11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Location Scouts

Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images

When regular people watch movies, they might focus on the plot, the dramatic dialogue, or the eye-popping sets. But when location scouts—the people whose job it is to find perfect filming sites—sit down for a film, all they see are logistics. Where did they shoot that? Who gave them access to that part of town? How did they shut down Times Square for that entirely empty shot in Vanilla Sky (2001)?

A location scout might spend an entire film typing out notes on their phone, only later realizing that the movie ended and they missed most of the actual plot. Mental Floss chatted with a couple of these professionals to learn more about their job—like just how many times they have to watch a film before they can enjoy it. (At least twice.)

1. THEY MIGHT START OUT IN CRAFT SERVICES.

Location scouts usually start their careers low in the production food chain. Audra Duval, a scout based in New York, has worked on film and TV projects such as The Greatest Showman (2017), The Knick, and The Blacklist, but she began her career as a unit production assistant, cleaning toilets and taking out garbage. "You never just jump into [being] a scout, or not that I've ever heard of," she says.

Lori Balton—who is based in Los Angeles and has been scouting for 30 years on dozens of major productions including A Wrinkle in Time (2018), The Young Pope, and Inception (2010)—began in craft services, cutting slices of cheesecake and pouring cups of coffee for members of the crew. "At the time I had a masters degree, so it was a humbling experience to be told how well I could cut cheesecake. You learn to smile, be grateful, and ask if they would like a cup of joe," she says.

2. THEY HELP EACH OTHER OUT.

Two hands holding up a phone to photograph a colorful building
iStock

Once they work their way up the ladder, location scouts become part of a tight-knit group with its own resources. They join large group texts or private Google Groups just for location scouts. Duval says that when people get stuck, they send out specific requests: "'Hey guys, this is what we're looking for. Does anyone know where this is or a good area for me to start looking in?’"

And while they can tap fellow scouts, as well as friends, they also have access to location-scouting databases. The New York City Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, for example, maintains an online location library of possibilities, while the database Easy Locations, run by an independent producer, covers the LA area. Other websites, like LocationsHub.com (in which property owners share details about sites they have to offer) as well as real estate sites like StreetEasy, can also come in handy.

"A lot of the times it's cold scouting, where you just walk into a building by yourself and start knocking on random people's doors," Duval says. "Or you think of a place that you've filmed before, or some of your friends have filmed before, and just kind of go through the networking or resources that we have."

3. THEY PRACTICALLY LIVE IN THEIR CARS.

Scouting assignments come from a project’s director and production designer, who usually have an idea for what they want a location to look like based on what's written into the script—say, a condo in Queens that looks like it’s actually in Detroit. On bigger productions, they may even send over a very rough animation of what the set should end up looking like, called a previs. Scouts will start out by Googling the areas and looking at real estate websites from home, and then begin driving around. They may have months to explore if they're working on a movie, or just a few hours before shooting begins if it's a television show.

Either way, scouts pack their cars full of gear to help them take detailed notes and photographs, which then get relayed to the locations department. Duval always carries a notebook, phone, phone chargers, extra batteries for her phone, computers, a camera, and hard drives. "[It's] basically everything that I could live in my car with," she says. Balton carries multiple DSLR cameras and a tripod, which helps when shooting dark interiors by keeping everything stable and reducing blur.

4. THEY HAVE TO BE CREATIVE, BUT ALSO REALISTIC.

Ffilming The Invention of Hugo Cabret on street
Bertrand Guay, AFP/Getty Images

Once a scout is in the field, they try to balance what the director and production designer have asked for with what's actually feasible. "Most scouts cast a pretty wide net looks-wise," Duval says.

That's because locations can often appear ideal but fall through logistically. There could be a sound issue—maybe airplanes frequently fly overhead. There could be a lighting issue: Maybe an environment looks completely different at night than during the day. There could be a transportation issue—maybe an elevator is out and the camera crew can’t lug equipment up 10 flights of stairs. That's why scouts always prepare a list of backup locations.

“You never know if you've found the perfect location, because so many people need to weigh in on it, for a wide variety of reasons,” Balton says. “But I do get a feeling of ‘this is perfect!' frequently. And almost as frequently I am incorrect and one of my lesser choices gets chosen.”

For example, while scouting the movie Noah (2014) for Darren Aronofsky, Balton was traveling through Iceland looking for landscapes that appeared prehistoric. But setting up a cast and crew in the middle of Iceland isn’t practical. “You need to be based around a city, even if it's a small town movie, especially for a big feature,” she told Condé Nast Traveler. "You need to have the big hotels that can accommodate you, the production houses, the rental cars. It's a difficult thing.” The cast ended up filming mostly in the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is near Reykjavik—as well as in several spots in New York City.

5. PERIOD PIECES CAN BE A CHALLENGE.

Retro 1940s film noir-type image
iStock

While working on The Greatest Showman, which was set in the early 20th century, Duval dealt with a clash between architecture and fashion. “We had this great location, but the actress had to wear a hoop dress,” she says. “In the early 1900s they had tiny door frames because people were smaller. But this woman was in this huge dress and she couldn’t fit through the door.”

In the end, the wardrobe department had to get her a different dress. “You have to think about those tiny logistical things when you’re scouting,” Duval says.

6. THEY’RE PUBLIC RECORDS SLEUTHS.

In order to help “clear” a location for filming, scouts must collect contact information for property owners or managers, who need to sign contracts with the crew. Sometimes one person owns a building, while another owns the parking lot. To sort out who owns what, scouts search public record databases—such as ACRIS, the New York City Register’s system—which list owners of lots, blocks, and individual buildings. Local historic societies can also be useful in tracking down the necessary information. Duval says she'll also spend time researching records when she's working on period pieces and needs to know more about a certain time in history, and she'll sometimes contact local tax assessors for more information about specific properties. "I get into such deep holes of Google, it's crazy."

7. THEY DO A LOT OF WAITING.

After finding their ideal locations and figuring out who owns them, scouts have to get in touch with that individual. Residential property owners are usually at work during the day, so scouts “flyer” their doors. They leave a piece of paper that explains the project they’re working on and says they’re interested in the property. Then, they wait patiently for the owners to call them back. “We know we’re inconveniencing people in their everyday lives; we're not trying to be jerks,” Duval says.

8. NOT EVERYONE LOVES THEM.

Location scouts have to be especially diplomatic because they're the first people the outside world comes into contact with from the set. They have to build relationships with property owners, even ones who aren’t so friendly. Certain blocks in New York are notorious for having unfriendly residents, so scouts tend to avoid them. In addition, the New York mayor’s office regularly releases a list of “hot zones” where crews aren’t allowed to shoot that month because filming has been active there recently and the residents need a break from the cameras.

It's a similar situation in Los Angeles. Productions who want to film in the city must go through FilmLA, which is affiliated with the city government. Before being awarded a permit, FilmLA surveys residents and business owners to find out if there are any objections to the filming taking place [PDF]. If there are serious concerns, they won't grant a permit.

Of course, property owners who do allow in film crews are usually compensated for their time and trouble—perhaps $2500 for a one-day commercial shoot, and up to $10,000 for a movie, according to one location manager.

9. THEY DON’T OFTEN TRAVEL FAR.

Columbus Circle in Manhattan
iStock

Duval says she got into the field thinking she was going to travel a lot, but quickly realized how local the job is. Scouts in New York are limited to a 30-mile radius from Manhattan, which includes parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. More specifically, it's 30 miles from Columbus Circle as the crow flies. Once production moves outside of “the zone,” as they call it, crew members have to start being paid more (a union rule). In Los Angeles, this 30-mile radius is often called the “studio zone” and it begins at the intersection of West Beverly and North La Cienega Boulevards.

Some location scouts with big studios, however, such as Balton, are sent to check out faraway locations. But that's not always as glamorous as it sounds. “Trust me, like anything else, international travel gets old really fast,” she says. “There is something indescribably wonderful about sleeping in your own bed. On a good many films, I virtually travel the world, and then the budget reality hits and we end up on a stage in Georgia.”

10. THEY LEARN THE STRANGEST THINGS.

Scouts don’t only look at apartments and office buildings; they’re also tasked with finding bridges, tunnels, and marble quarries. Before they know it, they’re well-versed in dimensional stone, panes of glass, and sconces.

“I’m a nerd at heart and love that my job takes me to unusual places where I learn fascinating, albeit generally useless, information,” Balton says. “When I scouted steam trains [in the UK] for [Tim Burton's upcoming live-action remake of] Dumbo, I learned that the train geeks refer to themselves as foamers, because they are literally rabid about anything to do with trains. ... Each job involves learning a new language, depending on what I’m looking for.”

11. THEY NEVER STOP SCOUTING.

Everyday hobbies take on new meaning when you're a location scout. Watching a movie becomes a different activity altogether: “If I know a friend or a friend-of-a-friend worked on it, I’ll text them, ‘hey, where did you shoot that?’” Duval says. Sometimes, it turns out to be a location she already knows, but one the production designer dressed up to look totally unrecognizable. This often happens with period pieces; for The Greatest Showman, the crew turned a little science center in Prospect Park into a 1900s-era hospital.

When scouts go out to eat at a cool restaurant, they grab a business card to reference later. But it’s funny, Duval says, because she can scout 20 bars in a week and then go blank when it comes to picking one to drink at Friday night. “I do that every year for my birthday,” she says. “It all merges in your brain.”

11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

Buckingham Palace Used to Have a Bar For Its Staff—Until They Started Getting Really Drunk

Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

You don’t have to be a member of the royal family to enjoy some of Buckingham Palace’s spectacular perks. According to Insider, the staff has its own gym, swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, choir, book club, and 24-hour confidential counseling services.

They even used to have a private bar, but management was forced to shut it down after staff members kept getting too drunk. Insider reports that Dickie Arbiter, the Queen’s former press secretary, shared the not-so-posh tidbit in a new documentary called Secrets of the Royal Palaces, which is airing on the UK’s Channel 5 this month.

It’s not clear if a few irresponsible employees ruined it for everyone or if there was reckless over-imbibing across the board. Were the famously stoic Buckingham Palace guards among the guilty? We’ll probably never know—Arbiter kept his comments on the matter concise and rather vague, explaining that staff had gotten “too worse for wear,” so “they had to get rid” of the bar.

Though it’s highly unlikely that the 93-year-old queen was tossing back tequila shots with her ladies-in-waiting, she has been known to enjoy an alcoholic beverage from time to time. Her drink of choice is gin mixed with Dubonnet, and her former chef Darren McGrady told CNN that she also occasionally indulges in a glass of German sweet wine with dinner. “Just in the evening,” he emphasized. “She certainly doesn’t drink four glasses a day.”

Perhaps the possibly brief, definitely wondrous life of the Buckingham Palace staff bar will be covered in a later season of Netflix’s The Crown.

[h/t Insider]

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