It’s a pretty common question to ask someone on meeting them. To the uninitiated, I have found that, ‘I’m a Location Manager’ gets more puzzled looks than ‘I’m a Film Location Manager’, but both usually require further explanation. ‘I’m a Location Scout’, quickly turns into ‘I’m a Location Scout, I find locations for films. Which is often met with, ‘Ah, so you decide where they are going to film?’
Haha! I wish.
So, what does a Location Manager do exactly?
The answer to that is long and varied, which is part of the reason the job is so enjoyable.
I have found that Location Managers tend to be of a certain personality type. Patience and the ability to listen and interpret creative direction are key skills. Perhaps the most important skill is remaining rational in the face of inevitable challenges and making sure that you manage your stress well. The hours are long, and tempers can become frayed when there is a lot at stake, so a calm head is imperative.
A Location Manager’s job can range from taking photographs at dawn in incredibly beautiful landscapes, going from snowy mountains to vast lakes in the same day. Forging friendships with location owners and Location Libraries that stand long after the filming has ended or discovering that the staff at the pub you hired for the catering base have decided to have a lock in, and it’s 4am.
Better grab a mop!
I am writing this from a recce bus, in the midst of touring around the proposed filming locations on the project I’m working on, laptop perched on my knee, being regularly interrupted by questions or phone calls, so in the true spirit of location management let’s begin at the beginning…
Supervising Location Manager (SLM)
I’m told that this is a relatively new title, and back in the day, there were only Location Managers, with no title differentiation between the person in charge of the department, and the Location Managers working with the department head.
The Supervising Location Manager will typically be employed at the very start of the project, in pre-prep and oversee the whole project from beginning to end. They work with the Production Designer to scout and source locations for the film.
The first order of business is to read the script and breakdown which locations will be required for the shoot, identifying those which will become set builds, those which will be shot in real world locations, and those which will be made up of plate shots, to enable VFX to complete their wizardry.
The Supervising Location Manager will often put together a team of Location Scouts to help in the search for the filming locations. Location Libraries will also be asked to assist in identifying suitable locations. Once assessed for suitability, options will be scouted with the Production Designer.
Once the Designer is happy with the selection, these are presented to the Director, usually in the form of still photographs or video. When the Director has made their selection, they will then recce these locations, with a small party, including the Supervising Location Manager, the Designer and the Director of Photography and Producers. If everyone is in agreement, the Supervising Location Manager will begin to put together a budget for the locations required and the costs associated with servicing these. This is then submitted to the Unit Production Manager to form an overall Production Budget for the project. The budget will evolve over time as locations tend to change, scripts develop and the challenges in servicing a unique location become clear.
The Supervising Location Manager is also responsible for putting together and managing a team of Location Managers, Assistant Location Managers, Unit Managers, Location Assistants and Marshals to help run the locations throughout their prep, shoot and reinstatement. This is commonly known as a workflow, and acts as a calendar for start and finish dates for the various roles across the project. The Supervising Location Manager will manage this as the project expands, dealing with any changes as demands shift over time.
The Supervising Location Manager will ideally be good at managing people, budgeting and navigating relationships with other Heads of Departments.
Location Manager (LM)
The Location Manager will often be assigned one or multiple locations to manage with the help of their Assistant Location Managers. There is a lot of crossover in the workload between the two as it is the responsibility of the Location Manager to oversee the Assistant Location Manager’s work, as they are ultimately responsible for their locations, however, the Location Manager relies heavily on their Assistant Location Manager to be their eyes and ears at a location, especially if their workload is large, so often the day to day tasks will overlap.
I have gone into great detail here on the overall roles and responsibilities of the Location Manager and the Assistant Location Manager to give a better overall view of how the department runs.
The Location Manager will work closely with the Supervising Location Manager to establish the requirements at the filming locations in question, and then set about working on the logistics of getting the unit there. Once the locations have been selected following the series of recces, the work to secure the locations begins.
First and foremost, before any of the work can begin to physically get into a location, permission must be sought from each location or landowner, and arguably the most important part of a Location Managers job is to ensure that the Location Agreement is agreed and signed.
The Location Agreement is a contract that outlines, dates, times, location fees and usage of the location, and ensures that the footage shot at the location is owned in full by the Production Company. Details of the language within the agreement will be discussed with the Location Owner or their legal representative until both parties are happy with the content, then it will be signed by the Location Owner and the Unit Production Manager or Producer (or sometimes other higher level studio representatives, if the value of the location is very high and payment will be made for the agreed location fee. Once this process is underway with the legal eagles, the logistical work can begin. This can be a very diverse process.
This is where a Location Library can be of great assistance by helping to save time with organising recces and completing the paperwork quicky with filming locations they have on their books.
Locations can be rural, mountainous, under protective designations, hostile, or remote. The Location Manager will work closely with the Unit Team, to help bring in power, water, heat, shade or air conditioning, depending on the requirements. For example, there could be a requirement to improve the road systems in order to access the location, either with groundworks, or with portable roadway solutions, or the access could be limited to smaller 4×4 vehicles servicing a technical base, some distance away. These things all fall under the responsibility of the Locations Department.
The other end of the spectrum might be preparing to film in a city centre. Preparation for this is often bound by fixed notice periods from the council in charge of the area. The Location Manager and their Assistant Location Manager will need to research the lead in times for the particular borough, and ensure that applications for road closures, parking suspensions, pavement closures, licences for crane use etc are made with enough time.
Thorough research will need to go into understanding how local residents, businesses and any other party may be affected by the filming project and mitigate against any negative consequences. The Location Manager works closely with their Assistant Location Manager, who will help with the gathering of information, meeting and forging relationships with residents in the area, drawing up maps and parking plans to correctly advise the council of the parking requirements, and the Unit Manager (more on this below) to aid selection and booking of Unit Bases, and planning out technical parking which will typically be close to the location, and houses the large technical vehicles carrying essential kit for the shoot.
Once all parties are advised, and permissions are sought, the location preparation can begin. Locations will seek permission for the Art Department, Set Dec, Lighting and SFX to do their work, each department submitting their intentions to Locations to be communicated to the location owners. When the location is fully prepped, the unit will arrive to commence filming in the location for the allotted days, and the Location Manager, plus their team will be there to ensure smooth running of the shoot, and to deal with issues that arise.
During the shoot day, it is common practice to have a member of the Locations team on the floor, alongside the Assistant Director’s team, to respond to requests throughout the day.
This may be an Assistant Location Manager, or a more experienced Location Assistant.
The beginning and end of each day are the busiest times for the Locations Dept. Locations arrive before the first crew member and leave after the last crew member has departed.
Once filming is complete, the Location Manager or Assistant Location Manager will oversee the reinstatement and ensure that the location is back to the standard it was before the crew arrived.
Assistant Location Manager (ALM)
The Assistant Location Manager’s role is to support the Location Manager, and assist with the preparation, shoot and reinstatement of the Location. As detailed above, the Assistant Location Manager’s role is varied and will differ depending on the workload and also the size of the team.
An Assistant Location Manager may be assigned a Location to look after, overseen by the Location Manager and Supervising Location Manager, and will be the on-site contact for prep and reinstatement crew, they are vital to this process as they are often the familiar face which the location owner can trust and speak with about any issues.
An Assistant Location Manager should be adept at making maps, putting together movement orders and be thorough with admin-based tasks, as well as really knowing their location backwards.
In my opinion, this is one of the hardest jobs in Locations as the Assistant Location Managers are often really at the coalface. The responsibility for the Location’s success will always lie with the Location Manager and Supervising Location Manager but they cannot do their work without the support of their team.
Location Assistant (LA)
The Location Assistant role can be very varied, but more often than not, the Location Assistant will be with the crew on the daily, supporting the shoot, dealing with real-time requests from the floor, and being the eyes and ears of the Locations Department.
Keeping the set clean and tidy, setting up EZ ups for the crew, and cast, making sure that the crew adhere to the rules put in place by the location, and handling heating or air conditioning as the set requires, are all things that fall to the Location Assistant team to help with. Location Assistants may also be brought in to handle prep and strike at a location.
Arranging set-ups in marquees for large crowd days or overseeing props as they dress a set.
Spending time working in the role of Location Assistant is very valuable as you gain a real understanding of how the floor operates, what each department needs to do their work, and what we need to do to support them.
Sometimes you’ll be on set, arranging heaters for Tom Hiddleston. Sometimes you may be asked to get in your car and find the source of the noise from a chainsaw, in a 10 mile long valley, in Wales, in the rain…
The Unit Team, led by the Unit Manager, take care of all things ‘Back of House’.
They handle power for the unit, plotting routes and parking up Unit Base trailers, and technical trucks, ensuring that water and power are available for the caterers, and dealing with generators, marquees, fuel and all things generally oily.
The Location Manager and Assistant Location Manager will recce locations to ensure that the technical vehicles have enough space, and the Unit Manager will advise how things should be parked to ensure that the crew will be happy.
Useful skills include being able to reverse a trailer while bellowing into the radio, having a near bottomless pit of useful things in the back of the truck in the event of leaking pipes, spillages and malfunctioning bowsers, and a keen eye for detail with a practical mindset.
The Location Marshal role is the entry level role for the Location Department.
As a Marshal, tasks can vary from being part of a large lock-off, on days where the shoot is in the public domain, the Marshals will help with making sure that members of the public don’t walk into shot, or get into a closure. They might be required on smaller days when the Location’s Department need just a couple of extra hands on deck, help with crowd setups etc.
It is ideal to get some variety in the size of productions when working as a Marshal, as a large crowd day on a feature will teach you a different set of skills than being more hands-on in a small team on a TV show.
Good communication skills, a positive attitude and a willingness to get stuck in are all vital skills. The work can be manual so it’s good to be prepared for a workout.
Ah, the Location Scout. Sounds like a dream job, driving around, looking at locations, and taking some sweet photos… right?
Well, not entirely. A Location Scout’s job is to find and assess suitability for locations as they are written in the script.
To start out, you need to have a good photographic eye, have a reliable camera, be able to frame a good photo without making the Location look radically better/different than it truly is, but also have a logistical mind to see how a place could be serviced to be home to a shoot crew.
Awareness of road noise, flight paths, access issues, environmental designations etc is all very important when scouting. A location may look beautiful, but if it can’t be serviced then it shouldn’t be suggested.
With experience it gets a lot easier, as many locations are used a great deal for different briefs and you get to know places that work well.
Location Libraries are there to help with a brief and help cut down the ‘boots on the ground’ time, but sometimes you will be required to post a letter through the door of a prospective location and hope that they are interested in the project.
It can be a lonely job, there is a lot of pressure, and you can work very hard and come out empty handed when a location is not what it seems, so it’s important to make sure that you look after yourself on the road, and not find yourself running out of daylight in the desert!
Communication is again, key. Keep track of everything you’ve seen, and always shoot the ‘bad’ ones too, opinions on what is good are very subjective.
Don’t use a flash indoors and always shoot the reverse!