what is the locations department?
The role of the location manager and their team of assistants, location scouts and PAs is to source and secure locations nationally and globally that are vital to the script and the director’s vision. Working in conjunction with the director and production designer, location managers work to a brief to find the key criteria of a location mentioned in the script, such as a window in the sitting room, which also needs to be south facing, for example. Location managers are very resourceful, and masters at negotiating access to sought after locations.
In pre-production, the location manager will work through the script and hire their team of location scouts. If working on a smaller budget independent production, the location manager can be working independently, scouting locations. A unit manager will be present on location when filming commences. The script is the location manager's Bible, every location they view will be cross checked with the script multiple times to make sure all the key details and requirements are checked off. While working in pre-production, the location manager will be working with the HoDs to make sure all requirements for the shoot are met. They contact and liaise with nationwide film offices, communicate with the public bodies (such as the Council) and emergency services, should roads need to be closed off or SFX work take place. When the scouts or location manager has found an ideal location they make initial contact with the owner, or they leave a card. Having collated a list of options for each location mentioned in the script, the location manager presents their findings to the director and production designer. They can find themselves offering hundreds of possible options, around 10-15 for each location. When the locations are agreed upon the location manager will follow up and secure the location for filming, acquiring all permissions, legal documentation and residential approval for production use.
The location manager and their team will be the first department to arrive at the appointed shoot day to shepherd other departments into parking bays/areas and around designated parking areas. While working on location the location or unit manager and location PA’s/runners are responsible for:
Being the location owner's representative(s) on set. Members of the locations team take this responsibility very seriously as they are on the front line when dealing with owners of properties. An experienced film crew is always sensitive when working on location, but they also have a job to do, it can be up to the locations team to make sure mats protect parquet flooring and any expensive items are either stored away or protected.
Making sure best practice is observed. If the location is residential making sure all crew follow best practice, cutting truck engines off once parked, wearing appropriate clothing - especially if working residentially or in a sensitive location.
Set up and manage unit base, making sure unit base, mobile offices/trailers have power and a source of fresh water for catering. Making sure toilets (honey wagon), security and recycling/rubbish removal requirements are met.
Dealing with rescheduling. Location filming can be entirely reliant on the weather - which is notoriously unreliable in the UK. The locations team need to have a contingency plan in place and be confident that they can negotiate an agreement. The locations team will provide protection against the elements for the crew, such as easy up gazebos or tents.
Addressing any health and safety concerns such as cables, live wires, etc. If working with SFX, the Location Department make sure the correct health and safety are in place which could mean an ambulance on standby, or the local hospital being informed of the productions activities.
Performing a full clearance of the area on departure, remove any rubbish if left by catering, crew or set de-rigs.
Thank residents and public officials also known as the ‘follow up’ (if they were present on the day) and foster good relations; you never know when you might need them again.
WHAT ARE THE ENTRY LEVEL POSITIONS AVAILABLE IN THE LOCATION DEPARTMENT?
If you would like to become a part of the Location Department, one of the best ways to start is to become a location runner, also known as the location PA (production assistant). The production assistant is a US term for the role of a runner and has become widely used in the UK film industry, most notably on the bigger budget productions made by the studios. The role can be found on features, commercials, short films (with a decent budget) and TV dramas. Despite being a production assistant the locations PA is answerable to the assistant locations manager, location manager and the unit manager, not the ADs Department. Location runner/PAs can be hired independently through film offices, but usually, the location manager will have a team they will pick from.
In TV (or working on productions of a lesser budget) you may find the role of location assistant is the junior role in the Location Department. If you work in TV (entertainment, drama, comedy and some shows such as property programmes) the job will require all the same attributes as working in film but the budgetary considerations will differ. Being able to move across the various formats will give you a better chance of finding employment and broadening your network.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER ROLES IN THE LOCATION DEPARTMENT?
It’s not uncommon for location managers to go from a big production (with a good size team) to working on their own for a TV show with a map, a reliable hatchback and an overnight bag for company. The roles within locations for film and televisions are:
Supervising location manager. When working on multi-location, big budget productions that have global reach there will be a supervising location manager who acts as the primary point of contact for the director, producer and production designer.
Location manager. Location managers will be familiar with doing it all, scouting, negotiating access, issuing location contracts, managing a budget, research, managing a team, insurance cover and acting as health and safety officer on set.
Assistant location manager. Taking instruction from the location manager, and contributing to the smooth running of the department.
Unit manager. The location manager's designated representative on set if the location manager is not there (on bigger budgets this can be the case). They will be the ones helping the trucks find their parking spaces, putting up signs to unit base, creating unit base and arranging the facilities (toilets, trailers, catering), making sure the location is cleared on departure.
Location scout. Working with the script and a brief, location scouts are sent out to hunt down all manner of locations, document them and present their findings to the location manager.
WHAT IS THE CAREER PATH IF I WANT TO WORK IN LOCATIONS?
Once you're working as a location runner, you can begin to build up your connections within the industry which, like most occupations in the film industry, is one of the best ways to generate work. Working in locations can offer you many choices as you progress along the career path. If you have a particular interest, such as extreme sports (rock climbing, snowboarding down cliff faces), you may wish to specialise in remote locations. If you are fluent in other languages or have knowledge of locations overseas, this can tip the balance when production companies and location managers are looking for staff.
There are also specialised location companies that forge good relationships with owners of stately or desirable homes; these companies will have location managers, scouts and assistants on their books. The most formalised way of progressing from the runner position would be to step up to location scout, assistant location manager and then location manager; you could always visit the position of unit manager along the way.
WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE LOCATION PA?
You will be taking direction from the assistant location manager and/or the unit manager, taking care of a range of issues that may arise from shooting on location. Some of these duties can include:
If the production wishes to use a residential street PAs will be leafleting the area, asking for consent, and letting people know what to expect. If working on a period production PAs may have to ask if aerials can be taken down or the Art Department might make aesthetic changes to the outside of the house.
Liaise with the ALM and production office.
The movement order consists of directions (which the ALM has mapped out) and maps to go with the call sheets in the evening. You may be asked to help find the best map; the ALM will have space in the production office to work in.
The evening before the shoot runners, the ALM, or unit manager will attach parking dispensations to parking bays having acquired them from the local council. If the location is hard to reach, or the route complicated the location team will have marked out the route with a series of fluorescent signs with the word 'unit' on them to avoid any confusion. Most people will adhere to the rules, but there will always be people who turn up in the morning determined to park where they shouldn't, it will be your job to make sure this doesn't happen. Usually, the ALM will help with the safe parking of production vehicles while on location, and listen to any concerns members of the crew may have.
If filming in a residential area, you may be called upon to inform residents if any SFX work or action that causes concern is about to take place. Before the shoot, you may be asked to send out information to residents and businesses who may feel the impact of the filming 2 -5 days in advance.
Making sure the crew have provisions.
Making sure bins are provided for the crew, especially around the catering busses. If it's too hot or cold making sure gazebos are on standby.
Assisting with crowd control.
If the area has been closed off, and if you are working on a big budget production it may be by the police, the Location Department are the liaison between these services and the crew. Don't be surprised if you have to field questions by members of the public about what's going on.
Clear the location on departure.
You will often find all the members of the department will pitch in when it comes to leaving a location. Most departments are very good at clearing for themselves, but if a set has been built into a location and needs to be removed (struck), the locations team provide the skips or necessary means for removal.
Work with the other departments.
If building work has unexpectedly sprung up that wasn't there on the recce you will have to ask them if they could ‘hold the work’ during a take for the Sound Department. The Art Department may need to remove some art work, or the grips may need to lay track on a priceless parquet flooring. This is all down to the location department to facilitate the crew's requests.
In the absence of the LM, ALM or unit manager be on set.
This is usually the responsibility of the location manager but if they are called away a member of the team can fill in. A member of the locations team should always be present on set. The locations team are in direct contact with the owners of the property, so if anything needs to be moved or changed, all departments need to go through locations.
Help document the set.
Document all the furniture (know where it came from and where it needs to go back to) and if you notice any imperfections in the floor or walls document that too in case the owner thinks the production have caused them.
KEY SKILLS FOR THE LOCATION PA:
Understanding photography. Knowing how to photograph a location - should you not know it's on the diagonal - is going to help as you progress in your career, so it’s best to start practising now. Practice taking shots that best represent the space and scale of a location; it’s a good habit to get into.
Communication. Unless you're working on a studio production, the locations team can be quite small, so effective communication is essential for keeping everything ticking over. Know where other members of the department are at all times, read the sides at the beginning of the day and know what areas of the location the crew intend to shoot in.
Be vigilant. While onset you are the eyes and ears of the location owner. The location/unit manager takes overall responsibility, but you can help them out. If no food or drink is allowed on the premises, make sure that the rules are observed. If the grips are bringing in a dolly, ask if you can provide them with matting etc. You may feel as though you are fussy but you need to make sure the crew can carry out their work, and the location owner gets their home back as they left it. If in doubt always ask the location manager or unit manager first.
Being forthright and firm while maintaining a friendly and approachable demeanour. Much like the set PAs you can be called upon to hold people at barriers to stop them walking through the shot, most likely this will be members of the public, it can also be crew. You can be holding the executive producer at a barrier which can be a tough situation, but you need to stick to your guns. You will also need to apply this attitude to members of the crew if they are unhappy with a location arrangement. Obviously ask the ALM or unit manager first, but if you are given direct instructions about parking priority or movement of objects/furnishings you need to be firm but friendly.
HOW DO I FIND WORK AS A LOCATION PA/ASSISTANT?
If you love to travel and enjoy packing a bag to leave the house in 10 minutes, working in locations can be an exciting area of the industry for the right candidate. However, before you land the job of a location manager, you will need to begin your journey at the beginning, and gain experience as a location PA or assistant. Working at this level will let you know whether you have the right personality to fit the role and whether you enjoy the work. If you are coming into the industry from another side of the business or as a complete career change, look at the rate of a locations PA and have a think about how to finance yourself while you are looking for experience to put on the CV.
It's the old catch 22; you need a CV with experience to find paying work but how do you gain that initial experience? Fortunately, there are options, collaborations being one of them. Collaborations can be short films funded and run by individuals, helping out on student productions such as the NFTS or any of the MA programs, or working on testings that involve stills rather than motion. Many short films are shot over a weekend, or a maximum of a few days. So if you are working full-time, this can be an ideal way to gain experience while still earning a wage.
The film industry is fiercely competitive, so you are going to need to use all resources available to you. Alongside the opportunities we list here on MFJF, you can also look to our resources section to see the other service providers for collaborations. University websites have noticeboards or areas of their website that are dedicated to ‘collaborations or swaps’. If you're living in a town with a university that has an MA film course, keep checking to see if they are crewing up or needed any extra help.
Although we do recommend collaborations, do your research first to find out who is going to be working on the production. The university will back student films, so there will be a budget, and insurance will be taken care of. If you are working on a short film with people you don’t know, make sure the check out the producer's track record and back catalogue of work, you want to know they are following best industry practice and will be running the production properly. This means the production will be insured, catering (or at least some form of feeding the crew) has been devised, there is a schedule that is realistic and location, transport and travel plans of the crew are all considered. As you will be working on the location, find out what the travel arrangements are. Will the production be relying on people to transport themselves or carry kit in their cars? Will they need extra insurance? If it’s a friend you’re helping out then obviously you will be less rigorous in assessing these things, everyone likes helping out their friends if they can, even if it means long hours and a sandwich for supper.
The likelihood is you will be working for expenses, so make sure that is the case - always talk money before you agree. If you are working without payment, be sure you're swapping your time for some skills and knowledge; such as the experience of working on a properly run shoot, working with an experienced location manager, making some contacts who are working in the industry, adding a credit to your CV and most importantly a reference. If your gut feeling is that these criteria are unlikely, (you will know within the first five minutes) you could decide to say thanks but no thanks and look for the next opportunity.
When looking for paid positions check through your CV (or ask someone else to) to see it reads well and is correctly formatted. You can use the CV advice to create a CV and covering letter. You can check your CV against our example CVs to make sure it includes all the relevant information. Keep it short and to the point, as many location managers will be ‘scanning’ rather than reading, cut out the chaff and try and keep it down to one page.
Finding work and applying for positions can be a full-time job in itself. Some people will get lucky, finding work almost instantaneously. Some may have put in the hours on short films while they are studying, some people might just be in the right place at the right time. In whatever situation you find yourself, the resounding advice from professionals working in the film industry is to be persistent; persistent and relentless in the pursuit of your chosen career. Keep applying for positions, sending emails, and keep an eye on the British Film Council, regional film units, Facebook’s UK Production News, KFTV, Kays, The Knowledge noticeboards and MFJF, obviously, to see what is going into production.
You can start by researching specialist locations companies, many of whom recommend location managers and scouts on their books. You can also register your CV with the film offices in your local area, make yourself available to productions looking to crew up. Finding a great location doesn't just happen by travelling around ticking off boxes on the brief (although that helps), it’s about noticing the world around you and documenting it for future reference. If you want to move into locations, know your local area inside out, and make lists of areas that would make ideal filming locations, not just regarding its cinematic beauty but also practicality. Could you park the trucks there? Is it near a main road? Are those building works? Where would you set up the unit base? Is there enough room for a unit base? How would you map out the route to the location from the motorway? If location managers are looking for local runners, this knowledge could be extremely useful.
There are a host of blogs, books and internet resources available to gain further insight into the work of the Locations Department. To start you off here is a selection:
The network you build while working on shorts, student films and micro-budget features will enable you to branch out to look for work elsewhere in the industry. If you've worked with other production assistants ask them to keep you in mind for when they are unavailable to work, referrals to location or unit managers can open doors. Remain in contact with everyone you meet, send the odd email, social media is a great way to stay in touch. Use your time to create opportunities, don’t wait for them to come to you.
Personality and Attitude
Locations is another specialised area of the industry, so while you are gaining experience and making contacts, you're probably going to need to finance yourself. Part-time work, or any role that allows you flexibility while looking for a job would be advantageous. Having a fallback occupation in between productions can be essential in those first few years. Fortunately, locations professional are required in many areas of the industry so your chances of gaining work is increased, don't forget to look at photographic work alongside film and TV. Initially, you are looking to gain relevant experience wherever possible.
At points, it could feel all too depressing when you’re not getting the roles you want, keep in mind the advice on being relentless and consider what experience could you gain in another capacity to start ticking boxes for potential employers. Reflect on the reasons your CV is not being chosen for roles; it could be a lack of experience, the way your CV is presented or if you’re sending in generic CV’s and covering letters - you need to give yourself the best possible chance by tailoring each one to each job role or production.
Although the industry is incredibly flexible when it comes to changing career if you’re applying for positions in another area of the industry you will need to be clear about why you want to make the change and give examples of what you have been doing to facilitate the move.
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WHAT IS THE LOCATIONS DEPARTMENT LIKE TO WORK IN?
Locations is a challenging department to work in. You may find the perfect location but be denied access from the owners, have a motorway running straight through it, or have to helicopter the cast and crew as it's inaccessible via road. As you move up the career ladder, you can find yourself spending time out on the road with only your sat nav for companionship. Working in locations can become quite solitary at times, especially when you are scouting locations in pre-production. During production, however, you will be surrounded by trucks and crew who will be looking to you for answers.
You will know in the first year if being part of the locations team is for you. Working in locations can be very stressful, you will be dealing with many personalities throughout the day and most often you will not be able to please everyone. If there is a problem with access, or something has changed since you were on the recce, many faces will be turned to you for answers. If you have a nervous disposition, or find it difficult to provide a professional veneer (outwardly calm but paddling wildly underneath), you may find the working environment too stressful.
Diplomacy while dealing with the departments is a must, and anyone who wishes to work in locations would do well to observe senior members of staff as they navigate their way through the day. Part of the job is prioritising individual departments in certain situations, how you navigate this without upsetting anyone will take a considerable amount of tact and diplomacy. Key locations professionals are competent and firm while simultaneously being calm and friendly.
Communication is essential for the locations team to do their job, whether working with homeowners to secure the property or negotiating with the public services and regional film councils to ensure the best deal you can for the production. Sometimes the locations team can be tasked with the seemingly impossible from filmmakers, part of the joy of the job is working to achieve this.
DO I NEED ANY QUALIFICATIONS TO WORK IN LOCATION MANAGEMENT?
Working as a locations runner/PA will not require any formal academic qualifications, but you will need a driving licence - without a license, your CV will be discarded straight away. You could also pay for a first aid course which would enable you to act as a nominated first aider on set. A degree can offer you a solid educational grounding and some life experience being away from home; it can also offer options if you decide a life in the film industry is not for you. If choosing a film or media degree look closely at the modules the course is offering, does it offer:
Practical modules with industry recognised equipment.
Lecturers (full time or guest) who are working in the industry.
Affiliations with industry recognised institutions.
A chance to meet alumni or industry members.
It would be advantageous to have a good grasp of health and safety procedures, and a great deal of common sense. You will also need passion, drive and determination to work in the film industry. These qualities are prized throughout the departments and should get you where you want to go.
WHAT PAPERWORK OR SOFTWARE SHOULD I BE FAMILIAR WITH?
You will need to posses a good working knowledge of Macs and PCs if you are called upon to help in the office. Good organisational and administrative skills would be useful. The majority of agreements are put in place by the location manager well before the first truck rolls into its parking space, so paperwork on the day should be at a minimum. Forms that the Locations Department use are:
Letter of application or letter of intent. Once the location has been agreed upon the production will submit a letter of intent to the owners, residents. This can include a brief treatment of the project and if requested a copy of the script pages.
The location use agreement/release. The agreement sets out all the interested parties, fees, insurances and time allowed for location use.
Movement order. Detailed directions of how to get to unit base or a location.
Maps and being able to give concise directions.
Request to film during extended hours.
Incident report form. If any damages or accidents occur the form needs to be filled out for insurance purposes.
10 ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR NEW ENTRANTS OF THE LOCATIONS DEPARTMENT
Have a good working knowledge of all the departments.
What function do they carry out, will they need to be close to set for unloading or if the Camera Department loading and unloading magazines in the back of the camera truck; what do they need to be able to function properly (holding area/electric/water, etc.).
Listen carefully to instructions.
When instructed by the ALM, take a notepad that fits into your back pocket to write down and refer to instructions and tasks.
Be able to present yourself and a confident and clear way.
Working as part of the locations team means you're working with members of the public who can have their lives disrupted by an invasion of trucks, trailers and people. Never dismiss their concerns, most people just want to know what is going on and that their complaint (if they have one) has been taken seriously. Remain sympathetic and don’t take it personally, make a point of letting them know you have noted it down.
The unit/location manager will be assessing whether conditions while working on location, and the departments do their best to keep the crew guarded against the elements. If the weather forecast is incorrect (crazy but true) you can take action and distribute the suntan lotion, or be the first in with the gazebo.
Create your own locations lists.
Whenever you go away, stockpile information on areas you have visited which you could use at a later date. Get into the habit of documenting locations, both written and photographic, you will need to be good with a camera when you jump up to location scout. This doesn't mean the latest DSLR, most location manager prefer a small compact camera that doesn't draw attention.
Make sure you are prepared for the day ahead.
Research the location the night before. If somewhere you have not previously visited, you can find out from the ALM if there are any requirements that would be different from the norm.
For a location PA, there are a few things to keep to hand at all times. Your walkie and a spare battery, pen and note pad, flashlight, mobile phone, multi-tool. Things to keep in your bag or the back of the car would be wet weather gear, sun hat and sun lotion, rope, mobile phone charger, high vis vest, pop up bins and industrial strength bin bags.
The likelihood is you're going to be working in stately homes or period buildings at some stage. Put your national trust membership to good use and get to know your architecture, know the difference between a 17th-century pillar and one from the 18th-century, a Norman church and a Saxon church. You don’t have to be an antique expert but knowing what is a valuable piece of artwork (and probably shouldn’t be moved) is going to stand you good stead during your career.
Practice photographing locations.
Think about how to best capture space. Location managers advise you take pictures on the diagonal to get the best the shot, as your career progresses (and after having read the script multiple times) you will be able to gauge where the Camera Department are likely to set up, so make sure the camera crew can get in there.
Read the script.
If you have a chance (and the location manager is willing), read the script. Location managers live by the script; it's their primary source of reference when looking for suitable locations for a production.
PHRASES EVERY ENTRANTS NEEDS TO KNOW WHEN WORKING IN LOCATIONS.
Wrap. When the crew pack up, go home, and leave you with the aftermath.
Base camp/unit base. This is where you will find all the trailers and services needed to keep a production going. Mobile offices, trailers housing makeup and wardrobe, actors trailers or villages depending on the size of the star.
Distant location. Refers to an overnight for the cast and crew if the location is far from their homes.
Honeywagon. A portaloo - but a nice one. Cast trailers have their own amenities, but the crew will have to make use of communal facilities.
Gennie is short for the generator which usually comes with an operator as well. Another challenge for the locations team as they can be quite noisy, so you don't want it too close to the action.
How much do location runnersPAs get paid?
Currently (2015 rate card) these are the BECTU recommended rates for a location assistant.
Although work may be sporadic and the majority of the film industry is self-employed, the role of the trainee/runner/assistant is not currently recognised by HMRC as a ‘grade’ for self-employment. If you’re working on features films for weeks or months, the production will pay you weekly using the PAYE pay structure, meaning they will deduct your tax and national insurance at source, providing you with a P45 and P60 at the end of the engagement. However, if you’re just starting out and looking for work, potentially on dailies, this presents complications.
Fortunately, HMRC is aware of the infrequency of work in the film and television industry especially in the entry level roles, so they use a seven-day rule. If an engagement is less than seven days, PAYE does not need to be applied, but the production company will still deduct your national insurance. This is to stop you being over taxed or emergency taxed, which could leave you with a very small pay packet indeed. Make sure you are meticulous with your record keeping, filing all documentation such as your P45 and P60’s, you may need them for reference at the end of the tax year.
If you have been in the film industry for 12 months and worked for multiple companies on short term contracts, you can be eligible to apply to HMRC for the Lorimer or LP10 letter. The Lorimer Letter is a Letter of Authority that is valid for three years and can be applied to engagements of 10 days or less. To apply for this, you have to demonstrate that you are in business on your own account, so that individual short-term engagements which would otherwise be treated as employment are seen as part of an overall business set-up. So, even though you are not one the approved ‘grades’ listed by HMRC you will be invoicing the production for the full sum - but you will need to generate your own invoicing, file your own tax return as self-employed and be responsible for paying your Class 2 and Class 4 National Insurance.
Please make sure to set up your invoicing structure in a way that will enable you to be consistent with your numbering. For example, if you're John Smith you may decide to structure your invoicing as JS01. Try not to go changing your formats too much, when it comes to the end of the tax year (April 5th), you’re going to want to keep things as simple as possible.
What hours am I likely to work as a location runner/PA?
Depending on the production you can work between at 10 to 16 hr day. The locations team are the first to arrive and last to leave so your day will largely be dictated to by the expediency of the crew. Just as the production office is up and running an hour before crew call and an hour or so after wrap, the locations team are most often there before the production office.
What is the difference between a floor runner (set PA) and a location runner/PA?
Set PAs are under the guidance of the ADs Department and take responsibility for the ‘set’, which is where all the on-camera action will take place. They will ‘lock-off’ a location which effective means keeping everyone out of the working area. Location PAs operate around this activity, liaising with the external factors such as police if working in a public space or traffic needs to be redirected, parking and residential liaison. Even though the locations team are present on set, they are working to ensure the crew can fulfil their tasks with the minimum of fuss.
What should I take with me on my first day?
One thing that will become habitual is being prepared for all eventualities this can include:
Have sufficient wet weather gear and a sun hat in the back of the car.
Digital camera to record anything on set that looks out of place, or to document a private residence before the crew arrives.
A notebook and pen.
thank you's ...
My First Job in Film would like to thank Ken Hawkins for sharing his experience and giving up his time to offer advice for this career guide.