Q&A with location scout Eddie Mills
Picture it. Arizona, 2021, I'm on a creative call with two people looking to book a photographer for a pretty major gig for a national sports organization. The super one. They're needing to shoot in locations all around Arizona and ask me if I have a location scout I work with. Ummmm. What? I had never been asked that and hadn't even thought about it honestly. I responded with a naively excited "Nope! It's just me!". Oh man....to look back on that now I just cringe. I was ill prepared and not connected enough with crews and teams to take on such a huge project. And the creative call made that glaringly obvious. So I, not surprisingly, did not get booked. Location scouts may or may not be someone you call on frequently. That totally depends on the type, scope, and scale of work you do. However, you do NOT want to get caught without one when the client asks for it.
So I took that as my cue to network, find location scouts. Eddie Mills is a location scout in my local area of Indianapolis, working around the midwest. It seemed only natural for me to ask him some questions and get some clarity on his role and how he works.
Q: What is a location scout?
A: To put it simply, a location scout is the person responsible for finding and securing locations for filming purposes. Anytime a production wants to shoot on location versus in a studio, a location scout is used to find just the right place. Oftentimes, there are very specific requirements that a production has for its locations. For example, if the production is wanting to shoot in a house, it’s never quite that simple. It usually involves finding a house that might be facing a certain direction, with an attached garage, bungalow or craftsman style with an updated kitchen with lots of natural light and is within 30 minutes drive of another location. When there are specific asks like that, it can sometimes be challenging to find the perfect place that ticks all of the boxes. Once a location is secured, the location scout role shifts to that of a location manager. In that role, the location manager then acts as the sort of liaison between the owner or manager of a location and the production company. It’s best to be up front with both the production and the location during this time, as the owner of the location will need to know how much you’ll be taking over, how many people will be there, and what will need to be moved or changed when being set dressed for the shoot. Likewise, the production will want to know what restrictions there might be with the location, like maybe they’re only available for certain times on a certain day, or they specifically don’t want anyone touching the piano in the corner or something like that. It’s a balance of making sure that expectations are met on both sides and really making ends meet, so that the shot looks just the way the production wants, and so that the location owner is comfortable and happy to welcome another production back in the future.
Q: How did you get into location scouting and what do you enjoy about it?
A: I first started in production around 2008. Coming out of college, I worked on staff for a local production company in Indianapolis, Road Pictures. During my time there, I grew into a variety of roles. It was a great experience to get a taste of dealing with a lot of different aspects of preproduction, production, as well as post. As I got more experience, I started to gravitate towards location scouting as well as production managing. That might have been somewhat out of necessity, but I also found that I enjoyed it, and seemed to have a propensity for finding the right places for each project. Probably what I like best about location scouting is creating relationships with homeowners, business owners, event spaces, and the locations in general. It’s certainly a position where you need to know the ins and outs of the city, both knowing where to look and who to talk to is very important. It’s a great feeling to find the perfect place, and make it work for the production. Certainly there can be challenges as well. Sometimes you just can’t find anything that will work, and you’re on a time crunch scrambling to find a viable option. It can be very stressful, but somehow, someway, things always end up coming together, which is a great feeling.
Q: Do you location scout for both motion/video and still/photography projects?
A: I’ve scouted for both video as well as stills clients. Primarily I work on video projects, however, the occasional stills shoot comes through from time to time. Many times, a stills photographer will be on set with the video team, shooting stills in tandem, so I’ve certainly met and have a good relationship with many of the top commercial stills photographers around the state.
Q: Are you mostly contacted by producers? Photographers? Other agency positions?
A: As a location scout, I’m almost always hired by either the producer or production manager. I’ve also been hired directly through stills photographers as well as as agency creatives for certain projects, but that is less common. Having been in the production industry for 15+ years now in a small market like Indianapolis, most of my work comes by word of mouth or referrals from other production people. While a work plenty with most of the local production companies, over half of my work also comes from outside production companies from LA, New York, or elsewhere that are coming in to town for a project and need local resources. The two most important positions that a producer needs to find when coming into an outside market is a good production manager and a good location scout. Those are the two roles that will be boots on the ground and know the market to get the best crew and locations to make sure the production runs smoothly.
Q: Are you given a brief or aesthetic overview of what you should be looking for? A: Most commercial shoots will provide some combination of storyboards, director’s treatment, mood boards, or a creative deck that outline what the production is looking for. After looking through any of those items that they are able to provide, a conversation with the producer and / or director usually is able to fill in any gaps to make sure I’m going down the right path for what they’re looking for. I often start by pulling some file photos that I have accrued over my years of scouting and show those to the producer to see which places might fit the bill, and which ones miss the mark. Once I get that feedback, I’m able to hone in on what they are wanting. One of the things that can be challenging, is that the creative team usually involves not only the director and producer, but also an entire team of client and agency creatives as well. It’s sometimes difficult to find a location that everyone agrees on, as sometimes, the agency creative who concepted the spot can have a different opinion from the director’s vision of how it should be executed. Certainly there are politics and egos that can get involved. When that’s the case, I find it beneficial to find separate options that can appeal to both parties and let them discuss and make the final decision.
Q: When suggesting location options to your client is there a report or some formal presentation you create?
A: Typically, for commercial productions, things move so quickly and swiftly, that there isn’t really any kind of report or presentation per se. I typically present organized photos in an online album or via dropbox. I know for feature films and projects with more time and resources, they might use a more formal system, but commercial productions can be nitty and gritty, with barely any prep time, which doesn’t lend itself to putting together a formal presentation.
Q: When looking for locations are you also pricing location fees or looking into permits/releases?
A: Depending on the project, the locations budget can largely dictate what type of locations we’re able to consider. Most projects have a set budget that they tell me before I even start looking. This can give me parameters to work within. On some larger jobs however, I know a range, and they are wanting to find the perfect location. In this circumstance, I can look anywhere, and instead of approaching things with “this is what we have”, I can ask the location, "how much would it take to shoot here". This is mostly the case when people are wanting to shoot at a large venue like Lucas Oil Stadium, or Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Those types of locations require much more negotiating with owners and managers, that is a little outside of my normal scope. Indy is a pretty film friendly market when it comes to permitting. There is a filming permit through Film Indy, that we try to secure, although this is largely ceremonial, as it is more to keep track of productions that are coming in to town, so they can have data to push for film incentive legislation. The times we do need a more formal permit, are for when we’re going to need to shut down or control a street or sidewalk. Even then, costs for permitting in Indy are certainly less than they would be in other markets such as LA. When we are doing street closures, one also has to consider the cost of hiring local police officers, which again, is discussed with the producer. I try to give them an estimate, but costs of closures and hiring off-duty police officers can vary drastically depending on how busy the street is, and how long it would need to be controlled.
Q: How fast is the typical turn around time from you getting contacted about a project to you presenting location options?
A: This is a good question, and it certainly varies with each project. Typically I get called a week or two in advance and have a week or so to find and secure location options. Unfortunately, it is seeming more and more common for people to call with hardly any lead time. I’ve certainly gotten calls where the production wants me to start the next day and have options for them within 3 or 4 days. When time is that limited, it can limit the amount of options that I’m able to secure, and in many cases, all there is really time for is to pull location pictures from my files, rather than finding a brand new location. When enough lead time is given, I am able to give many more options and able to find new locations that fit their parameters better than what I already have in my files. The process of finding a new location, especially private residences, is often times very time consuming, as homeowners are often slow to respond to a call or letter in their door.
Q: How are location scouts typically paid? Day rate? Hourly?
A: Like pretty much all of the other positions on a film crew, location scouts are paid on a day rate. With that said, I often will split up my days to half days in order to maximize some of the response time I get for locations. Most positions don’t really do half days, but when you’re location scouting, it is more beneficial to split things up, as it often takes a couple days to get responses from people. If I know I only have five or 6 days of scouting time, I might break that up into a week and a half or two weeks, so as to maximize the amount of responses. Q: Do you notice any differences between working with a producer vs working directly with a photographer/videographer?
A: Most of my projects, I’m working with the producer and agency folks to approve locations. I also worked directly with photographers and directors, however, I wouldn’t say the process itself is much different. If anything, when working directly with someone versus through a bureaucratic hierarchy of clients, it certainly can be swifter and faster moving, since I am able to get answers more directly on what works and what doesn’t rather than waiting for feedback from a group of a dozen or more people.
Q: Do you work mostly within the region you’re based or do you ever location scout for projects that require traveling?
A: I typically work within the midwest. I’d say between Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois, those areas make up 90-95% of my work. I’ve certainly done locations all over other parts of the country, however, it is generally more beneficial to have someone local, as they are more apt to know where to look for hidden gems. As an example, I once was doing a project where we shot all around the country. I handled locations, among other responsibilities for the project, however, when it came to shooting around the National Parks around Sedona, AZ, we needed to hire a local locations scout, since they knew how to navigate the complicated permitting process in that area much more efficiently than someone who doesn’t know the right people to talk to.
Q: What is one of your favorite projects you’ve scouted for?
A: Generally, I do appreciate the projects that have a large budget or celebrity talent more than a tiny cash-strapped project. It’s a lot easier to get into places when you can offer them a generous amount of money and to meet an athlete or celebrity. It opens a lot more doors, than begging to get in to a place for a pittance of a location fee. Also, when a project comes in and has national brand recognition, that usually helps as well. People seem much more receptive when you are working with Nike or Gatorade, rather than a local utility company or something. With that said, probably one of my favorite projects was a relatively smaller scale shoot for an RV company. We shot in Washington, Arizona, California, and Florida. While we didn’t have the hugest budget, we still ended up shooting some beautiful scenery around the country, which was at times challenging, but also very rewarding.
Q: What are qualities to look for in a good location scout?
A: Probably the most important aspect of a location scout is to find someone with local knowledge of places to look, as well as someone that is connected with the local community to be able to get leads and know who to talk to. Certainly a location scout also needs to be someone who knows many if not all the aspects of production as well, since knowing how to explain to someone everything that goes into production (like all the people, all the equipment, all of the space requirements, etc.) I also think it’s helpful for a locations scout to have an eye for composition, as depending on how one photographs a structure or environment, it can certainly sell people on one location over another. Knowing good shooting angles, framing out eyesores, and getting the most flattering angles that match the creative vision are all helpful when it comes to presenting location options to clients.
Lastly, I think a location scout needs a good sense of direction, as they are the person who is also responsible for making sure all of the cast, crew, and clients know how to get to set. Oftentimes, I’ll be called when someone gets lost or isn’t sure where to go, and I have to help them navigate to get to the correct place.
Q: What is the best way for someone to get in contact with you for location scouting and production needs?
A: Mostly, I am hired through word of mouth. I’ve worked in this industry and in the Indianapolis market for 15+ years, so at this point, I’m pretty well known within the production community. With it being a tight knit community, my name is often passed along when outside productions are coming to town. I am easily reachable at 317-507-9786 or firstname.lastname@example.org