We're not the first to observe that finding the right location for a production is like shopping for real estate. And being a good location scout/manager is a lot like being a good real estate agent.
Feature film location manager Payton Dunham gives a great example of this comparison when he describes hunting for a principal house location with a director. Of course, the first property they looked at was perfect, but the director just couldn't commit to it. Weeks later, as the search became more frantic, Dunham took him past that first house again.
"This is it!" said the director.
"By this time," says Dunham, "he'd looked at so many that he'd forgotten it."
Many real estate agents can probably relate.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
We've never actually heard a realtor use that phrase. But it's the cardinal rule when buying a home and just as important when choosing where to shoot your next production.
First, the positives.
Good location managers talk about "casting" a location, just like you'd audition an actor. You see it in person. Get shots of it on camera. And in every possible way, determine ahead of time how suitable it would be for the production.
When the setting captures the spirit of the script--whether for a :15 spot or a full length feature--it can set up the story for success.
The right location helps everybody involved, the same way that the right costume helps an actor flesh out a performance. All the innovative dramas we're enjoying these days (from Netflix, Amazon, HBO, TBS, etc.) have made terrific location choices.
Now the negatives.
Locations rarely go wrong because they end up looking bad on camera. It's more likely because the overly optimistic producer forgets about the logistics involved.
There are the obvious problems, like environmental noise that will keep you from getting clean audio, cramped interiors where you can't fit the actors AND the camera, and places where parking is 3/4 of a mile away.
Like in all other aspects of production, Murphy's Law reigns supreme when shooting on location. If you haven't been part of an onsite shoot that looked like it was going to end in total disaster, you just haven't been working long enough.
When it comes to choosing and managing a location, there's no substitute for experience. Because no matter how well you plan, things are going to go wrong. And the longer you do it the more chances you'll have to encounter I-can't-believe-this-is-happening situations and come up with creative ways to deal with them.
Or you could just ask Sara Burton.
She is, in our opinion, the best location manager working in Portland. And she graciously agreed to answer our questions about the biggest mistakes people make when choosing locations.
IXNAY THE ONDOCAY
Does your script call for a scene to be shot in a condo/urban loft? That's fine. But if you're smart you'll treat it like a scene where your lead actor is stalked by a Bengal tiger. In other words, you'll fake it.
Sara says that condos meet the trifecta for a bad location choice. They always have limited parking and small, slow elevators. They have restrictive Home Owners Associations (HOAs) ready to shut you down at the slightest disruption. And they never have enough room for all the stuff and people who need to be off camera. (Actors get so touchy when you ask them to change costume out on the fire escape.)
Her solution: Shoot any old building for your exterior. Then find a nice, big house with large windows that look out on the city. It's not hard to find rooms that look like you're in a condo.
SAY NO TO TRACK
Train tracks are usually way more trouble than they're worth. To shoot anywhere near a railway, even apparently abandoned tracks, you have to get the permission and cooperation of the Union Pacific. This is a big hassle for them. So it will be difficult and expensive for you.
And Sara says don't even think about "stealing" a rail tracks location for your scene. At the very least you risk getting into big trouble. At the worst it can cost the life of one of your crew--as we saw recently with the tragic death of camera assistant Sarah Jones on a Georgia train trestle.
Did you even know this was a thing? Sara told us that there are certain landmarks around town that are protected by copyright law. If you want to use them, even as a background, you have to get permission and pay a fee. For example, the Portland sign with the white stag on it.
DON'T BURN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
We're not talking about literal arson, though you really shouldn't be doing that either. "Burning a neighborhood" is when an area has had too many productions or maybe just one bad production and they are not going to be happy to see you shooting there. Even if you ask nicely while petting their cat.
Sara says that even the big productions know it's not worth filming on a street where the residents are not going to cooperate.
She suggests checking with the Portland Film Office to find out which areas have been overshot.
That happens to be a great piece of advice any time you're thinking of shooting on location in the Rose City. Portland doesn't have an all-encompassing permit system like LA, but there are restrictions and you will need permits if your shoot involves any kind of public property--especially if you're going to need traffic control.
For starters, just read the Portland Film Office FAQ. And then use them as a resource. They really want to help you succeed because they realize that local production is good for the economy.
WHEN TO USE A SOUND STAGE
Of course, we think you should use a soundstage for everything--from food shots to company-wide hypnosis sessions. But we thought it would sound more convincing coming from Sara, a person who specializes in finding locations that aren't soundstages.
She said that for starters, if you need a look that simply doesn't exist anywhere, you need to build a set. But sometimes, even when you do find the perfect looking location, there's not enough room to shoot it. This was the case in a Marlee Matlin film she worked on where they shot some interiors at Timberline Lodge, but then perfectly recreated other rooms on a soundstage.
She also said that having limited time is another reason to shoot on a stage. A single external location can't give you as many different looks as the same thing created as a set. Walls and ceilings get in the way. And if you have to move to several locations in a day, you're going to lose shooting time.
In production, the biggest day-eaters are setting up and taking down. If you do two locations in a day, you double your setup/take down time. Three locations, it's tripled. Four locations, it's too complicated for us to calculate.
In the long run it's more cost effective to build exactly the set you want on a soundstage rather than caravanning all over town to shoot it in bits and pieces.
A WEALTH OF LOCATIONS
Because we have an incredible choice of landscapes and urban settings, the Portland area will continue to be a draw for commercial, independent, and feature productions.
So remember, to find your perfect location, think like a real estate agent. That includes networking with people to see what's out there and asking for referrals.
And if you can't find a house with a 5,000-square-foot living room, please come see us.