STAGE VERSUS LOCATION
When most people think of a film set, the picture that comes to mind is a sound stage. And there are a lot of good reasons to shoot on stages.
The best reason is control. You create everything, from the set to the lighting. If you have an image in your mind for what the environment should look like, you can create it. Exactly.
Control is particularly important when you’re working with wild cards: kids, animals, celebrities. You never know how they’re going to behave or how long you’ll have them before you lose them. So you get everything dialed in before you bring them on. That way you make the most of every second you have with them.
The biggest downside to working on a stage is exactly the same as the upside: control. You create everything, so you don’t get the benefit of stumbling onto nice things like you would on a location.
Of course, the best DPs and the best art directors can create lighting and sets that have a lot of that wonderful stuff, but I like the Aha feeling I get when I notice a sock hanging from a light fixture. Usually, that stuff is irrelevant to the story I’m telling, but I think there’s a place for irrelevant stuff. It helps add humanity to a story, as long as it doesn’t overwhelm.
Besides, I’ve found that even when I have a clear image in my mind, searching through locations often opens me up to other possibilities. A lot of times, it helps to think flexibly. I’ve used park restrooms for prison cells, office buildings as airports, and strip clubs as karaoke bars. One of my favorite solutions was on a job I had to shoot out of town. I needed a shot of a bedroom, but there was no money in the budget for either a set or a location.
It occurred to me that I could dress the hotel room I was staying in as the bedroom.
So I asked the producers to book me a room on the bottom floor (so we could light through the windows) and borrowed a lot of personal stuff to fill the room with from the actors we were using. The incremental cost was $0 and the look was perfect for the story.
Brian Belefant is a director who has shot in hotel rooms and slept in sound stages. You can reach him at (503) 715 2852 or send an email to belefant (at) me (dot) com.