How COVID-19 Affects Location Scouting
Locations are a vital element of visual storytelling. Finding the right one is crucial to any production. In the COVID-19 era, however, we must reexamine how we choose locations and understand how the definition of an ideal location has changed.
We have already covered the impact that COVID-19 can have on set organization. In this article, we look at how we can optimize proper pandemic set safety by choosing the right locations in the first place, without sacrificing the visual production quality. To do this, let’s break location scouting into its two component halves:
Location scouting can be a tricky and complicated process, often involving dozens of opinions. To help simplify the process without sacrificing quality and remaining focused on safety, we will need to try the following actions:
- Rely on existing resources
- Delegate duties
- Trust your team
- Minimize exposure points
Rely on Existing Resources
As we mentioned in our article on Production Travel during the pandemic, we highly recommend shooting in production hubs. Hubs are better equipped to support your productions and make location scouting safer and easier. Hubs also tend to have active film commissions to support film and television productions.
Many film commissions maintain online location databases. These typically contain detailed documentation on how much particular locations cost, when they are available, who to contact, and all manner of additional information.
Here are links to the film commission web sites of several film and television production hubs. They should give you a good idea of the information available before you begin the pre-production process.
- California Locations
- Georgia Locations
- Oklahoma Locations
- Massachusetts Locations
- North Carolina Locations
Film Commissions are an excellent resource with deep reservoirs of helpful information. Turn to them first. Before you send a person out into the pandemic, rely on the information that is available online to narrow your choices.
Most of us will probably still want to send someone out into the world to see locations in person. When that time comes, we must delegate.
The greatest resource we have is the people on our team. Far too often, however, we want to see the locations ourselves. We want to approve all the little details. Well, this pandemic has put so many new things on our plates that can’t afford to micro-manage our teams. It is time we learned to delegate and mean it.
Spend the time to make sure that your scout is on the same page and understands exactly what you need. Remember, they want to find the right place for you just as much as you want it found. Extra hours on the phone or via video chat will save you time and money. More importantly, however, they will protect your production by preventing unnecessary exposure.
Trust Your Team
Before we begin scouting for locations, we must ensure that we trust the person we have hired to find us the right sites. This is another area where a few additional hours can save time and prevent unnecessary exposure. Take the time during the interview process to find someone you trust. The ideal person shares your vision and understands the new safety priorities associated with COVID-19 protocols.
Delegation only works if you trust the person you delegated to. We need to be able to implicitly trust our teams to do their jobs and to take the extra steps to account for COVID-19.
Minimize Exposure Points
This is the triumphant return of the coronavirus mantra: “Minimize, minimize, minimize.” When it comes to personnel, we must reduce—as much as possible—the number of people we send into potential exposure areas. This is no less true when it comes to location scouting.
If possible, the initial search should be done virtually. When it comes to additional, non-virtual searches, try to designate one person to physically visit potential locations.
To help that one person successfully find the right locations, make sure that they have live video chat capabilities with them on sites. This allows the DP, director, AD, and producers to see what your scout is seeing and weigh in if necessary.
It takes longer to do everything in a COVID-19 world, and this is doubly true for location scouting. Schedule additional time for your location scout during each location evaluation. Your scouting team member will be dealing with everyday COVID-19 issues in the field. They will also need extra time to evaluate each location for pandemic safety.
Finally, given all you will need to do to accommodate for COVID-19, we recommend outfitting your location scout with the ability to take aerial photographs. This will allow you to see the total location size, which will help you determine if it can safely support your production during the pandemic.
In addition to all the usual storytelling requirements, a location must now support a COVID-19-safe environment. This means we must consider three additional items when evaluating a location for production:
As we outlined in our article on set organization, we will need to turn our sets into mini-bubbles. We need to establish sanitation areas, break areas, traffic patterns, and so much more. All of this means more space.
Each location is different. But the additional space required for COVID-19 safety will most likely mean expanding the size of your production locations.
This might mean getting use-permits for the spaces next door to your location. It might mean renting the parking lot across the street. It might even mean shutting down a section of the road.
As we mentioned in our article on Script Breakdowns, it is best to find locations that can be used for as many scenes as possible. Different establishing shots, imaginative set decoration, creative lighting, and precise camera angles can help you disguise the fact that, say, the same house was used for several different interior locations.
When trying to maximize location versatility, consider studio spaces, sound stages, and virtual sets. All of these can help you maintain the integrity of your mini-bubble by allowing you to stay in one place through most of your shoot.
Location control is vital to location safety in the COVID-19 era. To establish a mini-bubble around your set, you must be able to control the location. This means controlling everyone and everything that enters and exits your set.
If you have read the first article in our series Through the Covid Lens, you will know that the “Goodfellas” tracking shot is an excellent example of location control. To help you attain that level of control, we recommend focusing on locations that are not being used for other purposes during production off-hours.
To properly decontaminate a location, we will need to clean and disinfect every single surface. Depending on the location, this could take anywhere from several hours to a couple of days.
For this reason, we highly recommend securing a location round the clock. This will allow you to come in, decontaminate, set up sanitation zones, establish traffic patterns, then leave it in place until you wrap that location.
COVID-19 has changed the definition of a good location by increasing its size and mandating more control and versatility than ever before. To find a perfect location, we must learn to rely on virtual resources, delegate to trusted members of our team, and minimize our personnel’s exposure to COVID-19.
One thing that COVID-19 hasn’t changed? That feeling you get when you first step onto a new set that has been transformed by a talented crew. It’s like being transported to a new world, a world we created. And if we do our jobs correctly, we will have created a world that is free from COVID-19.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.