’s feature-that-catches-your-eye is going to be at odds with the Big Glaring Problem in any master and coverage type situation. Most location managers aren’t directors, and if you haven’t been given the option of a pre-shoot-day veto, you’ll often find yourself hamstrung with a location where only one or two angles work at all. Some locations seem like there’s no good angle.
If this is what you’re facing, take a breath and figure out what you can shoot. Even if it’s only one or two tight angles–and they aren’t anywhere near each other. Go with it! Throw out the master-and-coverage style shot plan for this location. (Don’t worry, it’s a boring to shoot a whole movie like that, anyway!) Figure out the shots you can do and build your scene from those. Constraints force us to be creative–maybe you’ll surprise yourself.
4. Figure out where you can put the lights.
Often, the logistical concerns about a locations are at least as important as the artistic ones. Cameras and lights take up space and can’t be right in the faces of your actors if you want them to look right. You’re going to need some space–not to mention electricity–to get your shot. The same goes for reflectors–if they can’t bounce sunlight onto your scene, they aren’t much good. Figure out your logistical demands–like where the outlets are or where the sun is heading–before you start shooting. (And remember, if you are using the sun, it won’t be the same place at the end of your shoot as it was when you started. If you plan accordingly, you can make this work for you instead of against you…electrical outlets, on the other hand, stay right where they started.)
5. Decide how you get to the set (and out again).
I was on a remote exterior shoot once where the only trail in or out of the location just happened to be in the background of our shot. That meant that all the typical behind-the-scenes business that happens on most sets had to grind to a standstill unless we wanted PAs constantly running through every shot.
That’s an extreme example, but it happens more than you’d think. There are a lot of variations on this theme–everything from parking your grip truck in the background of your shot to including a room’s only door in the shot. Often, these things are unavoidable–getting the shot trumps convenience–but will slow you down. You can get ahead of the problems by thinking through your shooting plan. Do you have to shoot the parking lot across the street? Make it work for you by picking a time of day that supports your story. Say, lunchtime if you want a lot of traffic, or mid-morning if you want less.
When you have the option, think about your supply lines when you set up your shots. If you have to cut yourself off, plan ahead and you can save yourself some problems.
Making on-the-fly locations look great is just part of the director’s job. If you think through problems and make a plan that takes into account everything great and terrible about your location, you can walk away with a great scene and maybe a bit of admiration from your cast and crew.