As filmmakers, we’re tasked with telling compelling stories through the visual medium. However, I believe that filmmaking is about problem-solving. One of the biggest challenges in documentary filmmaking is figuring out how to use the limitations of your space to your advantage. Technical scouting is an industry practice that involves viewing a shoot space ahead of time to figure out the logistics and potential problems before your tripod hits the ground.
Hollywood big–budget films that feature your favorite movie stars have a certain luxury of crafting environments and sets from scratch. These filmmakers can control almost every detail of the frame for the needs of the story. In comparison, documentaries are tied to real people and places. These storytellers work within the limitations of their world in hopes of an accurate portrayal of reality. Location spaces cannot, and probably should not, be altered or changed to suit the production.
TECHNICAL SCOUTING AT TATE MODERN
For Red Hat’s latest Open Source Stories film, our video team traveled “across the pond” to film at London’s Tate Modern museum. Tate Modern is an architectural dream with unique and interesting angles in every direction. However, with copyrighted artwork and increased security everywhere, it was unadvisable to wander off and just start filming.
What questions should you be asking on a technical scout? For starters, it’s helpful to have a location manager, or the appropriate party, present during your scout so everyone is on the same page. Often, this point person will lay the ground rules of what you can and cannot do in the space. It’s equally important for this person to understand the production needs. A traffic-heavy, noisy room won’t fly if the film crew has to capture quiet sit-down interviews. They also need to be aware of the number of people arriving on set, how much equipment will be brought in, and places in which the crew can set up a basecamp for food, bathrooms, and storage.
Film equipment often requires plenty of juice to run for 10- or 12-hour days. With cameras, lights, monitors, batteries, and a host of other equipment, a film crew needs power at all times. Some factors to consider include the number of outlets, along with the type of power grid system in the room. Multiple lights and cameras will need to be plugged in, and high-wattage lights can easily trip breakers. Finally, if shooting interviews, controlling any overhead lights will be key unless your esthetic calls for grossly green, fluorescent lighting.
When dealing with sound-sensitive interviews, it’s imperative that the space be quiet and away from foot traffic and background noise. Can the general public be diverted away from your room or can signs be installed alerting them to remain quiet? Sometimes these noises are unavoidable and uncontrollable, but production must continue. On our shoot, we battled an intermittent air conditioning unit that was unable to be shut off. As directed by our sound mixer, we captured the tone of the air conditioner so that it could be extracted later from the audio in post-production. Sometimes audio is not permitted from being recorded due to its sensitivity, so it’s best to check with your subjects or location manager.
When filming in spaces where members of the public can unknowingly wander into the frame and be featured, a talent release form is critical to have handy. Copyrighted images are typically mired in red tape. As advised by Tate staff, our crew was asked to avoid filming these sensitive images as securing the rights would have been unlikely. Production insurance is often something many independent filmmakers forget about or do not own. As a precaution, larger and more public spaces may require insurance before letting crews in.
TECHNICAL SCOUTING TOOLS
Two mobile apps I personally found helpful while technical scouting at Tate Modern were Artemis Director’s Viewfinder and Sun Seeker.
Artemis allows filmmakers to transform their cellphones into the viewfinder of any professional camera. Simply pick the camera body, resolution size, and lens to view a good approximation of the frame. Since we were renting our cameras locally and didn’t have access to them while scouting, I was able to use the app to plot out our interview setups and later share those photos with the crew. Artemis is also a much more convenient option when you can simply whip out your phone instead of lugging around a heavy camera with various lenses.
The Sun Seeker app shows the solar path in hour intervals based on your current location. Our interview location was a large private room with stellar views of the Thames River and Millennium Bridge. In spite of the scenic backdrops and beautiful natural light, the windows allowed for a lot of unnecessary daylight, which competed with our own lights. The lighting on the buildings across the Thames River also changed dramatically depending on the time of day. Understanding the sun’s position helped us make crucial decisions for when to film in particular directions. In the afternoon, the sun pleasantly lit up the river and Southbank buildings in our background, helping dictate when we’d point our cameras in this direction.
Finally, production rarely goes as planned. The best piece of advice is to remain flexible. Often, filmmakers are invited guests in the homes and workplaces of their subjects. It’s best to remain respectful of their wishes and demands, while educating them on the needs of the film. Always have back-up locations to film interview setups or b-roll if a restriction arises on site. These limitations will test your adaptability and creativity, ultimately making you a better filmmaker.
Do you have tips, suggestions, or questions about technical scouting? Continue the conversation in the comments section below.