Written by guest author, Executive Producer Monesha Lever
When hunting for a shooting location, there’s a lot that goes into it. Here’s why it should be treated as a character in your story, and a few pro tips for set considerations that you probably didn’t think of.
The old adage, ‘Location, Location, Location’ rings as true for storytelling as it does for real estate.
Go ahead, try to think of a great story that’s void of location. Or better yet, think of your favorite TV show, now move it to a different city. It doesn’t feel right, does it?
That’s because in the most memorable stories locations aren’t backgrounds, they are characters.
Breaking Bad without its New Mexico location might have been…bad.
Imagine Breaking Bad without Albuquerque, NM. Sure, Walter White could have cooked up his fictional drama in almost any town but would the audience have felt his desperation and isolation without those epic desert landscapes?
Locations live on long after filming wraps.
Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, originally set the series in Riverside, CA due to its real life methamphetamine crisis. The studio, looking to take advantage of tax incentives, asked him to shoot in Albuquerque instead. After seeing the vast blue skies over the city, Vince re-wrote his original script, turning it into what he calls a “post-modern Western” with Albuquerque as one of its main characters. The tour buses, still rolling through town pointing out film locations six years after the show ended, are a testament to what casting a location can do for your story and your brand.
The best location for filming? You’ll know it when you see it.
In our work we don’t get season after season to develop a location into a character. If we’re lucky we have a matter of minutes, usually seconds. In that time the video has to both convey the brand’s message and keep the viewer engaged long enough to drive them to take action.
Our locations have to tell their unique story in an instant.
Oh! And they have to accommodate crew, gear, talent, clients, sound restrictions and schedule, while also being perfectly positioned with the sun at that specific time of year.
How do we find the best shoot locations? Ideally the first step is hiring a location scout. Someone local who knows the ins and outs of their town and has the permit office on speed dial. When that’s not an option our Accidental Generalist skills kick in. Just as they say a good idea can come from anyone, so can a good location.
I have my fair share of online location databases bookmarked and they come in handy when I need a traditional home or coffee shop, but some of the best spots I’ve found have come from unconventional scout methods. When a historically long federal government shut down made it impossible to permit a stretch of national forest just two weeks before our shoot day, I spent hours researching other possibilities in the surrounding area but kept coming up short. Finally, thanks to an insomnia-induced Instagram session I found a gem hiding in plain sight. Outdoor enthusiasts posting photos of their latest hikes led me to a beautiful oasis of rolling green hills surrounded by the temporarily closed national forest.
The real beauty was that this particular land was controlled by the local government, not the federal government. We could get a permit, but we had to move fast! The first call I made the next morning was to our local scout who had never heard of this location but knew exactly who to call to get a permit secured in record time.
Sometimes I find a location by searching hiking hashtags on Instagram. Other times it’s by knocking on the door of a home I admire during my daily commute, calling local pickleball clubs, or simply walking a little beyond the spot where everyone else stops. In each case it helps to always have an eye open for possible shoot locations. It also doesn’t hurt to be the type of person who can’t stand the idea of not knowing what’s on the other side of a closed door.
In each case I’m looking for a place that not only supports the story, it adds value, it becomes a character. Maybe it’s the way sunlight bounces off the rocks to cast the perfect glow at sunset, or the convergence of lines drawing the eye to a single focal point. It’s one of those “you’ll know it when you see it” things that makes the pursuit of a location so thrilling.
Finding your location is just the beginning.
Of course, the real fun begins after the location is found. Just kidding! The next step usually involves a ton of negotiations, paperwork, and smiling until my cheeks hurt (it does go a long way when you’re invading someone’s space for 10 to 12 hours). But that’s ok! The best characters in the story are supposed to be complicated.