The Torch: In the Crux – Location scouting7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
The place, if strong and telling, can become the whole picture, the whole story in some cases, if done intelligently and with a deep-rooted knowledge and understanding of its history (at which point Zhang Yimou’s classic Raise the Red Lantern instantly comes to my mind as one such example and most exquisite achievement).
Without that, however, even the best setting, the most delicately chosen space and backdrop for your film’s pictures will only ring hollow, and lacking the power to resonate with people.
What we can have in a place that has a voice of its own, is a sense (and perception) of the residue of a distinctive past, the sediments of time. This is because everything meaningful needs to filter through the subsequent layers of surface, at each stage percolate for a while and sink to such bottomless depths that eventually it becomes of the essence itself, growing fundamental and rich in tastes and aromas and full of significance, then shining back up. By contrast, a studio can never really give you that to the same extent and with a comparable degree of profundity, and in comparison, no art department’s efforts will ever match up against what has always been there — the props and coulisse forever existentially improper and shallow to the eye.
When the important question arrives of where to place your movie, there are a lot of basic things and parameters to take into account, not just technical stuff, to get it right. Of course, budget as well as legal matters will put you under considerable constraints, and it isn’t as if you were free to choose exactly. But apart from the obvious studio versus on-location calculation (or simply going along with what is available to you anyway), so much more profound detail has to go into your evaluation on the topic of setting your film to fit.
Film history holds in its archives any number of specimens which have expressly (and at times expertly) been conceived as a tribute to a certain place, landscape or city, and which succeeded to portray the unique character of their setting, instead of just un-located people running their fool’s errands through life. As a rule, this in no way applies to realist filmmaking only. Any depiction, in fact, no matter how stage-like or experimental it may be (a montage even), when put into filmed context, requires that layer of dug-in groundedness to know and show where it belongs. Only that way can a telling be deep and full of nuanced allusions.
Be it the solipsistic artist or the passionately engaged artisan who tries their hand at making a movie, of all the myriad things that go into completing/perfecting a film of whatever type, location scouting is the one count on which a picture can never be over-worked. To identify the appropriate environs, find the adequate surroundings, arrange a forceful setting and frame the shot to be cogent and coherent – if you don’t do your recce scrupulously and with equal parts dedication and inner conviction, it will surely backfire. One way or another, a viewer will always take in the full image representation you devise in your film, scene by scene, if only peripherally, the effect can be counted on; and this perception should be targeted and guided by the filmmaker, who is a director.
Let’s have a look, then, at what the core components are that we talk of when addressing the somewhat vague issue of “place and space” in movies. Firstly, there is the backdrop, often overlooked, yet on taking the time for some reflection on the topic it soon enough becomes apparent how it is visibly important for what your deep focus can and will spot — and in an instant the presumed negligible backdrop turns center stage. In any case, this first and most sweeping grip on the location as shown in a movie is not just about placing the action on a (at times fictional) map of the world. The scenic panorama sets the tone and is most significantly — and if used correctly, most strategically — determinant of time and context as well; just think of the array of sky, of rural landscape, woods or sea, of light and dark, of a city, of life and people — or the absence of all this, the close confinement and restriction that you can play and work with. Such ingredients do an awful lot of telling right away and on the spot (whatever, wherever it may be). And with it comes an equally vast import of readings, connections and connotations you can evoke in the viewer and put to use for enriching your narrative.
The next thing any audience will notice is the medium range exposure and spatial realization of building exterior and interior. They form the place proper in any scene, comparable to the live theatre stage performance in its unity of space. Here it is the arts department, and props most prominently, on whom it falls to do the convincing part and bring that out in a setting, which essentially makes up the frame; and this second level of site-related factors in film has to be substantially more specific than the backdrop, and very particular as per necessity of information distribution. All of this is still firmly in the realm of things, of objects and structures more precisely, and accordingly we are now speaking of buildings as well as set interiors on practical terms (Luchino Visconti and Stanley Kubrick be the masters to quote when it comes to any of this).
Architecture is the offspring of human thought and aspiration and as such in only secondary relation to human life as in the body and nature. Thus, architecture bespeaks man’s fallibility and greatness, a constant reminder of how we are defined by our limitations and live to err and be pretentious, even in our smallest efforts. But the hubris of control is self-refuting anyway. We can never control our lives or the world we live in, not by a long shot; we’re not made for that, only wishing and trying to keep us busy — like Sisyphus, who according to Sartre was in fact a happy man! See how places provide us with more than just a mere functional setting, but can take over completely and do the telling for us if only we know how to listen! And indeed, what better framing (and scheming) can there be than the one directly derived from the locations and the very environment we have our lives in?
Lastly, there is the question of how best to handle and organize the space and positioning that anticipates motion (as most rewardingly to be studied with Mizoguchi) or, alternatively, the framing of any given form and aspect of theatrical stasis that has a narrative quality (as made canonical by Ozu). Finally now, the actors come into play and with them of course the all-important human element that ultimately has us going to the movies in the first place. If interaction ever was a useful term it is in this: the context of movement or being situated in a room or open space. All performance is defined by people, by living human beings occupying a space and filling up the given four-dimensional continuum — with drama.
To sum it all up, when placing your movie and each scene in it so that it may speak to the viewer, you really should make deliberate and detailed choices, and not go about the whole affair just randomly or in a haphazard fashion. Don’t be common-place — the emotional feedback such earns you will be a match, be prepared. I prefer films to be precise and specific about where they are taking place; I like them to be recognizably “here” so that on entering, you immediately become aware that this couldn’t possibly be the same anywhere else. Be it some desolate French big city banlieue or your (parents’) childhood Kampung setting — either of the two, and countless others in between, have their unique language of shapes and tones of mood and colours, their very intimate tableau of contours, angles, heights, cracks, sounds and interplay of light and shadows to unmistakably invoke and define a memory and way of life. These you have to retrieve and bring out and discover the dignity in them — and if you do, then you can rightfully call yourself a genuine filmmaker.