Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Directing Fact #4 - Location is Everything

There has been a cliche in the business world for a long time that goes, "Location, Location, Location." It simply means that nothing is as important as where you choose to set up your business. This applies to shooting a film as well. The choice of location will impact the production in a number of ways, both on-screen and off.
On the practical side, there are many considerations that go into choosing a set. These include location fees, cost of travel, ease of access, distance from other set locations, availability of extras, availability of crew, availability of power, water and restroom facilities, sound considerations, natural lighting considerations and more. When you are operating on a small budget, the impact of each of these is magnified. For example, even something as simple as a bathroom may be the determining factor in the final choice of location. A big budget project would never think twice about bringing in a facilities trailer where needed, but even an extra $100/day for a porta-potty could be outside the budget of a small production. Likewise, a small budget may consider a couple of hours drive between locations to be cost-prohibitive due to the extra fuel and mileage charges, whereas a studio film may be able to shoot in Moscow, Buenos Aires and Morocco all in the same week. Because of these financial limitations, directors often have to "settle" for what is available and close.

The big thing to remember is that what ends up on-screen is all that matters. Often we think we have to have the perfect complete location, when in fact we only need a couple of good "spots" to shoot. It would be nice to find an amazing old factory with all of the right junk in just the right places, but the truth is that we can get by with a brick building in an alley and probably tell the story just as effectively. No, it will not have the epic establishing shot you pictured, but many films (even large budget films) these days do quite well without establishing shots. A good DP should be able to get you a great look even when you have very little to work with. I remember being very disappointed in a couple of the locations we ended up with on my last film, especially for our scenes in the woods. However, once we put it on a long lens, it was amazing how that spot just came to life. In the end, that location in the woods turned out to be one of our better ones.

This is not to say that the location does not matter, because it does. The primary consideration, however, is that it has the right feel about it. One of the things I really wanted to achieve on my film, since it was for children, was a bright, happy and colorful feel. Contrary to my earlier beliefs, this had very little to do with the lighting and had everything to do with the sets, props and costumes. We missed the mark on a number of scenes because I did not understand how much that feel would be impacted by the location. Several of our scenes, for example, were shot at a building that we had free access to. The building had a couple of rooms that I felt would work perfectly. What I did not consider was that the very nice, warm earthy tones of the paint scheme (and lack of color contrast) would make those entire scenes feel moody, dark and less interesting visually, despite the colorful costumes our actors were wearing. Even a white wall would likely have been better in that it would have provided more contrast with skin tones and the costumes--and would have felt brighter and happier overall. On the other hand, had we been shooting something with a more moody feel, that location may have been the right choice.

There are obviously hundreds of considerations when choosing a location, but from my limited experience, I would say that finding something to fit and enhance the overall "feel" of your movie is far more important than having a list of great individual locations with varying looks and feels that ruin your story's continuity. Make this your number one priority whenever possible.