Movie producers, advertising and marketing agencies, catalog producers, photo studios, and corporations use location scouts for everything from blockbuster movies to magazine editorial. Location scouts, also called managers or producers, do more than just find top-notch locations. They coordinate permits, navigate local regulations, track down oddball props, and even find local caterers to meet special diet requirements.
Scout of Many Skills
Juggling shoots, projects, and logistics requires a professional with diverse talents. A good scout understands project storyboards and knows how to interpret the real world of locations in a way that matches the visions of the art director, photographer, and client. He has strong negotiation skills, compelling presentation skills, knows how a shoot comes together from all perspectives, and how to put together simpatico teams.
Hunter Freeman, of the Hunter Freeman Studio, says, “I hire location scouts because I don’t have time to scout myself. I recently hired Baldwin Production Services to find a location near U.C. Davis in Northern California. I needed a green field where I could photograph a large number of doctors from the medical center. The field required a view of the campus, plus a couple of other things. I rely on Jim to preview a spot to be sure the location will match my requirements, e.g., a wide-angle view, horizontal or vertical layout. Plus, he always provides excellent directions—a big plus when going to a new location.”
A trained scout understands ‘the ideal vision’ and can pair it with the realities of production. He knows how to obtain the right permits and is well versed in local requirements. Our team not only scouts the location and gets everyone there and parked. We find animal trainers, emergency seamstresses, helicopter pilots, even a caterer able to deliver cappuccinos to camera teams in the field. Scouts can roll with whatever comes their way and keep an open mind for creative problem-solving.
To increase the chances of finding the right scouting company for a shoot:
Research company history, clients, and projects completed. Consider their level of complication and detail and compare them to your project. Get references. Find out the extent of their on-location service. Determine if you will need travel, food, and lodging arrangements, or just someone to identify a venue and obtain permits and permissions. Decide if you should hire locally or send a trusted scout who knows your point of view to find local resources for you.
Making it Happen
One challenging shoot we worked on was for J.D. Edwards. They had a photographer coming from England, an art director from Chicago, and a concept of “Run With It” for a two-page ad spread.
The art director required strong horizontal lines to fit the format. The photographer wanted multiple levels of depth and minimal lighting. The client wanted to appeal to industry, so we needed a strong symbol of industrial power. We conceived of a shipping facility to illustrate the concept, so I scouted California for a container terminal that would allow us access. Ports are dangerous work zones with huge machines moving quickly in areas where we’d be shooting, and with most ports’ perception of liability, many were unwilling to allow us access, despite our $10 million insurance policy.
After much researching, I was invited to visit a Southern California port. The vanishing point and graceful curve of the ship framing the distant horizon made this spot a winner. Finding the right location and lessor required a lot of patience. Just timing our shoot to harmonize with shipping schedules was a challenge. But with a location agreement signed by the owner, we knew we’d get our shot eventually, as long as the weather, the sea, the gear, and the crew worked together.
Over the years, we have worked with catalog producers, such as Smith & Hawken, Ralph Lauren, and Williams-Sonoma, most of whom have set budgets. For ongoing work with Pottery Barn, we scout according to their dictates. If they say, “We want rough country locations with interesting angles and lots of light,” we start searching.
I start by scouring my existing database of over 1 million images. Then I put together an online album with locations meeting their requirements, and send an email with a link to their online album. Our custom-built Scout Report and archiving solution meets the needs of 95 percent of my clients. If I need more locations, I tap personal networks. I’m always sourcing.
When there’s no established budget for a project, a producer will work with us to determine costs in advance. Experienced scouts are familiar with location charges and the disposition of the site owners, and can help create reliable budgets and schedules.
Clients hiring scouts should be prepared to provide as much detail as possible. If you’re clear up front about the amount of money to spend, creative criteria, and timeline it will help your scout find the best locations and services.
Tools of the Trade
The heart of my business is the image database I’ve developed over the years. I shoot all images with a Canon EOS 20D and whatever lens best captures the setting, transferring the files to my Apple Mac G5 and FireWire. I created the archive and catalog system using best of breed, readily available software, such as Excel and NOW contact management software.
Today, with 1,000 private homes and over a million mountain, park, lake, and beach location images, I keep cataloguing and archiving as simple as possible to remain quick and responsive.