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Why Location Scouts Deserve Academy Recognition



This year, the Academy Awards will honor outstanding achievement in film for the 95th year. Directors, actors, production designers, editors, costume designers, writers, composers and more will be celebrated for their artistic vision, yet one of the greatest visionary roles in film — that of location scouts — will once again go unrecognized.

From the fictional Irish island of Inisherin to the front lines of World War I to the homes that shaped the lives of music and film icons, this year’s top films feature a host of locations intrinsic to their creative DNA. This has been the way for the near-century’s worth of films honored at the Academy Awards, from the scenes shot in the Sierra Nevada mountains for Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush to Michael Corleone’s pilgrimage to Sicily in The Godfather. A film’s locations are among the most essential creative building blocks of film, and the scouts who find them are artists deserving of recognition by the Academy.

First, a little clarity: The label “location scout” is often the secondary title of a location manager. As one of the first positions hired on a film after the director and producer, a location manager initially acts as location scout (in certain instances a manager may hire additional scouts if more scouting is required). And while the process of finding a film’s locations can vary greatly, most often it begins with the location manager reading and analyzing the script. They then start scouting to find locations that convey the artistic vision of the film.

When scouting for the Oscar-winning film La La Land, location manager Robert Foulkes remembers searching Los Angeles for locations that would convey the mystical, iconic qualities of the city. One location Foulkes found was Tom Suriya’s 1983 mural titled You Are the Star, which features the likenesses of Hollywood’s most recognizable personalities seated as an audience to the viewer. The location is featured in the film when aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) walks home discouraged before meeting Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). The only description offered in the script is that Mia crosses “roads” and “lots” on her journey. Yet Foulkes’ creative vision provided one of the most meaningful visual components in the film, with the mural conveying Mia’s dreams and foreshadowing that she will eventually put them before love.

Of course, there is no club there. The door through which Mia enters the fictional Lipton’s actually leads into a small office. But Foulkes knew that the scene could be “cheated,” with Mia walking through the door and a new scene beginning in the Smoke House Restaurant — Lipton’s interior — 4 miles away, in Burbank.

This brings into focus the balancing act a location manager must pull off for each location, working to communicate the artistic vision of a film while also accommodating a film’s budget and filming schedule.

Location manager Leann Emmert began scouting for the Oscar-nominated The Fabelmans by viewing photos and home movies from Steven Spielberg’s childhood. But whereas Spielberg’s real homes were in New Jersey, Arizona and Northern California, the film’s budget and filming schedule limited Emmert to the Los Angeles area. Emmert set out to find homes in Southern California that matched both the look and the feel of the filmmaker’s childhood.

Working alongside her on the project was Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter. “It was basically all there — bones and all — because of her,” Carter says about the locations Emmert found for The Fabelmans. “She wasn’t just checking boxes,” Carter adds. “She was bringing her own point of view to the script, emotionally and aesthetically.”

Sometimes, as was the case for Emmert when she worked on the Oscar-nominated Transformers and Kong: Skull Island, the locations discovered during scouting are so incredible — so irresistible — that writers find ways to incorporate them into the script, essentially writing the story around the location. “Sometimes we don’t even have a script yet,” Emmert says. “They just say, ‘Go find some cool shit,’ and those locations became story points.”

Says Kevin Thompson, production designer on the Oscar-winning Birdman, “Location managers are such an integral part of the creative process. They are in the conversations with the director, producer and production designer from the beginning.”

Every craftsperson has their tools: Composers use notes, costume designers use attire, art directors use props and paint. The art is in how they use them. And like a film’s score, costumes and set design, the locations in a film bring a world to life onscreen. Cultivating those locations is a craft and an art creatively essential to the film.

There are now 17 branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; a branch for location scouts is not among them. There is, however, a branch for “members-at-large,” which includes a variety of creative roles. The last category added to the Academy Awards was more than 20 years ago, in 2001 (not including the popular-film category proposed in 2018, which was scrapped after backlash). Now seems the opportune time to remedy this oversight regarding the location aspect of filmmaking and recognize outstanding achievement in location scouting.

This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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