Step-by-Step Guide: LOCATION SURVEY

published  19th March 2024   I STARTING OUT, 

                                                                    LOCATION SURVEY

Performing and drawing up a location survey is a core skill for the Art Department.


Some productions will rely heavily on location work, whereas some will use locations only supplementary to the sets they build in a studio. In any case there will be at least some location work and it will require surveying.


Taking measurements and photos on site and producing an accurate drawing of the location will be crucial to successful location work. 


The following post is a step-by-step guide for performing and drawing up a location survey. It covers:

    1. What is a location?
    1. What a location survey is and what it is used for?
    1. The location survey step-by-step
      1. Preparation: understand the purpose, prepare your kit, check for existing information
      2. On site: taking measurements, photos and colour codes
      3. Back in the office: drawing the survey and sharing information
    1. Next steps: practicing location surveys & location intentions

1. What is a location?

A location is any place (private or public) that is used to film a scene, but wasn’t specifically build for that purpose in a studio.


It can be a house, a castle, a forest or a segment of a road that is chosen because it fits the description and requirements of the script or can be adjusted to do so.


The adjustments can include repainting, adding furniture, covering parts of the existing architecture, etc. These adjustments will need to be performed within a tight time frame (because it costs money to rent a location) and will therefore need to be planned and coordinated very diligently with all involved departments.

2. What is a location survey and what is it used for?

To discuss the adjustments in and between the various departments, a drawn representation of the location is needed. It is used to plan and understand which furniture fits where and what it will look like once the location is adjusted and dressed. And that’s where the location survey comes in.


The location survey a plan drawing of the location including heights and photos to support the discussion. Sometimes you will be asked to develop elevations and a digital model as well.


It’s important to understand that the location survey will be the basis for a myriad of decisions made for the respective location and that other departments will use it for their purposes as well, i.e. to define how to get equipment in, where to store things and what camera angles will be possible.


For this reason your plan and measurements need to be as accurate as possible.

3. The location survey step-by-step


1. Understand the purpose of the location survey

By the time you are sent to a location to do a survey, people will usually have a rough idea of what it will be used for and what adjustments or additions will be made.


Try to find out as much as you can about what the plans for this location are. Read the script for the scenes that are filmed in the location (if you have access to it) or ask your supervisor what the action will be.


Understanding what will need to happen in the location will inform your decisions while surveying.


If for example you know that you will need to cover radiators or replace a door, you should take precise measurements and detailed photos of the radiator, the door, the hinges and the distance between floor and door.


If you are adding walls (flats) to cover a certain area that needs to match the existing decor, it’s a good idea to take your colour swatch fan with you and note down (or better take a photo) of the colour that is closest to the location. 


If the location survey is performed very early in the process and none of the above decisions have been made yet, you can focus on getting the overall plan right. You will usually have a second (and third) location visit to get more detailed measurements further down the line. 

2. Prep your kit and understand the logistics

Once you understand what you need to do on location, make sure your kit is ready and complete.


Next, clarify with the locations department, where exactly the location is, the best way to enter, how long you are allowed on location in order to perform your survey and any other things you need to be aware of.


Some locations will be public spaces (i.e. libraries or schools) and that might restrict when you are allowed in, how long you’re allowed to stay and what you are allowed to do while you are there.


The location manager will usually tell you if there are any restrictions, but it’s always good to mention what you’re intending to do during your visit.


Most of the time the location manager or an assistant will be present during your visit to location, but that might not always be case.


In general, always be respectful of the place and the people in it and if in doubt, ask!

3. Check for existing architectural information

There is one last thing to do before you head to location that can help you with your work on site: Ask the location manager and google if there are existing plans or any other architectural information available from previous surveys.


Especially with historic buildings or locations that are often used for filming there is usually some plans or additional information available.


If it’s a street, forest, or courtyard a google maps screen shot might be a good starting point for your survey and can help you familiarise yourself with the location before you go there.


As time on site will usually be limited, everything you can do to get a better idea of the place you are about to survey will make your work easier. 


A word of warning: Never take existing plans – no matter their origin – and work with them without double checking that they are correct and up to date.


Check every measurement! Things change and people make mistakes. You will be responsible for every measurement of a survey you draw so always make sure to double check an existing plan if you decide to work with it. 

On site:

1. Take a moment to familiarise yourself with the location & take photos

Once you’ve arrived on site, take a moment to familiarise yourself with the place.


Have a look around, try to understand the basic shape, levels, points of entry, etc. It can help to take some wide angel overall photos to get you started, but don’t get lost in the details just yet. 

2. Draw a plan (on millimetre paper)

As the next step draw a rough plan of the location on your pad.


Some people use millimetre paper and draw as they measure so that they have a drawing that is roughly to scale once they are done.


In my experience this can lead to more mistakes than just first sketching the overall shape with all the relevant details, such as doors, windows, niches and nooks, changes in floor levels, and steps and then taking all the relevant measurements.


Your approach might also depend on whether you are doing the location survey on your own or if you’re lucky enough to have someone to help you. 

3. Take dimensions

Once you’re sure that your plan drawing has all the relevant details, get out your measuring tape or your laser measurement tool and start taking and writing down measurements.


Start in one corner and work your way around the room until you reach your starting point. Be as precise as you can, but don’t let it slow you down. Adjust your precision to the size of the place you are measuring and the purpose of the location survey.

That means that if it’s a small room and your location survey will be used to fit furniture, a higher level of precision is required (and less rounding off, especially if you are working in imperial) than it will be for a long stretch in a park that probably will be drawn up at 1:50 and will be used for a rough allocation of set dressing.


Make sure your drawing and notes are clear enough so you can also read and understand them in a week’s time.


Most locations surveys will be done under time pressure and it’s very tempting to think ‘I know what I mean’. You might know it in the moment, but will you know it in a couple of days when you are back in the office after a full week of recces and location surveys? And what if you have to share your notes with someone else who was asked to help you draw up surveys to help you with the workload?


Your location surveys don’t need to be works of art, but they need to be correct, readable and easy to understand. 

4. Check overall length and width

The next step in the process is to check the overall.


Because you will be rounding off your measurements as you make your way around the room, the little imprecisions might result in a significant difference once you add them all up.


The bigger the room and the less precise your measurements, the bigger the mistake. One way to correct that mistake it to take the overall length and width measurements of the room that you measured in detail in the step before.


This way, when you draw up the location survey, you will know how long and how wide the room is and will be able to tweak the other (smaller, more detailed measurements) to fit the overalls. 

5. Measure heights

Next, measure the height of the room.


Ideally you would have a laser measure tool for this step. It’s a good idea to measure the ceiling height at several points to see if it varies. This can be the case, especially in older buildings without necessarily being visible to the eye. 

6. Take photos and squeezes of mouldings, skirting boards, weird angles

At this point the crucial part of the survey is done and you can focus a little more on the details (if time allows).


Take a second round of photos, focusing on details this time. While measuring you might have discovered things that you overlooked during your first round.


Take squeezes of mouldings, skirting boards, dado rails, etc. – anything you might be asked to reproduce.


It also recommendable to take and check angles, especially if they deviate from the standard of 90/45 degrees. It’s worth checking angles that look like 90 or 45 degrees to your eye. This is especially important if you will need to fit something it that particular corner. 

7. Do you need colour swatches?

It’s very likely you will be asked to match the colours of the decor of the location in one form or another. And while photos are a good start, you will need more precise information to get it right.


This is where colour swatches come in. They are usually arranged in a fan and can be ordered or requested from the established paint producers. Try contacting them if you still need one for you kit.


When you are trying to match the colour on the wall with the colour of your swatch it’s a good idea to change the lighting. Use the torch on your phone and see which swatch comes closest even if you change the intensity and the position of the light source.


It’s always a good idea to take a photo of the swatch next to the wall or object you are trying to match. The colour code of the swatch should be visible. This way it’s automatically documented in your photos.

Back in the office:

1. Drawing up the location survey

It should always be your goal to draw your location surveys as soon as you possibly can after the surveying.


Turning your sketches and notes into a precise drawing with all available information will be much easier if you can still remember what the place looked like.


Having said that, this will not always be possible as you might have a full week of location work where all you do is surveying. Still, if you can find two hours at the end of the day to turn your notes into a drawing, do it. It will save you a lot of time and reduce mistakes. 

2. File and share your photos and notes in a useful manner

Another habit you should develop is to file and share your phots in a useful and timely manner.


It’s can be a tedious task, but it’s one that usually requires limited cognitive resources and can be done at the end of a day or in short periods between meetings that can’t be used for more productive or focussed work.


Make it a habit to get the photos off your device and onto a production drive as fast as possible because that automatically ensures they are backed up and can’t be lost, This way your photos will also be accessible and useful to departments that might not have been able to attend the location themselves. 

4. Next steps

1. Practice location surveys before you need to do one in real life

Even with a step-by-step guide to help you through your location survey, it’s a good idea to practice doing one before it becomes your job.


The good news is that there is a almost endless supply of things to survey.


Start with your own bedroom or choose a more exiting subject in your city. Make sure you ask for permission, before you start measuring in a public space and always be respectful of the people around you.


Create a precise, scaled and dimensioned drawing as well, don’t stop with the surveying part. You won’t realise many mistakes or missing measurements until you are forced to create a drawing.


It might sound like a lot of work for an exercise, but it will help you practice the process, how to use your tools and will increase your confidence once you are asked to perform a location survey on your own.


Another brilliant way to practice is to offer help to any colleague who is tasked with a location survey. It can be physically taxing as you will spend most of the time crouching or kneeling on the floor, but it’s a great way to learn and prepare. 


2. Dressing plans and location intentions

The location survey will be used to discuss and plan the adjustments and alterations to the location.


You will probably be asked to do a dressing plan, showing the position of furniture, added walls (flats) or doors.


The most common tasks associated with location work include the drawing and making of cover ups for radiators and light switches in order to stay historically accurate, finding solutions for fixing methods (usually you won’t be allowed to drill into or glue to the existing walls) and finding and communicating a schedule for the different departments as time and space onsite will be very limited. 


Everything you’re planning to do, change, add, remove from and on location will need to be documented in the so called location intentions. Location intentions – as the name implies – are used to discuss the intended work with the locations department and the owner of the location. 

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