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How To Bring a Cinematic Look to a Small Budget Commercial, part 3

cinematic lookPart 3: How To Location Scout

Welcome to part 3 of this ten part series on how to bring a cinematic look to a small budget commercial. In this series I am sharing with you the behind the scenes process of how we at Bleeding Thorn Films make a project happen – warts and all from script to screen.

In Part 2, I covered budgeting and creating the proposal. In Part 3 I begin the process of pre-production through location scouting.

Location Scouting

When it comes to pre-production, my preference is to location scout prior to story-boarding  I put scouting first, because, as a visually oriented person, I will come up with ideas, and compositions based off of what the location provides. When I put story-boarding first, I come up with ideas that are impractical at the location, or I try to force an idea to work when there is a more compelling option provided by the location. The key to getting a cinematic look on a small budget is to keep it simple. That doesn’t mean boring. Instead, it means embracing the limitations of the project, and finding the most compelling way to use the location to its fullest extent.

The key to good location scouting is gathering as much information as possible. The more you know, the better prepared you will be, and the better prepared you are, the smoother the shoot will go. If at all possible, I recommend that you scout the location during the time of day that you think the shoot might happen. You would be surprised how many things can change within a couple of hours. For example, the road outside the location might be quiet until 2 pm when there is a shift change at the plant down the road. And for the hour in-between 2 pm and 3 pm it sounds like a highway outside. If your shoot doesn’t start until 4 pm, then it will not affect you. However, if you need to shoot pivotal dialogue during that time, you may be out of luck.

Here are some key questions I ask, or otherwise find the answer to, while I am location scouting:

  • Is the location in a flight path, construction area, or highway? (These are all sound related issues).
  • Are there any other sound issues I hear? (Maybe the neighbor has a dog that never quits barking).
  • What is parking like? (Can I park close, or do I have to park blocks away.)
  • How easy is it to access the location? (Will it be difficult to bring gear in and out, etc.)
  • How is the location orientated in relation to the path of the sun? (This will effect the lighting.)
  • Where are the windows, how big are they, and do they have blinds?
  • What kind of power is available at the location?
  • Where is the circuit breaker, what are the amps of each circuit, and how are they distributed?
  • Is there a dryer outlet that I can access?
  • Can I rearrange the room; is it visually appealing to begin with?
  • How big is the location? (This will inform the equipment choices I make).
  • What is the layout of the location? (I’ll take photos to document this).
  • Are there any special issues with the location? (Is there a dog that will get in the way, is it filled with expensive antiques …)
  • Are there any time parameters I need to be aware of? (Like automatically locking doors, or alarms).
  • What are the light levels like, and what kind of practicals are there? Can I swap out the bulbs in the practicals?

During my scouting trip I take notes on my iPhone or iPad, and I take as many reference photos as possible. Two apps that come in handy during the scouting process are Sun Seeker and Photosynth. I use Sun Seeker to map the position of the sun at the location. Knowing where the sun will be, and when it will be there, helps me to figure out if I can use it to my advantage, or if I need to look into controlling it. The Photosynth app allows me to make a 360 degree picture map of a location so that I can view it again later. This is extremely helpful after I’ve left a location & I’m trying to remember the placement of specific items.

exterior of house on location

The location that we used for this commercial was the business owners private residence. I chose to scout the location at 5 pm at night as the commercial was supposed to take place at night, and I knew that there would be at least one exterior shot. (It gets dark quick in the dead of winter in the Northwest). As I pulled up to the location, I noted that there was ample street parking, and it was easy access to the house. The first issue I noticed as I walked to the front door was the street lamps and lights from the neighbor’s house.

The concept of the spot was that it was supposed to take place during a massive power failure. That meant there wouldn’t be any exterior lights visible anywhere. The only way to control these elements on a small budget meant that I had to black out the windows. (I could have talked with the neighbors, and black wrapped the street lights. But the likely hood of having 4 neighbors agree to keep their lights off for an extend period of time without compensation is not very high.)

path of the sun

Above: Path of the sun

As I walked into the main room where we would be filming, I took out my iPhone and used Sun Seeker to map the position of the sun. As I looked at the sun path, I could see that if it was clear and sunny on the day of our shoot, we would be pounded with sunlight– the exact opposite effect of what the commercial was trying to achieve. (Side note: When trying to take a screen grab on the iPhone using the Sun Seeker app the image can be out of focus. For some reason it doesn’t work reliably for me, so I resort to screen captures instead).

This is where I put two and two together. I need to black out the windows to hide the exterior lights, so why not shoot during the day? The windows will be blacked out anyway, and that would make the shooting schedule more manageable for everyone involved. So the first note I made was to get the measurements of the windows. Blacking out an entire house meant that it would be almost like shooting in a studio. I would have the opportunity to completely control the light.  Next it was off to find the breaker box.

breaker box

On every location scout, I take a picture of the breakers, and of the label/diagram opposite the box. Having this kind of detailed information will come in handy when it comes time to route power for the lights. It is also helpful to know if there are any potential issues, like smaller 15 amp circuits. Fortunately, at this location, the house had been recently updated and almost all of the circuits were 20 amps. Power was not an issue. After making sure I had answers to my scouting questions, I created my 360 degree picture map of the location using Photosynth. Now it was time to move into the next stage of pre-production, Storyboarding.

I’ll be covering story-boarding in part 04 of this series. Keep an eye on our blog, twitter or Vimeo Channel to follow us on our latest storytelling adventures.

This is part 3 of a 10 part series, click the links below to view the entire series.

Part 1: Landing The Client and Creative Ideation

Part 2: Budgeting and Creating The Proposal

Part 4: Story-boarding On A Small Budget

Part 5: How To Create a Lighting Diagram

Part 6: How To Create a Shooting Schedule and Call Sheet

Part 7: How To Conduct A Camera Test

Part 8: How To Build a Rain Bar

Part 9: How To Approach Data Management On A Budget

Part 10: How To Black Out A House On A Budget

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About the Author


Born in 1980 in Seattle, Washington, Ryan has had a love and passion for the visual arts since a young child when his grandmother, an avid photographer, took him along on photo expeditions. As he grew up, his parents furthered that passion by enrolling him in various art programs and lessons. While he enjoyed painting and drawing, something was always missing - the ability to capture motion. Once introduced to the art of cinematography in high school he never looked back.Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer Since that time, Ryan has developed this passion and turned it into his career. As an award-winning cinematographer his work has allowed him the opportunity to travel worldwide in the pursuit of telling stories that are visually compelling. Ryan's distinct experience includes feature films, documentaries, commercials, and shooting for Comcast, TLC, Oxygen, and the Discovery Channel. Not only does Ryan seek to deliver cinematic images for his clients, but his commitment, organization, and professionalism means he constantly goes the extra mile to ensure that the results he delivers exceed his clients expectations.

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