I worked on a set this last Saturday for a Director who was producing a short for a class of his. The Director was very unpleased with the location because it was small, cluttered, and didn't have the area for his Actor’s entrance scene that he had hoped for. Since he was already very unpleased he simply told he a very vague idea of what he wanted the master set up to look like as far as lighting and blocking. I took this little information I had and set to work.
After spending a very frustrating hour trying to light the set to the vague specifications the Director had given me and random insight from the Actor, who had read the script a few more times than me, I was finally able to get something I was happy with. I was using a light bulb hanging from the ceiling as my key over the Actor's head. There was a small head light clipped to a door a little ways behind him and to the left which provided separation from the dark background. I also had a fill light placed 45 degrees off axis to the camera to help fill in the Actors face as well as a light up the stairs to motivate the entrance of the bad guy and give off a gloomy glow in the dark.
When the Director arrived back to check my work I was completely baffled to find that I had positioned the actor the wrong way the Director was intending. This was not a difficult fix and didn't hurt my lighting much but it did take time to correct which would have been avoided if I had been given the proper instructions in the first place. These types of instructions continued for the next 3 hours until the shoot was finally called off on account of the Director not being able to get what he wanted. What happened?
The problem was the Director had never seen the location. Directors are the visionaries of the film. Their job is too come up with a vision, communicate that vision to the other crew members, and see the vision to reality. The Director had put a lot of work into great story boards that had well thought out lighting and blocking. He did not show me these till after the shoot was called because he felt they were completely useless at that location. The Director had a good vision for the short film; however, he did not do a location scout to find the place that matched his vision.
There are multiple reasons why you do location scouts. The biggest reason is so that you can find the location that matches your vision for the scene. Once you have found that you then have to work out all the other pieces. You will need to know if there will be electricity that you will have access too, does it have bathrooms, is it really noisy, will someone else be there when you are intending to shoot, ect. These are things you can't afford to find out on set!
When planning the shoot the Director, Producer, and Director of Photography should all be present for the location scout. This list grows bigger if there is more specific problems/design you will need on set. These people need to be present so they have an idea of how to accomplish the Director's vision. The more you can figure out before shoot day the less time you waist on set.
It can also be extremely helpful to bring a digital camera with you on the location scout. This way you can try out some of your shots before hand to see if they will work. When location scouting for Flowers we found out that one of our shots would not even remotely be what we wanted (our actress would be far too small in the frame). This saved us time and frustration.
"Flowers" Location Scouting