What to Look for When Scouting the Set
You’ll usually start your scout on the set and then work your way outward from there. Keeping that in mind, let’s start by looking at the set:
Stuff. What’s there that you can use? What will be getting in your way? Is there somewhere close by where you can stow the junk you don’t need? What about set dressing changes – is the owner cool with these?
Set dimensions. Bring your script, a measuring tape, and a notepad. I jot down a quick set of measurements and sketch a floor plan. Later on at home I turn it into a set of scale drawings (using Visio or one of its open-source alternatives). If you have time, do some blocking, in your head or using whoever’s available. The dimensions will change the character of the scene. This is a point where some directors go a little nuts, because a location didn’t exactly fit their idea of what the set should look like. They had a perfect shot in their heads. You have to decide whether to sculpt the space to the scene, or tweak the scene. If the space is too divergent from what you had in mind, then it’s probably not a good fit and you should move on. If it’s in the ballpark or offers some possibilities you hadn’t even considered (hey, a kitchen with an island separator – now I can put all the kitchen and living room scenes together) it might be worth holding onto.
Think about the size of the camera itself. If you’re shooting on a Canon 5D, you can always strip it down to the bare body and lens, shove it against a wall, and still get a shot from a few feet away. But if you’re shooting on a larger camera (such as the Epic or a 35mm rig), you’ll need more space behind the lens. The Toe Tactic was shot a few years ago on the then-hot Sony F950, an HDCAM-SR camera that output to a separate recorder through dual-link HD-SDI cables. By the time we added the battery, handheld rigging, cinestyle lenses, mattebox, and onboard monitor, there wasn’t enough space to fit the camera into one of the locations – a tiny cramped elevator – so we had to rent a separate remote rig for the day.
Production value. Does the location feature a balcony with a beautiful view of the city? Is the basement full of dark corners and sinister, rusting farm equipment? The right location can make a film seem much bigger than it is. Next Stop Wonderland (Brad Anderson) was shot in and around Boston, and really used every bit of the city – the aquarium, the beach, various bars and restaurants, hospitals. Robert Clem, the writer/director of Company K, was very good at picking spots that lent the tiny-budget World War I story a bigger, more “epic” feel.
Character. Does the location feel like the character lives or spends time there? If you’re scouting for a corner office for a law-firm partner, you don’t want to wind up in a tiny, dingy space. A biker is probably not going to hang out in your friend’s swanky bar that you can get for free, but in a grungy dive, some dark spot that may cost you a few bucks. Even exteriors can be representative of a person’s state of mind – dark woods are very different in character from a well-kept garden.
Color. If the space is good but you think you’ll need to repaint or otherwise change the color scheme quite a bit (furniture covers), note this down. If that’s the case then you want to move these scenes to the day after some simple exteriors, or after a weekend. This way your art department has some prayer of finishing the painting before you show up.
Light. Do you get good exposure from the rooflight or windows? Is it outside? If you’re inside, what are the built-in lights like (CFL, old-school fluorescents, office halogens, etc.)? How does the light change over the course of the day? You may have to come back a couple of times to figure this out.
Sound. On Windows we scouted for an apartment and thought we’d found a perfect one – a second-story loft in Brooklyn, with a really nice view of the street outside, and only a few blocks away from the subway. However, the guy living there seemed to be hustling us out the door after we’d only been there a few minutes. We figured out why when we went downstairs – and the printing press on the first floor started up. Suddenly the perfect apartment wasn’t so perfect anymore.
Some sound problems are fixable – leaky faucets, refrigerators, air conditioners, humming lights. Others are more problematic, like the highway or elevated train. It’s Murphy’s Law that the most interesting-looking locations will play havoc with any attempt to record clean dialog. Sometimes, however, there’s a partwise-solution. Can you move up one block further away from the noise? Can you put some closed doors between you and one of the sources of noise? Can you shoot when the office downstairs is closed, or the loud-sex neighbors are away during the day?
Electricity. Consider not just the juice you’ll need on the set, but also what you’ll need in the holding area, to charge batteries, run the DIT’s laptop, wardrobe’s steamer, and the aforementioned hairdryer. How accessible is the circuit-breaker box? Do you know what circuits are tied to what rooms? If I get the chance on a scout I find the nearest breaker box, and throw switches (or at least write down the labels if there are any). You want to avoid having to either tie in or run a generator (the latter is noisy and expensive; the former somewhat risky if the gaffer and/or best boy are green).
There are times when renting a generator is unavoidable – if you have a lot of scenes that will be lit by daylight, you’ll usually want at least one larger HMI lamp so you have a prayer of matching the daylight should it get cloudy or the sun goes down while you’re still shooting. In these cases, you’ll need to find a spot nearby where the cable run isn’t too long (voltage drops over distance and cable can be expensive to rent), but where there’s a nice big pile of dirt or a building between the set and the generator. If you can, use the tape measure and guesstimate the cable run – that will tell you how much cable you’ll need to rent.
Video village. If you’re shooting on a DSLR, have no script supervisor, and are trucking around a small monitor on a stand (or just using whatever onboard/handheld monitor the DP has), then this is not a huge consideration. On many shoots, though, you’ll need to set up a separate tent/ room/area for the director, producer, and set crew to look at the monitors. This should be as close to set as possible.
Excerpt from Preparing For Takeoff: Preproduction for the Independent Filmmaker by Arthur Vincie © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.