Please note: This blog post was updated in July 2020 following approval of the City of Ottawa’s new Film By-Law and permitting process.
Arguably one of the most important steps in pre-production, location scouting is the art of researching, finding, and booking filming locations for a film or television production. By having a list and schedule of where and when you’ll be shooting before you go to camera, you’ll save valuable time and money. Whether you’re a location scout hired for a large project, or a director/producer/writer/art director who is also taking on location scouting, the tips below will help you find the perfect filming location for your next project.
Read the script
Make a list of every location in the script and note if they have any defining characteristics; is the scene set in an old house or a modern high-rise? You should also be speaking to the director throughout this process to find out what their vision is for the project and what the tone will be. Keep in mind that the writer, director, and production designer may have never been to our city; while you should try to stay within the spirit of the script, provide some options that they may not have thought about (but always keep in mind that you are serving the vision of the key creative team – if they say no, move on). Finally, don’t choose a location just because you know it’s available or you’ve always wanted to film there, make sure it fits the story.
Don’t waste your precious time driving aimlessly around the city, at least not at first; start online and make a plan of which locations you’d like to see. There are several resources that can help you find what you’re looking for or point you in the right direction.
- Check out our Locations page for some inspiration. The photos provide an overview of the different looks and settings found in the Ottawa region, from rural and historic to urban and modern – and everything in between.
- Looking for something specific? The Ontario Locations Library, managed by Ontario Creates, is the go-to tool for scouts looking for locations in Ontario. Over 250 film-friendly locations in Ottawa are currently listed, including houses, restaurants, and many public spaces.
- Planning to scout several locations in one day? Google Maps can you help you find the quickest routes between locations, or use Google Earth and Street View to find sites you can later scout in person like parks, lakes, and even houses. Additionally, these tools can help you locate train tracks, school yards, transportation hubs and other impediments to shooting – more on that in the next section.
Be careful when sharing photos of locations with the creative team that you have not visited personally. It’s good to make sure you’re on the right track but you don’t want them getting fixated on a location that you can never get – inside the Library of Parliament for that perfect murder scene, for example.
Look and listen
You made a plan of the locations you want to scout and now you’re ready to get started. As you visit each site, take a look at the available lighting; is the area in the sun or in the shade? Will you need to bring additional lights or only a couple of reflectors? Scouting around the same time you plan to shoot will give you an idea of where the sun will be and what type of equipment you’ll need to bring on the day of your shoot.
Now stop and listen. If you’re filming near a road, you’ll probably hear traffic. Filming in a residential neighbourhood? You’ll likely hear kids screaming or playing, depending on the time of day. Any number of noises can interfere with your audio and make post-production a nightmare. Scouting on the same day of the week you plan to shoot can prepare you for what type of noises you’ll need to manage on your shoot date. For example, traffic in a commercial area at 10 a.m. on a Monday will be vastly different than 2 p.m. on a Saturday. Plan accordingly!
Check for parking and facilities
You scouted a site and it’s everything you hoped it would be. Now look around. Is there somewhere nearby you can park your production vehicles? Where will your crew park? While the City of Ottawa facilitates on-street parking for essential production vehicles (production trucks and basecamp vehicles), you’ll need to make separate arrangements for crew vehicles. When filming downtown, you shouldn’t have any issues finding parking for crew as there are several public parking lots available. When filming in a residential area, look to see if there is a church, community centre, grocery store or school nearby. Depending on when you’re shooting, these types of buildings may allow you to park vehicles in their lots (usually at your cost), especially if it’s outside of business or school hours. Make sure you book parking well in advance and that production has planned for any fees. Finally, check to see if there are any facilities around that you can use/rent as a lunchroom and holding area (make sure it has a washroom!).
Take pictures and notes
Make sure you take lots of pictures and notes of each location you’re scouting. This will come in handy when you’re trying to choose a final location or when explaining to the director and department heads what each location looked like. Having photos of the condition of a location before you shoot can also help avoid unnecessary arguments about pre-existing damage after you leave. Finally, collecting information about the site will help you to start your own database of filming locations, making your job easier the next time you scout for a project.
Find out what type of permission and liability insurance you need to film at the location you selected. If you’re filming on public property, like a sidewalk or park, our Film Here page will help guide you in the right direction. If filming on private property, like someone’s house or in a restaurant, make sure you have written permission from the property owner (not just the tenant or manager). The last thing you want is to arrive at your location on the day you’re shooting and be told to leave; get permission first and avoid the embarrassing task of telling your crew why you won’t be shooting there that day.
Part of the approval process might also involve checking with neighbours and businesses in the area, especially if your filming activity can have an impact on them (lights late at night, loud noises, loss of parking, etc.). The City will advise you, based on the information you provide on your film permit application, whether residents and business should be notified. Establish positive and respectful relationships with the community and community members will reward you by allowing you to film on their property, by watching and supporting your film or TV production, and by helping to promote your project by sharing it with their friends and families.
One last note: be respectful of the site and leave it the way you found it. The filmmaking community in Ottawa is small, and odds are that someone else will want to shoot at the same location you did. One negative experience with a film crew and a property owner can decide they no longer want to accommodate any filming; that is not only unfair to other productions, it can also hurt the overall industry by giving local filmmakers a bad reputation.