When it comes to shooting a film, one of the biggest challenges the production team faces is scouting, choosing, and securing locations. While some big budget films like “Pacific Rim” opt to construct sets on sound stages or use green-screen technology and CGI as an easier solution to their fantastical location needs, a number of films use actual locations for their movies.
In some cases, filming on location has the advantage of cutting down the hours needed in post-production. Yet, shooting outside also presents a number of challenges, including moving actors and crews to whichever part of the world you opt to shoot in, which has its own set of problems. Remember Johnny Depp and his smuggled dogs making headlines in Australia?
Filming on location leads to a lot of issues beyond a filmmaker’s control. When shooting outside you need to consider:
1. The Weather
Mother Nature is a force to be reckoned with. Not only can we not control the weather, we often don’t have the tools to accurately predict the weather conditions months, days, even hours ahead of schedule. This makes choosing outdoor locations incredibly difficult for the production and location scouting team who must find the right locations and then put together budget breakdowns. The weather can truly mess up even the best-laid plans by filmmakers.
Take for example the recently released “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Director George Miller planned to shoot the film in Australia, in New South Wales, but had to move the entire film to Namibia. The reason? Australia’s usually bone-dry desert experienced record levels of rainfall, and the desolate landscape Miller and team had anticipated, was dotted with flowers and spots of greenery. The cost of moving the entire cast and crew from one outdoor location to the next was astronomical, but the film was better for it. There would have been no way to replicate the desert and vastness of the landscape in Miller’s film on a sound stage.
In 2007, Southern California suffered from intense wildfires, and approximately 970,977 acres were burned. Shooting of TV shows “24” and “Big Shots” had to be cancelled due to smoke drifting into the area from nearby blazes. In 2011, Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner, who were shooting “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2” on Vancouver Island, had to be evacuated as a precaution due to tsunami warnings, majorly delaying production.
Sometimes even moving inside for film cannot save you from the weather. Take for example “Avengers: Age of Ultron” which was delayed because of flooding in the studio. Director Joss Whedon thought he could outsmart Mother Nature for his blockbuster. Touché Mother Nature!
2. Issues With Pedestrians and Audience
Filming outside usually requires a great deal of orchestration, technical equipment, and setup. Crews are on set for hours before the actors show up, prepping lights, camera, and audio equipment. When whole streets are shut down for filming, the people commuting, walking, and living in a city are affected. While some city inhabitants don’t care and push through extras, or resignedly take a detour, a live, outdoor set also has the potential to draw interested and curious onlookers, and controlling inhabitants of a city can be tricky.
Take for example the filming of BBC’s “Sherlock” in London, which has divided fans on whether or not it is appropriate to watch the shooting of an episode in action. Co-creator Mark Gatiss told interviewers that a fan gathering outside shooting locations changes the way the show is being filmed, as actors and crew alike feel they are on display.
More recently in Vancouver, Ryan Reynold’s upcoming movie “Deadpool” caused some major traffic issues in the city in April when they shut down lanes for the blockbuster and drew a curious crowd. Ryan Reynolds, ever the stand-up guy tweeted:
3. Adapting a Stand-In Location’s Unique Features
Sometimes it is impossible to get filming permits in the cities you want to shoot in, either because of another production, or because it is just too expensive to shoot in your perfect location.
Some locations, like Toronto, are chosen because they are cheaper to film in than some bigger cities and the governments have set up tax breaks to lure productions into Canada and it works. During 2011 and 2012, 2,322 episodes of various television series were shot in Toronto, Ontario, injecting $707.3 million dollars into the city.
But Toronto in particular is popular because of its versatile “downtown core” which can stand in for various cities. While some of these TV series (like “Murdoch Mysteries”) deliberately referenced their Great White North location, many used the city as a backdrop that could easily be manipulated to look like other metropolitans, such as the television series “Suits,” which uses Toronto as a stand-in for New York, or “Psych” which takes place in Santa Barbara. Toronto also was New York in the 2008 blockbuster “The Incredible Hulk”, Chicago for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, and Boston for “Good Will Hunting”.
However people familiar with Toronto know that the city has some iconic monuments that viewers may recognize (like the CN tower and the Rogers Center). This means filmmakers must be careful to omit or carefully shoot when outside, to create a realistic view of the world.
4. Political Turmoil
Even the best laid plans cannot account for political turmoil in a city or country. With pre-production starting months and sometimes even years in advance, there is no way to foresee what the political landscape will look like down the road.
No one could have predicted the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York City. So many films referenced the iconic skyline and in particular the twin towers. In the wake of 9/11, filmmakers found themselves desperately circumventing portraying the towers on film. A teaser trailer for “Spider-Man” featuring the twin towers was canned, shots of the buildings were digitally removed from “Zoolander” and “Serendipity”, the terrorist thriller “Collateral Damage” was delayed, and a Jackie Chan comedy about a World Trade Center window washer who foils a terrorist plot was cancelled.
“The Godfather” almost wasn’t released due to mob pressure in the 1970s. Paramount executive Robert Evans received menacing phone calls threatening his safety and that of his child, and producer Al Rudy was tailed and had his car destroyed.
While shooting on location may have its challenges, there is no escaping the fact that the authenticity of an outdoor location adds to a production, and what audiences should expect more and more of, is a blend of location shooting and CGI/soundstage. While “Mad Max: Fury Road” was shot mostly on location in Namibia, modern filmmaking techniques and post-production effects were also used extensively.
CGI can take an audience to more exotic and imagined places (think “Avatar” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”), and yet, it is debatable that what makes some of the most memorable movie moments is the feel of an authentic, real location. The vast and unending deserts of “Lawrence of Arabia” today could be recreated in a studio, but would it give the audience the same effect? Would we have felt the same way about Amity Island, the town from “Jaws” if it had been filmed on a soundstage? Or was the true, beachside feel of the community at Martha’s Vineyard (the real location) what gave the film an edge?
While there may be challenges of filming on location, it is clear that there are also distinct advantages. More and more filmmakers are divided between the challenging work of shooting on location versus shooting indoors and losing the reality of an outdoor location, but until technology can replicate the realism of actual places, great filmmakers will choose to brave these challenges in order to create a better movie.