‘Choosing location is integral to the film: in essence, another character.’ – Ridley Scott
Picture the scene: you’ve got hold of a 4K camera through a series of promises and assurances so convoluted you can’t remember who you owe what anymore. You’ve wrangled a set of Zeiss lenses that are each worth more than your monthly rent. You’ve tracked down the best cinematographer this side of the Atlantic (willing to work for free). Your film is scripted, cast, crewed, and budgeted. And yet, you face a familiar issue. There is no resolution, lens, or DP that can make a drab student flat look like anything other than a drab student flat. And that’s exactly where you chose to shoot your film.
It is worth mentioning that with enough talent, even the most mundane environments can become visually striking. For some filmmakers, monotonous and everyday is very much the intention, as with Ken Loach. But otherwise, there is often an imbalance in student and low-budget filmmaking. Impressive (and expensive) gear is prioritised over what that gear will actually capture.
The greatest lens in the world is still only as good as the thing it’s pointed at. With locations shrugged off as ‘wherever we can find’, the result shortchanges both the equipment and the film itself. Many aspiring filmmakers are so dazzled by the technical quality of their hardware that they forget it is, after all, only the tool used to make narrative cinema. It isn’t the art itself.
It is a great location, more than the best lens, that offers a low-budget film the sort of production value that sets it apart. This change of mindset should become central to the filmmaking process. Where the story is set can be transformative. Consider reframing a domestic drama initially set in a dull London apartment to one shot against the Welsh mountains. The spectacle of rising peaks and falling valleys would match the emotional arc of the characters’ experience. Or (more reasonably) devote time and effort (and, if need be, money) to transforming that dull apartment into something more evocative or arresting, like the flat featured in Withnail & I
But spectacle is by no means necessary. Simply making sure that location is not the last call improves the films you make. Even if it’s at the cost of a slightly better camera. Like Ridley Scott says in the quotation above, location can be more than a background for the action, but a character itself.
A strong location should command mood, atmosphere, and present various opportunities for the keen cinematographer. A beautiful environment in 1080p will always look better than a drab setting in 4K, no matter the technology. For your next project, think closely about where your film will be shot and why. Maybe the money budgeted for a lens as long as your arm might find better usage elsewhere (literally).
For more info on finding a location, check out this article.