A Scouting Life
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Establishing Shots

April 22, 2010

by Sam Hutchins

Reno seemed promising at first. We got an early jump and began making our way into town. It had a good approach. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is when scouting with a director. When watching a film, you will notice what is called an “establishing shot.” It is just that: the opening shot of a scene that establishes the location in which a scene is set. An establishing shot needs to impart exactly where you are, and do so quickly. You don’t want to confuse the audience or waste too much time on it, just inform the audience and move on. When I was scouting nightclub exteriors with Garry Marshall we ran up against the reality-film reality issue. The reality is that most nightclubs in Manhattan don’t look like much from the street, just an anonymous door with a velvet rope, doorman, and line of people waiting to get in. Garry kept rejecting these, eventually explaining to me that “If I shoot a nightclub exterior, I want a big bright sign outside that says ‘Nightclub tonight’ out front. You and I may know that’s not how real nightclubs work, but my audience is middle America and we need to tell them that it is a nightclub, not just show them a door. Give me a shot that imparts the information quickly and clearly.” Of course he was right.

The same goes for scouting with directors. When taking them to a location you need to take the correct approach. The way to go is the route that presents the location from the best possible angle. A good example is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. It is an absolutely beautiful building. One of the largest Cathedrals in the world, construction began in 1892 and continues to this day. The Cathedral sits on Amsterdam Avenue between 111th and 113th Streets. 112th Street dead-ends at the front steps of the Cathedral. The most direct route is to drive uptown on Amsterdam, stop in front of the building, get out and have a look at it. A really good location manager, however, will take a longer route. The smart ones go around the block, turning onto Broadway then onto 112th Street. When you make the turn you are faced with a classic Upper West Side block, only the Cathedral looms over the far end. The further you get down the block the more it dominates your eyeline, and when you emerge onto Amsterdam it opens up beautifully in front of you. If you are about to make the turn onto 112th and the director is on the phone or otherwise distracted, pull over and wait until you have their full attention. Don’t waste the “reveal” as first impressions are critical for the director as well as for the audience.

Back to Reno, a city I had not set foot in before that moment. By happy accident, however, we stumbled onto a great approach to the city. We had crashed just outside town in Sparks, Nevada. Once we were coffeed up we began making our way into town. Driving on St. Lawrence Avenue, the establishing shot found us. A series of low buildings dominated the foreground; better yet they contained tattoo parlors, pawn shops, liquor stores and cheap restaurants. Eventually they gave way to some large casinos, looming over us in the background. Just perfect shots to present the city to our audience. The location establishes desperation, aspiration and longing. We pulled over and shot the deserted streets for a while.

The difficulty with working there didn’t become clear until we made our way into the heart of the city. Put simply, it was a ghost town. I assumed the streets were deserted where we first stopped due to the early hour, but humanity remained scarce as the day wore on. Worse, the casinos were often no longer casinos. More than once we walked into what appeared to be one only to find it either gutted and deserted or in some early stage of being converted to a residential building. Times have been tough for the gaming industry, but this was a little surprising. Many of the casinos here had gone belly-up.

The thing that Reno did offer in abundance was motels with great old signs. Every block seemed to have one. Clearly Reno had once been the low-budget honeymoon capital of the West. I thought the abundance of great signage would be enough to interest Kar Wai but like the empty casinos we had seen from afar, this too proved to be misleading. What we found was that the hotels themselves were all broken down and converted to either SRO’s or hot sheet operations. Many were simply boarded up and abandoned. After our third or fourth nervous conversation with a pimp, Kar Wai had seen enough. We popped into one of the few still-operating casinos in search of a little lunch.

Throughout our journey we had established a custom of testing our luck every time the opportunity presented itself. Kar Wai would tap my shoulder and silently hand me a hundred dollar bill, I would add one of my own, and then take the first available seat at a blackjack table. Throwing down the two bills, I would play one hand only and see what came of it. We had done this every time we entered a casino, which was maybe a dozen times now. This was the first time on our journey where it didn’t happen. Seeing the tables I turned with my hand out only to find Kar Wai wandering away staring into the distance. I didn’t know if it was something about Reno, or us all being tired, or just tired of each other. All I knew was that we had seen enough of Reno. Time to move on.



Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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